THERE is a well-worn story often told about Malayalis, or Keralites if you will. That when Louis Armstrong took that small step for humanity, a Keralite was waiting there to refresh him with a hot cuppa. Sometimes told with pride, sometimes with a little envy, depending on who is telling the story. But believe me, if ever we colonise the moon and have lunar chai shops or hospitals or educational institutions, a Keralite will be there.
And equally probably, she will be taking the annual or biennial shuttle back home to refresh herself on her sense of home. We all need myths about ourselves and home to sustain us. Especially the expats. For, as Unny says in his new book on Kerala, Spices and Souls, ``For us (expats), Kerala is not a destination; it is an addiction''.
What the 21st Century lunar expat may find on his return home may be difficult to predict. But currently, it is a heady, though mixed, brew. Consider the facts.
The highs first. The first State to achieve 100 per cent literacy rate; one of the lowest birth and infant mortality rates in the country and still declining; a viable and working healthcare system (more hospital beds per capita than the rest of the country); an average life expectancy of around 72 compared to around 58 for the rest of the country; and, more women than men in the population. It has, what development experts call the Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) of around 88, one of the highest in Asia, comparable to European and American levels. And all this on a per capita income that is 170th that of the United States.
All that, one supposes, carries a burden. Kerala also has one of the highest number of alcoholics in the country and the highest number of suicide rates.
A case of too fast a transition from feudalism to modernity? The visible signs of contradictions of a society in transition, one supposes, would be an ideal fodder for a comic book by a well-known cartoonist.
And Unny, as another expatriate returning home with the detachment that distance affords, does put his finger on many of them. But surprisingly with the pen and not with the brush, so to speak. The book has two streams of narrative, one textual and one visual. And most of the insights are found in the textual narrative with the sketches merely complementing them, in a rather straightforward representative way which is a disappointment. One expects more visual flair from a cartoonist.
The book is also singularly lacking, for an expat returning to his roots, in any personal touch. As he covers the ground from the High Ranges of Munnar to the spiritual stretch between Kodunagallur and Kochi, which has the country's first mosque and the oldest church, from Kannur in the north to the capital Thiruvananthapuram in the south, we do not get to see how it all affects him personally as an expat having a necessarily complex relationship with the land of his origin.
What we get to see, in fact, is what one would expect to see in a tourist brochure. From Kochi to Kozhikode to Kottayam, a facile view of Kerala as a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, a little exotic, a little bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure, a bundle of incongruities that assimilates everything that comes its way, yet essentially remaining unchanged and conservative. Lots of temples, churches and mosques. But no indication of the tensions inherent in such diverse groups in the process of carving out a modern civil society. May be that is an indication of the audience to which the book is addressed. Packaged and edited well, with plenty of illustrations, the book has also been priced with that audience in mind.
But to be fair to Unny, he does not get nostalgic about valued ways of life disappearing or harbour a hostile suspicion of change, a trap easy to fall into, especially for an expat. But, as Unny himself says, if Kerala has a story to tell, a picturesque one at that, it is still waiting for an author.
Spices and Souls: A Doodler's Journey through Kerala, Unny, DC Books, Kottayam, 2001, p.130, Rs. 595.
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