Sunday, 13 October 2013

The new Malayali

We were meeting Shiv and Maya for the first time in Kochi. More than a decade ago, we had met them in Bhubaneswar. Raji, Varun and I were travelling the Puri-Konarak-Bhubaneswar triangle then and had stayed with them for a couple of days.

Maya mentioned that Odisha had followed them to Kochi. Their gardener was an Odiya. Having migrated a year ago, the man had done well for himself. Shiv and Maya had a small patch of garden around their house and they felt professional support was needed to maintain it. The gardener had moved from Odisha to Kerala since he earned many times more than what he did back home. He bought a scooter, got two cell phones and sent his wife home by flight for her delivery.

“This is his Dubai,” Maya observed. The Dubai analogy was not lost on the Malayali in me.
Having captured the clientele over the past months the gardener had learnt the tricks of the trade, Maya said. He never refused an assignment, but did not always show up for work at the time committed. The day we met them, Shiv and Maya had wasted the forenoon waiting for the gardener.

There is nothing new with migration into Kerala. Tamil construction workers have been crossing the state border to support the Gulf-money-fuelled construction boom in Kerala. However, the migration into Kerala in the recent years is unprecedented. It draws its force from the increased outflow of skilled and semi-skilled labour from the state.

Denizens of Kerala have crossed the state boundaries in search of employment for generations. Good education and paucity of opportunities in the thin strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea has sent youngsters out in search of employment. In 1987, I boarded the cushion-less Kochi-Hyderabad compartment in Chennai Express and left. A generation earlier, my father got into a train travelling to Mumbai and from there on to central India and returned to settle in Thrissur only after he retired more than three decades later. My father-in-law boarded a ship to Malaysia with his hopes and a steel trunk.

The migration survey for 2011 by K.C. Zackariah  and S. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS)[i] at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, states that 2.28 million from the state were living outside the country. This was an increase of 4.10% from the figure of 2.19 million registered in 2008, when the last such survey was carried out.

To which countries did the Keralites go? These figures draw no surprise. The Gulf region, comprising the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and other parts of West Asia, drew 89.4% of those migrating. The United States attracted 3%, Canada 0.4%, United Kingdom 2% and other European countries together 0.5%. Nearer home, Malaysia attracted 0.6%, Singapore 0.5%, Maldives 0.3%, and other South-East Asian countries together 0.7%. Australia and New Zealand attracted 1.1%. The large, wide continent of Africa attracted 0.6% and the countries not listed above together attracted another 1.1%.

One fact is clear – there is almost no place in the world where there are no Keralites. Even in Cotonou in Benin, West Africa, where I worked for 30 months, there were enough Malayalis to organise a full-fledged Onam sadya (feast). I had heard of similar communities in Lome in Togo and Accra in Ghana. Lagos, the metropolis in neighbouring Nigeria, has had Malayalis for generations.
There are also other migrants, who though have not gone abroad have moved to other Indian states in 2011.  The CDS study calculates that 931,000 Keralites lived in other states of India in 2011. This is a marginal increase from 914,000 in 2008.

There has been a reduction in the growth rate of people migrating to the Gulf in the first decade of this century. The growth between 2008 and 2011 is 4.96%. When this is annualised, the growth rate is 1.65%. Between 2003 and 2008 the annualised growth rate was 3.72% and 5.60% between 1998 and 2003.

According to the CDS experts, it was in the recent years that factors in the supply side affected the flow of labour from Kerala to the Gulf countries. Till now, the figures were dependent on the demand side dynamics. One of the reasons for this is that demographically the percentage of young people in the population (between 20 and 40 years) has reduced.

The second reason is that the gap in the economic benefit between working in the Gulf and in Kerala had reduced for the lower-income occupations, which constitute the stronger proportion among emigrants to the Gulf region. The survey states:

A second factor determining the emigration trend from Kerala is the wage levels in Kerala vis à vis that in the Gulf. The average wage among unskilled workers in Kerala has increased from Rs.150 to over Rs. 450 during the first decade of this century. The corresponding wage in the Gulf did not increase as fast as it did in Kerala. It could have even decreased during the depression years. Wage differentials among the unskilled labourers between Kerala and the Gulf have narrowed down considerably in the last decade. At the same time, the cost of emigration from Kerala has increased considerably. As a result, the financial benefits accruing from emigration have decreased very much.
The just concluded Centre for Development Studies survey of 1000 unskilled workers in the United Arab Emirates indicated an average monthly wage of Rs.11,869. Unskilled workers could earn more or less the same amount of money in Kerala as they could do in the Gulf.

According to the 2011 census, Kerala’s population is estimated as 33.387 million. The total number of people who have moved out of the state (abroad and in other states of the country) is 3.21 million. That is 9.61% of the population in the state. If this proportion were to remain intact, only the same percentage of each profession should have migrated out of the state. Zachariah and Rajan of CDS, however, project a different picture.

Emigration and out-migration have produced deep dents in the availability of skilled workers in the state … A large number of critical occupations in the state are severely depleted by emigration and out-migration. They include chemical engineers, fabrication workers, computer professionals, electricians, nurses, civil and electrical engineers, cooks in hotels and restaurants, and drivers and mechanics.
For example, corresponding to 100 chemical engineers in the state, there are 75 such persons among the emigrants from the state and living outside India. Similarly, corresponding to 100 persons (in the specified occupations) in the state, there are 49 fabrication workers outside, 44 computer professionals, 43 building electricians, 41 mechanical engineers, 40 child care workers, 40 crane operators, 39 nurses, 38 electric engineers, 37 barber/hair dressers, 36 civil engineers, 36 tailors, 33 cooks, 31 machinery repairing workers, 31 electricians, 30 motor vehicle mechanics, 26 plumbers and 24 motor vehicle drivers living abroad as emigrants from Kerala. The number of workers outside Kerala is 40-50 per cent of the number of such workers inside Kerala for 7 occupations, 30-40 per cent in 10 occupations, 20-30 per cent in 8 occupations, and 10-20 per cent in 21 occupations. These statistics provide a general picture of what the state is paying for the Rs 50,000 crores that it is receiving by way of remittances each year.

Kerala’s links with the other states and foreign countries through outflow and inflow of people has changed qualitatively in the past decade. As the son of parents who were working outside Kerala, I have seen the profile of those who lived outside and came to the state on holidays as a child. As a university student studying in Thrissur, I saw and met diaspora children. Then, in 1987, I joined the diaspora, returning to the state only on holidays.

Try reserving a berth or seat in a train, bus or flight connecting a Kerala city or town with Chennai or Bengaluru and you will feel the difference. In the 1990s, we were living in Chennai when my son Varun was a school student. Those days we knew that it was difficult to get train reservation during holidays, but the rest of the year it was relatively easier. Today getting reservation is next to impossible almost throughout the year.

You drive on the National Highway 47 linking the state with the outside world through the Palghat Pass, there are enough cars travelling in and out every day of the week. Ditto on the roads traversing the Waynad Plateau or other points across the state boundary. There is a steady stream of people going in and out of the state all through the year. Kerala’s acculturation is consistent and constant.

The growth of the information technology and related sectors of the economy in the South Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad in the first decade of this century triggered the qualitative change in Kerala’s relation with other states. The IT boom brought a certain egalitarianism among young people in the state, that was not there two decades ago. Graduates from any college can aspire for an entry into the IT sector. Once inside, the young person’s talent, dedication and street-smartness can power his/her progress.

The situation was not so optimistic in the 1980s when I studied for my bachelor’s and master’s in Thrissur. Educated youth were many and opportunities few. Only the best from the best colleges could hope to be selected. We did not have the same sense of purpose that the youngsters have today. Reliable opportunities combined with the social and economic upward mobility that employment provides, has given a sense of identity to the Malayali.

There is a return to the roots to Kerala culture in today’s young population. Contrast this to a generation earlier, when I was growing up in that part of Madhya Pradesh that has now become Chhattisgarh. Those days, while travelling to Kerala on holidays we met co-travelling families in the train who prided in proclaiming that their children did not know Malayalam. Years later, while studying for university in Thrissur, we met a few students who claimed hesitantly “Enikku Malayalam arriyam” (I know Malayalam). Unfortunately their untrained tongue could not lay the correct stress on the ‘rr’ in ‘arriyam’ and the end result could be translated to “I can slice Malayalam.” We laughed. But at least it was becoming less shameful for diaspora children to state that they knew their native tongue.

A few months ago, Raji and I were sitting on the amphitheatre steps in the Shirdi temple complex in Maharashtra. We were waiting for the evening arati to start. On the step behind us was a man and two women, all in their late 20s. They spoke Hindi and Malayalam amongst themselves. Both languages were handled with equal deftness, with the accent of the native. Obviously they were children from families that had settled outside Kerala during their parents’ time, but had chosen to speak Malayalam at home. Young people today love to tell the world that they can speak Malayalam, and they can speak it well.

A community’s ability to speak its language correctly is an indicator of its respect for its own identity. In the recent decades the Malayali is not only not shameful of his identity, but has shouted about it from the rooftops. Just look at the number of ‘Mallu’ jokes that are moving through cyberspace. Today, perhaps in sheer numbers the Mallu jokes circulating are more than Sardar jokes. The virtues of coconut oil, banana chips, lungi and mundu (worn “half mast” or “full mast”) have been extolled in a video that went viral on YouTube. No, this video was not been made by any Rocky or Vicky to make fun of the Malayalis, but by Kerala’s own Chacko cousins.

Satellite television channels have linked the Malayali diaspora across the globe in no way that it could have done a generation ago. In my childhood, I watched my father tune his Marconi-valve radio to catch the half hour of Malayalam music from Radio Ceylon once a week. In 2011, even in the far away Cotonou in Benin, I could have followed the progress of the competitions on Idea Star Singer if I had subscribed to the right satellite channel.

Idea Star Singer (and the programmes it cloned) helped to build and strengthen the Malayali identity. It gave space on satellite time for ordinary families in and outside Kerala who had talented youngsters at home. Ranjini Haridas, the gutsy compere of the programme pioneered the space for an English-blended-Malayalam, which created the comfort space for thousands of diaspora families where children spoke this blend. In the process of daring to go public with a broken language, she found empathy with a generation of young Malayalis who wanted to own the language as theirs, but were not comfortable using it.

This comfort in language and identity is being reflected in the Malayalam cinema of the recent years. The youngsters portrayed are comfortable straddling cultures and boundaries, and building relations. Romance between two middle-aged, plain-looking, working youngsters over a dosa in Salt N’ Pepper.
The young Shahana in Ustad Hotel has no problem stepping out of her burka and perform with a rock group. Despite living in a conservative Muslim joint family, Shahana does not hesitate in telling Feyzee that she would not want to marry a man who wants to be a chef.

Feyzee’s father in the movie is the model emigrant from Kerala of the 1970s and 1980s. Hardworking and enterprising, he wants earn more for his labour. He moves to the Gulf region, does well as a businessman and wants his son to take over his empire. Instead, the son stays back in Kerala and takes over his grandfather’s biriyani restaurant. Feyzee, the new Malayali, is comfortable with his identity.

If one were to imagine the story of the movie beyond where it ends, Feyzee would expand his successful restaurant into a chain across Kerala. Beyond the group of staff members who had loyally stayed with his grandfather he finds it difficult to find local hands. The cooks, waiters and cleaners in his restaurants are from other parts of the country.

These men and women – like Shiv and Maya’s gardener – would be coming in to fill the space created by the skilled and semi-skilled labour from Kerala moving out of the state. As Malayalis return from Dubai, there are people from other parts of India who are finding Kerala their Dubai.

[i] Zachariah K.C. and Irudaya Rajan S. Migration, remittances and inequality. Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. 2012.


  1. That was a clean Analysis of our exodus. I would say Malayalis played a prominent role across the globe shaping up countries. In my early memories I have heard people moving to Ceylon (Columbu in Malayalam) Then the far east and parallel to it the Middle east and other countries. This will go on and on, for the other side of grass........ !! Good one, Gopi !!

  2. Good write up and a great analysis, must say that the Malayalee adapts to the surroundings but does always connect to his roots, this is evident from the fact that wherever there is a Malayalee you will find a store selling the Malayalee food stuff the brown boiled rice, eastern XXX powder,...... and of course the various "ma" magazines. I do agree with your guess about Feyzee’s restaurant having employees from other parts of the country, I did dine at a chain at Kochi and was surprised to see waitress from the North east ....

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  4. I was in the UAE a few months back - it is remarkable that one can get by in Malayalam almost anywhere. You can safely ask a passerby for directions in Malayalam. But not that easily in Kerala anymore. Be it a petrol pump, barber shop or a restaurant, it is hard to manage in Malayalam. Spoken Hindi classes are sprouting all over. Cinema theatres in interior Kerala are showing Bengali movies. The current influx of migrant Biharis, Odiyas and Bengalis into Kerala is as heavy as the exodus of Malayalis to the Gulf in the seventies. The vacuum these migrants fill is not merely what is created by labour emigration to the Gulf, but also due to the reluctance of the Malayali to engage in any physical labour other than standing in line for hours together under the sun in front of the Beverages Corporation outlets. While getting an agricultural labourer or a coconut climber or a domestic help in Kerala is next to impossible, the average Malayali has no qualms about complaining of unemployment which incidentally is true statistically – the rate is around 10%, higher than in Bihar, Bengal and Odisha, the main contributors of labour to Kerala!

  5. Interesting to know that I am one of the statistics in your article.

  6. Amazing analysis and thoughts on the diaspora. Can certainly relate to my own!