I recently came across this blog post (Malayalee Mindset) by a retired Malayalee IFS (Indian Foreign Service) official, T.P. Sreenivasan, on the Malayalee mindset. We are reputed to be a cantankerous people, quarrelsome, argumentative, and demanding. No wonder we make great trade union leaders. Here are a couple of excerpts from Sreenivasan’s post. The crab metaphor in the following is well known and is sometimes applied to Indian crabs:
The story of the Kerala crabs is well known. They are exported in open cans, as no crab will allow another to climb up in any circumstance. We are highly individualistic, incapable of working as a team. Our superb intellect and creative energy are frittered away in internal squabbles.
And this too is equally well known:
The saying goes that where there are two Malayalees, there is an association, where there are three, there are two associations, where there are four, there is a federation of associations.
I had thought these Malayalee characteristics might be recent developments, but Louise Ouwerkerk’s book, No Elephants for the Maharaja, which is set in the 1930s and 1940s, has this to say about Malayalees:
The Malayalee is above all an individualist, used to going about his business regardless of anybody except the members of his own family, tenacious of his personal rights, quarrelsome, difficult to organize for any continuing purpose. There is a saying in Kerala which may be relevant here, as it certainly is to the main theme of this book: “Take one Keralan: you have a politician; take two Keralans: you have a political party; take three Keralans: you have two political parties.”
So, it appears that these Malayalee characteristics are deep rooted in our psyche.
Louise Ouwerkerk attributes the fierce independence of spirit of the Malayalee (to put a positive spin on it!) to Kerala’s peculiar geography. It’s an intriguing theory:
There is so much water that there is no need to combine for the purposes of irrigation, as in other parts of India, and each man can have his own assured water supply. The shape of the land is such as to break up the cultivable areas into relatively small units, with some wet land for rice cultivation and some dry land for other crops available for each homestead. The result is that homesteads are separate, each surrounded by its own paddy fields in the long green valleys, coconut groves, tapioca fields on the hillsides, each house standing in a compound surrounded by mud walls, within which grow the mangoes, jack fruit trees, vegetables, and spices used by the family. The social consequences of this physical structure of society are incalculable. Each farming family can live practically independently, supplying the bulk of its own daily needs from its own farm. There are no tight village groupings such as are characteristic of the rest of India. This leads to a lack of social cohesion which is one of the problems of Kerala.
This explanation is in the spirit of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which attributes disparities in economic development in different parts of the world to geography.