Reflections on Onam: Why Amit Shah's brand of lotus will not bloom in Kerala

The socio-economic and political ethos of Kerala is unlike anywhere else in the country. It is highly unlikely for its people to ever choose right-wing forces over communism

Kochi: College students dress in traditional clothes to celebrate Onam festival, in Kochi (PTI Photo)
Kochi: College students dress in traditional clothes to celebrate Onam festival, in Kochi (PTI Photo)

Sujata Anandan

I grew up outside my father's home state of Kerala, so I did not absorb much of its culture. But even outside the state, among the migrant communities across the country, Onam was an event highly looked forward to every year – in Maharashtra it coincided with the Ganpati week. So, growing up, I was never sure whether we were celebrating Ganpati or Onam with all the colourful flowers (not powder) used to make rangolis before the Ganpati idol set up at home.

Though Lord Ganesha has little role to play in Onam, it was an automatic syncretisation of different traditions followed by our multi-community family. There were aunts or uncles from north and south, east and west, Christians and Muslims among them and no one had any problem celebrating anybody's festivals at all.

I realise the significance of that syncretisation politically today as India gets increasingly polarised. Although in Kerala all communities, including Muslims, celebrate Onam, which is a harvest festival, I have sadly noted some changes that could not have been caused except by the politicisation of the religions.

In Gujarat, you could never distinguish Hindus or Muslims by their surnames – there are Shahs, Choudharys or Patels among both Hindus and Muslims. Only food habits distinguish the two communities – Hindus being by and large vegetarian and Muslims non-vegetarian.

In Kerala, even food habits could not distinguish the communities, of which there are three main ones of Hindu, Muslim and Christian, besides Jews in a miniscule minority. They all eat the same foods even today which are uniquely Keralite (which includes snails for breakfast) and beef or pork do not trouble Hindus or Muslims enough to riot or kill each other for eating it.

Even the traditional style of dressing could not distinguish the communities – you had to carefully watch if they went to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue to get their religion, which never bothered anyone. Or look out for the women's Mangalsutras – they were identical gold rope chains with a heart-shaped locket on an inverted hook. It was what was etched in the heart that distinguished their religion – an aum, a cross, a crescent moon or a star (of David).

Sadly though, now hijabs, burquas and skull caps have made their appearance in Kerala as have huge tilaks on the foreheads of some men, which is a north Indian practice and not followed traditionally by any south Indian state. Yet Onam, I am happy to note, is still huge for all communities and I hope it continues to remain so.

I am not a sociologist so I cannot say why Kerala has resisted the blooming of the political lotus on its soil though it has plentiful of yellow, pink, blue and white lotuses growing all over. Union Home Minister Amit Shah thus has to be very ambitious if he thinks, as he said this week, that the saffron lotus takes root in this state, which is very different from any other in the country.

Firstly, it is a matrilineal society where women are more important socially and within families. Even though marmakatayam, the system of inheritance from mothers to daughters, was banned by the government years ago, it continues to prevail outside the legal framework. So, I think the RSS will find it very difficult to strike a deal with the women of this state, given their patriarchal and antediluvian attitudes towards women in general.

Secondly, the caste system in the state too is very different – there are Brahmins (the Namboodiris who consider themselves at the top of the ladder like the Kashmiri Pandits) and everybody else is virtually ‘untouchable’. The priests will not even hand you the prasad lest your fingers touch them; they will drop it into your palms from about four inches above and if their aim goes wrong, you would be undeserving of a second helping.

The real ‘untouchables’, however, would not even be able to approach the priests because they are considered not just untouchable but also unseeable and unapproachable – if the Brahmin were to spot one, he would have to dive into the nearest pond for a thorough bath to repurify himself. So, traditionally, the ‘untouchables’ always walked with a stick, pounding the ground with it, so that the Namboodiris could hear them approach and avoid seeing or coming near them.

That is why communism gained ground in this state and lasts here to this date, unlike in Bengal where communism was largely an outcome of the exploitative zamindari system. So, I wonder if Samuel Huntington's theory in ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ is proved by Kerala. Huntington propounds that for decades after the end of the World War II (which was close to India’s independence), there were only two ideologies or battles or sides in this world – capitalism and communism.

Once the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Iron Curtain came down, right wing extremism has grown all over the world, including in the countries in the former Soviet bloc, Hungary being a prime example today.

When I had met Hans Modrow, the last premier of East Germany, in Berlin after the merger of the two nations, he had told me almost presciently that if communism was not the answer to the problems of the world, capitalism was not either. It would only increase the divisions among the people on all scores – social, political and economic. The world had to find a happy medium between the two, he said.

When I asked him what that medium could be, he directed me to ask Jyoti Basu, then chief minister of West Bengal. Modrow seemed to greatly admire Basu (that is how I beat American and British journalists to that interview – because I came from the land of Jyoti Basu). Modrow said Basu, as the tallest communist leader of India, was consistently winning elections in a full-blown democracy, so he had to be doing something right. He would have the answer.

But he had not heard of Kerala. So, between Huntington and Modrow, I wonder now if it is communism that holds Kerala together. Or if the state holds on to communism after it has collapsed everywhere else in the world, including in Bengal, because of its peculiar demographic formulation.

Nevertheless, I was very happy to see Muslim girls in hijabs and the traditional cream-coloured, gold-bordered sarees dancing at a college Onam celebration in Mallapuram, a district which has been singled out by the Hindutva forces as the hub of everything they hold wrong with the minority community.

So, Amit Shah may try as he will, but I am convinced that his brand of lotus will never bloom in Kerala.

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