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God save the Malayalee!  

BY LONAPPAN T. OUSEPPACHAN 

Outlook magazine discovers the 'Hoax of God's Own Country'. We discover two hoaxes: Outlook's own quickie journalism, and the Malayalee Hoax on himself. God save readers from Outlook, and the Malayalee from himself!

The Hoax of God's own country?Recently, Outlook magazine carried a cover story on Kerala. The writer, Soma Wadhwa, described in detail how Kerala is not all that it is cranked up to be. Behind the behind the veil of greenery, beaches and tourism lies a state in tatters, the dreams of its people in ruin, and no hope in sight. The story brought to light several important aspects in the life of the Malayalee, but at the same time, got its conclusions thoroughly wrong and offered no solutions. So here goes, in defence of God's Own Country, but hardly in defence of the Malayalee.

The specific illnesses of Kerala which the Outlook story focused on are as follows:

Suicide: The state is No. 1 in India, with 9,000 reported suicides a year, or 27 per day. There are 80,000 reported attempts annually.

Crime: India's highest crime rate -- 306.1 crimes committed per 1,000 people per year (national crime rate is 176.7 per thousand).

Joblessness: The worst in India -- 36% and 34% respectively of the rural and urban population in the 15-29 age group are unemployed.

Atrocities Against Women: The number of these crimes has risen fourfold in the past seven years; 22.7% of all Malayali women suffer some form of violation.

Foeticide: There were 962 girls for every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group in 2001, down from 976 in 1971.

Alcoholism: Each year, Kerala guzzles 8.3 litres of liquor per person, the highest in India, and nearly three times the national rate.

We will tackle each of those subjects as we go.

Outlook coverThe Outlook story 'The Hoax of God's Own Country' begins with the description of a man in a mental hospital. "Forlorn figure lying in a senseless sprawl on a cot in ward no. 25 at Thiruvananthapuram's Mental Health Centre. He's a thirtysomething twelfth-pass unemployed heavily-in-debt wife-beating suicidal alcoholic, reveals the woman sitting in a dejected perch on the edge of his bed. She is his wife, attending to him on his third foray into a mental hospital in two years. "There are many many men like my husband in Kerala," she declares dismally, "Very unhappy..."

Oh my. The writer establishes the desperate scenario down pat. Would this be any different if you approach the wife of any patient in any mental hospital? The wives will detail similar sorrows. Only, the mental patient will not be a 12th-pass -- he would be a landless or bonded labourer, Dalit, Muslim, riot victim, rape victim's father, man thrown out of train… Come on, we know what the rest of India is like, don't we? For that matter, does the rest of India even have enough mental hospitals, or do they still treat their mental patients with skulls and snakes? Aren't we the same country where we had a minister in the Vajpayee government dancing on coal and with a snake around his neck? Note to Soma Wadhwa: Find an atypical example to establish the atypical circumstances of Kerala.

Outlook quote: "…birthing a story about Kerala's unleveraged achievements, her stunted possibilities, about the frustrations of men and women whom progress has taught aspirations and then kept them unfulfilled." Good point. The article should have been factual, identifying ills and pinpointing culprits, focusing on untapped potential and means of improvement. It is nobody's case that Kerala is heaven, though God's One Country it may be. Instead, the writer goes on to give us example after example, and moaning and groaning about Kerala's sad state. Kerala does not need the writer's tears, its people are better at complaining about themselves. What it needs is a kick in the butt.

Outlook quote: "A handful of women defy the blazing sun with some dozen rickety umbrellas outside the Kerala State Public Service Commission office in Thiruvananthapuram. Having passed the test to become police constables in year 2000, they are protesting their continuing joblessness in 2004." One protester, Bessy P. Verghese, MA (Malayalam), verbalises her perplexity: "All this chest-thumping about how literate Kerala is! Post-graduates are hankering for a Rs 3,500 job! We'd make more money if we were illiterate drivers!" (see the accompanying Outlook picture above).

These women have passed a test 4 years back, and jobless after 4 years? 4 years is 5-6 percent of an average person's life expectancy. And these fools are sitting on a dharna after 4 years? Soma Wadhwa, the Outlook correspondent does not get the point here - these people and their attitudes to life are precisely the problem, not their joblessness. After passing a test, these women (and men) choose to wait for that one pathetic government job instead of giving up and trying something else. Waiting four years years for a job is ridiculous. Perhaps you can start something on your own. Perhaps you can read a few newspapers, get some ideas and try some new business. Perhaps you can start a women's co-operative and manufacture something. Or you can keep waiting.

The job situation in Kerala has been bad for more than a decade now. It's not a surprise that Kerala springs on its educated - you know it when you are in primary school. (Everyone has been to primary school, by the way) Instead of waiting for these 4 years, what if someone had offered a private sector job in Kerala? They might take it, but would not want to. Why? Because it is not a government job, and does not offer security! They might take it, and still wait for the government job, ready to chuck the private sector job the moment a government job materializes. And what if someone had offered them a private sector job outside Kerala, say, Mumbai? Most of them would not take up the job offer as they just don't want to leave Kerala! Hunger, food, livelihood - nothing can shake the average Malayalee out of his love for his land which does not offer him enough jobs to survive. For every Malayalee who leaves Kerala, there are hundreds who will hang to a temple elephant's tail by his teeth but will not move to where there are opportunities. Blame the State, but blame the Malayalee more.

Here is more.

Outlook Quote: "M.Keshavan, LLB, MSW (Masters in Social Work), and R.Vinayakan Nair, LLB, are now bus conductors. A decade ago, even matriculates wouldn't stoop so low in the job hierarchy, they say, "but today every other government bus driver and conductor is a graduate, many are MAs, we even have two engineers." It's better than being unemployed, admits Vinayakan, but "lawyers who become bus conductors despair sometimes. If it can't get you a job, what good is a degree?"

This writer left Kerala more than a decade ago. There were post-graduate bus conductors then; they are there now. Bus conductors with post-graduations are nothing new in Kerala, and as students, we would sit around, down a peg and discuss such desperate stories all the time. (It's a standard story which any Malayalee would tell you - so did Outlook just make up this example?)

Then, not Soma Wadhwa, but Amartya Sen gets it right. The story quotes him, "It is possible that Kerala could have done much more to suit the demands of the contemporary age, including a focus on the rapidly expanding information economy." Right, Dr. Sen. Now we are talking. Parents in Kerala for a long time have been under the mistaken assumption that a good education is enough to survive in a modern world. And they should shoulder a lot of blame for the current situation in Kerala. Children were asked to focus on studies, private tuitions, entrance examinations, engineering or MBBS as professions, or a bank job. The skills to get by in the modern world were given no importance - the ability to be fluent in English, specific computer programming courses… Instead, the focus on the careers of an engineer or doctor is the reason why the Malayalee is falling behind his counterparts in other southern states in benefiting from the service and information economy.

Then Outlook produces a paragraph of Malayalee self-criticism. This is a brilliant paragraph - Malayalees critiquing themselves. With their sarcasm and cynicism, no one can best them in that. We have no complaints here. But ask the same Malayalees to compare Kerala's current situation and whether they would like to trade their situation with a Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh or Haryana, and they would run a mile. 

Then, Outlook botches it again. 'The Hoax of God's own country' now features a photograph of several Malayalee men with the caption "Work Ethic - Men pass their time at noon reading newspapers at a Kottayam bus stop". Here is the Outlook photo for you. 

Take this photo to a Malayalee. He would tell you that the picture means nothing. The Malayalee farm labourer or the woodcutter, or the mason, when he wakes up, reads a newspaper. The Malayalee chaiwallah reads newspapers. Everyone in Kerala reads newspapers. When they are waiting for a bus they read newspapers, which is what they are obviously doing in this picture. Maybe, for North Indians who are not used to the sight of so many people reading newspapers or even reading at all, the scene of a bunch of people in lungis at a bus stop with newspapers is confusing. It's okay Soma, happens. Point to note: The men are reading newspapers; they are not sitting idly, staring at a movie poster without comprehending the text. What they read in the newspapers today will help them criticize themselves tomorrow. And who knows, perhaps one day, teach the alphabet to some illiterate North Indian.

Soma then correctly moves on to talk about labour unions, and their ill effects. No quibbling about that, Soma.

And then Outlook and Soma Wadhwa move on to something interesting. Outlook quote: "the signs of Kerala imitating the rest of the country's bias against women are now unmistakable. Its gender ratio for the zero-to-six age group is down to 962 girls per 1000 boys in census 2001, as against 976 in 1971. There were about 100 ultrasound centres in the state a decade ago, now there are close to 850, indicating a sharp rise in sex-selective abortions."

Soma Wadhwa could be right here. But as someone who still visits Kerala every year, and has friends there, this writer definitely could not see a pro-male child bias in anything. The male-female ratio is still better than that of India, but something seems amiss. One should be careful when you directly attribute the rise in the number of ultra-sound centres to abortions - this is Kerala which you are talking about, and all health facilities improve in Kerala at a faster pace than you will see anywhere else in India. I definitely have not seen any indication of parents preferring male children enough to abort female foetuses. Most middle-class families in Kerala have two children now, and overall, one sees as many boys and girls. Soma could be right here, but I would like to see some more information before I agree - such as, in a healthy society (that automatically counts the rest of the Indian states out) what is the ratio of males to females? Could this be natural? I have a theory - nature considers men more expendable, and humans are therefore programmed to produce more males than females. Old style natural selection. But then I am no Darwinist or sociologist, so I guess we will leave this particular topic for the future.

Atrocities against women. This is one aspect where Kerala is going from bad to worse. I mean, this is nothing new in Kerala, but it's definitely getting worse. Even ten years back, women were considered fair game in Kerala, and sexual harassment and intimidation are the norm. The Outlook article says in the last seven years, crimes against women have increased four-fold. This is quite possible. However, here is the other side. You have a state where almost everyone is educated (and also read newspapers, Soma!), aware of crimes, easy access to police (for example, there are roads everywhere, and one does not travel by bullock cart to the police station or to a hospital), population density (so it's not easy to hide a crime) and you will naturally have a high rate of crimes being reported. However, given Kerala's huge number of unemployed and rising frustration, the crime rate is bound to go up.

Alcoholism seems to be on the rise in Kerala. This is true. However, drinking is not alcoholism, and we better be clear about that. Kerala's liquor consumption figures are 3 times the national average. Look at the bright side - this means that there are enough people in Kerala who can afford liquor!

Without making light of the hardships of Kerala's miserable people, let's try to get this entire picture right. I think the Outlook article and Soma Wadhwa missed out on the big picture, and a resident or non-resident Malayalee might have done better justice to 'The Hoax of God's on Country.' Here is my take on Kerala.

1. Kerala, overall, is better than most other states in India, and is comparable to several western countries in its health, literacy, life expectancy etc. Let's not lose sight of that when list out Kerala's ills. 

2. The Malayalee, for all his awareness, political consciousness and literacy, is stuck in a mental trap of his own making. He is educated, so believes he deserves a white-collar job. When he can't find it easily, he is pissed off. 

3. He wants a government job if he can't become an engineer or doctor. Very few can get into those professions, and his frustration starts there. 

4. He does not like change, and will resist any change to the education system that may help generate more jobs, or make him more employable. He wants a job, and will not change for that. 

5. He does not want private sector jobs. 

6. He may die of hunger, but will not leave Kerala. 

7. He will not die of hunger - there are no starvation deaths in Kerala. 

8. So obviously he is not that poor. 

9. His problems are those of the middle-class person who wants everything on his terms.

10. He drinks because he can afford to drink. Not something you can say about the rest of India. The poor in Kerala still makes more money than his counterpart elsewhere.

11. He drinks too much because he can't drink at home, does not have the concept of peaceful, social drinking and so goes to a bar and gets dead drunk there. 

12. He beats his wife because she knows he is a fool. 

13. She gets beaten because she is smart enough to know he is a fool, but is not smart enough to know what she should do about it. 

14. Suicides increase in Kerala because the more you read, the more you know about what you don't have. As you are conditioned not to think out of the box, all you can do is to climb on a box with a rope in hand.

15. The post-graduate Malayalee cannot speak English, because he is too diffident. 

16. He would prefer waiting for a government job indefinitely, than leave Kerala and get a job elsewhere. 

17. He deserves his current situation, and will get out of it himself when he gets desperate enough. 

18. Give the Malayalee no sympathy. He deserves none.

BY LONAPPAN T. OUSEPPACHAN

 

God save the Malayalee

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