The Real Kerala Story

…and the tell-tale symptoms of a nation in the grip of a post-truth reality

'The Kerala Story' promotional poster of four burkha-clad women (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)
'The Kerala Story' promotional poster of four burkha-clad women (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Shajahan Madampat

What you’ll see and hear in The Kerala Story, the now notorious film, is the exact opposite of the real Kerala story. The Sangh Parivar has always suffered from some kind of congenital inability to understand the state. In May 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was trolled by Malayalis with the hashtag #PoMoneModi (Go off Modi) for comparing Kerala to Somalia. That he extolled the film and excoriated its critics in an election rally in Karnataka even before it was released reinforced the feeling among most of the people of Kerala that, apart from its obvious hatred of Muslims, the ruling dispensation is viscerally hostile to ‘God’s Own Country’ simply because its people choose to live harmoniously in their multichromatic social milieu.

Another reason for this hatred is that the people of Kerala have never, since Independence, elected a BJP or Jan Sangh candidate—except once—either to the state assembly or Parliament. In September 2016, Amit Shah embroiled himself in a spat with Malayalis over his ‘Vamana Jayanti’ greeting on Onam, which was accompanied by a picture of Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu, trampling the head of King Mahabali as he consigns him to the netherworld. This was quite typical of the Sangh Parivar’s impatience with the diversity and multiplicity of myths and faiths in the country.

Mahabali, the asura king, may be a personification of evil in many parts of India but Malayalis perceive the myth differently and venerate Mahabali as the ultimate symbol of good governance, munificence and kingly love for his subjects. He was punished by the jealous and resentful gods only for being ‘godlier’ than them! Onam, the national festival of Kerala, welcomes the annual homecoming of this beloved king, in ‘whose reign all humans were equal’.

Despite the polarised, viciously embattled national discourse of today, the Muslim in the Malayali collective imagination is not an easily identifiable ‘other’ but a dynamic player within a unique cosmopolitanism. This distinctive characteristic of Kerala may have been damaged somewhat in the current situation, but the core of Malayali self-identification remains the same. A propensity for creative subversion, a persistent ‘itching to deride’—to borrow a phrase from Alexander Pope—has been at the core of the culture of Kerala. Being part of the cultural totality of contemporary India is but a forced aberration that diminishes rather than augments the mercilessly iconoclastic, humorously irreverent and epistemologically eclectic, almost ‘parasitic brilliance’ of Kerala culture.

While the dominant culture in the rest of India extols the virtues of a forced and retributive homogeneity, Kerala celebrates diversity, almost as a divine gift. While the rest of India celebrates triumphant gods, Kerala idolises the innocent victims of those gods. The pluralism of Kerala is deeply rooted in and pervades the collective wisdom of a people whose mythology, folklore and sense of history are a coming to terms with—and a celebration of—difference.

Such is the imaginative richness of this pluralism that a popular legend traces all the castes in Kerala to a woman from an untouchable community, whose husband was a Brahmin scholar–saint. Concluding his construction of a ‘popular history’ of Cochin, a quintessential Kerala city, eminent political psychologist Ashis Nandy wrote: ‘The story of Cochin also suggests that multiculturalism need not be merely a political or social arrangement, nor even be a principle of citizenship that tolerates or celebrates disparate lifestyles. Multiculturalism may sometimes imply a culturally embedded identity in which “the others” are telescoped into the self as inalienable parts of the self. In that case, they survive not merely as fragments of a negative identity, but also as temptations, possibilities and rejected selves.

Such internalisation is not unknown to psychoanalytic psychology though there is in it, in this instance, a larger cultural dimension. The internalisation need not be of significant individualised others; it can be of culturally significant collective others. This, in turn, means that the communities do not usually need any painful rite of exorcism, because the spirits that populate the inner world of the Cochinis are no strangers. They are more like friendly ghosts who occasionally become unfriendly enough to haunt one.’

'The Kerala Story' producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah and (right) director Sudipto Sen
'The Kerala Story' producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah and (right) director Sudipto Sen
Getty Images

This may appear idealistic, but when a state and its people are demonised, and the worst vilification is at the behest of the party that rules the country, one must assert the traits that best define them. The Kerala Story and its antecedents (remember the arithmetic climbdown from 32,000 to three) are so predictable that one almost wishes some slightly more intelligent and aesthetically talented propagandists would join the Sanghi bandwagon. The actual protest against the film must have erupted from the ranks of nonMuslim girls in Kerala whose infantilisation is the central purpose of the film,which portrays them as being so naively susceptible to the evangelically driven mix of amoral coquetry and pious posturing of Muslim boys. The lionisation of the Muslim boys—endowed with such irresistible charm that lead to instant love and proselytisation—is a backhanded compliment that the nation’s favourite whipping boys must choose to relish rather than reject!

There is no denying that religious fundamentalism has grown in Kerala over the past three decades, and it is true of all the three dominant communities—Hindus, Muslims and Christians. That a few dozen misguided youth travelled abroad to join the ranks of the ISIS is as much a matter of pain and indignation for Malayali society as is the rising number of people embracing the Sangh Parivar. Or for that matter, the swelling number of Kerala Christians (called Chri-Sanghis) who now defend the genocidal predilections of the Hindu Right in the hope of pocketing the contemporary equivalent of thirty silver coins, gory stories from Manipur notwithstanding.

In short, what we are witnessing in Kerala is the manifestation of all kinds of fundamentalism and fanaticism that work in tandem or at odds with each other to destroy the state’s centuries-old ethos that has proven the benefits of ‘living together separately’. The silver lining in these depressing scenarios is that the forces of darkness are still relatively small, and that civil society in Kerala, cutting across political divides, is addressing the problem in multiple ways. We know we must not only survive but thrive as an oasis of peace and harmony in a country that is now increasingly mentioned internationally as one of the unmentionables of world history, with global rankings on all parameters only a tad better than North Korea’s.

The Kerala Story is not the last but the latest in a torrent of hateful expressions that set us apart as the world’s largest factory of hatred and lies. Hannah Arendt’s words from another context succinctly describe our current plight: ‘If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.

'And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.'

3 is not 32,000

This is the place

where I can have beef

with my friends at the table,

with their pork and alcohol,

and yet,

have no beef with them.

This is the place,

as someone said,

that even atheists call

‘God’s Own Country’.

We fuse opposites,

believer and non-believer,

wet and dry,

and ‘forced conversion’,

an oxymoron

like everything else.

Our minds, as vast as our beaches,

and our values,

as real as our backwaters,

and our landslides, our victories,

in each godly act

that makes this

‘God’s Own Country’.

This is the place

where we know our math:

3 is not equal to 32,000.

But equally, we know, 3 votes

are as important as 32,000.

This is the place

where ‘the ballot is stronger than

the bullet’.

This is the place

where Muslim parents

host Hindu weddings,

and a Hindu brother

protects a Muslim’s shop

from being destroyed.

This is the place

where your profit

becomes my business.

This is the place

where we write our own stories

through our own actions,

not with rhetoric

that lasts for a season.

This is the place

where we choose democracy

over theocracy for a reason.

This, my friends,

is the Kerala Story!

–Rukhaya M.K.


SHAJAHAN MADAMPAT is a cultural commentator and author, most recently of God Is Neither a Khomeini Nor a Mohan Bhagwat: Writings against Zealotry

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