Histories, and a peculiar bus ride

When I saw what was inside the Godrej almari I wished I was a historian. Admission records, transfer records, Secondary School Leaving Certificate copies, moth eaten and scattered. But these are only from the 1960s. What about the earlier records? The centenary memorial gate records that the school was established in 1871. A chalk note “Established 1871” adorns another Godrej almari. Unfortunately, records are routinely destroyed for lack of space and no records from the 1800s now survive at this, one of the oldest schools in the district. The records that do exist here are from 1929, where a neat hand records in Malayalam the name of the student, father’s name, address, occupation, and year of enrollment (in Malayalam year), among other details. The occupations: land owner, master of the house, business, PWD clerk, government servant, and day labourer (krishi, gruha bharanam, kachchavadam, and koolippani) This record is from Malayalam year 99, which is remembered as the year of the great flood (thonnuttombathile pralayam). If these books and stones could talk what stories would they tell?

Historical studies like the ones by Chentharassery (translated into English and complied by Susie Tharu and K. Satyanarayanan in No Alphabet in Sight) talk about the Government order in 1904 that decreed that schools be opened to the lower castes. But, “this was a demand that the caste Hindus could hardly be expected to put up with. They resisted with all their might…. Their children could not sit in the same classroom as the untouchables. Abomination! Pollution! Insubordination! … The few untouchables who got admission to schools were subjected to severe mental and physical torture. … When they entered the classroom, the upper caste children went out of the other door to flee from pollution” (pp. 381-385). Moreover, the slogan of the first labour strike in Kerala (1907-1908) was: “If you don’t admit our children to schools, your lands will lie fallow and grow weeds” (p. 382). While the lower castes won the right to enroll in schools in due course, the elites and middle classes gradually fled these schools to newly opened private schools. As a teacher recounts in the recent documentary film “Twinkle, twinkle, little caste” untouchability never really went away.

A peculiar bus ride, and some migration stories
I was on my way to the office of the District Education Officer and suddenly, out of nowhere, the bus I was travelling in was filled with young men speaking languages I could not understand. Where did they come from? Where were they going? The bus conductor ordered them around so rudely that I looked around in astonishment. (Angottu mari nikkeda as opposed to the usual, mone, onnangtu onnu neengikke). The bus sped past paddy fields, and two-storied Gulf and American houses, and a few stops further, it emptied out completely. The men disappeared into small bylanes.

At Penn I am part of a long term ethnographic project that works with Spanish speaking migrant labourers who come to the US for work. They too come speaking a strange language, alone, without families, and often work for much less than the official wage.

Soon after, I read the much talked about novel Aadujivitham, another migration story, this time of a Malayali who goes to the Gulf to work in a construction company but ends up working as a shepherd for an Arab. His solitary, inhuman, goat-like existence is described in painful detail as is the desert crossing when he finally runs away from his master. Najeeb’s desert crossing in Aadujivitham is so similar to the desert crossing stories I have heard from Mexican immigrants at Norristown, Philadelphia.

And then, I went to meet a lady from my mothers prayer group who had just come back from the Gulf. She had gone to work as a domestic help with hopes of making enough money to educate her two children and to buy the land on which their house stands. Taken on a tourist visa of 60 days she was expected to stay a year at her own risk, and when she insisted on being sent back they refused to pay for her ticket. Finally, they did but they did not pay her wages for her two months of work. Leaving on the 61st day, she was charged with a day’s overstay and asked to pay a fine of 200 dinars, and threatened jail if she did not pay up. Thankfully, her “sponsor” paid up and she was able to come back home safely. But the trauma she went through in those two months still flows freely in profuse tears. Fact, fiction, Philadelphia, Thengana, so far away, but so similar!


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About leyamathew

Penn GSE, CASI Summer in Kerala 2012