Communism, Kerala and Raincoats

The hammer and sickle flutters limp above the Indian state of Kerala. Old men and women who have spent their lives working for the proletariat have grown disillusioned, while their children go off to work in the Gulf and bring back the family wages. This is the new revolution.

Kerala, unlike its political persuasion, is a green tropical paradise. Step out onto the tarmac of Cochin International Airport and the wall of humidity will hit you hard. Monsoons strike throughout the hot summer months, flooding paddy fields and homes alike. This is how the Kerala Backwaters are maintained; a patchwork of thousands of streams, rivers and lakes. Houseboats are a common sight on these backwaters, along with Chinese fishing nets; 10 metre high triangular contraptions lowered into water from land based wooden stages.

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It is this abundance of water that has shaped the ‘Spice Garden’ of India. Rich soil produces the majority of the world’s black pepper, the majority of India’s rubber, and anchors millions of palm trees to the earth. These trees infuse Keralite culture. Palm leaves are used as plates to serve the traditional SADHYA: a mix of vegetarian curries and rice. The coconut shell is used in coir production and the pulp is a common food ingredient. Coconut milk is fermented in home distilleries to be turned into hot toddy, and at night the streets are paved with men selling their home brews. If you do not like palm trees and coconut, stay far away.

 If you do not like palm trees and coconut, stay far away.

Keralites speak Malayalam, a Dravidian based language largely untouched by outside influence. The current religious divide of Hindus, Muslims and Christians rarely excites people into sectarian strife. This probably has something to do with the long history of various denominations in the region. First were the Buddhists in the 8th century, then came the Hindus, the Arab traders and the Portuguese Christian missionaries later on. Curiously, there was also a large Jewish community up until the 20th century in the capital Cochin. The Jewish quarter is now a popular tourist destination. The energies saved in avoiding religious violence are often directed into political action.

If you do not like palm trees and coconut, stay far away.

The strike and the picket line is a familiar image in rural and urban Kerala. As in many other countries, politics is the crux of most conversations. The political machinations involving the CPI, the Communist Party of India, are weighed up against the perceived threat posed by the Indian National Congress Party on the front of The Hindu, the state’s most popular newspaper. In the most recent legislative elections in 2011, two coalitions were formed; the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front, headed by Mr Achuthanandan (CPI) and Mr Chandy (INC) respectively. To adequately understand the nuances of each front, a PhD in the finer points of Marxist theory would be helpful though not sufficient.

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What have the people of Kerala gained from the alternating CPI and INC lead governments over the last 60 years? Ranked 1st of all Indian states on the Human Development Index, Keralites are rightly proud of their 95% literacy and view their institutions as the least corrupt, as compared with the rest of India. High spending by successive governments on education, healthcare and the elimination of poverty means public services are able to cope with the most densely packed state.

The energies saved in avoiding religious violence are often directed into political action.

The problems that plague Kerala are however equally important. The transport network is struggling to cater to the rapidly increasing number of people and cars. Fierce anti-competition rules stifle an otherwise entrepreneurial populace. Protectionism prevents foreign investment from producing the capital needed to fund major transport projects.

On the itinerary list of many travellers, Kerala is the consummate holiday destination. Long white beaches straddle the Arabian Sea. The weather is hot and humid and the environment is safe. Considering the many luxury hotels that locate themselves on these shores, it is humbling to think that this most capitalist pursuit was nurtured under the shade of a most communist people.

Alexander Fitzgerald

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Image Courtesy: Jo Kent, Koshy and Ryan via Flikr.


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