The Pamba River originates in the Peerumedu plateau in the Western Ghats of South India and flows down through the humid, equatorial western lowlands and coastal plains of Kerala before emptying into Vembanad Lake and eventually, the Arabian Sea. The region has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, the highest life expectancy and the lowest homicide rate in the country. But as Jon Magidsohn and his family find out, the area is also home to people of admirable religious and spiritual tolerance. In this vivid story, Magidsohn explores the past and present secularism of Kerala and the Pamba River.
At the mouth of the Pamba River, which wriggles sperm-like from the southern tip of Kerala’s Vembanad Lake, it’s hard to shake the feeling I’ve seen this in a movie before. I view the river’s approach as if through a lens capturing a long, gradual zoom, the morning haze over the lake refracting the flourishing sunlight. Our captain, Joseph, steers the houseboat toward the river opening with casual confidence, but the measured, suspenseful approach suggests some malevolence is waiting just around the bend. Killer snakes? Marauding soldiers? At the very least, something unpredictable lies buried among the palm jungle and rice paddies of south India.
The houseboat, which we boarded near Alleppey across the lake, cruises at a walking pace as the banks of the river close in. Black cormorants and white egrets perch on floating lotus leaves like feathered buoys guiding us down river. On both sides, the shore is lined with listing palm trees poised to dive toward us in synchronized precision. Every few hundred meters the slap-slap-slap of wet laundry on stone is heard before we see the woman — it’s usually a woman — working hip-deep in the water, shaded, if possible, in front of her riverside home. Some of the houses have been freshly painted, many in bright orange, pink or green. Beyond the trees, mile after mile of rice paddies germinate in various stages of flood.
Fishermen in their black dugout canoes, a few with outboard motors, smile and wave (if we wave first) but their salutations seem genuine, not resentful. The deluge of houseboats and pale-skinned tourists languishing below their domed roofs while clogging up the river thoroughfares have brought them steady business. We enjoy the spoils of their labor at every meal. It’s as filmic and fantastic as the Indian experience often demands.
We rest in the shade under the boat’s canopy of woven palm leaves, reclining on upholstered lounge chairs with our feet up and a cold drink. I have a fleeting sense of guilt, feeling like a colonial interloper spreading the Commonwealth’s 19th century goodwill.
My expat family and I have been living in Bangalore, about 373 miles to the east, atop the Deccan Plateau in the neighboring state of Karnataka. This boat journey is the end of a ten-day Kerala adventure. We’ve crossed over the Western Ghats, enjoyed the rumbling surf of the Arabian Sea at Kannur Beach, explored Kochi’s cultural history and finally boarded our houseboat for three days and two nights of calm, backwater bliss.
Our “cruise director”, Aziz, looks after us with cool Indian composure. He feeds us thali of fresh fish and homemade chutneys, pickles and curd. And cold beer. No problem is a problem, no question unanswerable. He is there to ensure we have a cruise to remember. He even lets my 11-year-old son, Myles, helm the boat.
About ten nautical miles down river, near the village of Kanjippadam, Captain Joseph moors for the evening. While our dinner is being prepared, we take a walk along the canals that feed the river. The canals are overgrown thick with water lilies. We smile and wave at the locals who stare at the goofy-looking foreigners in our European hiking boots, shorts and caps. We congest the dirt footpath but they still insist we take their photo so they can see their digitized faces on our tiny LCD screen. We stop to admire the farmers’ ingenious irrigation systems with hand-cranked pumps and notice long-bean plants growing wild in the shade of a mango tree.
We cross a bridge deemed reliable, belying its inhospitable construction — slim tree trunks, smoothed by years of footfalls, balanced over teetering cement blocks — and cross to the other side of the canal before looping back toward the river. The sun begins to set behind us, casting long shadows on the rough earth. The evening air remains warm and still.
* * *
Back at the riverside, we encounter a cricket match in progress with a half dozen young local men on a patch of ground riddled with rocks and ditches, bicycles parked under the nearby trees. The guys are all slim and muscular, their smooth faces branded with confidence and the wispy fringes of nascent mustaches. They play barefooted with huge smiles. We encourage Myles to ask to play and they welcome him. Accounting for the age difference, they go easy on him with their bowling, giving him a chance to hit everything, but he impresses with the bat despite only having played cricket since we arrived in India less than six months earlier. They bowl a bit faster until he finally gets bowled out.
His enthusiasm seems to rub off on the local guys who have loosened up and pay little regard to the actual rules of the game. The laughter becomes more emphatic. The burden of their long day at school — if they are the lucky ones — or long day spent bent over in the muddy rice paddies has been knocked away by the cricket bat. It’s their daily wind-down instead of going to the gym or the pub or turning on the television. As I watch my son playing with them, I’m grateful I’ve been allowed into their world for a short time.
It’s dusk when the game imperceptibly ends. We don’t speak Malayalam so we might have missed it when “last over” was called. We shake hands with the young men and they ask us, in their best English, where we’re from, nodding in acknowledgment of our travels. I wonder if they can imagine a world beyond this stretch of river. I expect the opportunities for these boys are limited; that although many may attend a university — within a twenty or thirty mile radius — they still might end up back in their local village when their educational career is completed. On the other hand, some small town Indians find a way out and never return. Either they end up staying with their families forever or they never see them again.
They introduce themselves to us and one of them makes a point of telling us more than just his name. “He’s Christian,” he says, pointing to his friend. “I’m Hindu and he’s Muslim.” He’s smiling proudly as he reveals this. The introduction comes forth effortlessly like he’s telling us what he had for lunch. I smile back contagiously.
“That’s excellent,” my wife says. I know what she’s going to say next as she points to our son, “He’s Jewish.”
“Oohhh,” they say collectively, clearly as tickled by the addition as we are. One fellow holds up four fingers in front of his toothy smile. I’m sure the Indian national cricket team has no such diversity.
It’s nearly dark when we get back on board our houseboat. We’re still buzzing from the cricket game and the conversation with Myles’ new friends. We ask Aziz if this type of interaction is common in Kerala.
“Yes,” he says perched on a low railing. “Here you have a church, here a mosque, there a temple. Everyone lives among each other.”
We aren’t too surprised. In Bangalore, we are awoken each dawn by themuezzin’s call to prayer, which is immediately answered by echoing church bells from Don Bosco’s missionary hall. Brightly-painted Hindu temples in India with their smiling icons are like pubs in Britain: there’s one on every street corner. All religions here mingle in the streets, in the markets and in office blocks. Nobody appears to undervalue the significance of it but neither do they extol it.
And so, after six months in the country we’d come to expect the visible miscellany of religions but had yet to encounter anyone who’d go out of their way to share their collaborative joy in each others’ differences. It’s as if these young Kerala cricketers recognize a unique disregard for racism that, they might rightly assume, wouldn’t necessarily exist where we come from. Our white faces and tourist dollars elicit a type of religious fervor quite different than what we are used to. And quite possibly what they are used to. In rural Kerala — by reputation one of the most highly-educated, tolerant and worldly states in India — welcoming and validating interdenominational friendships appears not to be taken for granted.
More than that, their differences seem to be the reason for the friendship. As if connected by geography and a love for sport, these young men are drawn to each other and, perhaps, have forged alliances based on their differing faiths rather than in spite of them. Broadcasting their delight in this connection may be as much of a celebration for them as it is a way of reaching out to us.
In a country where free speech is commonly supressed; where a popular film actress is charged with obscenity for advocating safe pre-marital sex; where a scholarly and widely-read book about Hinduism is pulled off the shelves for violating archaic hate-speech laws; where violence toward women is, in many places, still looked at as a women’s issue, it seems particularly heartening to meet young people — or any people — with a mutual connection that celebrates diversity. It’s a celebration that harkens back to the days after partition and the secular principles on which India was founded.
* * *
The region now known as Kerala has a history of swimming against the current. In 1924, in the town of Vaikom, a movement was started to overturn stringent laws forbidding lower castes from entering the town’s celebrated Shiva temple. Those “untouchables” who dared even to use the roads in proximity to the holy site were punished, often physically. The uprising that ensued was so unyielding that Mahatma Gandhi got involved to quiet the violent protests. In the 1930s when the ruling British imposed strict regulations on salt production, Kerala’s workers again defied the laws until independence in 1947.
Modern Kerala was officially formed in 1956 and a year later democratically elected a Communist government, the first anywhere in the world. Their term lasted only two years yet the party managed to generate the lowest levels of rural poverty in the country, which remains a lasting legacy. Along with the Leftist Democratic Front, the Communist Party continues to influence the state to this day.
Some Indian states are demarcated largely by the demographics of their religious majority. The northern state of Punjab, for example, is home to roughly half of all Indian Sikhs, equalling 60% of the population of that state, despite that religion maintaining less than 2% of the total population of India. In a country with hundreds of religions, including several different Hindu sects, it’s no wonder some communities choose to stick together.
In Kerala, all religions are minorities. While 80% of Indians are Hindu, only about 50% of the population of Kerala follow the country’s main religion. Muslims and Christians in Kerala, meanwhile, number far higher than the national average. So religious parity, like the type exemplified on the riverside cricket pitch, should be expected on a far greater scale.
Down the coast in Kochi, where we’d been prior to boarding the houseboat, we visited the oldest Jewish neighborhood in India, nearly two millennia old. It had once been a vibrant community of tens of thousands that had thrived in the city among peoples of all other faiths. Kochi still proudly refers to the area as “Jew Town”, despite there being less than ten living Jews remaining there. It is now an area extolled for its historical significance, if nothing else.
During the lead-up to India’s 1947 partition, Gandhi insisted that government and religion should remain separate. It was a dream that he died for. But even today there are political parties whose major platforms explicitly advocate a nationalistic focus on certain religions. Regardless of its union, India is very much the sum of its thirty-six parts (twenty-nine states and seven union territories) where each part is a distinct society. It’s what keeps the country together and simultaneously creates a not-always-invisible friction.
* * *
The motto of the state of Kerala is “God’s Own Country.” If you believe in any god and look around at Kerala’s beautiful shoreline, its mountains, the people in its wistful villages and the backwaters weaving through every kind of green, then it wouldn’t be difficult to agree with the motto’s portrayal. It’s not an original sentiment — parts of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the US and the UK have all adopted the phrase as their own — though it does leave a great deal open for discussion. If several religious groups dwell here, then whose god is actually taking ownership of this land? And is there room for more than one god? And does it really matter?
Where I grew up, in Canada, we used the term “distinct society” to discuss the merits and pitfalls of Quebec’s independence, still an ongoing issue. In the UK, Scotland went to a referendum last year but failed to further its own separation from the union. Other nations have and will continue to walk this political tightrope, whether or not they are based on religion. As Canadian kids, we were not only taught to respect people of different faiths, we were expected to. Over the years, as western society grappled with degrees of political correctness, conversations and debates about religion typically occurred in hushed tones over dinner tables.
In Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury and chief rabbi often get involved in open religious debate, resolving little as they are squeezed into news program discussions somewhere between rising bus fares and the weather. Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared Britain a “Christian country” to great criticism. It’s still sensitive ground, especially if it branches too far out from the Church of England.
I secretly hope these Kerala boys never catch wind of the atrocities around the world carried out in the name of religion. They don’t proclaim their allegiance to one another out of fear of offending their pals or that they might run afoul of the authorities. They aren’t acting out of consideration for or against India’s free speech record. I certainly don’t think they are putting on an act for us in some effort to bolster tourism. They are simply friends who, at the end of the day, pick up a cricket bat and swat away the day in a celebration of life.
We fill our bellies with a dessert of honey-drenched gulab jamun and try to sleep through the humid night full of creaking boat noises and mosquitoes. The next morning, we are cruising back up the Pamba River, past various houses of worship whose sounds of prayer resonate across the water. After we disembark, the lingering backwaters will eventually make their way into the Arabian Sea, beyond which, one imagines, ethnic and religious equality may drown before it reaches the opposite shore.
Along the Pamba River that serves as both tap and sewer to villagers, lives are lived in full view of their neighbors, not to mention passing tourists. There are no secrets. There’s nowhere to hide. The slow-traveling foreigners who wait to see what’s around the next river bend need not fear any sudden hazards or jungle-dwelling Hollywood monsters. But they might be surprised, nonetheless, by what they encounter.