COMMUNISM, JEWS & A FORT: MORE FROM GOD’S OWN COUNTRY

Musings during a road trip, NOT based on any thorough research, and written with some help from Wikipedia! (Read it at your own risk)

In a dimly lit room, three boys seem to be having a discussion. With Che Guevara looking over them, and the communist symbol of the sickle and the hammer on the adjacent wall, the deliberations could well be on the upcoming assembly elections in the state. The red walls and the communist flags around the room is a reminder of the political ideology that has shaped and guided the history and politics of the state over the years. Decades ago, Kerala became the first state to democratically elect a communist government. Nurtured by leaders like P.Krishnapillai, E.M.S.Namboodiripad and A.K.Gopalan, the ideology took germ during India’s struggle for independence and evolved in secrecy as Nationalist leaders struggled for freedom from the British yoke.

During my political science lectures in college, our professors spoke of the red might in Kerala and the many progresses that the state made, with cent present literacy as being the most admirable. More than its tea estates, backwaters and national parks, it was the political ethos of the state that caught my attention and ,therefore, a road trip with friends came as a good opportunity to explore a state, claiming to be God’s own.

As one drives along the Western Ghats in Kerala, Communist flags dominate the terrain as much as its dense tropical forests. It does come as a surprise that this is the same party that declared its establishment with tar writings on the wall and was termed as a banned outfit in the pre-independence era. Marx and Lenin found acceptance amongst the workers and farmers of Kerala and the party was designated as a legal political body only in 1942. Comrades worked in far corners of the state, mobilizing many peasant movements and also assisting the down trodden to get their due share in the society. Post independence, the mergence of the states of Travancore, Cochin and parts of Malabar to form a unified state of Kerala, gave the state a new political structure. A structure, in which the Congress had to make way for a 11 member ministry, comprising of men, known for their most impeccable intellectualism and committed to the ideology of the hammer and the sickle. In the wake of the first communist ‘ballot box’ victory, a struggle against the regimented Hindu caste system, monarchial autocracies and exploitative landlordism began to take shape in the state. A simultaneous development in the literary sphere followed, with library and literacy movements, led largely by school teachers, gaining momentum. It is perhaps these series of reforms that has helped Kerala achieve success across varied sectors, primarily health, education and economy (Information once again sourced from my political science lectures in college!) The year 2011 marked the end of the communist regime. The red flag that fluttered for many years was buried by Kerala’s educated citizenry, half of which owes its riches and success to years of hard work in the Gulf.

Amidst the colorful flora of the Western Ghats, a dominant red always makes an appearance, either as flags on the highway, posters in the many tea shops, or in the form of little temples built in the memory of comrades who dedicated their life to the communist cause. In the narrow alleys of Kochi, the red displays a sense of confidence, a resurgence in the making. Are the Communist set to make a comeback this year? Will the citizens of Kerala, give this historic party another chance? Will the hammer and the sickle once again govern the state? I wish I had enough time to gauge the political mood in the state. However, my political observations, were more often than not replaced by the many distractions our road trip had to offer: tasting local cuisine, getting wooed by the, sometimes monotonous, tea estates and, of course, endless efforts to spot at least one elephant, if not a parade.

I will, for now, let the three boys in the dimly lit room discuss the return of the red brigade. While Che’s iconic portrait in the room and the communist symbol, makes for an interesting composition, hard for a photographer to resist, it is however, the architecture of the building that stands out, a glaring symbol of Kerala’s multi cultural history. Located in Fort Kochi, the building brings together European and indigenous forms of architecture. A similar blending of architectural forms is seen in the spice godowns, built along the waterfront. Now abandoned or converted into art galleries, restaurants or cafes, these many spice godowns are scattered across Fort Kochi and speak of the island as being a centre of economy and industry.

Getting off the boat jetty at Fort Kochi, one is  welcomed by a line of colonial style houses. As the name suggests, you would, quite naturally, expect a line of rampart walls merging into a façade. However, the sightings of a fort further dims, as you’re surrounded by an array of foreign tourist, locals, children’s park, a beach, and some Chinese fishing nets. But where is the Fort, I ask? My rather sketchy historical research (forgive me for my Wikipedia indulgences this time!) tells me that there was once a Fort Emmanuel built by the Portuguese, after their victory over the Raja of Kochi. It was later destroyed by the Dutch. As the walls of the fort were being pulled down by the Dutch, the Fort was to be remembered only in name. Being a domain of largely European powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British, Fort Kochi once bustled with Arab, Chinese and local traders, the intermingling of cultures imparting this water bound region a unique ethos, akin to many coastal towns and cities in India.

Not far from the Portuguese Catholic Church of St. Francis (Vasco Da Gama was once buried here) located in Fort Kochi, is the Jewish Colony of Mattancherry. The Jewish symbols of the Star of David, the Menorahs and the Mezuzahs, writings in Hebrew, make slight appearances in an area dominated by Kashmiri shopkeepers. After politely nodding away to the many Kashmiri shopkeepers, urging you to buy a Pashmina, the appearance of a synagogue brings order to my, by now, rather distorted historical imagination. A sense of semblance is restored as I think of the Jewish presence in India, their history stretching back to the time of King Solomon. Arriving as traders, the community flourished in this part of Kerala and were known as the Paradesi Jews. With only a few Paradesi Jews remaining now, the historian in me awakens and I wish to indulge in a detailed research of the community, in a dusty archive, far away from the online comforts offered by Wikipedia and the likes. However, once again I settle, instead, for some beer and snacks at the Sea Gull’s and an evening out with friends, now rounding off their ten day road trip.

As we recollect our good times spent in the hills and a houseboat, I am reminded of a time in Munnar where a hotel offered the view of a Mosque, built in close proximity to a Church and a Hindu temple. I am later told that it is this religious harmony that has made Kerala God’s own. However, this road trip came as a revelation of sorts. A revelation, which impels me to understand Kerala, beyond it’s recognition as being God’s own country. That varied religions co-exist in peace in a tiny strip of land, is indeed commendable. It is, however, the state’s political nature, its history and multi culturism that gives it a distinctive character.

Perhaps, another road trip is in the pipeline. One, which explores the rise of an alternative political ideology, traces the history of a fort that no longer exists, and hurriedly documents a diminishing community. Only this time, my co-travellers would be EMS Namboodripad’s Kerala: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a notebook and a pen!