From the book "Pride, Prejudice & Punditry": Shashi Tharoor writes on his Kerala Heritage
Shashi Tharoor
Book House

From the book “Pride, Prejudice & Punditry”: Shashi Tharoor writes on his Kerala Heritage

From the book "Pride, Prejudice & Punditry": Shashi Tharoor writes on his Kerala Heritage
  • The book “Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor” brings together the very best fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from Shashi Tharoor’s published books and journalism—as well as many pieces that have been written specially for this volume.

  • This book will give those new to the author’s work a panoramic view of the range and depth of his writing. Long-time fans will find fresh material to delight them as also ageless pieces that continue to enchant.

  • Dazzling, inventive, and exuberant, this book presents readers with the essential work of a literary genius.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

In early 2007, I visited a modest village about an hour’s drive from Kozhikode, on Kerala’s Malabar coast. There, down a dirt road, stood a recreation of the home of the most celebrated poet and cultural catalyst in the history of the Malayalam language—Thunchath Ezhuthachan. This was Thunchan Perumba, a centre in the same location as the house and school where the bard was born, lived and taught in the sixteenth century, and where he invented modern Malayalam literature.

There is another reason Ezhuthachan represents the best of Kerala literary and cultural tradition. He was born in an era where the knowledge and transmission of culture was confined to a handful of Brahmins. Despite being born into a socially underprivileged caste, the Chakala Nairs, whose members were forbidden from studying sacred texts, Ezhuthachan defied the ossified traditions of his time and gently but firmly thwarted the attempts by the entrenched interests of the day to keep him away from learning. Ezhuthachan mastered the Vedas and Upanishads without the support, let alone the blessings, of the castes that monopolized knowledge and learning. In this, he captured what all Malayalis are proud of—the determination to overcome all obstacles in the pursuit of education and the development of culture. The thriving literary culture of Kerala is a reflection of this proud tradition.

Though I am a Malayali and a writer, I do not consider myself a Malayali writer: despite setting some of my fictional sequences in Kerala and scattering Menons through my stories, I cannot write in my mother tongue. And yet I am not inclined to be defensive about my Kerala heritage, despite the obvious incongruities of a Kerala writer lauding his Malayali heritage in the English language.

As a child growing up in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi, my experience of Kerala had been as a reluctant vacationer during my parents’ annual trips home. For many non-Keralite Malayali children, there was little joy in the compulsory rediscovery of their roots, and many saw it as an obligation. For city dwellers, rural Kerala (and Kerala is essentially rural since the countryside envelops the towns in a seamless web) was a world of rustic simplicities and private inconveniences. When I was ten years old, I told my father that this annual migration to the south was strictly for the birds. But, as I grew older, I came to appreciate the magic of Kerala—its beauty, which is apparent to even the most casual tourist, and also its ethos, which takes a greater engagement to uncover.

As a Keralite who was a ‘Marunaadan Malayali’ for most of his life, I can say that we are, for the most part, conscious—some would say inordinately proud—of our Malayali cultural heritage. But as we are cut off from its primary source, the source of daily cultural self-regeneration—Kerala itself—we have to evolve our own identities by preserving what we can of our heritage and merging it with those of the others around us. As we grow up outside Kerala, we know that we are not the Malayalis we might have been if our parents had never left Kerala. In due course, Onam becomes only as much a part of our culture as any other holiday, and we are as likely to give a younger relative a Christmas present as a Vishukkaineettam (Kerala New Year gift). We, Malayalis without our Mathrubhumi or Manorama newspapers, who do not understand the Ottamthullal folk dance, and have never heard of the great poets Vallathol or Kumaran Asan—are, when we come to visit Kerala, strangers in our own land.

I am such a Malayali—and in towns and cities around India and across the world, thousands more are growing up like us. Our very names are often absurdities in Kerala terms. In my case, my father’s veetu-peru (house name, the family name handed down from his mother and her female forebears in the Nair matrilineal tradition) has been transmuted into a surname in the Western manner. We speak a pidgin Malayalam at home, stripped of all but the essential household vocabulary, and cannot read or write the language intelligibly. I tried to teach myself the script as a teenager on holidays in Kerala, gave up on the koottaksharams—joined letters—and as a result can recognize only 80 per cent of the letters and considerably fewer of the words. (When an Indian ambassador in Singapore wanted discreetly to inform me of his imminent replacement by a Kerala politician, he passed me a clipping from a Malayalam newspaper and was startled at my embarrassed incomprehension of the news.) Malayalam books and magazines may be found at home, but they are seen by us as forlorn relics of an insufficiently advanced past and are ignored by the younger generation, whose eager eyes are on the paperbacks, comics, and textbooks of the impatient and westernized future.

What does it mean, then, for Keralites like me, who have lived most of our lives outside Kerala, to lay claim now to our Malayali heritage? What is it that we learn to cherish, and of which we remain proud, wherever we are?

Non-Malayalis who know of Kerala associate it with its fabled coast, gilded by immaculate beaches and leafy lagoons. But my parents were from the interior, the rice-bowl district of Palghat, nestled in the last major gap near the end of the Western Ghats. Palghat—or Palakkad— unlike most of Kerala, had been colonized by the British, so my father discovered his nationalism at a place called Victoria College. The town of Palghat is unremarkable, even unattractive; its setting, though, is beautiful. My parents belonged to villages an hour away from the district capital, and to families whose principal source of income was agriculture. Their roots lay deep in the Kerala soil, from which have emerged the values that I cherish in the Indian soul.

As Malayalis, the beauty of Kerala is bred into our souls; it animates our very being. Hailing from a land of forty-four rivers, innumerable lakes, and 1,500 kilometres of ‘backwaters’, the Keralite bathes twice a day and dresses immaculately in white. Kerala’s women are usually simple and unadorned. But they float on a riot of colour: the voluptuous green of lush Kerala foliage, the rich red of fecund earth, the brilliant blue of life-giving waters, the shimmering gold of beaches and riverbanks.

Yet, there is much more to the Kerala experience than natural beauty. Since my first sojourn as a child in my ancestral village, I have seen remarkable transformations in Kerala society. This success is a reflection of what, in my 1997 book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I call the ‘Malayali miracle’: a state that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reform, and political democracy; which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling, and empowered lives. Indeed, Kerala’s social development indicators are comparable to those of the US, though these have been built on one-seventieth the per capita income of America.

From the book "Pride, Prejudice & Punditry": Shashi Tharoor writes on his Kerala Heritage

Excerpted with permission from Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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From the book "Pride, Prejudice & Punditry": Shashi Tharoor writes on his Kerala Heritage