Friday, 16 March 2012

Selling dreams in God's Own Country

A hoarding on a highway has to be bold, strategically located and has to have a quick-to-read message. That hoarding along the highway in Kerala had all three qualities. "Take a quick gold loan for your child's school admission," it said in bold type. At the bottom was the name of the company offering the facility.

I thought I had read wrong. I confirmed from Raji. She confirmed from me.

For us - born in the 1960s and schooled in the 1970s - the message did not gel. Access to education was every child's right and pawning the family gold was the last resort for any parent.

Neither is Kerala going through an economic depression nor is there a shortage of low-cost schools. Obviously there are parents who would stretch beyond their means to admit their child in an expensive private school. The hoarding was meant to attract them.

One evening in 1987, I had got into the cushion-less Kochi-Hyderabad compartment attached to the Chennai express and left the state to earn a living. I continue to return on holidays and to handle family emergencies. Kerala has surprised me every time I return.

Riding a bus between Thrissur and Thriprayar, I noticed posters on flex fabric in many bus stops announcing that a student from their community had reached a certain stage in a television program competition. Congratulations! TV channels are many and so are reality shows, competitive rounds, winners and advertisers.

Together they weave a dream that is Kerala. While the tourism department sells the dream of God's own country, the advertisers sell dreams to God's own children.

Kerala has three kinds of consumerism. The first is spawned by those who live in the state and have gained in affluence with the economic liberalization. The second is by those who live on remittances from abroad. And the third is by those who come to the city on holidays or pass through as tourists.

I have seen in faraway Cotonou in Benin, West Africa, Malayalis toiling to send money to their families. They choose to live a frugal life to send that extra dollar; somebody back home uses that money to buy the branded shirt.

Consumerism drives economies. But for it to be sustainable it is better if the money used for buying the goods and services is also generated from within the region. Remittance-based consumerism unfortunately plays the most significant role in Kerala.

The Malayali in Cotonou, like many of his counterparts in Dubai, Riyadh and Singapore, sends home eight out of the ten dollars he earns. The Malayali doctor in the USA spends one dollar out of his 10 during his holiday in Kumarakom and represents one out of 10 non-resident Malayalis. The doctor guides the discussions at the Parvasi Divas functions.

Kerala's consumerism is mostly disembodied. The ones spending usually do not know the tears and sweat of their fathers, brothers and children working under the desert sun to send the money home. 

Riding the Thrissur-Thriprayar bus, I noticed more than half-a-dozen young men speaking Bengali across seats. Presumably they were traveling to take up assignment in a restaurant as waiters, cooks and cleaners. An indication of microcosmic globalization - Kerala is drawing cheaper labor from other parts of the country. I wonder what happened to the Malayalis whose jobs were replaced. 

Job insecurity in Kerala is not something that my generation can understand. Getting a job in the state was next to impossible in my time. Otherwise I would not have caught the train traveling north from Thrissur station. But getting a job and losing it was improbable then. The trade unions would not have permitted that (even though their alacrity would have forced many a companies to shut shop). 

Forget not having money, even the threat of not having money can be disastrous in Kerala. You cannot keep your poverty to yourself. What do you tell your neighbors? How would you buy the gifts for weddings, childbirths, birthdays, Christmas, etc., etc.? Even if you are poor you cannot be seen to be poor.

Raji often recounts memories from her tharvad where extra rice was cooked for every meal to serve the wandering mendicant. These ancestral homes, where the joint family lived, do not exist anymore. Along with them vanished the social security for the poor and the needy, within the family and outside.

Little wonder that Kerala has the most established system of lottery ticket sales and prize draws. The population density of lottery-ticket vendors increases closer to a place of worship. 

The demands are many, and the resources not always unlimited. Even if not for the school admission, the gold loan will come in handy for buying clothes for the child participating in the reality show.


  1. Pigo, liked your article. I am reminded of one of my favorite books of all time, "The Affluent Society", by Galbraith. I liked your assertion that the density of lottery ticket vendors increases closer to a place of worship. Somehow, this makes sense. Prayers to have the gods of fortune smile are about as likely as winning a lottery ticket I suppose!

  2. Come dusk time, the menfolk drown their sorrows and sprout their dreams with the panacea dispensed by the Beverages Corporation, the womenfolk discover their joy in weeping with the heroines in the tear-jerker serials and life moves on........

  3. Nice one Gopi. Having lost a job, I liked " I wonder what happened to the Malayalis whose jobs were replaced" ... The Malayalis went outside Kerala in search of a job, while people from other states moved to Kerala for a job :) We know how Railways makes their money :)

  4. Good One Gopi, you have brought out the thoughts that crosses our minds when we visit Kerala on vacations and see those hoardings.

    I have always wondered why the malu who does all kinds of jobs across the globe refuses to do that in Kerala .....the "tharavadu" pride I guess.

    Educating once child has become an obsession for us parents and is top most priority. Planning for a child’s future takes precedence over all other activities. The institution where your child studies has become a status symbol .the merc is beyond most of us ... with the money availability in the market I guess we are bound to see such a hoarding