N A COUNTRY as diverse as ours, communities survive on stereotypes of the ‘other’. It’s a way of classifying and ordering an otherwise anarchic world. In this wealth of comforting pre-judgments, the vein of Malayali stereotypes is particularly golden, replete with two-line jokes and an accent everyone imagines they can imitate. Scratch an Indian lightly and there will quickly emerge the stereotypes of the Malayali drunk, the Malayali letch, the Malayali trade unionist, the Malayali movie star or bureaucrat. “To get my work done, I had to run from Pillai to post,” grins a quiet Bengali about a government office expedition. Here come the clowns. Let the jokes begin.

The world of the Malayali man is one where everyone seems to read and the sense of entitlement is so strong it can skew national statistical surveys. (Journalist P Sainath once compared the attitude of the starving Uttar Pradesh farmer — who responds to survey queries with gratitude for what he has — to the relatively prosperous Kerala farmer who curses WTO regulations, the government and the state of agriculture in the South Zone.) It is also a world of inexplicable quixoticism and seemingly lost causes. Kerala is a place where a public works department employee takes a year off to redesign preschool education for his village, and succeeds so well that 18 countries send their representatives to study the model.

Yet, seeking the typical Malayali man is a slippery affair. Each one looks out moodily and introspectively at you from behind varying amounts of facial hair. He’s sure he’s not typical, sure he’s misunderstood by his community. Simultaneously, he likes being Malayali and sure he’s the distilled Malayali, and others crude abominations.

If you are a shameless believer in the utility of stereotypes you would agree Malayali men are inclined to wanderlust, substance disorders and angst. Mallus do get around. The average Malayali in Tiruvalla, Tippasandra and Timbuktu sets forth blithely towards the furthest point he can imagine. The pursuit of Mammon doesn’t quite explain it. Other communities have sold ice-golas, pushed mutta-dosa carts and made their fortune not so far from home. But the Malayali man? A teashop owner in Leh, a temple keeper in Madhya Pradesh, an arms dealer in Washington, a doctor in Nigeria, a botany teacher in Papua New Guinea – when these Malayali men left home neither they nor their families asked why they had to go so far. Once there, the Malayali abandons his languid air in favour of a furious work ethic and labours to arrange visas for the cousins he barely spoke to at home. For a long while now the location of choice has been the Gulf, from where came infinitely expandable suitcases and infinite variations of a particular phenomena: men who see their wives and children once a year for a month, men who bring up their children in Kerala while their wives work abroad, men who have never known what it is to be parented so they don’t know how to bring up children. It’s fairly normal in Kerala to have a family where four generations have grown up without parents. Men’s relationships with their mothers is thus either distant or stunted: one barely knows what these gaps are doing to the social fabric of Kerala, except when you speculate why it’s the country’s suicide capital.

FOR MANY Malayali men in their 20s and 30s, a wide oeuvre of characters played by superstar Mohanlal and filmmaker Srinivasan (also classic sidekick and genius scriptwriter) represents Everyman. The definitive film in this lot is Naadodikattu (1987), where two young men, lazy and proud, can’t get white collar job in Kerala and, trying to get to Dubai, land up in Chennai. The hero needs to transcend not villains but his own self-destructive self. The Naadodikattu heroine, like others in this genre, is the minor but sensible counterpoint to the hero’s angst. She has a job and a well-ordered household and doesn’t worry about her place in the pecking order.

As if this was too much of a good thing, in the late 1990s came a wave of movies written by Renji Panicker, with a word-gnashing macho hero who is simultaneously establishment and anarchist (the angry IAS officer, the furious journalist, the enraged cop). The heroine is just as repulsive – a caricature of the deracinated, urban ball-busting woman suitably tamed by the hero’s fusillade of verbiage and moustached masculinity. The shocking misogyny of Panicker’s films brings us to the most frequent cause of a Malayali man’s disavowal of his roots. Wrapped in many Malayali men’s hatred of their community is hostility towards women. One Malayali frequenter of online dating sites says he never tells a woman his identity until he’s absolutely sure of her affection. “They usually leap in shock and say, ‘If I’d known I wouldn’t have befriended you.’ It’s happened to me enough times. I don’t want them to think I’m predatory.”

Men and women relate to each other with some amount of discomfort everywhere in the world. But the thoughtful Malayali man finds himself in an embarrassing bind. He sees Malayali identity defined by disrespect and frank hostility towards women, by the horror stories narrated by Kerala women. This tempers the thinking man who otherwise would be proud to call himself a Malayali.

PEOPLE OUTSIDE Kerala, especially those taken in by the glamour of the state’s Human Development Index, find it difficult to believe that women have a difficult time here. In 2004, the Malayalam Manorama sent six women reporters into cities and district capitals across the state for six days to chart their safety in public spaces. The reporters’ diaries resemble mythical journeys into the Underworld as each woman writes about being groped, fondled and followed by multiple men.

While being felt up is a lively danger anywhere in public in Kerala, the real specialisation of the Malayali man on the strut is ‘comment-addi’ – a fine ear for dialogue, cinematic or otherwise, is turned into remarks on anatomy or character sharp enough to peel your skin off. Ratheesh Kumar teaches at IGNOU, Delhi, and becomes passionate when he talks of avoiding other Malayali men. “I can’t stand it when I’m stuck in the train with a bunch of Malayalis, seemingly middle-aged and respectable. They assume that I’d enjoy passing dirty remarks with them about the women out of earshot.”

The Malayali man at home is just as complicated a creature. The love story has rarely been central to Malayalam film plots. Between obscenity and near-meaningless poesy, Malayalam language doesn’t accommodate garden-variety love. The Malayali man’s world is one where the standard, most normal way of expressing romantic interest is the tepid sentence – ‘I like you.’

J Devika, an academic at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, talks of how the combination of highly educated women and the thrall of consumerism has led to a particular kind of marriage in Kerala. No arranged marriage (and frequently even the ‘love marriage’) begins without the complex negotiation of dowry. Property acts as a stabilising third party in the marriage, where a professional man feels assured that it’s only his due to earn upward of Rs 20 lakh in dowry. “Couples are equally interested in pursuing consumerism and in creating children who are groomed for the global job market. The man is then happy to delegate most of the duties of controlling children to the wife. And he can be focussed on earning money.”

However, men still require their wives to maintain a highly controlled image of ‘decent’ femininity. This desired paragon being such an asexual object, it’s not surprising that Devika calls Kerala “God’s own country of adultery”. An elaborate system of deception is maintained so that the material comforts of marriage can be enjoyed alongside the disorienting pleasures of sex.

THE STEREOTYPE of the drinking Malayali man is more easily verified. Kerala’s per capita consumption of liquor is 8.3 litres per annum, the country’s highest. Men struggle with the morality of drinking – fluctuating between broad enjoyment and wanting it banned for its cyclonic devastation. Illicit hooch rejoices under names such as Yesu Christu (Jesus Christ) — drink it and rise after three days — or Manavati (The Bride) — drink it and have your head permanently lowered. Unlike the men huddled in cars swigging furtively in Haryana and Punjab, drinking is an everyday, public and communal all-male activity in Kerala – a venue for conversation and lavish spreads of food.

Anup Kutty, lead guitarist for the band Menwhopause, grew up in West Delhi and has a particular fondness for Mallu drinking banter. “In Delhi, people have small talk and gossip but very little other conversation. Anywhere in Kerala, you can sit down for a drink and ordinary people, even working class people, are talking politics, Kerala or South America. They are talking about cinema or some existential crisis.” Is this wishful self-description? Kutty’s description is hotly contested by other Malayali men, who say they can’t bear to be around these drinking conversations, which are an excuse for crude gossip about money and women.

Kutty’s cheerful notion of an articulate working class is also strongly contested by others. The allegation states that, under the guise of democratisation, Kerala erases intellectual adventure and doesn’t allow individuals to sparkle. Ravi Shankar Etteth, Delhi-based cartoonist and journalist, says, “Why is it we have no heroes in Kerala since the 1950s? When the lumpen become the commissars of culture, it requires everyone to be the same.” Not just Etteth, almost every man you speak to will invoke the crabs-in-a-pot metaphor to illustrate destructive jealousies in Kerala. But, on the other hand, the Malayali man’s compulsive sense of egalitarianism is the stuff of satire too. A Malayali activist from the Narmada Bachao Andolan narrates the story of a padayatra to Delhi. “The groups from Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh agreed to go and that’s all they needed to know. With the Kerala group I was leading, I had to have a committee meeting before we agreed to cross the street.” Ramu Menon, a 29- year-old NGO consultant currently based in Ahmedabad, left Kerala years ago and relishes many of the stereotypes: “It’s true. There are no leaders in Kerala. Everyone is a leader in Kerala.” But nitpicking and self-righteous political disputes bring Kerala to a standstill and often fuel the already-healthy Malayali bellicosity.

The Malayali man is so relentlessly belligerent towards regulation that it is a truism that all seats of power in Kerala can expect to be continuously challenged. This tendency is, on the surface, contradictory to the growing power of Malayali bureaucrats. Prim, thin-lipped and precise, over the last couple of decades the Malayali phalanx has been on the way to replacing the UP cadre in collective influence. Image guru Dilip Cherian — one of our most influential Malayali men and perhaps the only one to ever be seen on Page 3, comments. “The Malayali bureaucrat is a result of three confluencing factors. They are overeducated, have a desire to flee Kerala and are anarchic. That means they are bright, mobile and have an overarching instinct to control anarchy in other people.”

Intellect and cynicism can be a tiring business. Perhaps it’s a reflection of Kerala’s longing to be no longer trapped in the mind that the energetic physicality and frank passions of Tamil cinema are hugely popular among Malayalis. This cinema is popular in a way different from the way North Indian culture is gaining ground in Kerala. It’s also reflected in the upwardly mobile avoiding Kerala’s bizarre naming practices in favour of Sanskritised names. Blogger Sidin Vadakut — a Malayali whose online reputation is founded on his self-deprecatory lad lit — once wrote about an imaginary Malayali stuck with an emasculating name: “Business is safe in the hands of the Mallu manager. After all, with a name like Blossom Babykutty he can’t use his Rs 30,000 salary anywhere. Blossom gave up on society when in school they automatically enrolled him for cookery classes. Yes, my dear reader, nomenclature is the first nail in a coffin of neglect and hormonal pandemonium. In a kinder world they would just… throw him off the balcony.

Where the rest of the country imagines Kerala’s education levels translate into a modern and liberal state, Malayali men complain that it’s yet a very narrow and stifling society. Gens, a 26-year-old lawyer in Pattanamthitta grew up in Kerala and went to law school in Kolkata before returning home. Like many others who returned, he’s bitter. Gens particularly hates the conformity of appearance that he says Kerala society requires of him. “You can’t even have a different hairstyle without being punished,” he says. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to discount the political imagination or culture capital of even the most deprived Malayali man, when compared to the rest of the country’s. A few summers ago, this writer spent a befuddled fortnight with a Malayali filmmaker travelling across Kerala. The entourage was composed of roaring drunks and intense, quiet men, but their tenderness was revealed in the way they carried the dying flame of Kerala’s Film Society Movement. Between two tiny towns in Wayanad there were enough strange sights for a lifetime: Kurosawa-loving adivasi girls (“my favourite is Rashomon”), auto drivers watching French films and a middle-aged rehabilitated sex worker looking forward to an upcoming screening of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. And all because the small filmmaker and his friends, incoherent and drunk after sunset, spent their days carrying ethereal cinema and a heavy projector to villages.

IN CINEMA, in the distinctive parody culture, in literary fiction, in iconic comic strips, the Malayali man has always used understated irony (or crude wit) to cut the oily sheen of sincerity (women, on the other hand, are expected to be uniformly sober). “Malayalis in general have a tendency to fall into existential angst.

And humour obviously is the only antidote. Probably it neutralises sentimentality too,” says Baiju Parthan, one of the many Malayali artists who live in Mumbai (the canard being that they all live next door to each other in a Borivili colony called Immaculate Conception). From the 18th century poet Kunjan Nambiar to Channel V’s Lola Kutty, the Malayali wit has combined meanness with a silly grin. It’s part of the encompassing Malayali self-hatred that this wonderful trait, too, is looked at suspiciously.

Some years ago, a Mumbai filmmaker was in a tiny fishing village in north Kerala which was resisting the sand mining industry. The sandminers were carting away the estuary, one truckful at a time. At the heart of the film and the movement were the fishermen, who had set up a nursery to care for the eggs laid by turtles on their beach. The enterprise was all dashing beard and moonlit rescues, but the fishermen leading the movement stonewalled any attempt to deify them. At her wit’s end to understand the movement’s emotional landscape, the filmmaker asked, “When you’re in the boat at high sea, do you discuss romance?” Came the laconic, deadpan response, “Premathinapetti samsarkinnangil privacy vende? (To speak of love don’t you need privacy?)”

One can only seek romance in the Malayali man despite him.

Published here.