Of Migrants and Mindsets
A train journey unravels the experiences of migrant workers in Kerala.
A friend, who has worked and lived in Kolkata for the last 15 years, was travelling by train to her home townin Kerala recently. It was her annual visit to spend a few days with her ageing parents. As she couldn’t get a reservation in the AC coach, she was travelling by second class. The coach was thronged with young men from Bengal and Odisha who were on their way to Kerala. They were very young, between the ages of 15 and 30, from interior villages and agricultural families. From their interactions, it was evident that almost all of them had attended some years of schooling or college. Each of them invariably had a mobile phone, ranging from smartphones to the small, rustic Nokias. Throughout the journey they were talking on the phones, or watching videos in groups, laughing and commenting loudly. The queue at the charging point for mobile phones at the end of the compartment was perpetually crowded, with four or five phones stuck to the multi-plug adaptor and being charged, their red lights glimmering. At all hours of the day and night, the youngsters—all male—were constantly walking up and down, sharing seats and berths, snacks and drinks, jokes and gossip. Into the second day of the journey, when they had all settled down, the senior ones among them began talking about their experiences in Kerala. They had been working in Kerala for the past few years, while the eager listeners were on their first trip, lapping up their tales about the alien land towards which they were headed.
Interestingly, they were talking about the strange and funny habits, behaviour, and beliefs of Malayalees: their obsession with personal cleanliness and daily bathing rituals, their children who are rarely found playing on the streets, working in paddy fields, or loitering in the neighbourhood, their general aversion to manual work, etc. They were recounting amusing incidents about their Malayalee bosses or muthalalis (pronounced with a distinct accent) who didn’t have a clue about the crucial little details of the work at the ground level, and about their inefficiency in terms of supervision and in negotiating wages, being surprisingly stingy on certain occasions, and at other times foolishly generous. One of the most painful and striking observations they made was about the propensity of the average Malayalee to look sideways or tangentially while dealing with them; there was a certain diffidence or refusal to look the migrant worker in the eye. This, the young workers felt, was a kind of denial of their humanity, a hesitation on the part of the hosts to acknowledge them as humans, equal and real.
While listening to their endless banter about Malayalees, my friend had a feeling of déjà vu and was reminded of a striking parallel. She had heard the same kind of “Gulf” jokes and similar kinds of hilarious incidents recounted by Malayalee migrants about their workplaces in the Middle East and the dealings with their Arab employers. Here, the tables had turned, with the same Malayalees who made fun of the rich Arabs now being the butt of ridicule for the very same attitudes.
Not that every migrant wage-earner and Malayalee wage-payer is like this, but in the migrant narratives, the host community always tends to take on a certain stereotypical image, assuming weird habits and outlandish personality traits. Such comic subversions are also a coping strategy to make sense of the alien surroundings into which the migrants are suddenly thrown. These “in-house” narratives are mostly associated with the hosts’ total disconnect with the ground realities or the sweat and grind of labour, which is an internal assertion and assurance of the migrant identity, for it is what he/she is paid for and engaged in, day in, day out. It is also a way in which the migrants can humanise the alien-ness of their bosses, and “customise” them into their own everyday discourses. Most importantly, such reactions reflect and capture the essence of the migrant life in curious ways; a very pungent summary about the tenor and texture of the hospitality they receive at the destination where they have come seeking livelihood, leaving their homes behind. These jokes also painfully indicate the insularity of migrant lives, which are totally cut off from those of the hosts or “locals.” Crucially, these are jokes that are not meant to reach the ears of their subjects, in which case these may potentially trigger an exchange or dialogue of some kind. If kept insular and denied airing and reciprocation, these jokes may gather moss and fester whenever circumstances turn volatile.
Sadly, it is panic and suspicion that presently mark all the public and media discourses about migrant workers living in Kerala, despite the fact that it is they who literally move its economy. This is also very strange and paradoxical for a society like Kerala, which has a long and complex diasporic history. Kerala has been a “money order” economy for a long time, and during the last century, Malayalees have migrated to all the major cities in India and South East Asia, to the Middle East in the 1970s, and to the United States and Europe in recent decades. Kerala need only wake up to its cosmopolitan heritage, and tradition of hospitality and openness to the outside world, which in turn have nurtured its economy, expanded its political vision, and enriched its culture. Distrust and hatred towards migrant workers only lay bare the startling lack of self-reflexivity, and the inability to transform collective social experience and memory into sustainable and humane modes of togetherness. Only then can we break this mutually exclusive and insular circulation of jokes and begin to laugh together.
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