Happy Boss

Monday, 8 March 2021


An eerie silence enveloped the forest, despite the roar of a waterfall gushing down the steep slope on which I sat feeling both exhilarated and anxious, as any good adventure will make you feel. It was the calm before the storm. Soon after we were plunged into the darkness of a forest so thick that seeing an ounce of open sky would’ve been the greatest joy. Regardless, we hiked on, as our machete-wielding lungi-wearing guide cleared a path through the thicket. He burst crackers often, to scare away elephants yet there was nothing to be done about the leeches sucking blood from our legs. Night fell swiftly, we were still lost in the jungle, trying to climb up a mountain so steep that you wouldn’t be wrong in imagining it is trying to shake you off the slope. That night we collapsed under tarpaulins, barely held up under pouring rain, in a small clearing within the otherwise impenetrable forest, on wet mud imprinted with hoof marks of several Indian Gaur who had scoped out the place before us. The next morning, the race to finish continued in the wilderness with many many thrills and it ended with beef parotta in the small village at the edge of the mountain in northern Kerala. We were hiking up to a mountain called Vellarimala in 2010, it was the first of my many adventures in Kerala.

In the years that followed, I hiked with my cousins to a gorgeous heart shaped lake in Wayanad. I soaked up the monsoon fury and elegance of Munnar. I took a trip to the ancient past in Marayoor’s dolmens. I cycled over 150 exhausting kilometres through tea gardens of Chinnar to the forests of Thekkady. In short, I had made countless memories in God’s own Country but Kerala was wilderness to me. Kerala was pristine beauty. Kerala was glorious mountains, teeming with wildlife, enveloped in lush green forests. Kerala was a riveting adventure.

And then four years ago from today, I remember walking on a muddy foot trail cutting through endless fields of paddy coloured in a fluorescent green brought on by monsoon in Thasarak. Old ladies with toothy grin, wearing colourful plastic wrapped as shields were harvesting the produce under a stormy grey sky ready to burst anytime. That morning we went in search of the famous idlis of Ramassery, where I walked on clean village roads lined with pretty houses and village ponds with near perfect coconut tree reflections. Later we stopped at a nice little Toddy shop in Kinassery, drinking the famous palm sap out of colourful mugs. There I was traipsing in unknown villages, far away from the tourist hubs meeting people of Kerala, after years of chasing its wilderness. How would the experiment go?

A smorgasbord of ancient culture and heritage

I remember having heated debates with a friend in my early “traveller” years, where I insisted with the confidence of a clairvoyant that my interest in humans would never measure up to my fondness of empty landscapes. But life is nothing if not unpredictable and humans are nothing if not changeable. It was during this major shift that I happened to visit Kerala yet again, this time tracing the path and cultural influence of River Nila with The Blue Yonder across three northern districts of Thrissur, Palakkad and Malappuram (See the journey video here).

On one of the very first evenings, I remember waiting inside the premises of a 2000-year old temple in Thiruvalathur, Palakkad. Sokanasini river flowed quietly by its side, priests were busy prepping for a dazzling evening, gentle breeze was whipping up a ruckus in the palm trees and I looked on with a distant indifference given I look for spirituality in nature and not in statues. By the time dawn descended upon the ancient temple, hundreds of people flowed into the temple premises in colourful attires and cheerful smiles, to light 10108 stone lamps fixed on the outer wall. Lamp after lamp was lit up, soon outshining the darkness of the night and slowly warming my heart. Despite my penchant for wilderness and aversion to religion, the simple joy of witnessing an act that underscored our shared humanity transcending faith, ethnicity and language moved me deeply.

While the natural wealth of Kerala has a great appeal, its cultural heritage and syncretism is mind boggling too. Comprising of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and several Indigenous groups, Kerala’s diverse demographic profile is not only a fine attraction for the culture connoisseur but it also has been a surprising beacon of religious pluralism and coexistence in India. Kerala has a storied history of welcoming migrants from various parts of the world for thousands of years and this natural acceptance of different cultures has strengthened the social fabric of the state and reaped prosperity.

Smashing the status quo is part of the culture here
In the days that followed, I got an intimate glimpse into the cultural legacy and daily life along the River Nila. While the cultural heritage of the state needs no introduction, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of arts and patronage that spanned across a wide spectrum class and privilege. In the tiny village of Killikkurussimangalam, I saw a young girl perform Nangiarkoothu, a 1500-year old dance drama, with much grace and gusto, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the movement to decouple the art from the shackles of caste and tradition. In Alamkode, I met a passionate percussionist who was moving heaven and earth to not only continue the tradition of Kerala’s unique percussion art called Panchavadyam but also rope in as many young artists as possible without any caste, class or gender restrictions. One of my most enduring memories on that trip was stupidly standing under the shelter of a coconut tree while it poured and winds screeched, as I watched young members of Vayali Folk Group joyously perform their folk dance around fire wearing bright red costumes.

Throughout history, celebrated art has almost always been the prerogative of the high society. Only in the recent times has the process and access been democratised fairly. In India, the caste and class barriers become even more stark if we see which traditional art form is revered and nurtured, and who gets to train and perform. But art is art, the lack of a thousand year history or generally perceived significance doesn’t relegate the other artforms practiced by the so called lesser folk(lower castes) to the bottom of the cultural pedestal. What I found in Kerala was that classical art forms existed in parallel with other folk art forms. For instance, that Theyyam, which is an ancient ritualistic tribal folkart form, has managed to retain its significance and patronage for itself alongside the more traditional Kathakali, which is an ancient classical dance form, is quite heartening to me.

Change is always an extremely slow process with little to show for in increments but as long as people are trying to transform the status quo, there is always hope.

Public well-being as the guiding light

Sitting inside a 300-year old feudal home one afternoon, I watched Kathakali artists prepare for a performance. As they got on with the elaborate make up, I walked around the sprawling estate in Vellinezhi in Palakkad district. It was here that I first learnt of the drastic land reforms in Kerala, one of the most effective and extreme land reformation regulations passed in the country; it shattered the feudal hegemony and paved the path for a more egalitarian society through land redistribution.

Growing up, all I knew about Kerala was its near perfect literacy rate and in the later years, jokes about the incessant hartals. But my interest was piqued in learning about Kerala’s political history after hearing about the land reforms and some other chatter I picked up in another feudal home about the education act. Thanks to the all-knowing internet, I quickly followed a path down the rabbit hole in the following months. I learnt that through the most elaborate land redistribution as well as agrarian reforms and a strict focus on education and public health, Kerala has managed to quietly outperform all states in India when it comes to social and development indices.

Kerala topped NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goal India Index list last year. The state has one of the country’s lowest poverty rates at 7%, highest adult literacy rate at 98.3% as per the India National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16(1), highest state health index at 74.01 according to NITI Aayog report 2019(2), highest life expectancy of 74.9 years, one of the lowest infant mortality rates at 10 per 1000, one of the highest vaccination coverage rates at 82.2%. There are two ways of measuring progress, one is via per capita income and GDP numbers and the other is via Human Development Index(3) and general well-being of the masses. Kerala seemed to have mastered the latter, improving the living standards of its people to a quality comparable to the developed nations despite having no access to the kind of capital at the disposal of wealthy nations.

A pioneer in disaster response

Two years following my eye opening visit, Kerala reported the deadly Nipah Virus outbreak in 2018. Not knowing much about the state’s excellent primary health care system and disaster response at that point, I anticipated the worst. But I was pleasantly surprised by the state’s exceptionally skilled crisis response. Soon after, it was struck by the worst floods in over a century that claimed over 470 lives, with hundreds of thousands displaced and causing property damages of over 40000 Crores. And once again, I was in awe of how the state handled the crisis and the massive civilian mobilisation aiding rescue and relief. Heroic fishermen who depend solely on their boats for livelihood didn’t think twice before jumping in to rescue thousands of stranded people, even as their boats sputtered and shattered. The government in turn, duly recognised their selfless act and compensated them for damages, with new boats and houses. This high level of trust and cooperation between the government and its citizens is perhaps the hallmark of the much vaunted Kerala model of development.

Given Kerala’s competence in crisis response combined with its commitment to scientific expertise and humane policies, it is no surprise that the state has once again spearheaded a working model of mounting an effective fight against Coronavirus today. They are not only taking care of their people, but they also have a plan for everyone from foreign travellers to migrant workers stuck in the state. Even dogs and cats are getting due attention! The state has the highest recovery rate and lowest case fatality rate in the country as of now. It wouldn’t be an overreach to say compassion has been a consistent feature of all their crisis response. Understandably, this model is also getting lauded not just around the country but around the world.

Human by Nature

Travel in its finest form isn’t an escape anymore, it’s an opportunity for learning, challenge, inspiration and understanding of our world and humanity. Setting aside the debate of whether communism works or not, my mind is tickled by the fact that Kerala has managed to make a success of an ideology that is largely (& vehemently) detested around the world. No place is perfect, especially not in a developing country as diverse, conflicting and as inequitable as India. But Kerala is a strange bright spot, it gets so many things right.

You do not make a claim as big and contentious (given the shitty circumstances of our world right now) as Human by Nature without the goods to support it. Kerala Tourism’s pivot from God’s Own Country to Human by Nature is not a mere marketing gimmick, it realistically shines a spotlight on the state’s exemplary human values. Come to think of it, perhaps it is not the political ideology that matters as much as the ethical values of the people?

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