'India's Son' - and Other Pieces
PHILISTINES IN KERALA
Thanks to Capt. Vishnu, I read a recent article in The Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/on-a-mission-to-preserve-jewish-monuments-in-mala/article5467292.ece) on the efforts of some history and heritage conscious people of the small town of Mala in central Kerala to preserve remnants of a Jewish settlement that had flourished there for many centuries.
According to the contract signed before the Jews left for Israel in 1955, the responsibility for preserving (their) historic monuments, including the Jewish synagogue and the cemetery, belongs to Mala panchayat:
The article adds quoting several concerned locals:
… The panchayat should maintain the monuments using their own funds. The monuments should be protected within a compound wall and gate. Boards should be set up. The land should not be used for any other purpose. These were the main conditions of the contract…. (Over the years,) there have been frequent encroachments and attacks on the monuments….. The synagogue first became a school and then a community hall. A shopping complex came up on the northern side of the synagogue. The compound wall was demolished. Later, three-fourths of the cemetery became the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium…. Now they are planning to transform the stadium into the 'K. Karunakaran Sports Academy'. Of the 30-odd graves in the cemetery only three remain….
Dictionaries define a ‘philistine’ as someone guided by materialism and who is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. History mentions Philistines (with an upper case P), an ancient middle-eastern people. They appear in Biblical stories as implacable enemies and tormentors of Jews. “Were the Philistines Greek (immigrants to the Levant)?” Martin Bernal of ‘Black Athena’ fame had speculated. Whatever be the answer to Bernal’s question, one can confidently say: “Philistines may or may not have been Greek, but many of us in Kerala ARE - in both ways! (ie, we are a philistine people who can even act like Philistines)”
MAHARAJA'S AND 'RAMAVARMA'
The Maharaja’s College, situated in the heart of Cochin is a curious place. Set up by the former Royals of Cochin state in the late 19th century and known to have had rooms and facilities earmarked 'for Princes’ and stuff in more feudal times, the institution evolved over several decades into a State-run hotbed of student activism (ranging from left-oriented intellectualism to outright goondaism) and alma mater and workplace to several leading cultural figures and political rabblerousers. I never studied at Maharaja's but I have heard and read so much about the place that one is acutely aware of the sheer range of activities and opinions it has generated and nurtured. Even more tellingly, I got to see this bewildering range in the persona of a single member of its faculty many years ago: considered a very promising academic in his twenties, the fellow had, by the age of 30 or so, become BOTH of the following in equal measure: energetic rationalist - science popularizer and the most rabidly communal-minded scumbag I have ever seen.
The other day, I was walking past the Men’s hostel of this college - named ‘Ramavarma Hostel’(*). A youngster accosted me with a jingling tin and asked for money to help the inmates of the hostel celebrate their annual day.
I was not in a very generous mood: “Sorry, I am just a passer-by. I did not study here and I don’t have much money on me!”
But he was persistent: “Look at our building Chettaa! Weeds sprouting from the walls, trees growing in toilets, windows not only lack panes, but their very frames have been wrenched out, the ugly graffiti … no one cares about us. Please help us with any money you can spare!”
Here is a very recent story that got to me by word of mouth.
A certain guy from a traditionally high caste but very poor family joined the army. He was absorbed as a tradesman and was asked to train and work as a barber. Desperate for a means of livelihood, he took up the job without giving details to anyone at home. He actually liked the work and became quite skilled at it and popular among the men in his regiment. Years passed and he got married and had children but he never brought his family to his workplace and never ever told them the precise nature of his profession except “I am with the Indian army”. He knew there could be big trouble if people found out.
Finally, he retired and was given a fond farewell by his colleagues. Among the gifts he was given were several commendations and certificates. But alas, when he got back home, these certificates revealed to someone in the family that he had spent half a life shaving people of all kinds of castes. His outraged family – children and all - turned him out and his village ostracised him. Not having anywhere to go, the barber went back to his regiment and begged for some position but the rules would not allow him to be reabsorbed in any capacity….. Well, long story short, the hapless fellow took his life.
There were many who objected to BBC's ‘India’s Daughter’: “...as if only Indian men want to keep women locked up at home and only Indian men rape women who venture out after sundown!”. While I am convinced the documentary brings a message that ought to be taken very seriously by each one of us and strongly feel that any attempt to bring in National pride into any discussion of the horrendous Nirbhaya episode ought to be summarily condemned, I also feel that the documentary’s India-specific focus is in keeping with BBC's perennial anti-India slant - it does show a truly global problem as something very Indian. But, just as Nirbhaya’s tragedy could have happened almost everywhere on this benighted planet, the barber’s story is a very Indian one – for hardly any other country has such a long and horrible record of marginalizing and oppressing its own people on the basis of their profession.
Bits of Desi History:
A couple of years back, I wrote a few posts here about the history of Dutch involvement in Kerala and how scanty traces of their presence have become (a remark therein touched upon the absence of Dutch surnames, as opposed to Portuguese or even Brit surnames, among Kerala’s Eurasians - "We have no Burghers!");
The other day, a Mal newspaper article mentioned the Isaacs-es, a Cochin family from which hail several gifted musicians. Apparently, ‘Isaacs’ is an originally Dutch Jewish surname; the article speculates that some Dutch Jewish migrants from that clan might have settled down in these parts for good and gotten absorbed into Christianity – but somehow retained their original surname.
Quite a long time ago, I had written here about how ancient and medieval Kerala’s interaction with Chinese has again not left enough in our folk memory. Y’day, I read a bit of speculation that the name ‘Thangasseri’, the present day coastal settlement that was once the site of Kollam port, could have derived from the ‘junk’, the name of a class of Chinese ships; ie, Thangasseri could have been ‘Chuan-cheri’, the cheri (neighbourhood) where ‘chuans’ (the Chinese name for junks) berthed. Conceivable, if viewed with the theory that Chinnakkada, the commercial heart of Kollam derived from ‘Cheena-kada’. The replacement of the initial consonant ‘ch’ with ‘th’ and the ‘n’with ‘ng’ do not look far-fetched.
However, I still tend to believe that the etymology of Thangasseri is Desi Christian rather than Chinese (am too tired now to give reasons!).
(*) Probably, many more Maharajas of Cochin have been named Ramavarma than French kings were named Louis or Popes were named John. I don’t know which Ramavarma was the eponym of the hostel.