Nostalgia and the Malayali

It seems that as I grow old, nostalgia becomes more and more of a permanent companion, a sort of chronic condition which is not debilitating. It is the province of the Malayali: mostly forced to live as an expatriate, he pines for a time and a place unattainable. It may not be coincidental that the usually the term for homesickness is used for nostalgia too in Malayalam (“gruhaturatvam”). For the Malayali, separation across time and space from loved surroundings is the grim reality in life.

Many of the beloved songs of popular Malayalam cinema are about nostalgia and homesickness:

“Maamalakalkkappurathu Marathakappattuduthu

Malayalamennoru Naadundu…”


(Across the mountain ranges, wearing a dress of emerald green

Is the land called “Malayalam”…)


“Naalikerathinte Naattilenikkoru

Nazhiyidangazhi Mannundu…

Athil Narayanakkili Koodupolulloru



(In the land of the coconut palm,

I have a handful of earth in my name…

On that, like a sparrow’s nest

There is a ramshackle thatched house…)


“Oru vattam koodiyen Ormakal meyunna

Thirumuttathethuvaan Moham…”


(Once again, I wish to go back to that

Sacred courtyard where memories graze…)


The last song, by our beloved poet Prof. O. N. V. Kurup, was the defining song of my generation. It came out in the Eighties. In simple terms, it talks about a pastoral childhood which was becoming a distant memory even then: what children used to do when VCD players, computers and play station were not available. Eating bitter gooseberries, drinking cool well-water immediately afterwards to convert that bitterness to sweetness, having a cooing match with the koel… but what really packed the punch was the last line:

“Verutheyee Mohangal Ennariyumbozhum

Veruthe Mohikkuvaan Moham…”


(Even though I know that all these wishes are futile,

I wish to wish, just for the sake of wishing…)


Thus the song defines two things – a pastoral life which is fast disappearing and a futile wish to go back to it, knowing fully well it is impossible. It is about thirty-four years since O. N. V penned that song, but the sentiment has not altered.

It must be noted that diaspora is hardly unique to the Malayali. The most famous one historically is that of the Jews (“By the rivers of Babylon…”): it has culminated ultimately in them obtaining a country of their own and creating another diaspora – that of the Palestinians – in the process. It seems that displacement and the longing to return is part of our humanity, and it shall remain. What makes the Keralite different from others is that his separation is voluntary.

Keralites are proud of their small state: unlike the majority of India, it is green and clean. Mother Nature has been kind to Kerala. The tourist brochures call it “God’s Own Country”, and even though this is boasting at its zenith, many tourists may agree. Even at the height of urbanisation – there is hardly a “village” worthy of the definition in Kerala any more – the state still manages to maintain its green image. I have posted below a random sample from my “vacation” photographs to illustrate the point (one gets to appreciate all the more, gazing on concrete and desert sand for eleven months of the year).

However, the state has very few avenues for making a living for its highly educated population: there are very few industries and very little infrastructure. For making a living, most Malayalis are forced to go out. The separation is thus not entirely a matter of choice. Also, the rapid pace of urbanisation – even though heartily embraced by the people – does not prevent them from remembering a past when everything was blissful.

This futile longing for a lost golden age and paradise – a sort of Atlantis of memory – defines much of Malayalam popular art, literature and culture. It is doubtful whether it ever existed: it may be as mythical as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But that is not relevant. In the realm of the spirit, mythical truth is more powerful than mundane reality.

Our most famous festival, Onam, is in the memory of a golden era when Kerala was ruled by the mythical king Mahabali (this could only be a later interpolation – because according to another myth, Kerala came out of the sea when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Gokarna in the north to Kanyakumari in the south – and Bali predates Parasurama in mythical chronology). In the actual myth, Mahabali was an Asura king who has defeated all the Devas, and was tricked by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin (“Vamana”) into giving up his kingdom. However, because Bali was just and devout, Vishnu set him up as the ruler of a region called Sutala.

In the Kerala version of the myth, Mahabali (or “Maveli”, as we Malayalis call him) was the ruler of Kerala. He was the quintessential perfect monarch: popular ballads sing about his reign when all people were equal, there were no deceit and trickery, and people never told lies. Vishnu as Vamana kicked this kind ruler down to the netherworld (“Patalam”) where he lives now: however, the god granted him one boon. Every year he could return to visit his people on Onam day. So to keep the monarch happy, the people of Kerala make a great show of prosperity with splendour and feasting (even if one is living in abject poverty), so that Maveli goes back satisfied that all is well.

Maveli is the original expatriate from Kerala, pining eternally for a homeland he can never come back to.

We celebrate Onam with great gusto wherever in the world we are. In the Middle East, this has become the festival of the Great Nostalgia: in effect, we all share part of King Maveli’s angst.

O.N.V was right – even if the longing is futile, we will still do it.

It is such a sweet pain.


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