Kerala – Where God & Communism Co-Exist, Death Can Be Dealt With
Revati Laul, reporting from ground zero, tells us stories of belief, disbelief, and humanity amid crisis.
We were sitting outside the house where a young man had just finished telling us the story of how his brother had died in the flood that knocked Kerala senseless on 15 August – India’s Independence Day.
Me, and a bright-eyed policeman with a broad grin and twinkling black eyes, sat outside a small brick house. Behind us, the dead man’s wife in a printed green maxi held their little boy in her arms.
‘Open Your Heart & You’ll Receive the Wisdom of the Father’
The policeman looked up at me and asked me what I thought of God. “I am an atheist,” I said, with all the arrogance of a city brat from Delhi talking to a provincial policeman in Kerala’s Chengannur district. I wasn’t prepared to be shaken from my lofty and comfortable position by words that at first, didn’t sound extraordinary. “If you don’t open your heart, you won’t receive the wisdom of the father,” the policeman said. It wasn’t what he said, but the humility and openness and generosity with which he said it.
He was open to listening to what atheism meant to me and wanted me to be open in return. He said it may be a better way of dealing with big things like loneliness and death, but that wasn’t the real reason he believed in God. He said it was about keeping your heart open. It made me think. When everything is wiped out, what good is reason? Faith on the other hand, is something to hold on to.
And in ‘God’s Own Country’, Che Guevara and the red flags of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), are worshiped alongside Jesus and Allah, and the entire Hindu pantheon, and Seventh Day Adventists.
It brings with it a certain egalitarianism mixed with faith, that seemed to equip the state as a whole, with a way of coping that when seen up-close, can be life-altering.
The Spirit of Kerala
NRIs in Kerala on their annual holiday from Dubai, decided to roll up their expensive sleeves and distribute packets of relief at the local church or school like everyone else. Policemen turned their stations into collection points for relief and jumped in to rescue people without knowing how or thinking about what they were doing. Young men and women set up Facebook and WhatsApp groups to relay messages about where people were stuck and needed help.
This is a state where beef is sold at every highway dhaba, and people stayed back in their flooded homes to look after their cows.
It’s why so many brushed off what they saw as a paltry offering of assistance from the Centre – 500 crores from Prime Minister Modi, and another 100 from the Home Ministry, compared with what the state assessed the damages were – 20,000 crores. “We will put the state back on its feet again on our own,” they all said – and acted on it.
My mind immediately contrasted this communist camaraderie with the feudally stratified story of another flood I had filmed as a TV journalist in Bihar in 2008. The Kosi river had changed course leaving lakhs stranded on the streets of Bihar in an unending sea of misery, devastation and homelessness. Instead of many neighbourhood and local parish-led relief camps that I was now seeing in Kerala, in Bihar there were big fat NGO and political party-sponsored shamianas. Deference to visiting politicians was de rigueur. I was tracking a truck of water purifiers that was being sent from Delhi to Bihar. The train deposited the cartons to the state capital in Patna in a day and a half. Four more days got swallowed up in red tape.
Science & Inquiry from a ‘Jesus-Lover’
“Why can’t you send these to the school where a few thousand people are sleeping on the steps drinking flood and rain water and getting sick?” I asked a local official. He replied that a committee would be formed to decide how a few hundred filters should be distributed among a few thousand people. “Why can’t you send the boxes to the people and let them figure out how they want to distribute it for themselves?” I pressed on. One district official agreed to try and move things forward by dialing his boss.
But he first needed to summon a pliant and serving staff member to come and pull the cellphone out of his pocket, dial the number, and then hand the phone back to him. That is a scene you will never find in Kerala.
There instead, was my policeman-evangelist friend who had tried to get me to like Jesus. Who also said to me, setting our conversation on God aside, to please nail the lie on the red alert put out routinely for floods. “Is the red alert sent out in case the waters of the dams rise too high meant to protect the people or the dam?” the policeman asked. “The people,” I said unthinkingly, as usual.
“Then the level needs to be set much lower. What logic do engineers apply when they set the danger level at a mark which is so high, that when the water rises above it the tiny river tributaries are too small and weak to cope?” he pointed out wisely. I had no answer. “Expose that and you have done your job,” he instructed me. “Otherwise you have done nothing.” Science and inquiry from the Jesus lover.
Her Family Died, So She Could Live
Our film crew made its way to another home, another unpalatable story of death. But because it was Kerala, there was a bare-bones way of coping I was completely unprepared for. We were filming a woman who had lived with the dead bodies of three family members for three days. After the shoot was done, she held me by the arm and said she wanted to talk some more. It was a conversation about death unlike any I had ever had. “When the water came, I felt for a while that I am not in my house. I am somewhere else and this is not me,” she said explaining the suspension of disbelief she had experienced.
And then she said something even more profound and unexpected. She had a seemingly peculiar thought when she lost her entire immediate family, including a member that required special and minute-by-minute assistance because of his medical condition.
It occurred to her that as a woman, she had been serving people all her life, and now God had perhaps wiped the slate clean to set her free.
Maybe that’s why her family members had died instead of her, she reasoned. So she could live.
The candour of that statement is something the atheist in me would ordinarily have attributed to un-godliness. I was beginning to see now that it may actually have nothing to do with anything, but candour itself.
And something in the Kerala air that makes its people keep God and Che equally close.
At a highway-diner we stopped at, as soon as we entered, we spotted a book stand. The fare included Chetan Bhagat titles and also, The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala. A state that reads and writes, has an open mind. It serves beef and pork. And can look death in the eye like no other place I know.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, forthcoming from Context /Westland in November 2018. She tweets at @RevatiLaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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