Professionally, I wear two hats. I make my living largely from marine engineering but pursue journalism for passion. On my recent ship, there were two Malayali apprentice engineers: Prakash Muralidharan and Mohammed Nazar.
Prakash was a Sanghi. His uncle was in the BJP in his hometown, Cochin. He would often speak about how India was in danger, that Muslims were dominating, and that India’s culture, values and traditions were under threat. When Kerala Assembly elections were happening, he was quite excited. He felt the BJP would do very well and get at least 10 seats in the Assembly.
On board a ship, the life of an apprentice engineer can be quite tough. Long hours, dirtiest of the jobs being dumped on him, and getting ragged by everybody on the ship – these are some of the professional hazards. Support from a mate can be a lifesaver out at sea.
Prakash may have hated Muslims in general. But at work, he bonded with Mohammed naturally. The two would look out for each other, have private conversations in Malayalam when others were around, and sync with each other to carry out jobs. Prakash’s politics had little impact on his relationship with Mohammed.
Prakash was being the stereotypical Malayali who strongly bonds with fellow Malayalis outside Kerala and excludes others from their space. The Malayali creates a Malayali sub-group wherever in the world he lives. That group is his private retreat and gives him support and comfort in an unfamiliar workplace. It is a space that sustains him or her in distant lands and hostile conditions.
Decades of militant unionism have stopped industrial growth and private investment in Kerala. There are few jobs for the taking in the state. Job-seeking Malayalis have therefore made homes away from their homes all over the world.
The Malayali brings in others from Kerala to his new workplace and gives himself or herself a support group. Deep cultural bonds are leveraged and given space to grow in that act. The Onam sadhya, partaking of communal food, symbolizes that bond – and, crucially enough, it cuts across caste barriers, even religious divides.
The Malayali’s preferences for bonding with other Malayalis outside their traditional homes are not exceptional. All human beings share such urges to some extent or the other. We all feel comfortable in our clan and want to support each other. Whereas, those clans typically translate into caste in India, the Malayali-Malayali bond easily transcends caste networks. In the US, for instance, it is not the Telugu or the Gujarati who backs a fellow Telugu or Gujarati, but a Reddy and a Patel supporting another Reddy and Patel. Symbolically, again, Onam may be rooted in Hindu mythology but as a festival it speaks to the generic Malayali – not the Nair, Ezhava or even Hindu – celebrating the rule of one of their kings.
For sure, linguistic identities are not unique to the Malayali in India. Tamils are probably more attached to their language and fiercely proud of their Tamil identity. But the Malayali differs from the Tamil and others in how he or she has learned to put it into practical use outside his state. Among Tamils, Nadars help each other out in business, but a Nadar will likely not support a Tamil Vanniar in setting up a business outside Tamil Nadu.
Over more than 70 years, the communist comrade’s work has seeped into the lives of Malayalis, so much so that it has become a cultural habit.
For the Malayali, the linguistic identity and bond have a practical value. It comes into play in jobs, business building and so on. And is related to how politics is practiced in Kerala on the ground – more specifically the political practices of communist parties that dominate Kerala.
Prakash, the apprentice marine engineer, likely found little common ground politically with Mohammed. He was crestfallen when the BJP lost badly in the election whereas Mohammed was jubilant. Prakash’s diagnosis was however on the spot. His uncle had told him that the average Kerala voter is still in thrall of the local sakhavu, comrade. They are beholden to the comrade and do what he says. That hold remains strong, Prakash was told.
The comrade, or the CPM worker, continues to be an intrinsic part of daily life in Kerala. For every 25 Keralites, one is a CPM worker. And he has been indoctrinated, if not trained, to be the comrade. The comrade builds communities. He may somewhat rely on Marxian ideology of holding up class-based communities. But, in Kerala where the industrial working class is miniscule, the comrade speaks to a more general population. When Euro 2020 football tournament was happening, CPM groups on Facebook were intensively discussing the nuances of the teams and party leaders were weighing in. The comrade initiates bonds outside politics, too.
The comrade is often the go-to man to get things done in Kerala villages. You want a small loan, the sahavu will arrange it for you. If you want your daughter to do well in professional entrance exams, he or she can attend coaching classes run by the party.
A central committee member from Kerala testifies that this is basic communist party activity. The cadre is trained to help. He is trained to serve and bring together people, so more and more people are drawn into the party’s orbit and they stayed there, he said. It was routine that the CPM organizational review report ahead of the Kerala party state conference in 2018 listed the many new ways in which comrades could be more useful to people.
While Marxian ideology may deal with the dynamics of classes, economics, and political action for justice and equality, the political aspect is only the end for party cadres. The means to that end is striking up bonds of friendship.
In a seminal work called “The politics of friendship,” French philosopher Jacques Derrida attempts a conceptual framework for what he hopes will be a future politics based on friendship. In advanced societies with atomized individuals, a politics of friendship may be only a fervent hope but, in hard-scrabble India, such politics is natural and intrinsic to Marxian party practices.
Derrida cites Aristotle as saying there are three types of friendship. “Firstly, the higher friendship is based on virtue and it has nothing to do with politics. It is a friendship between two virtuous men. Secondly, the friendship grounded on utility and usefulness, and this is political friendship. Third, and on the lower level, friendship grounded on pleasure – looking for pleasure among young people,” he says.
Utility and usefulness, to use Derrida’s words, are the stock-in-trade of the Kerala comrade. He is useful to the Keralite. Over more than 70 years, the communist comrade in Kerala has lived a life framed by this concept. And it is only natural that it has seeped into the lives of Malayalis, so much so that it has become a cultural habit. Just as the Tamil Nadar looks out for his fellow Nadar, the Malayali has taken the comrade as an example for his life and helps out his fellow Malayali outside Kerala.
So, the next time you find that a group of Malayalis have gotten together at your workplace and are dominating, blame it on Communism!