For many Malayalis the linguistic identity dwarfs religion and caste. This is the case both in Kerala and outside the state. As a child growing up in New York, I noticed how my father’s closest friends were Malayalis of all religious backgrounds. The Malayalam bond was something I also noticed years later when I worked for a large multinational news organization in India. It’s not that we formed a group and separated ourselves from others, but there was an unwritten and unspoken code of solidarity, which irritated the living daylights out of our Indian and foreign colleagues. However. never once did I hear a disparaging comment about someone else based on his or her linguistic background.
As Malayalis we tend to love our language but not at the expense of another language. Kerala has anywhere between 2.5 million to 5 million migrants. Given the fact that the state’s overall population is just 34 million, one can safely assume that one in ten people in Kerala are non-Malayalis.
It’s impossible to not notice the clearly visible Nepalese and northeastern Indians or to hear languages like Hindi, Oriya and Bengali being spoken in Kerala. A large number of restaurants on highways have non-Malayalam speaking staff and the Kerala faithful don’t seem to have any problem with this. No one can remember any protests about Hindi announcements in the Kochi Metro simply because there weren’t any. In fact a large number of Malayalis were proud to read reports about the Kochi Metro management thanking its migrant workers for their hard work by organizing a Sadhya when the first line of the mass transportation system was ready.
Over the course of two trips to Kerala this year, I had a lot of conversations with people about the visible presence of so many outsiders in a state that is generally a source of external migration. Those with agricultural land were all praise for the hardworking labourers from Odisha and Bihar. A labour contractor I spoke to admitted that he hired Bangladeshis to build the kind of shiny new homes that we see in just about every single village in Kerala. He insisted that this made the best business sense since “these people did what they were told and didn’t cause any trouble!”
Different schools of thought
The aim of this column isn’t to claim that we, the Malayalis, are better than people in other states who are xenophobic and hostile towards others. It’s more about food for thought and to ponder over why there seems to be a general degree of tolerance and acceptance in Kerala for outsiders.
The first argument I get from both Malayalis and other Indians is that Kerala is fine with immigration since there is believed to be a population of 1.6 million Malayali expatriates worldwide. Going by this logic, Italy should be the most tolerant nation on earth given the fact that the Italian Diaspora numbers at least 30 million and that there are almost 4.7 million Italy-born people living abroad. The results of the latest Italian general election shows that the country is not exactly thrilled about the influx of immigrants to the country (Disclaimer: I speak Italian and love the country, and this is not an attempt to attack it).
The other school of thought is that communism and “cultural Marxism” have led Keralites not valuing their identity, culture and heritage. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least when it comes to lack of pride in our culture. I seriously doubt that communism is what has made Keralites more tolerant of others. Historically, the kingdoms that comprise of Kerala welcomed outsiders. Arab traders were made to feel at home and Christianity was welcomed with open arms. Centuries later, Kerala is proud of its religious diversity.
Maybe we, as Malayalis, are just more open to other cultures and take the best (and sometimes worst) of what the outside world has to offer. Kerala has traditionally been a melting pot of cultures. Palakkad has distinct elements of Tamil culture and cuisine, parts of Kasargod feel more Tulu than Malayali, Kochi has traces of several foreign countries, and even Trivandrum has a subtle Tamil heritage. Some believe that the Nairs are descendants and Newaris from Nepal, while Ezhavas can trace their roots to Sri Lanka.
In the 21st century Malayali weddings are increasingly looking like those in the north of the country. Even our eating habits are getting more influenced from other parts of the world.
A friend from a cosmopolitan Indian city told me that the real test of Malayali tolerance and large heartedness will only come if a city in Kerala suddenly witnesses a massive economic boom and attracts a major influx from the rest of India. “As long as it’s the labour class and those below the lower rungs of society doing the work that no Mallu would take up, your brethren will stay happy,” he said. “Wait for the day when middle class Malayalis are dominated and sidelined by another group in Kerala, and see the tolerance.” We can only speculate on the impact of such a scenario.
The upper middle class non-Malayalis I know in Kerala are well integrated into the mainstream and have learned Malayalam out of pure choice. I once witnessed a conversation in Malayalam between a turbaned Sikh and his Malayali friend in Fort Kochi. The Sikh gentleman’s diction was far superior to mine.