The old joke about Malayalis is that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he met a Malayali tea seller. Bhopal The Kerala Connection. The Sunday Express only had to go as far as Raisen district in Madhya Pradesh to find four villages, where the natives of Kerala set foot in 1955 as part of a Central government scheme.
February 10,1955. Gopalan sat huddled on the platform at Kochi Harbour Station, waiting for the train to New Delhi to pull in. As the 22-year-old waited, he held on to a clutch of marachini kambu (tapioca). An unexpected call of destiny in the form of a newspaper advertisement had intertwined his life with the tapioca he held on to—uprooted from his home in Thonnakal, about 24 km from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and about to be transplanted in a village called Intkheri, 90 km from Bhopal.
Fifty-three years later, Gopalan doesn’t remember what he did with that bunch of tapioca but as he talks about “Jawaharlal Nehru’s plan” that brought 200 families from Kerala and relocated them in Intkheri and three other villages, he realises his memory hasn’t failed him through these difficult years. “How can we forget? It wasn’t easy. About 19 families went back soon after and others left over the years. Now there are about 100 families left in these four villages,” says Gopalan (now Gopalan ‘Patel’), laying out yellowing pieces of official documents and newspaper reports that put together a curious story—of human grit, of migration and a beautiful chronicle of social transformation that brought a piece of Kerala to the heart of Madhya Pradesh.
Intkheri, the biggest Malayali settlement in the region, announces itself much after you turn right from National Highway-86, along a dirt track with spiky boulders for a road. When it rains, the spikes jut out menacingly and the nearby Chamarsal river, a tributary of the Narmada, threatens to breach its embankment and cut off Intkhedi and its sister villages. It’s almost as if the rains conspire to make this part of an India that is forced to move at a different pace. The other villages—Imilia, Uradmao and Majoos Kalan—fall in a line, separated by rows of soyabean fields and joined by a history that goes back 53 years.
In 1955, a number of landless families—mainly Ezhavas and Nairs (two of the biggest Hindu communities of Kerala) and Christians—were brought from Travancore-Cochin state (before it became Kerala) and given land in then Bhopal state under a Central Mechanised Farming project. The biggest lure for these poor families from places like Kuttanad, Aluva and Trissur in Kerala was the 12 acres that each of them would get in four villages—Intkheri, Imilia, Urudmao and Majoos Kalan—in Raisen district. They also got, among other things, a pair of bulls, a plough, seeds for sowing and an igloo-shaped, tin-roof barrack, the money for which they had to pay in easy installments. According to the initial terms of agreement, the selected people would be employed on daily wages to work on the farm for two years, during which they would be trained to sow and harvest wheat and soyabean and they in turn would teach the native tribals paddy cultivation. The land would be transferred to them at the end of the 10th year after they paid the prescribed premium.
But things didn’t quite work according to plan. After the reorganisation of states on November 1, 1956, Bhopal state became part of a greater Madhya Pradesh and the project wound up in 1957—eight years ahead of schedule. According to the settlers, the pending installments were calculated as dues and thrust on them.
O.N. Shrivastava, former Governor of Nagaland and Manipur and an IPS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, says the project was probably stopped because the new state had an entirely different set of administrators and several old projects were stopped. The farming project at Intkhedi probably ended that way, he says.
“That came as a shock. We were suddenly branded as debtors and could no longer avail of loans. We struggled for years on this alien land and all those people who were supposed to implement the project vanished. We have worked on paddy fields back home but wheat was entirely new. So each time we tried, we failed,” says Gopalan, whose family owns 14 acres in Intkheri.
All this while, the debts kept mounting and a lot of settlers went back to Kerala, putting up their land for distress sales. In 1970, after several requests to ministers and officials of the state government went unheeded, Gopalan and others wrote to then prime minister Indira Gandhi. That worked. In 1984, the Centre waived their loans—close to Rs 5 lakh—and the Malayalis won their first battle.
But while they were battling loans and writing memorandums, Intkheri and the other three villages witnessed a quiet social transformation. When the first set of 71 Malayali families came on May 1, 1955, the locals—mostly Gond tribals and other OBCs like Naees and Kushwahas—resisted. “We would run away from them. We didn’t know where they had come from. They looked different, spoke a strange tongue and ate huge mounds of rice. Our parents were convinced they were barbarians. But that was then. Now the joke is that we wear lungis and they wear pyjamas. We look like each other now,” says Hari Ram Kushwaha, the sarpanch of Intkheri, which has a population of 1,150 and 50 per cent of them are Malayalis.
THE physical divisions blurred over time but what was tougher to overcome were mental blocks—like that of caste and religion. These villages had very few upper caste but untouchability was well entrenched among the locals. “Those days, there were only two wells in Intkheri,” says Karthikeyan, the secretary of the village panchayat. “The locals wouldn’t let us draw water from their wells. And if we touched any of their mud pots, they would fling it on the ground and break it. But now we are invited to their weddings and we all sit and eat together. Since we are all agriculturists, we share the same concerns,” says Karthikeyan, who came to the village as a child. “I was 14 when these people came. We would call them ‘Madrasis’. I don’t quite like the word but…” So what does he like calling them? “Malayali,” says Kushwaha, taming the syllables and pronouncing the word like very few non-Malayalis can. “I can also speak a few lines: Ninde pere enda (What’s your name?), nee evede pova (where are you going?),” Kushwaha grinned.
And so gradually, the Malayali families got the primary school in the village upgraded to a higher secondary school, set up two churches, first a Pentecostal and then a Catholic church, a primary health centre, even a Chotanikkara Bhagawati temple based on the original one near Ernakulam in Kerala and a Sri Narayana Guru temple dedicated to a great social reformer in Kerala—everything except what we were by now half-expecting to find: that card-carrying union leader.
“Oh, no unions here. Some of our families were loyal to the Communists. But since Nehru got us here, they switched sides to back the Congress,” says Karthikeyan.
E.V. Joy, a grocer opposite the Catholic church, then gives us a crash course in local politics. “In the last assembly election, a Congressman won from our constituency, Bhojpur. We are part of the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency and Thakur Rampal Singh of the BJP is our MP,” he says. And then, the stunner: “Your newspaper’s founder, Ramnath Goenka, was an MP from Vidisha. I know because I read the papers.” Have to hand it to the Malayali.
BUT the most visible change was literacy. When the Malayalis of Aluva and Kuttanad carefully packed their sparse belongings, they also made sure they brought with them a fierce obsession for education. Like 75-year-old Mariakutty, who says her only aim in life when she came as a 22-year-old was to make sure her four children went to school. “When I came here, I was shocked. The school wasn’t good enough and I would cry all day. I felt trapped but held on, somehow.” Now as Mariakutty’s granddaughter waits for her admission card from a Raisen college, she is relieved. “My husband died about nine years ago and now all I want is to see these kids educated,” she says. It is hard to say if her eyes are moist with tears or glazed with age.
Like Mariakutty, the Keralites in Intkheri and the other three villages ensured that every child in their homes went to school—fueled by an intense aspiration to make life better for their children. Some even sent their kids to English-medium schools in Raisen (35 km away) and Bhopal because the school in Intkheri wasn’t “good enough”. A few families sold their land to afford their children’s education and some relocated with their kids to Bhopal.
“We started sending our children to school after seeing the Malayalis. But we still wouldn’t send our girls outside these villages,” says sarpanch Kushwaha.
This paid off: Intkheri has a literacy rate of 100 per cent while nearby villages with no Malayalis like Kosni and Bhartipur have a rate of about 20 per cent.
But at the government high school in Intkheri, it’s hard to find Malayali children. “You won’t find too many of them here because they all stay in hostels in Raisen, Sultanpur or Bhopal. Malayalis want English-medium schools for their children,” says Usha Mohan, a 37-year-old teacher from Imlia village who teaches in the Intkheri school. “As kids, we walked all the way from Imilia to study here. Aise mushkil paristithi mein padayi karoge, tabhi jakar apan zindagi mein kuch ban payenge (if you want to make a mark, you will have to struggle to study),” she says. I cringe but don’t tell her my child goes to a premier school in a fancy yellow bus but still complains about being taken to school. And then a stumper: “Acha, yeh batao, yeh sab likhne se apan ko kya milega,” she asks. “Hmm…” we smile foolishly.
Apan is an MP slang for ‘us’ and Mohan, a second generation Malayali here, speaks the regional dialect with ease but surprisingly, with a pronounced Malayalam accent. So do all the second and third generation Malayalis here. Like Mariakutty’s 15-year-old granddaughter Roma Jacob says, “The local girls make fun of our accent. But I think they speak funny Hindi.”
“It’s probably because when we came here, we lived in clusters, away from the locals,” says Karthikeyan. Now though the Malayalis and the locals get along well, Intkheri, Imilia and the other villages have their Malayali colonies. “The Malayalis have maintained their identity all along. There have been no cross-marriages so far. Even the Ezhavas, Nairs and Christians don’t marry each other,” says Father Philip, the priest at the Catholic church in Intkheri.
Food habits have changed over time but rice is still the staple, at least among the older lot. “We have to eat rice, even if it is once a day,” says 55-year-old Shanta Nair who came here as a two-year-old with her father. “For Onam and Vishu (Kerala’s two main festivals), we get jaggery chips and nentra payam (a plantain variety popular in Kerala) from Bhopal and invite our relatives in Bhopal and surrounding areas,” she says, running her fingers through her knee-length damp hair. The smell hits me every time she does that: it’s that familiar mix of coconut oil and water, just the way Malayalis like it. “And why shouldn’t it be? We are Malayalis, aren’t we,” she asks. But Shanta and the others barely visit Kerala. “I did go 25 years ago. I felt completely cut off—barely knew anyone. I don’t think I will go again,” she says.
That’s the story of Intkheri and the other three villages—a story that began when Gopalan Patel, Shanta’s father and many others set out in search of a new home. But 53 years later, they still haven’t found their home: is it that faraway, surreal land called Kerala they left long ago, or in Bhopal and Raisen where several families have since migrated to, or here in Intkheri and Imilia, where an entire generation has grown up?
“Home is definitely here in Imilia. This is where we toiled, where we own land, this is what we will leave behind for our children. But sometimes, when I see my grandchildren walk miles to get to their school, when I think of whether, if I were to fall ill, I will survive the trip to the hospital in Sultanpur, I sometimes wonder if my husband did the right thing by choosing to come here,” says Shankariamma, teacher Usha Mohan’s mother.
“Please do write about all this: that we have no roads, no good health centre…,” says her neighbour Chellamma. “Yeh sab likhne se apan ko kuch faida hoga,” she asks.
Thankfully, Chellamma doesn’t insist on an answer.