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August 20, 2001

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In memoriam

Rajeev Srinivasan

The travails of god's own country

I have consistently been of the opinion that the future of India is in the South, by which I mean Peninsular India. Draw a line due east from Mumbai, and find that a lot of good things -- leadership and governance, investment and industrialisation, the rule of law, many such things that make a real difference to the people -- are generally more prevalent south of this line than elsewhere. Thus I am discouraged by some of the things I saw on a recent visit to Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I was in Kerala for a while to enjoy the monsoon, when the state is indeed god's own country, magical and beautiful. I was reminded of years past, of childhood and the pleasures of watching sheets of rain cascade down as I sat cozy and dry behind the heavy green bamboo blinds in our old house. I am generally happiest at this time of the year (see my earlier column, Sibilant, sinuous, sinister...).

Alas, however, the news that I read in Kerala Kaumudi was disturbing. First, there was the gruesome railway accident at Kadalundi in Malappuram district that claimed at least 50 lives. I suspect the major culprit was the negligence of the railway staff in maintaining and inspecting the bridge. However, there are plenty of self-serving 'explanations' for the tragedy, which blame acts of god.

I am reminded of the fantastic excuses they came up with after the last major railway accident some ten years ago, when a train derailed while crossing the bridge over the Ashtamudi lake at Perumon near Kollam. It was attributed to a highly localized 'cyclone' or 'tornado' which nobody on shore experienced at the time, or anywhere else in Kerala in living memory before or after!

There is reason to wonder about possible geological causes this time around, though. There were bizarre reports in the Malayalam media about a couple of hundred wells 'disappearing'. I couldn't believe this when I first heard about it, but this has been happening with increasing frequency in various parts of Kerala. The sides of a perfectly normal, functioning well apparently collapse inwards with loud noises, and within a day or so, all that remains is a shallow pit: no sign of water!

Quite honestly, this is making me nervous. In addition to mild tremors hitting the hilly parts of the state, I worry these are portents of an earthquake. The area is not immune to temblors. It is certain (through fossils of sea-floor-dwelling creatures found on hillsides) that Kerala arose from the Arabian Sea some time in the distant past (there is scientific truth behind the metaphor of Parasurama raising the land from the sea); and, within the last 1,500 years, the river Periyar shifted course, leaving the great port of Muziris or Kodungallur high and dry and opening up the natural harbour at Kochi.

I wonder if the state can handle an earthquake. Much modern construction has been ugly multi-storey concrete monstrosities, undoubtedly with large doses of adulteration and sloppy work thrown in. None of these will withstand a medium-sized temblor. The traditional Kerala house with sloping tiled or thatched roofs and the nalukettu (interior courtyard open to the heavens) would do much better in a quake, but these have all but disappeared.

There is also continuing ecological damage to the state. Just look at Kerala's most important natural resource: fresh water, and the innumerable rivers crisscrossing the state. The state's beauty and ecology is a product of the abundant rainfall captured by the Western Ghats' forested slopes, which stop rain-bearing monsoon clouds, conversely creating a parched rain-shadow region in adjoining Tamil Nadu.

In a repeat of what has happened in Meghalaya, I fear Kerala is on its way to becoming a water-deficit state, which would be a colossal tragedy (see my earlier column, Water Wars: Cauvery, Chinatown and Cadillac Desert). In Meghalaya, indiscriminate felling of forests has, in the last 50 years, turned the Khasi Hills, including Cherrapunji, one of the wettest places in the world, into a perennially water-short area, as the rainfall simply runs off, carrying topsoil with it!

Similarly, in the last 100 years, Kerala's forest cover has been reduced from some 47 per cent of the state's land to some 10 per cent of it; what is left are either completely denuded hillsides, or plantation crops like tea and rubber which do not retain rainwater. The backwaters have also been affected: for instance Vembanad lake, and indeed the entire Kuttanad delta, has lost one-third of its area due to encroachment; and tidal mangrove forests have been almost entirely wiped out.

There is continuing sand excavation in river beds; the long-term effects are not known. The major rivers -- the Periyar, the Nila, the Pamba, the Kabini -- are drying up: they have begun to resemble the vast, bone-dry riverbeds of Tamil Nadu. Diversion of water for irrigation, pollution, effluent dumping: the same kind of thing that has caused the San Francisco Bay to shrink alarmingly. The only difference is that Californians are doing something about it; we are not.

Many of the ancient ponds, streams (thodu) and tanks in the state have been filled in; large tracts of water-absorbing paddy fields (which undoubtedly replenish the water table) have also been filled in and turned into coconut farms or residential land. When I was growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, you could go in any direction from anywhere for a mile and come upon beautiful, productive paddy fields -- they are all gone now, in a few short years.

I wrote most of this column in late June, but now in August I hear news about black, red, green, and yellow rain falling in parts of Kerala. This is also exceedingly strange, and the so-called 'scientists' have once again come up with soothing explanations: it is the result of a volcanic eruption in Italy or Indonesia, it is because of an exploding meteorite, and so on and so forth.

I am reminded of what I read years ago in the San Jose Mercury News about bizarre things that happened in Vietnam that appeared to foreshadow the war: plagues of locusts, frogs that rained from the skies, etc. Likewise, I now worry about terrible things happening to my beloved Kerala. For, unlike others in the blasť and deracinated diaspora, I have roots only in Kerala and San Francisco, my two homes. For years I have worried about how San Francisco will disappear one day in the Big One, the inevitable earthquake on the San Andreas Fault; now I fear for Kerala too. Sigh!

To add insult to injury, there have been recent reports of medical human rights abuses at the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, supposedly Asia's largest cancer research centre. It is alleged that researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the partner in the study, used Indian patients as guinea pigs for experimental treatments that are banned as unsafe in the US. This is precisely the kind of thing that raises the hackles of hard-core Marxists who see the hidden hand of Western imperialists in the most innocuous things.

The second bit of bad news is increasing violence in Malabar. There are continuing problems in the northern Kannur district, where Marxists have been murdering Hindus, and vice-versa. This, the media ignores. In Nadapuram near Kozhikode, there have been recent clashes between Muslim landlords and Marxist labourers. There has been violence there too. The English-language media, which generally weep large crocodile tears over the rights of the working class, here support the landlords because they are Muslims.

What is more disturbing is what is going on in Taliparamba in Kannur district. Muslims, according to the Malayalam media, are attacking the police with country-made bombs. When caught, it turns out that these people are ideologically hardened Islamists, who refuse to divulge their organisational links. There are suggestions of larger conspiracies. What worries me is that this is essentially the same kind of thing that happened in Kashmir some years ago: the induction of hard-core Islamic fundamentalism into the populace. This is an ominous development.

This is also ironic considering that Muslims in Kerala are quite prosperous, nationalistic and moderate. And as a strong vote bank, they have been able to influence government policies in favour of their stronghold in Malabar. Note that much of the development in Kerala in the recent past has been in Malabar -- the new international airport, the new Indian Institute of Management, etc are in Kozhikode, and much tourism development is targeted towards Bekal and Wyanad in Malabar, as well.

Thirdly, there is a massive financial crisis in Kerala. The new Congress government is busy blaming the former Marxist government for overindulgence. The truth is that no government has done anything that creates any revenue. The state has been surviving on the inward remittances of a lot of its expatriates slaving away in the deserts of West Asia. The mania for distribution of wealth has not been matched by a determination to generate any wealth to distribute.

The Kerala model, much lauded by economists like Amartya Sen, has reached its limits. The state has been living beyond its means; I think a close inspection of its accounts will reveal that so much is spent on salaries that there is no money for the staff to actually implement any projects, even assuming generously that they wish to do any work. I think only a massive downsizing of the establishment, especially in high-expenditure sectors like education and the secretariat, will suffice. But this would hurt a lot of vested interests.

As it is, the state treasury is empty and there are virtually no assets to sell or mortgage. Even the Kochi airport, a joint venture where the government wishes to divest its stake, is turning out to be loss-making, contrary to rosy earlier projections.

All in all, a pretty sad state of affairs for Kerala: economic stagnation, communal and environmental worries. In a pessimistic mood, I am reminded of one of my favourite albums, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, an under-appreciated classic with its Delta-blues-influenced, funereal saxophone (or trumpet?) riffs, especially the calm, measured and ravishingly tragic threnody, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Part IX, that concludes the album. I wish Kerala would shine as brightly as it could without resting on the laurels of its socialist past.

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun...
Did you exchange your heroes for ghosts?...
We'll bask in the shadow, of yesterday's triumph...
Shine on, you crazy diamond...
Come on, you legend,... and shine!

Postscript

In a recent development that should warm the hearts of those who love Sanskrit, UNESCO has declared Kerala's Sanskrit dance-drama, Koodiyattam, a Heritage Art, a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity", one among 18 arts thus honoured.

Koodiyattam is the oldest continuously performed dance drama in the world, going back at least a thousand years. Koodiyattam is the precursor of Kathakali, which is also derived from other, more Malayalam-ised dance forms like Krishnattam; and, I conjecture, possibly an influence on Japan's noh and kabuki.

This was a temple-oriented art form, performed mostly by the Chakyar caste of ambalavasi or temple staff in koothambalams within temples. Its greatest living master is the 84-year-old Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar of Irinjalakuda: much of the following is based on an interview with him by C A Krishnan in the Kerala Kaumudi of June 18; I am told there is also a wonderful three-hour documentary of the master by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, himself a master of a different medium.

Land reform in Kerala almost destroyed Koodiyattam, (as well as Kathakali, the story-play and Mohiniyattam, the dance of the seductress) as the landlord patrons of the arts, as well as the artistes themselves, were forced to seek other sources of income as their traditional lands were redistributed by the state. It was the Kerala Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthy, the Margi theatre group in Thiruvananthapuram, and a few others that rescued these magnificent traditional arts.

Koodiyattam is a difficult art, because a single act that might take half an hour in Kathakali may take an entire night's performance in Koodiyattam; in a way it is the high art to the more earthy and folksy Kathakali. The fact that it is performed in Sanskrit adds to its high-art nature. Some standard pieces -- The Death of Bali, The Marriage of Tapti, Subhadra and Dhananjaya, The Death of Jatayu, Surpanakha's Scene, The Torana Battle, The Scene in the Ashokavanam -- demonstrate how intimate the portrayals are: these are tiny episodes.

Anyway, now that Westerners have put their imprimatur on Koodiyattam, I suppose there will be increased interest in it, as is usual in India.

One of the best-loved of all old Malayalam films, Bhargavi Nilayam, a splendid ghost story based on a short piece by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, is being remade. This is good news for Malayalam film fans. The original, in black and white, has remained fresh in my memory after all these years: with its tale of lovers murdered by a greedy villain; the beautiful Bhargavi who returns as a ghost in her white sari, wind-blown hair and vacant stare; the writer visiting the haunted house, whom Bhargavi influences to write her ill-starred story.

I particularly loved the songs: the superb Thaamasam enthay varuvan (Why, my beloved, are you late?), Arabikkadal oru manavalan (The Arabian Sea is a bridegroom), Pottaatha ponnin kinaavu kondoru pattunool oonjala kettie jnan (With an unbreakable thread of golden dreams, I made a silken swing), Ekaanthathayude apaara theeram (The infinite shore of solitude).

Rajeev Srinivasan

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