Friday, 9 September 2011

Welcoming an itinerant Maveli

This year Maveli is coming to Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. We are preparing to receive him on Sunday, 11 September.

Maveli is a good man, very considerate. He meets his people on a day of their convenience, rather than his. On Sunday his calendar should be full. I am sure as the earth turns he would be coming from Perth, Singapore, Dar  es Salaam to Cotonou. After shaking our hands he may be going to Accra, London, Chicago and San Francisco.

I am grateful, my King. We are humble immigrants, peripheral statistics in the global pool of migrant labor.

I left Kerala in 1987. Since then I have welcomed Maveli at New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and now Cotonou. Many a year I have welcomed him at home, along with my family. Some years I have done it with friends, in a larger gathering.

At one such gathering, one of my friends asked me a question. "Did Parasurama throw an axe to reclaim Kerala from the sea?"

"I am told so," I answered. "I was not born then."

"Dashavatara says that Vamana came before Parasurama. Then how would it have been possible?" my friend persisted.


The point, of course, is not to check the historical veracity of mythological stories but to imbibe the spirit that they convey. In almost every part of India there are two major celebrations in a year. Call them Onam-Vishu, Diwali-Holi or Diwali-Pongal, these are post-harvest festivals where historically a predominantly agrarian society thanked the Gods for a good return on investment.

We have moved from agrarian to industrial to service sector economics, but maintain these celebrations that remind us of our gratitude to the soil of our land. An IT professional, doing a project in India for a company in the USA, has very little connection to the soil or the harvest. But he joins in because the celebration of the day links him with every other Malayali in the world, and also to his forefathers who celebrated this day every year during their lifetimes.

My first Kerala Onam experience was in 1976. My father had retired from government service in Madhya Pradesh and had bought our home in Thrissur. He was keen that his children experience the real Onam. We made Thrikkakara Appan in clay and laid the floral design in front of the steps leading home.

Only once did I return to Kerala for Onam after I left in search of employment. It was in 1991, the first Onam for my son, and like my father before me I wanted him to experience it. He was too small and may never remember that day, but I could not fail in my duty of baptizing him as a Malayali.

In 1976, the going rate for a Kummattikali performance was 10 paise. I knew that many boys went around the corner, changed into a new mask and returned as a fresh Kummatti. 

Today perhaps there are not that many Kummattis in Thrissur. It is not worthwhile to perform at the bottom of a multi-storeyed apartment block. Who watches? Who pays? Today's equivalent of Kummattikali are the Onam special programs on Asianet and the umpteen other television channels in Kerala. People watch. And since they watch the advertisers pay.

With satellite links some of these channels are watched by Malayalis all over the world. These programs make the Malayali diaspora yearn for the land of mountains, rivers, backwaters, lagoons and beaches that they left behind. This 590-km long thin (it is 150 km broad at the broadest point) strip of land  has the tallest mountains in India after the Himalayas. Forty-four rivers start from these mountains, with 41 flowing west into the Arabian Sea. A mesh of tributaries and distributaries cover the state.

Historically, Kerala was the landing point for all those who sailed from across the Arabian Sea, making it a cultural and religious melting pot. Apostle St. Thomas sailed to the coast a couple of decades after Christ's Crucifixion, and his followers were among the earliest Christians in the world. He is said to have landed near the present-day Kodungallur, the town in which one of the earliest mosques was built in the country. Buddhism, Jainism and Judaism were also practiced in Kerala.

In the mid-1990s, the Kerala Tourism Department started marketing this beautiful and rich land as "God's own country." As a journalist, I listened to officials talking about packaging and promoting the state to the discerning global traveler. They were right - Kerala is known across the world today.

However, the strongest ambassadors for the state have always been those who traveled out in search of employment. Good education and paucity of opportunities were the push factors. One fine day, early in his life, my father caught a train to Mumbai. He returned only when he retired from active service decades later. My wife's father sailed to Malaysia, carrying his hopes and a steel trunk. A generation later in 1987, my friends saw me off in a train out of Kerala.

Raji and I were on a tourist coach in Dubai in the summer of 2009. We were driving into Palm Jumeirah. The Pakistani guide was talking about the engineering adventure, and how it had attracted the rich and the famous from across the world. He mentioned something about Shahrukh Khan. We overtook an Ashok Leyland bus with windows open. The workers inside looked mostly Malayalis.

Maveli, my King, this Onam please give joy to them, and to all of us staying inside and outside your kingdom.


  1. ഗോപിയേട്ടാ, ഒറ്റവാക്കില്‍ “രസകരം”. അവസാനം മാവേലി കുഴഞ്ഞ്ഞ്ഞു പോകുന്ന വരമാണ് ചോദിച്ചതെങ്കിലും, കഴിഞ്ഞ്ഞ്ഞു പോയ ഒരുപാട് നല്ല ഓണ നാളുകളിലേക്ക് ഒരു കൂട്ടിക്കൊണ്ടു പോകലായിരുന്നു ഈ ഓര്‍മ്മകള്‍. തൃക്കാക്കരപ്പനും കുമ്മാട്ടിക്കളിയും പൂക്കളം ഇടലും ഒക്കെ തികച്ചും ഗൃഹാതുരത്വം ഉണര്‍ത്തുന്ന ഓര്‍മ്മകളായി മാറാന്‍ അധികം കാലം ഇല്ലെന്നല്ല, ഇപ്പോള്‍ തന്നെ മാറി കഴിഞ്ഞു. ഇതെല്ലാം പുസ്തകത്തിലോ അല്ലെങ്കില്‍ മനോരമ പോലുള്ള പ്രസ്ഥാനങ്ങള്‍ കുട്ടികള്‍ക്ക്‌ വേണ്ടി ഇറക്കുന്ന സിഡികളില്‍ മാത്രമോ ഒതുങ്ങി പോവുകയാണ്. ഇന്ന്‍ “ഈ ഓണം ഏഷ്യാനെറ്റിനോപ്പം” അല്ലെങ്കില്‍ “സൂര്യയ്ക്കൊപ്പം” തുടങ്ങി എല്ലാ ചാനലുകള്‍ക്കും ഒപ്പം പങ്ക് വയ്ക്കണം. ഒരിക്കലും കേള്‍ക്കാത്ത തല്ലിപ്പൊളി സിനിമകളെ ബ്ലോക്ക്‌ ബസ്റ്റര്‍ ചിത്രമെന്ന പേരിട്ടു സാറ്റലൈറ്റ്‌ റൈറ്റിന്റ മുതലെടുപ്പിന് വേണ്ടി ഇറക്കുന്ന പെക്കൂത്തുകള്‍ക്കും ഇത് പോലുള്ള നല്ല ദിവസങ്ങളില്‍ കൂട്ട് നില്‍ക്കണം. എന്നിരുന്നാലും ആ പഴയ ഓണം നമുക്കിന്നും ഓര്‍മ്മകളില്‍ എങ്കിലും ഉണ്ട്. തല കുനിച്ച് നില്‍ക്കുന്ന മാവേലിയുടെ തലയില്‍ കാല്‍ വച്ച് നില്‍ക്കുന്ന “വില്ലന്‍” വാമനന്റെ ചിത്രം മാത്രമല്ലാതെ, അത് “കഴിഞ്ഞു പോയ ഒരു നല്ല നാളിന്റെ ഓര്‍മ്മയാണ്” എന്ന് നമ്മുടെ കുട്ടികളെ പറഞ്ഞു മനസ്സിലാക്കണം എങ്കില്‍ ആ ദിവസം അതേ പരിശുദ്ധിയോടും ഉണര്വ്വോടും കൂടെ ആഘോഷിക്കാന്‍ കഴിയണം. തീര്‍ച്ചയായും നമുക്കതിനു കഴിയും. കഴിയട്ടെ. ഒരിക്കല്‍ കൂടി ഹൃദയം നിറഞ്ഞ ഓണാശംസകള്‍.

  2. Gopi, your blog is perfect for an immigrant Malayalee. BTW St. Thomas landed in Kodungallur or Chavakkad? Finally how was your Onam? My beleted greetings to you and your family

  3. Thank you Kazhcha for the wonderful comments.

    Saji: Historical records say that St. Thomas landed in Kodungallur, and then went to Palayoor near Guruvayur. And that should be correct, since Kodungallur had an ancient port of Muchiri (Muziris), which had boats sailing into it from at least 2,500 years before present.