Why do you stare? 
Asked the date palms 
Did you forget 
That we are coconut trees after translation?

-Kuzhur Wilson


Marxism and the social network created by Christian missionaries are recognised as the two  fundamental players in the creation of Kerala modernity and its renaissance project. As early as in 1892, we can see in a novel like Saraswathivijayam (The victory of Saraswathi)  an emphatic testimony to the influence wielded by missionaries in shaping Malayalam society’s perceptions on the relation between knowledge of language and institutionalised power.

The part played by the early to mid-twentieth century communist movement in questioning the basis of land ownership models and in structuring the state as an anti-feudal/anti-landlord polity is also well documented. These two movements were decisive in determining Kerala modernity, but it is important to point out that there are other influences. The discourses that frame this argument present modernity as a merely physical/socio-historical phenomenon and ignore the power of lived experience to determine the very nature of a society’s materiality.

Any discourse on modernity that does not factor in experiential testimonials will only provide a lateral and distorted view. If, however, you take that aspect also into account, we must consider a third foundational force in the shaping of Kerala modernity: the various migrations the state has witnessed in the last three centuries. This essay is not an analysis of migration as a sociological phenomenon. Rather it is an overview of the ways in which it made its presence felt in Malayalam literature’s aesthetic schemes in the post-renaissance era.  

In Attoor Ravivarma’s Pandi (1987), we read: Three decades ago/ He had gone/ Letting go of the mango and tamarind trees/ Letting go of the moonlight and the darkness/ With time/ He stopped going for Onam/ For the festival of his sacred grove/ And for funeral rites/ With time/ Words he once used everyday/ Stopped ripening on his lips/ And all the streams of his dreams dried up. 

(Pandi is a word used in Malayalam mostly in the derogatory sense to denote Tamils.)

In 1947, 40 years before Pandi was written, Vyloppillil Sreedhara Menon writes in the iconic poem Assam Panikkaar (Assam Labourers): Leaving our land of birth/ We are a bunch of lowly people travelling to distant Assam for work.

Vyloppil Sreedhara Menon. Photo Wiki Commons

The shift in perspective from Assam Panikkaar to Pandi is an illustration of how literature becomes an imaginary history of the physical reality. The image of the Malayali who left the state in the middle of the twentieth century to seek a livelihood finding himself stranded and unable to return to his roots towards the end of that century acts as an intertextual sign connecting the two poems.

Indeed, migration and the experience of exile are two threads that connect various generations of modern Malayalam literature. One can see those themes interpreted in various ways from O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, considered the first Malayalam novel, to Amal’s Bengali Kalaapam (Bengali Rebellion) published this year.



hough the process of moving from one land to another has a long and elaborate history, a cultural dimension is usually not attributed to journeys made over short distances for purposes of collecting or producing food. The cultural experience of exile begins only after the idea of the nation-state takes shape. Whereas a fixed location and its use as a means of production and control forms the essence of feudalism, speed and a constant shifting of locations are the two defining features of capitalism. It is only in the accelerated reality of this modern capitalist world, where land is not a primary requisite of production, that migration as a sociological process achieves its cultural dimensions.

Before 700 CE, during the glory days of Buddhism and Jainism in India, there are various recorded instances of travel by land and sea for preaching and trade. In fact, during the golden age of Buddhism journeys were universal. With the emergence of Brahmanic political power, journeys beyond Aryavarta came to be forbidden, and they remained so till the period of colonial modernity. Even in the early years of the twentieth century, savarna women of north Malabar were forbidden from crossing Koarppuzha (a short, 40 km river flowing through present day Kozhikode district), as a news report in Malayala Manorama on February 14, 1891 details. It reports that Cheruvalath Chathu Nair, author of Meenakshi, one of the earliest Malayalam novels, was ostracised from his community for taking his wife Mathu Amma to Kozhikode.

Kerala does not have a huge history of deportations or exodus. Its geographical peculiarities protected it from Samudragupta’s south Indian invasions in ancient times and Alauddin Khalji’s conquests in the medieval era. The first major instance of forced exile in the state’s history was a consequence of then Dindigul governor Haider Ali and his son Tipu’s raids against the Samoothiri of Malabar. During Tipu Sultan’s reign in Mysore, the Nampoothiris of Malabar had to flee to Travancore while the Nairs were forced into the deep forests. Only after the Srirangapatna treaty leading to Tipu’s retreat from Malabar could they come back. One can even trace the root cause of the 1921 Malabar rebellion to Tipu’s invasion and the misery of exile it caused. If Tipu’s raids have over time become so abhorred in Malayalam’s mainstream cultural memory, one need not look further than this plight of exile savarnas had to endure and the indelible scars it produced. 

The other major instance of exile in the state’s pre-modern history is connected with the slave trade. It is the silent and bloody history of Malayalis transported by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a subject of ongoing research. The story of thousands of Malayalis who ended up in the Caribbean and Pacific islands and various African colonies is yet to be told. The last of these were the indentured labourers taken to Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Mauritius, Fiji and Surinam.



he history of migration/exile from the late nineteenth century to the present can be broadly divided into four stages:

1) From the late 19th century to 1930s: Made up of experiences of forced political exile

2) From 1930s to 1960s: Experiences of exile caused by political reasons and by migration to secure livelihood. The landscapes of these experiences are both domestic and foreign.

3) From the 1970s to the present: Experiences of labourers who went to various Gulf countries.

4) From the late 1990s to the present: Experiences of labourers from various parts of the country, especially from north and east India, to Kerala.

A classification so broad is only to facilitate a descriptive approach to the influence the experience of exile had on Malayalam’s aesthetic sensibility. No phase is one-dimensional; each has various conflicting narratives and sub-branches. For instance, in-migration is not something that began with labourers from the northern and eastern regions. Some six lakh Tamil labourers migrated to Travancore and Kochi in the first three decades of the twentieth century. But this essay will not go into such details as they are more relevant to a sociological approach than to the literary one attempted here.



hree iconic figures stand out as concrete examples of early political exile: Dr. P. Palpu, Barrister G. P. Pillai and Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai. Dr. Palpu had to base his official life in Bangalore and Baroda because  as an Ezhava he was denied entry to the Travancore Service. Barrister Pillai’s was a forced exile. After launching a scathing attack against the Diwan of Travancore and his bureaucratic system, he had to leave the state. He completed his graduation from Madras Presidency College. Ramakrishna Pillai’s life story also runs along similar lines.  He was deported by the Travancore government on  September 26, 1910, after a series of hard hitting editorials in Swadeshabhimani . He was the editor of the journal.

Malayali Memorial was the first instance in the state’s history where the human body, till then a proclamation of caste, was transformed into a marker of citizenship.

The political views of these middle-class intellectuals shaped by their experiences of exile formed the foundation for Kerala modernity and its renaissance project. Their vision and interpretation of Kerala’s political future was framed by a perspective from a foreign land. If not for the indignities he faced because of his avarna status and his absence from his land of birth, Dr. Palpu would not have been inspired to establish the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP), which provided the platform for Sree Narayana Guru’s reform movement. Dr. Palpu’s meeting with Swami Vivekananda in Mysore has a significant place in Kerala’s renaissance history. G. P. Pillai, too, was actively engaged in political life during his Madras exile. He was the first Malayali to be associated with the Indian National Congress.

Malayali Memorial, formed in 1991, was a culmination of Kerala-centric cumulative efforts by these three. They were also its first signatories. It was the first instance in the state’s history where the human body, which till then was a proclamation of caste, was transformed into a marker of citizenship. Though prepared from a position as the subject of  royalty, the idea of citizenship runs through the memorandum.

In the interventions of these alienated middle-class intellectuals one sees new forms of relations emerging between the land and its people. The land becomes the object and the one who looks at it becomes the subject. It was exile that made this possible. Here was a case of an experience located entirely in the realm of the personal being transformed into the inner fuel that drove the building of a modern nation.  

Similar perspectives appear in Malayalam literature also around the same period. The first and most obvious is an episode from O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, the first novel in Malayalam. After he is convinced that he was cheated in love, Madhavan, the novel’s protagonist decides to travel abroad. On a ship from Bombay to Calcutta, he passes Malabar, his land of birth. The novelist describes the scene thus: “As he watched through the telescope, he clearly saw his country. He remembered his parents and his eyes welled up. He thought, ‘O my God! What have you done to me!’ and cried. Suddenly, Indulekha’s memory occurred to him. He put down the telescope and decided that even if his dead body were to float in the sea, he would not set foot on Malayalam’s land.”

While Madhavan prefers the liberal ways of John Locke and David Hume and formulates a vision founded upon empiricism, Rajarajavarma’s narrator in his poem sides with Voltaire’s classicist view that beauty is a consequence of a mature culture.
This is a clear instance of a Malabar savarna man marking himself with a nationalist identity. The gaze from the sea to the Malabar coast is a reflection of the gaze that enables the observer to both identify and define the subject. It is Madhavan’s experiences outside Kerala that equip him with this gaze and rouse his nationalist identity. He recognises his own true self only when surrounded by foreigners. For him, the foreign land is one of wonders while his land of birth is filled with pain and misery. It is important to note that all political discussions in the novel take place outside Kerala, and that after Madhavan marries Indulekha they choose to settle down in Madras.

A similar instance of such perspective can be found in A. R. Rajarajavarma’s long poem Malayavilasam, the foundational text of modern Malayalam lyrical poetry. Here the writer adopts a different outlook. Though the mighty Sahya Mountains obstruct his view of Kerala as he returns from exile, the poet sings with nostalgia about the imaginary visions he has of his homeland in which he sees it as a region where life is good and the highest standards of ethics and morality prevail. While Madhavan prefers to look away from the state, the poet is driven by an urge to reach there as soon as he can.

These can be considered as two ways in which the lived experience of exile imprinted itself on Malayalam’s renaissance aesthetics. In fact, these are also the distinct ways adopted by Europe’s enlightenment aesthetics. While Madhavan prefers the liberal ways of John Locke and David Hume and formulates a vision founded upon empiricism, Rajarajavarma’s narrator in his poem sides with Voltaire’s classicist view that beauty is a consequence of a mature culture. Whereas Madhavan gives rise to a new cultural identity of “nationalist Malayali”, Malayavilasam creates a “national Malayali”. Both, however, are illustrations of perceptions about Malayali sub-nationalism and representation in the Indian nationalist movement.



n the 1930s, the Malayali started to go outside or to the uninhabited regions of the state to secure means of livelihood. It is in the complex structure of this period of exile that the process of migration is most vividly represented.

The first stage of domestic migration starts when people from southern Kerala, especially Christian farmers from old Travancore moved to Malabar between 1930 and 1960. Entire families, not just individuals, were permanently displaced. The most significant reasons of the migration were: the food crisis caused by World War II; fragmentation of farm land as a consequence of Christian succession ways; the availability of fertile land in Malabar for cheap price; Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer’s vengeful acts towards Christians in the nationalist movement; and the distress of many traditional Christian families in central Travancore that was a result of big-headed vanity. 

Around the same period, Malayalis also started moving to the big cities, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras. Population gap caused by a growth in birth and literacy rates and a corresponding decline in the mortality rate prompted many to seek jobs outside agriculture. Education gave them ample opportunities. Soon, there were Malayali cultural groups like Bombay Keraleeya Samajam and Madirasi Keraleeya Samajam in these cities. And with these groups, the notion of nostalgic lyricism started to dominate discourses on exile.

The third major branch of this phase of migration involves travels abroad as indentured labourers. Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore combined), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Indonesia were the early destinations. African countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria joined the list. There were 72,971 Malayalis in Malaysia at its independence in 1957. In Singapore, they made up 16 per cent of the population. In a span of forty years, they had become a massive minority community in these countries.

This phase and its three main branches are now a consistent thematic presence in Malayalam literature. Even now—and for certain in literary works of the future as well—its influence is persuasive as this was the period when, for the first time in the language’s history, complex philosophical questions were raised about notions of identity and nation. The simplistic binary of looking towards and looking away from the nation was not adequate to explicate the diverse aspects of Malayali life and experiences in exile.

It was a case of the land itself driving its youth away once the agrarian economic structure that had till then sustained it collapsed. The workers in Vyloppilli’s Assam Panikkaar know their destination is a playground of deadly epidemics; but they have no option.

A feature of this complexity can be seen in Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Companion) when the father of the protagonist, Majeed, throws him out of his house and says: “Go. Go around the country, learn something and come back.” Here the exile is forced. Contrast this with Indulekha where the heroine comforts herself when she comes to know that Madhavan has left Madras after his graduation by reasoning: “It is important to travel around the country after one completes his education. There is nothing to worry about it.”

The difference between the two is a reflection of the changes that marked the social structure in the interval between the two books.  “Go!” That was a command powerful enough to drive Majeed to the edge of the world, writes Basheer. Majeed, who leaves his idyllic village, travels beyond the nearest town, crosses hills, forests and cities and wanders like a lunatic for almost a decade, is a cultural representation of Malayali young men in the 1940s, which was also a period when the same youth were using the same command “Go!” to drive away the regressive social structure in which they were trapped.

In a way, it was a case of the land itself driving its youth away once the agrarian economic structure that had till then sustained it collapsed. The workers in Vyloppilli’s Assam Panikkaar know that their destination is a playground of deadly epidemics; but they have no option but to flee from a land that tempts them with promises of prosperity but never delivers on them.

The city-centric exile of the middle class focused on constructing markers of cultural uniqueness based on nostalgic memories, imagined and otherwise. The mainstream semantic representations of Malayali culture were formed within this aesthetic framework. In the efforts of various Malayali cultural organisations formed in these cities to recreate Kerala among themselves, Kathakali, mundu and veshti became key markers of an authentic Malayali self. Such efforts ultimately led to a politics of cultural uniqueness. One can clearly spot this shift in emphasis in the poems of Kumaran Asan (1873-1924) and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai (1911-1948). While Asan’s philosophical poems were based in the Himalayas, northern “Hindustan” and on the banks of the Reva river, Changampuzha placed his lyrical poetry in an idealised Kerala village drowned in an emerald glow.

It is important to note that travel writing as a genre first appeared in Malayalam in this phase. In contrast to the epical laments of lovers in medieval Sandesha Kavya (messenger poetry), expressions of grief became more humane as exemplified by the image and idea of the distant husband presented by the great humanist thinker and writer, M. Govindan, in his study of C. J. Thomas’ plays. This image was employed to describe the peculiar nature of the lives lived by the wives of soldiers. This was also the period when the idea of universality took shape.

Conventional understanding of knowledge as an institution was toppled. Kesari A. Balakrishna Pillai’s ideas about Navalokam (A new world) and the emergence of progressive literature movements accelerated this shift. Experiences of exile fortified the idea that the realm of culture does not have boundaries and that it does not have its focus on either Kerala or Malayalam. What were deemed as foreign cultures transformed into extensions of one’s own culture. Vishwam, the hero of Uroob’s masterpiece Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum (Beautiful women and handsome men), who wants to travel to the edge of the world to explore unknown lands and to experience unseen visuals, is in fact a hero of this newly formed sense of aesthetics.

Uroob wrote the definitive cultural document of the exile's universe, Photo: Wiki COmmons

While it is easy to create a dichotomy between the culturally unique Malayali and the universal Malayali, one must not forget that both those subjectivities were based on physical experiences of toil and misery. When Vyloppili’s Assam labourers describe themselves as Parishakal (opressed people) they, in a way, encapsulate the aesthetic perceptions of both those identities.



lthough one cannot place them within the canon of diaspora literature, several novels from the 1950s-80s perceived the consequences of migration as experiences of lost paradises. One can place them broadly under the category of “migration novels”. S. K. Pottekkad’s Vishakanyaka (The poisonous virgin) is a classic example. E. M. Kovur’s Malakal, (The Hills), Kaadu (The Forest), Kakkanadan’s Orotha and Mathew Mattom’s Karutha Ponnu (The Black Gold) are all based on stories of migration to the hills of Malabar from the south. The subject of all these novels is the cultural ambiguities created by the influx of Christian farmers to the hills. Though not exactly in the same vein, P. Vatsala’s Nellu (The Paddy) too is an examination of the same theme: how the migrants who came with tapioca, toddy and dried fish destroyed the cultural identity of the region.

Farmer migration radically restructured Malabar’s agricultural systems, village economy, social configuration, political equations and cultural sphere. (There is also a strong argument that the same process helped to free the Adivasi from a system of slavery and elevated him to the subject position of a farming labourer. This argument, however, has been countered by pointing put that it was framed to exonerate the migrant from the responsibility of ruining the Adivasi way of life.) 

It catalysed the process of intermingling of cultures manifested in its starkest form as a mixing of dialects. Vishakanyaka has several scenes that illustrate this. The novel also shows how a new food culture emerged from the mixing of two different culinary cultures. Despite such episodes in the novel where the “otherness” of the migrant community from Travancore is established though their language and food habits, there is also an unmistakable emphasis on interpreting this “otherness” as an aspect of diversity. All these novels locate migration as a historical process that facilitated the creation of new, intermingled cultures.

In the Seventies the experience of exile in the big cities of India became a major theme in Malayalam literature. There was a separate category of city novels called the Delhi novels. 

The imagery in these novels also focuses on establishing a semiotic association between the ideas of the woman and the soil. In Kakkanadan’s Orotha we read: “The virgin soil lies in wait for a touch of the hand that would liberate her from the curse.” In Vishakanyaka, Antony’s melancholy after being unable to resist Madhavi is depicted thus: “He looked at her again. Her nudity repelled him. The more he looked at the viper that had poisoned him, the more afraid he became.” It is evident that Pottekkad uses Madhavi as a symbol for Malabar’s soil. The virgin woman—the migrant man—the virgin who is liberated from her curse by the touch of a man—the man who falls dead on her body after being poisoned by her: the semantic trope repeats itself throughout the novel.

It is only much later that the other side of the story, from the perspective of the local people finds a place in literature. Narayan’s Kocharethi and K. J. Baby’s Maveli Manrom are the two most important books in this category. They chronicle the lives of those forced to either run from the migrants or become their slaves. These novels can be described as post-migration novels. Here, the soil is not a virgin woman. Nor is the relationship between a farmer and the soil mediated through lust. Therefore, to get a more comprehensive sense of the history of migration, one has to start from the migration novels and eventually arrive at the post-migration ones.



t was in the Seventies that the experience of exile in the big cities of India became a major theme in Malayalam literature. As part of the literary modernity movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a separate category of city novels called the Delhi novels. It was mostly in Vilasini’s novels that the experience of exile in foreign countries was discussed. In Niramulla Nizhalukal (Shadows with colours) and Oonjaal (The Swing), there are vivid descriptions of life in Malaya. G. P. Njekkad’s Maruppachakal (The Oases) told the story of migrant life in Singapore.

This essay, however, would like to posit Uroob’s Sundarikalum Sundarnamrum (Beautiful Women and Handsome Men) as the definitive cultural document of the experience of exile in this period. That is not just because Lakshmikkutty and her daughter Santha, two main characters in the novel, have returned from Singapore. Rather, it is because various streams of Malayali migration converge in Vishwam, the protagonist. Vishwam stands as an ardhavirama between Basheer’s Majeed and O. V. Vijayan’s Ravi in Khasakhinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasakh). While Majeed’s exile was a consequence of his material circumstances, Ravi’s is an extension of his existential angst. In Vishwam, one can see both strands. His urge to travel to the edge of the world resembles Majeed’s, while the torment he suffers on account of the web of relationships that forces him to stay back is very much existential.



he third phase of Malayali exile is the migration to Gulf countries after the 1973 oil shock opened up significant opportunities. In course of time, the very idea of exile in Malayalam became synonymous with life in the Gulf. It influenced all aspects of Kerala social life, and played a pivotal role in determining the texture of the famed Kerala model of development. No other factor, not even organised political movements, could lay claim to such overarching influence.

According to data provided by Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, at least one member from 15.8 per cent of the families in Kerala has at least once been outside India for work. Of this 70 per cent work in a Gulf country, and of this 51.9 per cent are migrant labourers. They contribute the largest share, 38.3 per cent, to the state’s exchequer through remittances. (Professionals contribute 24.2 per cent, white collar jobs contribute 63 per cent and business enterprises 9.7 per cent). The official data do not include unaccounted remittances through informal channels.

In simplistic terms, Gulf exile razed the foundations of Kerala’s feudal power structure. Despite the farmer protests that got stronger and culminated in the 1959 Kerala Land Agrarian Relations Bill, land ownership continued to be the most influential factor in upward social mobility. The large amounts of money that came from the Gulf put an end to this. It paved a way for the decentralisation of landed property. In Kerala where a quasi-agrarian economy was in place, land was not merely a means of production but also a symbol of status. In what can be seen as sweet retaliation against this social structure, money from the Gulf was used to mainly to accumulate fixed assets like land and houses.

Most discussions on the Gulf exile point out the “foolishness” of converting hard labour in exile into dead assets like plush houses. But that is a flawed understanding. This was a case of a big group of people extracting revenge against historical processes that had rendered them invisible for centuries. In most films from the late 70s to the 90s we can see a stereotypical representation of the Gulf returnee as a boastful social climber  who buys property from the hero—usually  a financially troubled savarna man who is tender in nature. In the blockbuster Mohanlal movie Devasuram (1993), the hero, even when faced with the disintegration of his feudal power, sneers at the Gulf returnee. Even when the Gulf returnee is the heroic protagonist, as he is in Varavelpu (1989), he is still cast in the same stereotypical light.

The plot, narrative structure and the language  are reflections of the aimless wanderings of those who have left their land of birth.

The late Sixties and Seventies were the period of high modernism in Malayalam literature. Inspired primarily by the modernism movement in Europe and its existential concerns, this period ushered in a radical shift in aesthetic sensibility. However, the works of Malayalam modernity failed to, or perhaps chose not to, address Gulf exile. Its primary concern was to explore the existential angst of those who had come to India’s big cities and were uprooted from their homeland. One can argue that this was because the exiled community in the Gulf was primarily a proletariat community whose lives and socio-economic disquiet were outside the ambit of conventional aesthetics that dominated Malayali modernism of this period. (In a reversal of this scenario, when blogs became popular in the 2000’s, it was those same experiences of Gulf exile that turned out to be the most popular.)

All prominent writers of this period were preoccupied with the metaphysical secrets of exile. M Mukundan’s DelhiAvilayile Suryodayam (Sunrise in Avila), Haridwaril Manikal Muzhangumbol (When the bells toll in Haridwar)); V. K. N.’s Pithamahan (The Great Grandfather), Arohanam (Ascend); Kakkanadan’s Ushnameghala (The Sweltering Zone) are well known examples. Even Ravi, the protagonist of O. V. Vijayan’s great novel Khasakhinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) is a man exiled from his village.

However, it is Anand’s Aalkkoottam (The Crowd) that comes across as a comprehensive literary document of the Malayali’s migratory journeys to big cities in this period. Set in Bombay, the plot, narrative structure and the language of this classic are reflections of the aimless wanderings of those who have left their land of birth. Instead of a conventionally fluid and “pure” Malayalam, Aalkkoottam was narrated in a language that a south Indian who had landed up in a polyphonic metropolitan city could speak. Its connection with local argot was completely ripped apart. The narrative structure does not focus on a fixed centre, rather it is merely a concoction of many different sub plots.

Anand's Aalkkoottam is a classic account of the urban migrant. Photo: Wiki Commons

When confronted with choosing between property and identity, one could only have chosen the former. In V. K. Sriraman’s Vasthuhara set in the Andamans (later made into a film by G. Aravindan), we see Arathi Panikker asking: “I have heard that thirty bigha zameen is given to the refugees of the island. Is it true?” When one chooses property over identity, what they are left with are metaphysical concerns of identity. It was this conundrum that formed the ideological framework of the modernist novels. 



enyamin’s Aadujeevitham (The Goat Days), published in 2008, long after the glory period of modernism, was the first major work to portray Gulf exile in detail. That it became the biggest bestseller in the history of Malayalam proves the gravity of the theme’s absence till then. Benyamin, himself a migrant who was working in Bahrain, portrays a world familiar to him in its details, and this familiarity gives the novel its authenticity. He has said that the novel was based on the discussions he had with Mohammed Najeeb, the novel’s protagonist. As a consequence of narrating appalling and disturbing events, the novel walks the delicate path between biography and fiction. In a sense, one can term it an autobiography of the entire community of Gulf Malayalis: the first instance of diaspora literature in the language. 

Benyamin's Aadujeevitham is the biggest bestseller in modern Malayalam. Photo: Wiki Commons

Aadujeevitham, which came with the tagline “All the lives we don’t experience are merely made up stories for us”, is an account of a migrant labourer who spends three years, four months and nine days in a desert with numerous goats, completely detached from his roots. Language is the only link he has with his land of birth. He translates and projects his memories on to the herd of goats. By naming the goats Njandu Raghavan (Crab Raghavan) and Parippu Vijayan (Lentils Vijayan); by calling a goat who walks with a slant as Mohanlal (walking with slanted shoulders is the actor’s signature style) and by calling a goat with stammer E.M.S (the communist leader and first chief minister of Kerala had a stammer), Najeeb deploys the memory of his language on his surroundings. When he finally flees from the desert and reaches a market place, and reads the board Malabar Restaurant written in Malayalam, he is in essence reading the entire Desham.

M. Mukundan’s Pravasam (The Exile) was also published in 2008, the year Aadujeevitham was published. It is a bird’s eye view of the long and elaborate history of Malayali exile life. Though it explores the many dimensions of exile as a cultural experience, it is framed by the view of an outsider, and has been criticised for adopting such an approach. It is therefore not possible to include it in the category of diaspora literature despite diasporic life being its central subject.

Many non-fiction books published in this millennium also explore Gulf exile. Babu Bharadwaj’s memoirs and V. Musafir Ahmed’s travelogues are the most important works in this category. Far from the depiction of the Gulf Malayali as a snob, these books examine life in Gulf countries in great detail and focus on both the physical and metaphysical elements of exile.



he last part of this essay deals with narratives on in-migration; mainly literature that speaks about the influx of migrant labourers from the northern and eastern parts to Kerala that started in the early 90s and strengthened in this millennium.

But before coming to it, a note on Malayali migrants created by the growth of information technology and the opportunities it provided in cities like Bengaluru and in developed countries like the U.S.A.  Unlike the migrants to the big cities in the last century, this group is neither nostalgic nor pines for a lost homeland. A new cyber public sphere facilitated by social media transports the land on to a screen. Though studies have appeared on the economic impact of this new wave of migration, the influences it has had on cultural and aesthetic domains are yet to be examined.

In the last 15 years, migrant labourers from the northern and eastern parts of the country have become a major demographic force in the state. They are mostly employed as unskilled labourers in various sectors, a reflection of both the rise of urbanisation and the reluctance of Malayalis to take up unskilled jobs.

The reality is that Kerala has refused to wholeheartedly accept the migrant labourer as one of its own. There is a fervent insistence on locating the migrant as the other.

The first major instance of literature addressing the phenomenon of in-migration is Santhosh Echikkanam’s short story Biriyani which chronicles the events when Gopal Yadav, a migrant labourer, is assigned the task of burying the leftover biriyani from Rizwan’s luxurious wedding. Rizwan is the grandson of Kalanthan Haji who had gone to the Gulf in the Sixties in an Uru (large traditional wooden boats usually made in Beypore, Kozhikode).  When Gopal buries the biriyani made from basmati rice, he is haunted by the memory of once buying 50 grams of basmati rice for his pregnant wife Mathangi. He named his daughter Basmati. She later dies of starvation. The story posits the present in-migration as the other half of Malayali migratory journeys. By pitting visceral hunger against nauseating opulence, it asks the Malayali where he has forgotten his own history of exile.

Amal’s Bengali Kalaapam (Bengali Rebellion), published this year, also takes in-migration as its theme. As in Biriyani, this novel too contains questions about the forgetting of past migratory travails of Malayalis. Curiously, Gopal Yadav and Najeeb appear as characters in this novel, too. 

So far, the aesthetic influences of in-migration have not appeared in the mainstream cultural domain of Malayalam. Though an intermingling of languages has begun on the margins of Ernakulam, the reality is that Kerala has refused to wholeheartedly accept the migrant labourer as one of its own. There is a fervent insistence on locating the migrant as the other. Contrast this with G. Aravindan’s graphic novel Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Little people and the big world) published in the Seventies. Here, Gopi who lives in Bengal comes back home with anecdotes about Satyajit Ray’s Charulatha. His wife Aparna recites Rabindra Sangeet. Today, however, the emphasis is on stressing a false pride about tradition and cultural uniqueness, a scenario that draws parallels between the rise of Hindutva politics in India.

In this process of othering, one can also find keys to the impact migration and exile have had on Malayalam. What it did was to attack notions of cultural uniqueness, despite stiff resistance from regressive forces of traditionalism. Through the intermingling of aesthetic expressions, it brought about a hybridisation of culture. Imported symbols from exile lands became localised. By celebrating multiculturalism, it questioned and toppled the hegemony of a putrid romanticism and its dangerous revivalist tendencies.

 (Translated from Malayalam by Suresh P. Thomas.)