Return to Kerala

The first time I came to Kerala was in 1994 when my family and I arrived to a midnight crowd at Thiruvananthapuram airport. Though it was late, the air was warm and on it you could catch a faint trace of spice and sweat, rancid and sweet in equal measure. We made our way to the white Ambassador car that had come to collect us. Soon after, I, still a boy, fell asleep on the backseat. On that drive to my mother’s ancestral village, a small fishing community some hundred kilometres up the coast, I woke up occasionally, catching glimpses of the star shaped paper lanterns that lit up the dark outside. Every now and then I would see an altar dedicated to Jesus surrounded by flashing red bulbs on the porches of boxy, concrete houses. It was Diwali and so the sleepy streets were brighter than normal. But, having just arrived from Singapore, this quiet, rural scene was not what I had expected from ‘India’. In my mind’s eye, the whole country was run down and crowded, dusty and falling to pieces with beggars who had hungry eyes assailing me at every turn. I am not sure where I had learnt this image from, but it was there nonetheless. At that stage I had only read Midnight’s Children, Rudyard Kipling and some smattering of Tagore; the photographs I had seen were of my grandparents and their cousins dressed in suits and saris for formal events in the years before the British had departed; and I was always reminded of ‘the homeland’ at the family gatherings of my youth in suburban Australia be that through the ever-present curry or the very bodies of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I did not have an unsophisticated idea of India then, but I still thought it would be a metropolis of poverty.

Kerala, the Kerala I visited, was different. It was rural and spacious. It was green, and water surrounded us from the yellow sand beach in front to the watery backwaters that ebbed and flowed behind. All that water gave the place rhythm, lulled me to calm. My aunt and uncle had a thick grove of coconuts just next to their house and they still drew water from a well. There were chickens running around and the odd mangy dog. People stared but were curious rather than invasive. They invited us for tea and sweets in their houses. All of them had images of Jesus and Mary with offerings and incense, plastic flowers and rice, and we went to the church where my grandparents were christened. The paint was peeling but there were gold candelabras, stained glass windows and luxurious murals where the figures seemed a shade darker, more like us, than usual. Only one of my relatives had a television, which, thanks to satellite, pumped out American cartoons to my and my sisters’ delight. But Kerala didn’t feel poor in the way that I imagined it would. With their pressed white shirts and floral dresses, my uncles and aunts looked far neater than my mum and dad in their shabby tourist leisure wear. With their coconut oiled hair and Old Spice aftershave they smelled familiar and clean, like my grandparents.

My grandparents had left this place fifty years before. India was still a colony and my grandfather had been offered work as a British civil servant in Singapore. My grandmother and five aunts followed him dutifully. It was towards opportunity; to status, to education, to freedom. They never lived in Kerala again and moved from Singapore to Western Australia in 1989. My father’s family were from the Scottish borderlands and had migrated down under in the 1920s. What took us back to Kerala in 1994 was my mother’s desire that her children see where we were from. The church archive had baptismal and marriage records of my ancestors for 500 years and as far as anyone else knew we had been there before that too. The British were simply the last invaders and they were often warring with the Kingdom of Mysore; before them it was the Portugese, who had given us our names of D’Cruz, Gomez, Fernandez, Miranda; before them it was the North Indians who seemed to frown upon our collective Dravidian culture; earlier still it may have been Parasurama who threw his battle axe into the sea allowing the land of Kerala to rise from the waters below. That the Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians had traded spices with Kerala in the 3rd century BC also suggested something of its interconnectedness, which to a boy from the most isolated city in the world was a rather magical realisation at the time. I thought to myself that I might be from a place that was part of something bigger after all.

After my childhood visit, it took me another 16 years to return to Kerala. In my twenties I was never that interested in where I had come from, preferring the well-worn paths the young Australian backpacker treads be that Los Angeles and New York, Western Europe or Thailand. Of course when I was in those destinations I was ever the young colonial, equal parts student, equal parts bogan. I spent half the time appreciating the Berlin Philharmonic, Joshua Tree and Louvre, and the other half drinking until I passed out and trying, with little success, to bed women. The morning that I returned to Kerala as an adult was different. I was still the student, but this time I was searching for my place in the world rather than swallowing what my nation had deemed to be its inheritance and position. ‘To know thyself’, I realised, was as Delphic as it was post-colonial. If I had begun the labour of coming to terms with where part of me was from, it came at a time when the possibility of that had shifted somewhat, for on the day of my return my last remaining relative from my grandparents’ generation was buried. With the breeze blowing gently at their gold trim saris, the women stood around the open grave singing my great aunt off to heaven with deep hymns. In the background Jesus looked on from his cross atop the steeple, resigned to the sad, languorous spectacle in what the tourist board had proclaimed to be ‘God’s own country’. In that moment, I doubted why I had come, found myself adrift in the solemnity of the ritual, alien to these people who I knew only through blood but not experience. In the week I stayed, riding on the backs of motorbikes with my cousins and inhaling fish curry with the luxurious, fat-grained local rice, I felt closer to some sort of tradition. If I had left Australia because I felt adrift, I was caught up by the realisation that I was not at home in this community either. I was lost in the language, the religiosity and out of place with my long, lank hair and thin moustache. I did not stay long and made my way up the West Coast before landing in the full throttle summer of New Delhi, where my sister was living at the time. In Delhi, back in a cosmopolitan city with someone I had grown up with, I felt more at ease despite the aggression and hassle. The work that one could do here seemed more obvious and possible. And, I had someone to laugh about ‘India’ with, feeling a smug separation from this place, knowing that the island of our childhood back in Australia was still a comfort even if it was only memory.

When we decided to come to Kerala this time, my partner and I were living in Melbourne. We both needed a stimulating, cheap place where we could focus on writing projects. For me, it is to know myself again, but this time a little differently; less eat, pray, love and more write, vote, be. I wanted to understand how the Left, be that an Indian National Congress dominated United Democratic Front or a Communist Party India (Marxist) led Left Democratic Front, actually governs. On my travels I had passed through Cuba, parts of the former USSR and China, but I had never really dwelt in a place where Communism was a real, living force. This is not to say I had not thought about it in theory and in practice. I had read Marx (and still like to cite his Swan River Colony passages), Adorno and Benjamin (and still have a fondness for their quarrelling) and Frederic Jameson (and still have time to think through his utopianism). I had been a member of volunteer organisations and political parties that were engaged in pacifism, re-investment and refugees. I also had a number of friends and colleagues who liked to consider themselves Leftist, though if they identified as anything at all, it was as anti-capitalists rather than Communists. Still less of them had bona fide party credentials. I wanted to interrogate their fundamental assumptions and discourses too, push them to become better as we worked towards an idea of our future that was not only critical. My project was not nostalgic but worldly. I wanted to ask: what is the thinker and writer to do in constructing a new system that is genuinely of our time and place? In my case, and in only one language game, some might think that is about Australia in late stage capitalism. But it is also about refusing that characterisation as an a priori to create an ethical and aesthetic body of actionable thought and expression that resonates with everyone. That, no less, was why I found myself drinking sweet chai, eating vadai with coconut sambal, talking about the infrastructure challenges of Ernakulam on a Saturday morning. The man I was speaking with was a portly, Stalin moustached, low-level public servant who had struck up a conversation, eager to know what I was doing here, but keener still to tell me about drainage and bridges in the local municipality.

This philosophical everyman is a recurrent figure in representations of India, be that Michael Wood’s documentary series The Story of India or Amartya Sen’s book of essays The Argumentative India. It goes back further too, to accounts of British frustration with implementing colonial policies, and even Persian incursions past the Indus speak of the lengthy courtly debates in these kingdoms to the south. The Indian as argumentative, philosophical, opinionated is a figure of our world then, or some particular part of it. He appears serendipitously to give his opinion whether it is asked for or not. If one looks for it, one begins to see it everywhere – in negotiations with rickshaw drivers; in back and forth displays of power with petty bureaucrats; in conversations in train compartments that never seem to end. One is constantly interrupted by a new voice wanting to enter the fray. For the last three hours of my train ride into Kerala I had listened to public radio, tuning in to what must have been a transfixing account of road expenditures. It had captivated the train compartment, and, quite unexpectedly, no-one spoke a word until the program was over a full two hours later, at which point, everyone voiced their opinions, with many holding more than one at the same time. That was dialectics in action.

It is hard to know how this opinionated, Ernakulam everyman interacts with a history of Communism. To know that one would surely have to compare Kerala with other Indian states where Communism is not rooted and also think through how it is different from Communist inflected places outside of India, let alone undertake a biography of a particular individual. But Communism in Kerala is known for supporting public education and the state boasts an enviable literacy rate compared to anywhere in the world. I see crowds of people reading the newspaper in the morning, on the street, on buses, on trains, taking in the daily news that is overwhelmingly local and political. The simple reading of a newspaper, let alone the mimicry of Lenin, Trotsky, Marx’s facial hair, seemed to be in contradistinction to many other parts of India, especially the North, as well as Cuba, the former USSR and China, where the street culture was relatively non-literary. This kind of engagement seems to be a hallmark of Kerala’s democratic leftism, something that finds its expression at the ballot box as well. The state had a 77.4% voter turnout for the assembly elections of May this year. This is higher than any general election in the United Kingdom since February 1974 (78.8%), higher than the Brexit Vote (72%) and well above the American presidential elections, which commonly sit in the fifties (54.9% in 2012). This turnout is despite the frequent admonishments that the Indian government is corrupt, by a sense of tiredness among voters and the difficulties of voting itself. But democracy is defined in part by the average voter’s desire to debate the system maybe because it encourages a type of open, performative deliberation and maybe because everyone is told they too could be Chief Minister deciding on what the course of action should be when it comes to drainage and bridges in Ernakulam. That the choice is between what the national scene regards as a Centre Left coalition and a Left coalition only confirms that the whole Kerala context has its own poles and axes.

What people care about here though are Leftist concerns that one can recognise the world over – education, health, infrastructure, working conditions. But there is a different shade to the public discourse compared to the Anglophonic hegemony now. There is barely a discussion of sexuality politics with nary a mention of marriage equality; a distinct lack of talk about refugees; and a faint, though increasing, conversation about climate change. The social organisation that propels this, however, are less the NGOs and creative industries that are ascendant in the West, and more the staunch kinds of trade unions and political parties themselves. It would be wrong though, and the most Empirical kind of hubris, to think that this was because it was not yet ‘fully developed’, that it was still ‘catching up’ or ‘behind’. It has its own time and logic that values unions and has traditions that are distinct. There are around 9,800 registered trade unions in Kerala, which is almost 200 times as many as Canada despite having a similar population (36 million). It speaks to the highly specialised, and fragmentary, labour market here, in which everyone has a specific and identifiable task, and to the difficulties of organising the everyman who resists unnecessary coordination in a consensus culture where local identity is rooted in a lack of geographic movement and strong familial bonds. I experience this when I want to get my tap fixed, and must consult the local, union established rate of pay for a plumber, before calling him up, ensuring that he is the right kind of plumber after all and citing his documents. Only then does he begin working on the incessant dripping that keeps us up at night.

When I speak to my cousins about local politics they are as disengaged as my family back home. This is despite the fact that I see red flags advertising Communism all over the streets. One day, I am caught in a particularly bad traffic jam when the local chapter of the Electrician’s Union has a street protest – a long orderly line of men waving pliers snakes through the street, chanting in unison and holding banners demanding better occupational health and safety. I catch one man’s eye and nod to him before winding down my window. He tells me that the strike has been held because someone died at work. Elsewhere in India this kind of thing is normal, simply one of the workplace dangers. Here, it is unacceptable. Strikes and work stoppages are part of the fabric in Kerala in a way that dwarfs Australia’s robust democracy or my experiences of America. It ties into a longer protest tradition. This after all is the state of the Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt, Vaikom Satyagraha and the Malabar Rebellion, and that was only during the British occupation. At the moment these types of actions, and, of course, negotiations are so commonplace that they are unavoidable. But if my cousins do not notice or participate in this protest tradition, they are still thankful for their education, which has helped them get employment with multinational corporations. One cousin who now lives in Bangalore and works for Hewlett Packard tells me the thing he misses most about home is riding his motorbike at ‘very top speed’ on the wide roads lined with coconut trees. To him that is freedom, but I ask him, does he thank the Communists for this infrastructural marvel? He does not, but will acknowledge that they play a role in making Kerala what it is right now.

The impact of seeing Communism firsthand, of seeing it as a system of government in real life, has precursors for Australian, American, British and other writers. Many were dedicated party members until they went to the USSR immediately after the Second World War. Traveling there became an arch moment of disenchantment because they realised that this gulag archipelago was simply an empire of cruelty and their commitment was naïve and ill informed. Many never recovered and simply became artists for art’s sake moving away from socialist realism or instead devoting themselves to local causes not ideological issues. At the same time, Kerala was having its own socialist realist moment with Malayalee poetry being characterised as a Pink Decade. This was through local poets such as Vayalar Ramavarma, Thirunalloor Karunakaran and Puthessery Ramachandran, all of who wrote towards classlessness, accessibility and common experience. What is distinct about Communism in Kerala is that it has remained despite the fall of the Wall, ‘the end of history’ and the rise of ‘development’ the world over. This might be because it is truly of the people, truly democratic, and while we might debate the term ‘democracy’ in a place such as India where jailing, corruption, vote buying, violence, strong arming and gerrymandering are taken for granted, particularly in states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the fact of Communists’ behavior in opposition would suggest that it is simply another party among many. That, surely, is an ideal that I cannot challenge.

What I can challenge though is the bureaucratic torpor that seems typical of a bloated and inefficient state. I, for one, am yet to get my Person of Indian Origin card because the documents I need are housed in labyrinthine archives and the process is as mysterious as it is meticulous. One person says one thing, another says another, and all the while the clock ticks on my visa. The arbitrariness with which things are decided upon does not give me the slightest bit of confidence and one always needs a champion who knows the inner circle of the system. What my new status will mean though is an ability to buy private property and to vote. Then there might even be some legitimacy to my political enquiry here precisely because I will be able participate in a meaningful way in the local debates even without a scratching of Malayalam. What it also legitimates, through the august organ of the state, is a connection that is embodied already. If I feel better eating uttappam and rasam, feeling westerly breezes and looking out to sea through palm trees, carrying some piece of administrative identification gives one a surer footing in a bureaucratic and existential way. And building a new Kerala, a new India, in a globalized, climate changing world is something that enables me to refuse the idea that my grandparents abandoned this place simply seeking a brighter future unconcerned with their past. That this is tied up with the Left is what interests me, more so than the presence of spirituality or lush tropical weather, for in dreams familiar to those ideologies I can glimpse what may yet come after capitalism, Communism or binarism itself. And that is a utopia one may find in ‘God’s own country’ still.