Imagined Immunities: The Cure of Idinthakarai
The power of imagined communities was never so evident to us as on the other day, when a group of us — Malayalee people of different political affiliations — made our way to Idintakarai in southern Tamil Nadu. In many ways,we were representative of contemporary Malayalee society — we were from districts spanning the length and breadth of Kerala, had very vocally-expressed mutual differences of opinions and interests, and belonged to of different socioeconomic classes, faiths, and castes, were composed of local residents, NRIs, and Malayalees settled elsewhere in the country. Of course, we were also representative of the gender imbalances that characterize even the oppositional civil society here — there were just two women in a group of nearly thirty. We went there to express solidarity with the people of Idinthakarai who have been struggling valiantly against the monstrosity that the government of India is determined to foist on them — the Koodankulam nuclear power plant — and who have been described as traitors to the Nation by the very people who have ripped apart our sense of what a nation should mean to ordinary people.
As we entered the village, I thought of how our imagined communities had rendered us blind: clearly,nuclear radiation does not know of linguistic boundaries, nor does it care. And anyone with eyes would notice that southern Tamil Nadu is environmentally closer to the Kerala coast than to TN — the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram is barely 70 kilimeters away as the crow flies, compared to Chennai, which is some 700 kilometers away. The thickly-populated coast (by the way, these are some of the most thickly populated regions of the world — and the population density of Kerala is very large too) is shared; the waves of the Arabian Sea too have never cared about linguistic boundaries. A leak at Koodankulam would affect Thiruvananthapuram and the whole of Kerala much worse perhaps than other parts of TN, and yet the Malayalee public seems to be largely sleeping. We seem to be resting in the illusion that things on the other side of the Amaravila check-post will not affect us for the most; we are then quite like the CPM in Kerala which believes that the ghost of the long-dead Soviet Union will protect the reactors from damage; only that we implicitly replace it with the equally imagined linguistic community.
Why did we buy this lie, I thought bitterly, even though our debt to Tamil and the Tamil people is evident in many, many ways, right from Malayalam’s tendency to be written like Sanskrit but spoken like Tamil? Even though we did have solitary figures like the early Malayalee economist P J Thomas, (almost completely forgotten in contemporary Kerala, and perhaps not surprisingly), who suggested a coastal, rather than linguistic, state, which would run down from Konkan to Kanyakumari? I myself have roots in south Travancore (the present-day Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts of TN), and grandmothers who prayed in Tamil and spoke in Malayalam, who could never really agree that the linguistic state was a useful idea. Yet my own imagined community has always been linguistic.I stuttered in my broken and utterly ridiculous Tamil, trying to respond to people who poured out their woes, painfully aware of the fact that I could have surely done better, had I valued the legacy of two tongues my grandmother and grand-aunts had always urged me to claim. For I did understand their spoken Tami lmore or less perfectly; if I felt tongue-tied that was surely because I had failed to practice my own spoken Tamil. But such were the times in which I grew up — one in which everything that appeared to our elitist eye as ‘loud’, ‘tasteless’ was called ‘pandi’ and the peculiar defect of the eye that cannot see the beauty of gleaming-dark skin and a strong body was not recognized as a kind of mental illness. But while the elites did not bother to claim their own legacy, it appears that people on the coast of southern Kerala have preserved it much better, continuing to remain linked with coastal communities further south and beyond, speaking Malayalam and Tamil, through everyday life and that of the Catholic Church too. No wonder that they see the danger much more sharply than any so-called ‘enlightened’ Malayalee elite person – not simply because their livelihoods are most directly affected.The people of Idinthakarai and their leader Udayakumar have preserved that legacy so well — they could understand and speak Malayalam better than most of us could understand and speak Tamil. There is a darga close to Idinthakarai where people of all sorts go to seek cures and favours. I think Idinthakarai offers a cure as well, for our ‘imagined immunities’; we ought to take our children there so that they at least are cured of the disease that inflicts our souls and leaves us linguistically- and culturally-blinded .
Udayakumar spoke Malayalam fluently; he studied in Thiruvananthapuram under one of Malayalam’s finest literary critics and scholars, Ayyappa Panicker. He told me that many of his classmates taught in colleges here. I felt so ashamed — have any of these people, all college professors now and probably earning fat salaries, come out in protest when someone who shared some of their youthful days was being stripped of his citizenship? I deeply missed Prof. Panikker — I am sure that if he were alive, he would have come out in open support of his student. I am not sure if any of Udayakumar’s old classmates currently teaching here have protested. But very little protest has risen from the Malayalee intelligentsia. Surely, Kerala’s literary public is no longer what it was. Its upper echelons resemble a public only marginally –it is full intellectual pretenders who specialize in grinding out time-tested platitudes in marginally-different idioms, who are deeply averse to pushing the limits of thinking, and finally, are concerned with nothing else but their precious asses. It is this bunch who are now covered with awards and ‘eminent memberships’ in institutions built out of public funds; don’t expect them to remember old camaderies.
A deep sense of sadness engulfed me again when I saw how our utterly skewed understanding of ‘capabilities’ have rendered us blind to the immense moral and practical-material resourcefulness of the seashore people. They are the most skilled traditional fisherfolk on the western coast; but their knowledge of the sea, painstakingly gained from years of experience, their tremendous ability to adapt and innovate techniques and reduce costs, are simply not recognizable through a lens of capabilities that privileges modern education. The resilience of their community life; the deep knowledge of the consequences of the atrocity of the nuclear power plant, evident among even the smallest children there — how come they are not counted as ‘capabilities’? How come their desire to live and work in that place is not recognizing as ‘functioning’, desired ‘beings and doings’? How come the language of human development, so preferred by development academics in Kerala, stays utterly blind to these? How can one not be drowned in a sea of sadness when one sees these people of Idintakarai reduced to ‘bare life’ by the intolerable siege imposed by the Indian state in collusion with the state government, which has shorn them of rights as Indian citizens, denied them access to much of health care, and threatened to sweep off an entire way of life cherished by many generations there? I tremble still when I remember the words of a young fourteen-year-old girl, that she and her friends were determined to immolate themselves on the seashore if their struggle did not bear fruit. It is not just that people there are reduced to ‘bare life’; it is also that they are intensely aware of it, even small children there. And hence a tragic end looks welcome to them. Only the littlest ones want to come away — a five-year-old boy who had just lost his father tragically, wanted to come away with the young men of the Solidarity Youth Movement, when we visited their home. His older sisters — little girls all — however did not, or could not, entertain such a possibility at all.
So, honestly, no one gave a whit when the Tamil Nadu police apprehended us when we were on our way back, by about seven o’clock in the evening. The suffering of the people there seemed so tremendous that the risks we faced appeared outright minor. They thought we had violated Section 144; but we were not walking together or gathered on roads, we were inside moving vehicles that the police stopped. We had also not come across any notification of the prohibitive order there either; nor did we see people traveling in groups on the same road to Idinthakarai being stopped by the police.If so many people were virutally imprisoned, I thought, why should I whine even a bit? If fourteen-year-old girls live in the constant thought of death there, why should I worry too much about my own fourteen- year-old daughter, who is so full of the laughter than can only bloom on the faces of happy and secure fourteen- year- old girls? The police kept us there to watch us and think of strategies. How could we be charactized? As a bunch of religious fanatics — so easy to think surely, since the majority of us were young Muslim men? But that couldn’t because some of us were not Muslim and held quite different political views — there was also among us a feminist academic (myself), an activist of the fish workers’ movement, an activist of the anti-nuclear movement in Kerala, two people from a non-resident Malayalee cultural association with broadly leftist views. We were too diverse for an effective conspiracy theory, too spread over the length of Kerala and over different social classes. And we were obviously aware of our rights and not shy to demand them. And maybe remanding us might have looked like symbolically locking up all of Kerala’s oppositional civil society, or even all of,contemporary Kerala.
We were told to leave by 11 at night.The FIRs were prepared — and the charge was apparently violation of Section 144 — but it was still not clear whether the cases will be actually charged or not. Some of the television channels in Kerala aired the news — many apparently decided not to — and there were demonstrations in many towns in Kerala. But for the life of me I cannot fathom what the political parties of Kerala are waiting for. It is clear by now that Jayalalithaa has no plans whatsoever to share the electricity from Koodankulam with Kerala and in any case, the demand for power has probably been pushed up so much in TN and Karnataka that they will gobble up most of the power in the South Indian grid, including hydro-electric power that is generated in Kerala. And it is amply clear that the environmental ill-effects that this plant are going to be suffered more directly by the coastal communities on the Kerala-TN coast and Sri Lanka (Colombo is very close to Thiruvananthapuram, closer than Kerala’s northern cities) but largely by Kerala — the whole of south Kerala will have to be evacuated if there is a leak and we have no clue how. Those CPM-loyalists who keep calling many of us ‘arm-chair’intellectuals ought to be more concerned about their broiler-produced leadership which can barely see anything beyond their noses; the Congress ‘green-MLAs’ might want to extend their voices to be critical of things that happen beyond Kerala’s official and linguistic borders if the rest of us are not to fall back into total cynicism about the by-now common self-seeking use of issues raised by the oppositional civil society by clever politicians — oh, we really have seen a lot, a lot, of that by now. The rest of the Congress leadership are of course too busy devising plans for, well, efficient extraction from public resources for self-survival through methods much-tried and otherwise. It will be a miracle if they indeed look up and take notice even if the entire coastal population of south Kerala turns up at their doorstep. Whether they wake up or not, the people of Kerala have to wake up, and wake up NOW. The media has to be forced to take notice too. Every opportunity to shake up the discourse has to be availed of. And money and other materials have to be urgently found. From the questions the policed asked us, it was quite evident that they hope to kill the people’s movement at Idinthakarai by starving it of resources — of moral resources, surely, but even more decisively, of material resources.
But much more urgently, we need to redo the boundaries of our imagined communities — and learn a lesson or two from people whose capabilities we denigrated, who we characterized as ‘outliers’ to the fabled ‘Kerala Model’. I came away from the turbulence of yesterday sadder but wiser, having learned that humility and hope alone can stay the catastrophe.