The Emirati employer of a Malayali expatriate in Dubai went to Kerala for herbal rejuvenation and treatment for some illness. The month-long sojourn in 'God's own country' included a few days stay at the 'humble abode' of his loyal employee of nearly 30 years.
The Arab was mighty pleased with the hospitality, but guilt and incredulity gripped him. His worker lived in a palatial mansion, 10 times the size of his own villa in Dubai's up-market Jumeirah neighborhood. Dozens of workers toiled on the grounds of the sprawling coconut plantation, and the entire village seemed beholden to the man whom he had known only as his ever-subservient domestic caretaker. Confirming the man's noble standing, visitors flowed in and out of the house every day until late in the evening, seeking solutions to their problems, arbitration in their disputes, and donations for their socio-religious initiatives.
On the day of departure, the Arab told his minion never to return to Dubai. "What have I done to deserve such punishment?" wailed the man in a state of shock.
"My brother, you are so wealthy and way too important to serve me. We will remain good friends, as men of our stature and wealth ought to be," said the Arab.
" The cruel joke doing the rounds is that Kerala, being God's own country, requires every Adam and Eve born there to be expelled and sent down to earth (the Gulf)!"
Cut to Dubai. Or to any city or town in the Arabian Gulf. Malayalis are as ubiquitous here as the sandy deserts and shopping malls. These cities and towns are the epicenters of their dreams and nightmares. Malayalis constitute around 40% of the more than two million-strong Indian workforce in the UAE. The cruel joke doing the rounds is that Kerala, being God's own country, requires every Adam and Eve born there to be expelled and sent down to earth!
The four types of Gulf Malayalis
Among the "Gulf Malayalis", there are those who have spent decades as Man Fridays to wealthy and generous Arabs, and have earned enough to be able to feed a few generations. Of course, there are also the entrepreneurs from Kerala who have amassed enormous wealth and those who have done reasonably well as business owners. The professional class, whose number has grown in the past couple of decades, has also managed to eke out a decent living. These three groups can be considered the true beneficiaries of the "Gulf boon". The transition of the first segment into successful entrepreneurship is still a very common feature, though not as widespread as it was two decades ago.
The poignant stories of the fourth group of Malayalis, the unskilled workers and builders that return home in penury even after decades of ceaseless labour in the hot desert sun, abound in every town and village of Kerala. They make up the vast majority of Malayalis in the Gulf. They are the ill-fated legion -- lower middle-class people who have lived faceless, spouseless, vacationless and funless lives. Fervent dreams of a comfortable future for their children sustained them in the scorching desert heat. But often what awaits them at the end of the decades-long ordeal is unspeakable ignominy and agony: their closest family and friends get so used to their lucrative absence that their eventual return, and the subsequent termination of remittances, are greeted with resentment. Comfortably entrenched in a culture of profligacy, the women and grown children find themselves accountable for their spending habits for the first time in decades. Besides, the sudden loss of autonomy, financial and otherwise, is too bitter a pill for the women to swallow, having got rid of many of the limitations of living under a patriarchal system.
"[T]heir closest family and friends get so used to their lucrative absence that their eventual return, and the subsequent termination of remittances, are greeted with resentment."
Let us set aside these existential dilemmas and look at some aspects of Malayali survival in the Gulf. Regardless of what level of skilled or unskilled labour a Malayali might pursue, the most difficult enigma of Gulf Malayali life remains this: how does this over-politicised community, used to incessant cycles of protest marches, labour strikes and sit-ins, meekly submit itself to the tyrannical discipline of work life in the Gulf? How could they unlearn their deeply entrenched Stalinist version of communism and make themselves amenable to the avaricious designs of predatory capitalism? How could they, who bring the entire state of Kerala to a standstill at the drop of a hat, prove themselves such paragons of patience, perseverance, passivity and acquiescence? Did they actually suppress their genetically inherited irreverence and cynicism or just compartmentalise their life so neatly and adopt a schizophrenic existence?
Malayali paradoxes and the argumentative sage
Malayalis are a compulsively argumentative society; a society that almost substituted the cacophony of arguments for the concrete materiality of change. More than 10 centuries ago, the Malayali sage and proponent of Advaita (non-dualism) philosophy, Sri Sankaracharya of Kaladi, traversed the length and breadth of the subcontinent, winning metaphysical arguments wherever he went. His successors also manage to travel un-bound, but rarely win more than their loaves of bread. In the Gulf, they know arguing with their temperamental employers will cost them their jobs and end in deportation. Nonetheless, win arguments they must; how else to live up to the legacy of the great sage?
So they took to forming parochial organisations, the social clubs that form the central axis around which Malayali expatriate life in the Gulf revolves. They represent every single socio-political, religious and cultural current in Kerala, and function on lines as diverse as religion, sect, class, caste, region, village, literature, political parties, factions within political parties and religious sects, spiritual and not-so-spiritual cults, astrology, language, humanism, profession, alma mater, charity and chastity, clan and clique. While most of the Malayali organisations in the Gulf do serve many noble purposes, such as community support and other public good, they also allow a space for endless arguments and impassioned polemics. In the heat of arguments, the organisations keep splitting vertically and horizontally, presenting interested outsiders an enchanting spectacle of self-righteous comedy and bitter bile - both with an ideological slant! An oft-quoted description about a political party (the Kerala Congress) in Kerala applies perfectly to Malayali organisations in the Gulf: they grow even as they split and split even as they grow!
"An oft-quoted description about a political party (the Kerala Congress) in Kerala applies perfectly to Malayali organisations in the Gulf: they grow even as they split and split even as they grow!"
Firmly anchored thus in their walled existence of Kerala-centered discussions and debates, this tragic-comically nostalgic people create a replica of Kerala amidst the inescapably multicultural, yet hardly pluralist milieu of the Gulf: eating, breathing, talking, reading, dreaming, feeling, fantasising, fuming about, fondling, shopping, even conning Kerala, and disengaging from it only to go to office. At the office, they must face - albeit reluctantly - colleagues of different nationalities, cultures and languages. In the case of most Malayalis, the workplace remains the only interactive space they share with people not of their kind. However, it will be wrong to say they are not culturally curious. Indeed, they are an internationalist community, perennially conscious of even minute developments throughout the world. In this sense, I bet they stand out from most other expatriate communities in the Gulf, for they can hold forth to an Arab about politics in the Middle East and the machinations of the "neo-imperial" US, to a South American about the delights of magic realism, to a South African about the heroic struggles against apartheid, and lo and behold, to a Yankee about 9/11! They can even enlighten a Palestinian on the nuances of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry. It is just that they prefer textual sources to direct and lived experience. They are avid consumers of the written word, ranging from highbrow literature and pulp fiction to sensationalist journalism. They can beat most people on earth in general knowledge and international awareness! No other expatriate community spends such an enormous amount of time and energy debating and polemicising about the word and the world.
Not many languages churn out as many translations from other languages as Malayalam does. Reading, especially of literature, is an obsessive trait of the Malayalis. This writer, author of a couple of nonfiction books in Malayalam, had the memorable experience of ordinary daily-wagers in grocery stores and cafeterias engaging him in incredibly informed conversations on the merits and demerits of his writings! If you step into the UAE outlets in Karama or Ajman of DC Books, the premier Malayalam publisher, you will be surprised by the display of Malayalam translations of all kinds of the latest books from around the world.
Most of the newspapers published in Kerala bring out Gulf editions and their print runs put to shame many of the region's popular dailies. Some of them sell many thousands of copies, with a clientele that extends even to the cash-strapped errand boys at the numerous Malayali-owned and -manned grocery stores. In fact, several of these newspa-pers survived various financial challenges back home only because of the revenue accrued from their Gulf editions. Therefore, naturally, they scrupulously sanitise their reporting on the Gulf while earmarking their polemical space for attacks on inconsequential targets in faraway lands. Interestingly, the Gulf editions of Malayalam newspapers provide an eloquent reflection of the life of the diaspora here.
"[T]here are four powerful forces that vie for the attention and hard-earned money of the Gulf Malayalis: the politicians, the religious and confessional establishment, the cultural establishment and the media..."
Some local news, including new rules and regulations governing expatriates, take up some space. The most consumed sections are pictures and reports of meetings and conferences held by various parochial organisations. An unceasing flow of figures of varying prominence from Kerala - politicians, writers, doctors and quacks, shrinks and sorcerers, marriage counsellors, film stars, caste and community leaders, religious clerics, media persons and government officials - lends colour and glamour to these congregations.
The fact that some of these worthies are responsible for the exodus of Malayalis from the state in the first place never seems to exercise the expatriates' skewed mindsets; if the politicians, for instance, were half as imaginative as they should be, they would have long stopped this exodus and used the massive manpower as an engine of growth for the state. Or, for that matter, if the media was ever worth its salt, it would have asked uncomfortable questions as to why such a tiny picturesque place as Kerala has to push out a quarter of its population in search of livelihood. A third element that finds prominence in local coverage is Malayali businessmen who made it big in the Gulf; their presence is explained in part by their company advertisements that sustain these newspapers. Moreover, their glitter has to be on display to perpetuate the Gulf dream, lest the countless nightmarish stories of the miserable and the ill-fated percolate to the collective unconscious!
In short, there are four powerful forces that vie for the attention and hard-earned money of the Gulf Malayalis: the politicians, the religious and confessional establishment, the cultural establishment (primarily filmdom and to a small extent the literati) and the media. All four fawn over Gulf Malayalis and exploit their ethnic nostalgia and emotional vulnerability to the hilt, capturing their imagination to fatal effect! The life of an average Malayali in the Gulf revolves around any one or all of these four obsessive affiliations.
The ancient king who mistook Salalah for Kerala
More relevant to our story than the Sankaracharya is another ancient Malayali. History is yet to rehabilitate him from the shady world of legend, though thankfully it never dismissed him outright. Unlike the sage who won all his arguments, this one, Cheraman Perumal, a king of ancient Kerala, was won over by an argument that came from Mecca. Legend has it that he converted to Islam, divided his kingdom among different governors, left on a pilgrimage to Mecca and never returned.
"Standing in front of the Perumal mausole-um a few years ago, I wondered if the Perumal had worked in Salalah for a while before he passed away, thus becoming the first Gulf Malayali in history."
The 16th-century Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa described the Perumal as "a heathen king, whose name was Cirimay Pirencal, a very mighty Lord." Barbosa said that the Moors of Mecca sailed to Kerala for pepper trade, and "continuing to sail to India for many years they began to spread out therein and they had such discussions with the King himself and he with them, that in the end they converted him to the sect of the abominable Mafamede, wherefore he went in their company to the House of Mecca, and there he died, or, as it seems probable, on the way thither; for they say that the Malabarese never more heard any tidings of him."
The story grows curiouser if we now cut to Salalah in Oman, another city with a strong Malayali expatriate presence and known for a few famed tombs, including that of Job. Lying abandoned in a part of Salalah that resembles a Kerala landscape of coconut trees and tapioca plantations is a ramshackle mausoleum widely believed to be that of the Perumal. History does not come to our succour here either, alas. But if we get a bit mischievous and let our imagination run, we may perhaps pick up the threads from where Barbosa left them and fill in the blanks. On his return from Mecca, our dear ruler perhaps mistook Salalah for Kerala and dropped anchor. (Set aside uncomfortable questions of geography here; we are far from even history.) Since the Perumal was not blessed with wise choices, he might have perished in this illusory land, perhaps thinking he was home but knowing he was not. Standing in front of the Perumal mausoleum a few years ago, I wondered if the Perumal had worked in Salalah for a while before he passed away, thus becoming the first Gulf Malayali in history.
The aftereffects of migration
The existence of the Malayalis, or for that matter, most Asian expatriates, is part of the story of a symbiotic relationship --the Gulf needs cheap labour, and the expatriates need jobs. The apparent prosperity that distinguishes Kerala from much of the rest of India is primarily due to Gulf remittances.
However, some of the byproducts of this relationship have not been all that edifying: rampant consumerism, growing religious fundamentalism, mindless materialism, and last but not the least, the consequences of entire generations growing up in the absence of their fathers, and spouses living apart save for only a few weeks a year for decades on end. No wonder every other Malayali in the Gulf is a romantic poet who writes more poems than he ever manages to read! And they all ooze unbearable pain.