POLITICS

As Malayalees Kick The Butt, A Once Proud Beedi-Maker Bets On Biryani

06/05/2016 3:47 PM IST | Updated 02/08/2016 5:18 PM IST
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Binoo John

THALASSERY, KERALA -- Bhargavi sways rhythmically as she packs bundles of beedis into neat packets of tens and twenties, with deft fingers and an easy confidence acquired over the years. On a given day, she seals more than 1,000 such packets with maida (refined flour) paste and flicks it into the brimming sack next to her. Her fingers move deftly as she wraps the famous Dinesh Beedi wrapper around big and medium bundles.

"I joined here in 1980. I will retire next year. I survived with this low salary all these years," she says, suggesting perhaps this reporter could do something about her daily pay out of Rs 190, far below Kerala's minimum daily wage of around Rs 350.

In a dimly-lit hall at one of the branches of the Dinesh Beedi Cooperative where she sits with five other women beedi packers, there is a discernible sense of gloom. Started by Marxists leaders like A.K. Gopalan in 1969, the cooperative reached an annual revenue of Rs 100 crore in the 1970s, making it the number one beedi brand in the country, long before other beedi companies came up.

"Today, sales have fallen due to the campaign against smoking and our annual revenue will only how be around Rs30-40 crore," said Valson, the secretary of the one of the branches of the beedi cooperative in Pinarayi, the native village of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and its potential chief minister candidate, Pinarayi Vijayan.

beedi

The dark hall doesn't have an electric bulb, even to counter the reality of bleak prospects, or a fan to cool the sweat on the brows of its women beedi packers, working in the scorching 40-degree heat. This is what Dinesh Beedi Cooperative, a once-proud organization that hoped to become a alternative template of economic production to the limited liability company structure hated by the communists, has been reduced to.

In its search for a vision for the future, the cooperative has found a new avenue for diversification: manufacturing biryani, beloved to the coastal malabar region. Valson points to the van waiting outside to transport packets of biryani to restaurants and other patrons. The ageing cooperative is executing a market pivot, more typical of teething venture-capital-funded startups, in the hope that the malabari's unending love affair with biryani will fuel the economic demand it desperately needs.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Dinesh Beedi Coop Society had a work-force of 42,000, forming an economic backbone that sustained numerous poor families in the northern Kerala districts of Kannur, Kasargode and Malappuram. This was home to many instances of communist uprising and street battles, but they also found a way to sustain some hope through such cooperatives.

The ageing cooperative is executing a market pivot, more typical of teething venture-capital-funded startups, in the hope that the malabari's unending love affair with biryani will fuel the economic demand it desperately needs.

Here, many trend-setting cooperative moments emerged with the backing of the Communists: Apart from beedi, the coffee cooperative which runs the Indian Coffee House chain across the country, had a strong presence in Malabar. With the success of this model, several banks and colleges emerged as well. The vision and the execution were heroic and daring--these enterprises proved that an alternative model of economic production that placed a premium on employee welfare, can be viable. Through them, the region began to see hope and emerged into a new future, confident and aspiring.

Today the colleges, the bank and the Indian Coffee House are soldiering on, albeit with their own problems and a perennial shortage of funds. But it is Dinesh Beedi that is looking totally out of tune with the times. The new generation has turned its back to beedis--some in favour of cigarettes and others due to greater awareness of its ill effects. A rise in religiosity, which some attribute to the influence of Wahhabi Islam, imported from Saudi Arabia, where many thousands of Malabar's young work, is also a factor. There is also the rising taxes on tobacco.

A couple of decades ago, nobody could have fathomed that Dinesh Beedi would see such days.

Till the turn of the millennium, Dinesh was a byword for beedi in the state. The pungent smell of beedi smoke was ubiquitous in the Malabar air--it filled office rooms, hall ways in colleges, bus stops and most public places. It was with the pink Dinesh beedi packet tucked into the fold of the mundu or the lungi that thousands of men in Kerala and later across south India set out for their day's work, or trouble-making.

Dinesh beedi then stood for both a sense of deliberate under-achievement and also the spunk to take on any adversity. A Dinesh beedi always smouldered, dangling from the lips of the heroes and villains of Malayalam movies from that time. They flung it out menacingly after drawing a deep puff, before mouthing idealistic dialogue or pouncing on the enemy and beating him to pulp. Dinesh Beedi was everywhere.

A Dinesh beedi always smouldered, dangling from the lips of the heroes and villains of Malayalam movies from that time.

Today it is fighting a battle for survival. The age of the beedi is past us. Malabar's brave sons, materially better off, prefers the big packets of cigarettes, preferably bought from an airport duty-free store.

Outside the Dinesh Beedi Regional Centre's Pinarayi office, the walls are plastered with a long sequence of posters telling the life story of Pinarayi Vijayan. In one poster, he is seen by the side of the iconic Marxist leader A.K. Gopalan, (founder of the Dinesh Beedi Cooperative) as he spoke to a crowd without a mike just after the Emergency was imposed.

As CPM's powerful state secretary, Vijayan is within touching distance of the big job as Kerala chief minister. The workers of the Dinesh Beedi cooperative will be hoping, even as they immerse themselves in the Biryani experiment, that he will not lose sight of the state of the old dreams that he and his leaders once nurtured.

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