Kerala’s vibrant heritage and ecology failed to impress me as a child. I never liked going there, usually driving down in our cramped Maruti 800, forced to acknowledge the beauty of the Western Ghats or else. My only thoughts were when do we reach, and after we get there, when do we get back home? It was hot, the well water tasted funny and the ancestral cottage was home to every exotic critter: pointy millipedes, great big pregnant spiders, neon caterpillars, vicious red ants, fuzzy moths and house lizards that had fattened up on them.
The middle room, the one that my cousins claimed was haunted because it had once housed a dead body, was occupied by Kalama, the housekeeper who was too old to perform any duties but still shouted instructions from her bed. The electricity would go out at 7 p.m. every day and we would light candles, then we would wait for the whizz and snap of a kamikaze hoard of beetles to come through the windows and hit us like hailstones. The ones that didn’t die underfoot crawled under your shirt and stayed with their legs firmly hooked though the cloth. If you wanted to make sure you were sleeping alone, you had to turn over the sheets to examine them first. If you wanted to wee in the middle of the night, the toad from the garden, who was a regular night time visitor to the bathroom, would croak at you like a melancholic drunk. The red ants made a meal of you even if you were minding your own business. The people shook their heads at my lack of knowledge of my native tongue and well, general lack of, and stared at us everywhere we went like we were prize zoo animals. I was repulsed by Kerala and the lush, uncontrolled natural life that spilt into the sacred confines of the home.
What I didn’t know then, and would have been the least bit impressed by, was that the plump red rice we ate came from our own fields, that our ancestors had been farmers, and that every harvest my grandma would be cooking vats of food for the hired field hands after they’d returned from the fields. I didn’t know that the rabbits I made friends with were destined for curry, that the fried chicken on the table came from our hen coop, and the eggs we ate came from the train of emerald-necked ducks that waddled around happily with their ducklings. Coconuts fell from the sky and so did a variety of ripe mangoes. I also failed to be affected by the fact that we literally cooked food over a fire using coconut husks as fuel—everything my hippie ass would be just fascinated by, had I lived there now.
My last couple of visits were not as bad as I’d anticipated. I decided to keep an open mind while visiting a different set of relatives who still lived off the land and were very happy to see me, despite my complete lack of comprehension as to what they were saying. I was thoroughly enchanted by the small home business one of my aunts owned, the industrious use of everything that grew there, the uncle peeling nutmegs in the garden, the cow in the backyard and the compost pit where we threw our leftovers after eating on banana leaves, from the turmeric plant to the pepper creeper to the exotic fruits brought in from South East Asia that grew cheerfully in Kerala weather. This summer I came home with a treasured haul of mangoes, organic turmeric, pulli (‘sour’), organic pepper, and organic coconut oil from the backyards of various aunts and uncles. We had even been convinced to carry some eggs with us, no surprise to the airport authorities, who are used to passengers trying get through all manner of odd things out of the state.
So let’s say, from my personal observation, Keralites have managed to stick to the old ways despite the influx of multinationals and haven’t completely sacrificed their ecology for the sake of progress. The post-flood analysis says differently, and there are several pockets of poisoned groundwater due to the overuse of pesticides that the state has addressed multiple times, but have come to no concrete application despite the attempt to ban 20 known toxic pesticides several years ago.
And just look at what the Malayattoor river turned up after the flood:
Let’s say a major win was kicking out Cola-Cola, a supreme effort on the part of the tribals of Plachimada, Palakkad being known as the rice bowl of Kerala, in a protracted legal battle that took up to 12 years. If they actually had to pay for the ecological damage that they caused, business wouldn’t be as profitable and cola not so cheap. I speak from the pov of ancient respect for land and staple food sources: the water in the paddy fields, as my dad told me, is never to be touched. They touched it. Pepsico, hopefully, would be next.
But what about the rest? Let us consider the hydel power project in Athirapally which required the clearance of several hectares of forest but which is neither economically nor ecologically viable. Progress isn’t any good if the eventual costs are too high. We have less than 12 years to act on climate change, and what’s sad is we’ve had the means within our hands for several years.
The capitalists meanwhile, the uber-rich, the ones who have us convinced that it’s all good, are planning an escape hatch to sky and I’m imagining a scene from A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of my favourite sci-fi novels, or possibly every disaster movie that predicted that a patriarchal hegemony that loves war, thrives on the accumulation of wealth and hates the planet, plans to leave us all behind.
I think about those pesky lizards, the neon caterpillars and melancholic toads thirty years ago that were perhaps the signs of a healthy planet and I think of me, repelled by it yet concerned about its possible, eventual demise, and wonder what’s in store for all of us.