Displaced by boundaries, united by culture: Meet the Malayalis of Mahe and Kanyakumari
If I told you, I am a Malayali but I am not from Kerala, wouldn't you wonder how on earth that is possible? — Karishma VP’s post on a Facebook group was intriguing. She wrote forgotten facts about the Indian freedom fight. While the rest of India became free in 1947, it took seven more years for Mahe. And when the French finally left, Mahe was still not going to be a part of Kerala even though it is wedged between Kozhikode and Kannur, two integral districts in the north of the state. Mahe, packed with Malayalis, happens to be part of the Union Territory of Puducherry, lying far away, near southeastern Tamil Nadu.
And there, torn between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is another town called Kanyakumari, where people cite stories of confused Malayali identities, like those in Mahe. This is a story of those people, left neither here nor there, in Kanyakumari and Mahe.
“It was probably in primary school that I learnt about the different states and how we were part of Tamil Nadu, etc. and (got) the feeling that we were part of something we were not actually part of. A sense of separateness and belonging at the same time,” says Remitha Satheesh, who grew up in Kanyakumari in a family that retained its ‘Malayali identity’.
Remitha Satheesh in Kanyakumari
When the State Reorganisation Act, 1956 was implemented and Kanyakumari got merged with Tamil Nadu, there were people there who spoke two languages, a mix of two cultures. Remitha remembers that even then, her family was particular about their ‘Malayaliness’, especially when several others they knew gave up such identities and blended with the Tamil culture. Remitha’s family continued celebrating Onam, subscribed to Mathrubhumi newspaper (but also Dinamalar) and played Malayalam songs more than Tamil at home.
It is from reading film names on the Mathrubhumi newspaper that Remitha learnt to read and write Malayalam. At school, it was Tamil. But she has no regrets. “It is a lifelong love affair with a beautiful classical language. So I was able to learn more about its culture, literature etc, which, in a way, is my heritage too,” she says.
‘Outsiders in our home’
But it really makes her angry when people ask how they can speak Malayalam so well. “We want to scream at them, because it is our mother tongue; because we belong to this place and always have. We are not marunadan (non-resident) Malayalis. We were not uprooted and planted here. Our roots are here and very deep. Because people reorganised states and said we belonged to one state while we culturally belonged to another. Because one state gave us away. And that can lead to a sense of being outsiders in our own home,” she says agitatedly.
And when she calms down, Remitha adds, “You can always redraw geographical and political boundaries, but not cultural boundaries. We were always Malayalis, but we were never part of Kerala. The day Kerala took birth was the day we were carved out as a district from the erstwhile Travancore Kingdom and handed over to Tamil Nadu. It always rankles that we were given away and there is a deep sense of neither here nor there. Tamils refuse to accept us and Malayalis never acknowledge us as Malayalis.”
A view of the sea from Kanyakumari
A lot of what Kanyakumari district is today, is because of Travancore kings, Remitha says – infrastructure, education and so on. “A deliberate attempt is being made to forget/erase history; so many neglected heritage buildings that were part of Travancore. That hurts! Kerala also sometimes forgets the role Kanyakumari played or contributed to her arts and culture — JC Daniel, Sathyan, Thikkurissi, Amsi Narayana Pillai, Madhavan Nair (ISRO) etc.
“We are like this forgotten piece of land whose people are trying to write a new history. And for those of us with connections to the old, it hurts.”
Remitha has now accepted both and forged a new identity that is a blend of both cultures, ‘the best of both worlds’, as she says.
‘We are Malayalis, yet not from Kerala’
Karishma, in her post, mentions similar feelings. “We 'Mayazhikkaar' speak Malayalam, cook and eat Kerala food, celebrate Kerala festivals, marry Keralites, live right inside Kerala, we are all Malayalees, and yet we are not from Kerala!” she writes.
St Theresa's shrine in Mahe / Credit - Karishma VP
In another post, she writes about the famous shrine of the Saint Theresa of Avila in Mahe that people of all religions flock to, especially on the feast day of October 14. There is a legend that a ship from Spain had suddenly stopped on reaching Mahe and would not move no matter what the crew did. That's when the captain of the ship heard a voice say "I want to be in Mahe" and there happened to be a statue of St Theresa inside. The ship crew handed over the statue to the people of Mahe and only then did it start again and they sailed away.
Mahe’s political events in literary work
The story of the St Theresa statue also appears in the book, Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil (On the banks of the Mayyazhi) by M Mukundan, whom Karishma calls the most famous Mahi native.
His book is a work of fiction but derived largely from the incidents in Mahe that led to its freedom in 1954. The book talks about significant incidents that shaped Mahe's political history such as the first revolution and the freedom fight that led to its independence in 1954, and the return of the French.
“It is all based on real-life happenings but with the changes needed for fiction. There really was a man like the character Kanarettan, who is leading the freedom struggle, but Dasan is pure fiction,” Mukundan says.
Dasan is the central character of the novel, which begins before his birth, from the time his grandmother, Kurambi, was a young woman. Kurambi is in a way the best chronicler of those years, having witnessed the times when French men and women roamed the Mahe town in all their glory, to the day they left on their famous ships and never came back. People like Kurambi who adored the French had been many – they didn’t want the white people to go.
Without writing it in so many words, Mukundan weaves a beautiful story of a relationship between Kurambi and Leslie ‘Saive’ – the French man who rode his horse cart and came by Kurambi’s house to ask for a ‘sniff’ of her ‘powder’. They spoke about the people they knew and had a laugh together every day. It’s never written that Kurambi loved Leslie but before she slept every night, she heard the hoofs of his horse pass by, long after he died.
“There were so many people like Kurambi in Mahe – fascinated by the French, who didn’t want them to leave. They didn’t understand the concept of freedom that the younger lot fought for,” Mukundan says.
Damu, the father of the novel’s protagonist Dasan, once asks Kunjanandan Master, a schoolteacher, “What is this swathanthryam, master?” or What is freedom?
That was the time, as said in the novel, the walls of Mahe saw writings of freedom. Communism had risen. A schoolteacher with a grave illness, sowed the seeds of it, hanging photos of Marx and Lenin at his house, talking of a free Mahe with his young students like Dasan.
‘We were born French citizens in India’
Through all of that historical fiction, Mahe stood apart from the rest of India, which fought the British. “Unlike others, we were born in India as French citizens. I was a French citizen when I was born, though, in British India, it was still Indians who lived under British rule. Our identity confusions go that far back,” Mukundan says.
It was only after the French left that the people of Mahe became Indians. Karishma calls it a bitter-sweet moment for all. Unlike the British, the relations between the French and the people of Mahe were always cordial. Karishma's grandparents were frequent guests at the French administrator's home even as her granddad, Dr V Narayanan, was involved in the freedom fight — reminding you of Leslie and Kurambi’s friendship.
Karishma's son and late father on the Mahe walkway
Like the incidents in his novel, some of the characters too are inspired by real life people who lived long lives in Mahe. In the novel is the unforgettable character of Gustav, a sad man who locked himself up on top of a big house, and made music late in the night that made Mahe’s makkal (the children of Mahe) weep.
“There really was a man like that in Mahe, whom I used to see when I walked as a child to my school. He would always be up in his room in a big house, never coming out. I still don’t know why he did that,” says Mukundan.
And like in his book, the people of Mayyazhi (Malayalam for Mahe) and the French used to exchange sweets in real life. In the novel, Missy, Leslie’s wife and Kurambi’s friend, used to make sweet cakes that ‘Mahiyude makkal’ – the children of Mahe – loved.
The only memory of the white man now left behind is the last of the ‘sangavargakar’ (the Indo French) in Mahe — an old woman who sells flowers to devotees coming to the church. “The others had all left the soil, without any clue of what to do with their lives when the French left.”