Speaking the last word on the theme of transforming mindsets, I would like to look at the Malayalee mindset and see what transformation is needed to make ourselves more modern, productive, and closer to universal norms of behavior. We are generally sharper in intellect, more creative and more innovative than many people. We have had the opportunity to interact with many cultures for centuries and even today we have greater global reach than many others. But the paradox is that there is much in our mindset that needs attention and correction, much in our ways that baffles others. It is said that any observation you make on India, the opposite of it will also be true and we should bear in mind that this is so also about Kerala.
The paradox is explained in a story of a bane and a boon. The bane of the Malayalees at the time of their creation was that they were dull, disorganized and lazy, although they were in an enchanting land. They complained bitterly to the Almighty, who gave them a boon that they would be perfect once they took off from Kerala and settled abroad. So we have two kinds of Malayalees, according to this tale, one that remains with the bane in Kerala, undisciplined and lazy, the other, the beneficiaries of the boon, courteous and industrious, in other lands. The story may be apocryphal, but it underlines the fact that the Malayalees are capable of changing their mindset and mend their ways to be successful outside Kerala. They are trusted and depended upon in countries from Mauritius to Malaysia, from the Gulf to the Americas. The joke in Malaysia was that the name of their airline, MAS, stood for “Malayalees Are Supreme.”
The story of the Kerala crabs is well known. They are exported in open cans, as no crab will allow another to climb up in any circumstance. We are highly individualistic, incapable of working as a team. Our superb intellect and creative energy are frittered away in internal squabbles. We are all chiefs, not Indians, as Americans would say. For a society to develop, it has to operate within which each of us has a niche. We have to learn to wait for our turn, whether we are entering an elevator or waiting to help ourselves to a buffet. We must learn from our brethren, who patiently wait in line at the beverage corporation stalls.
Social graces are generally absent in our society. We may be the only people in the world, who do not greet each other as a matter of routine. Most societies develop set phrases, to greet when they meet. Japan has a whole set of traditional expressions for every occasion to show courtesy and humility. But among us, the greeting is, at best, a smile or, at worst, a personal comment, which often shows lack of sensitivity. Gratitude is rarely expressed in Malayalam and, at best, we resort to a casual “thank you”. No Malayalam word exists even for “cheers”, though we drink Indian made foreign liquor in huge quantities. The British talk about the weather to break the ice, but we do not do it, perhaps because we have no variety in weather conditions. We need to cultivate social graces within our own society, not just outside it.
Kerala women are liberated and control the purse strings in the family, but their place is in the home. Wives are not seen or heard in public. Given a choice, we will still make them walk 30 yards behind us. True liberation will come when women are able to come out of the homes safely and occupy positions beside their men in any area of activity. Michelle Obama should be the role model for Kerala women.
Malayalees have gone global, but we remain insular in our own state and resist the winds of change. Outsiders are uncomfortable here because we tend to ignore them on social occasions after an initial introduction and resume our gossip in the vernacular. Partly, it is the inadequacy of language; partly it is lack of confidence. For a people, who have been successful abroad in various professions, we are often tongue-tied when the conversation is in English. Our students have no opportunities to speak in English, not at home, not in class, not among friends and so we remain perpetually handicapped in articulation. Finishing schools and instant English courses do not seem to have raised the general level of proficiency in English. I have seen our people, not being able to express themselves adequately even after living abroad for several years. This is more a matter of mindset, which can be changed, not a mental block. We are not poor in learning languages; we remain poor in using them.
Swami Vivekananda’s “lunatic asylum” is alive and well in Kerala even today. Religions, castes and sub-castes still divide us and the trend is to perpetuate and deepen the divisions, not to discard them. How come that education, economic development and social growth do not erase caste prejudices and practices? Caste, which was once a tool to protect the social fabric and to foster traditional professions, appears to have penetrated the psyche of our being. It strikes at the very root of democracy. We do not cast our votes, we vote our castes. The caste mindset will stay with us as long as it determines our social status, our job opportunities and our loyalties. But Kerala cannot become an egalitarian society, unless we get over our caste mindset.
There appears to be a new explosion of faith. Are we turning more and more to the Gods as we have no faith in our fellow men? Temples, churches and mosques have sprung up everywhere, as if in competition. Religious rituals are no more private between man and his God, but conspicuous display of devotion, a few degrees higher than the competitors. The aim is not to reach heaven anymore, but the Guinness Book of Records. Religious tolerance, a hallmark of Kerala in the past, is fast disappearing from our land. Even Mahabali is greeted with splurging, drinking and Bollywood talk.
The quest for leadership and public recognition must be a weakness of all human beings, but Malayalees seem to have an overdose of it. That explains the proliferation of political parties, organisations and associations. The saying goes that where there are two Malayalees, there is an association, where there are three, there are two associations, where there are four, there is a federation of associations. It is the pursuit of positions that prompts this pointless proliferation of institutions. The waste of energy and resources in our society must be phenomenal in our quest for visibility. We have an infinite infatuation for the camera at every level and the media exploits it merrily. The new tendency to put up huge flex boards of leaders, big and small, in every square and circle, must be curbed. When every one knows that the persons who are featured often finance the flex boards, what purpose do they serve? Thank God, we do not go for gigantic cut outs of leaders like in a neighboring state.
This is the same mindset that results in the immense waste of resources, time and money in our ritualistic public meetings. Any occasion is good enough for a public meeting at any time of the day and you find enough people to line up on the stage and even to occupy the front seats as fodder for verbal canons. Long welcome speeches and several felicitation remarks detract from the substance of the occasion. Speakers are selected to give them honorable appearances and not to make a contribution. Money is spent on flowers covered in plastic sheets and crude metal, glass and wood souvenirs. Unless a code of conduct is established for public meetings, much energy and resources will be wasted on them, as they do in authoritarian states. In Kenya, a hundred senior most officials would go to every meeting that the President addresses and the state machinery comes to a grinding halt. Should we have the same mindset? In the power hungry Kerala, do we need thousands of bulbs burning every time a festival passes by?
Civic sense is also a matter of mindset. Being clean ourselves, while polluting the neighborhood is classic hypocrisy. Same is the case with polluting rivers, destroying forests or turning streets into toilets. Cleanliness must be as much in the mind as in our surroundings.
Another bane of our society is the overdose of ideologies. Some of us still open our umbrellas as soon as it rains in Beijing. We are the only people who closed our shops when Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were killed. Strikes, hartals etc are still common and the consciousness is only of the rights of workers, not their responsibilities. The institution of “looking charges” should put any labour movement to shame.
Attachment to land is an obsession, not even a mindset. We kill each other for a strip of land. We are perpetually in narrow streets and inadequate civic facilities as no one parts with land even for the common good. The Malayalam University cannot get land in Ezhuthachan’s village. The same mindset thwarts proposals for industrialization. Every potential investor is suspected to be a land grabber. The lust for land skews land utilization. It is true, as Mark Twain said, land is not made any more, but judicious use of available land is essential for Kerala’s development.
In making my case for transforming the Malayalee mindset, I may have exaggerated facts, generalized isolated tendencies and caused offence. But I have not spoken as an outsider, but someone who may have the same mindset that I am seeking to transform. This was more introspection than criticism. Changes in mindset are hard to accomplish in a clean sweep. In the meantime Malayalees must be given tasks that suit their mindset and genius. Give them jobs that demand personal initiative, not collective action. Exploit them in ways that their intellectual talents and rich imagination is put to good use. Trust them to build a knowledge society and usher in a silent revolution. But if Malaylees can transform their mindset, the sky is the limit for them. If we add social graces such as courtesy, discipline and punctuality, social responsibility and industry to the other remarkable attributes of the Malayalees, we will get a productive work force, an impeccable society and a proud community. And then, as Mahakavi Vallathol said, “When we hear the name Kerala, blood will simmer in our veins.”