Last summer, many parts of India were facing the double-whammy of a hate wave along with a heat wave. In the plains of northern India, summer is almost always a cruel and unforgiving experience. Temperatures above 40 degree Celsius, rising prices for everything from fuel to basic food products and power cuts ensure that frustration and tempers rise with the temperatures.
In a land of high aspiration and low fulfilment, the Muslim is the target of the hate wave, the ire of a disgruntled Hindu majority backed by the power of the state.
The crowded and cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, a place I call home, is less prone to the extremes of climate. It is also, thankfully, less inclined to communal hatred, at least on the surface. Outright state-backed violence does not look like a possibility in the city that hosts the film industry, but discrimination is rife, especially in areas such as housing.
It is easy for a privileged upper-caste Hindu man (that is where I am bracketed in this polarised society, despite my agnosticism) to say that the media and social media are hyping up problems and creating social disorder, but every single time I speak to an Indian Muslim friend, I get a sense of fear and despair. Muslim parents urge their children to excel in academics, so that they can move abroad for higher education and find employment in a less discriminating society.
As much faith as I have in my hometown, I cannot be sure that the open harassment of Muslims that happens in full public and media view from time to time in places like Delhi will not happen in Mumbai.
In the middle of April 2022, when I took a taxi for a train station, passing through working class neighbourhoods, I witnessed loud Hindu religious celebrations for a festival I never knew existed. In Mumbai, we are used to loud and boisterous processions for the annual Ganesh festival in September, but this was something new. The occasion was the birthday of Hanuman, who children grow up admiring for his heroics in the epic Ramayana. The monkey god, who has been seen as a righteous benign character, has been converted into an angry war god, whose image is popular for bumper stickers.
Past the crowds drunk on religious fervour and probably some cheap-quality liquor, I reached the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus ready to board my train to Kozhikode, or Calicut as I prefer to call it. The next month would give me a chance to see how people live in a city where Muslims comprise almost 38% of the population.
Less than 17 hours after my train left Mumbai, I was in the famed Malabar region of Kerala. Its largest city Calicut (where Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498) has long ceased to be one of the most important ports in India. With a population of less than 6,00,000, life seemed to flow at a much slower pace than in other parts of India. Being the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the crowds during the daytime were thinner than usual but there was an undeniable air of pleasantness in this small city.
After hearing for years about how communism had “ruined Kerala”, I was happy to see well-paved roads with neatly-tiled pavements that made jaywalking unacceptable. As I was to find out over the next few weeks, not all the streets in the city were as pretty as what I first saw, but there seemed to be a genuine effort to get the infrastructure to the same level as it in the most developed parts of Southeast Asia.
The first cultural shock came to me within hours of arriving in Calicut. At 10 pm on a Sunday, just when it looked like this city was about to turn in for the night, there was a nonstop volley of colourful fireworks. What was it, I wondered. The Kerala New Year, Vishu, was already over and Eid was a few weeks away.
I was told the next morning that the fireworks were a part of a three-themed celebration – Easter Sunday plus Kerala New Year plus Iftaar. A few buildings in the city decided to mark these occasions together. There was no question of anyone being left out. So, Hindus and Christians joined Muslims for an Iftaar that continued as a celebration of Easter and Vishu, culminating in a firework display.
The Malayali identity seems to trump religion in this state that was founded in 1956.
A composite culture
Calicut is a city where people dress and eat the way they want. Vegetarian, beef, pork, just about everything is freely available and eaten without any kind of social stigma. While shopping malls and high rises are increasingly visible in different parts of the city, there is a surreal sense of calm and tradition in the older parts of the city.
Two of Calicut’s most important houses of worship are adjacent to man-made ponds in different localities. The 14th century Mishkal Mosque, which was built by a wealthy Yemeni trader and the Tali Shiva Temple, constructed around the same time, was the brainchild of the city’s ruler known as the Zamorin. A person unfamiliar with Kerala architecture would have a tough time identifying which of the two was a temple and which was a mosque. Constructed in the so-called pagoda style, both of them symbolise Kerala more than a particular religion.
When I visited the compound of the Mishkal Mosque, an elderly gentleman kindly invited me in to break the fast with him. When I told him that I was not fasting and was not a Muslim, he smiled and told me I was a welcome guest nonetheless. Nothing in my attire suggested I was an outsider to Calicut, but the wonder with which I was observing the mosque must have been a giveaway. Inside I sat on a mat with the religious faithful and had a bowl of fruits and watched my new friends perform the Maghrib prayers.
Efforts are on in Calicut to preserve what is left of the city’s heritage. Plaques commemorating the city’s history are visible on walls in the historic centre. Kozhikodens, as residents of the city are called, are proud of the fact that the city has always been a bastion of Hindu-Muslim unity. From the 16th century onwards, a Nair Hindu army and a Muslim navy led by the Marakkars fought to defend the city against Portuguese invaders. It is ironic that historians from Lisbon refer to the Marakkars as pirates, when in reality it was the Portuguese who were indulging in piracy.
At one time, this city was very cosmopolitan and had a visible Arab presence. It also hosted communities of Gujaratis and Parsis. While the former still has a dwindling presence in Calicut, the latter is down to just one family. The lanes running inland from the beach have their tales to tell. Houses reflect the merging of various architectural styles, and the communities that lived in them. The Gujaratis, who many claim to have taught the Malayalis to trade, have left a long-lasting legacy on the city even if their population is reducing with each generation.
A culinary paradise
Calicut is known as the food capital of Kerala and this is an honour it truly deserves. Before coming to this city, I was aware of the city’s well-reputed banana chips and halwa (there is even a street called the Sweet Meat street), as well as specialities of Malabari Muslim or Mopilah cuisine such as pathiri, a rice-flour pancake.
But it was a pleasant surprise to know that the city was the place to try out Arabic cuisine. For a Bombayite who loves experimenting with food and has tried various types of cuisines, names such as hamoose, Al Faham mandi and shahwaya seemed exotic enough to give it a try. They did not disappoint.
Calicut’s love for anything Arabic was rekindled when the Gulf became the land of opportunities. Former residents of West Asia have since popularised the cuisine of Gulf countries in this city. Restaurants boast of serving Yemeni and Lebanese cuisine and there are popular shops selling baklava.
The best food in Calicut comes from the most unexpected of places. In a small alley in the city centre, a queue forms at lunchtime outside an eatery with shared tables. The Amma (mother in Malayalam) Hotel, which was started by a woman more than three decades ago serves a traditional Kerala rice set on a banana leaf with a few curries. The signature dish here, however, is the fried fish, which is made with a secret masala. When I went to the small eatery for lunch, I saw people from all walks of life waiting patiently for their turn. There is no way I would have even heard of this place if it weren’t for a local who took me there for lunch.
The abundance of calorie-rich and oily food along with affluence that is fuelled by Gulf money is leading to an obesity epidemic in Calicut, but awareness seems to be growing. The city’s beachside promenade is one of the main places for serious fitness enthusiasts in the morning.
On one of the last nights before Eid, I was invited for a lecture on Quranic verses. This was part of a series that looked at areas of convergence between people of various faiths. Although the talk and the following iftaar were open to all, I was the only non-Muslim at this event. Of course, nothing set me apart from any of the other guests as we are all essentially the same people. This is something that politicians and those brainwashed by them in other parts of India conveniently ignore.
The young man conducting the talk, spoke of the inclusiveness of Islam and its tolerance and acceptance of other religions. He made continuous references to Narayana Guru (1856-1928), a social reformer who led a movement against caste-based discrimination in Kerala. The message of this young preacher, who spoke mostly in English, was clear: there was no place for violence in Islam and that Ramadan was a month of inner cleansing and compassion.
At the sumptuous iftaar dinner after the talk, my new Malabari Muslim friends laughed at my accented Malayalam but insisted that I spoke the language as well as they did. The sense of general warmth and camaraderie is what the Malabar is famous for. I cannot help but feel that if more people in other parts of India spent time with people from different communities, breaking bread with them, drinking with them, playing sports with them, this country would become less tolerant of the growing intolerance that we are facing.
Hundreds of kilometres away from schools that force young Muslim girls to take off their hijab, I see how people respect a woman’s right to dress the way she chooses. At our iftaar, only a few women covered their heads. Thousands of kilometres south of where bulldozers had recently demolished homes and shops of Muslims, I saw Hindus, Muslims and Christians happily co-existing and celebrating each other’s festivals.
After the iftaar was over, I went for a walk in the green and hilly neighbourhood of Chevayur, where income from the Gulf has ensured a kind of general prosperity that would be unthinkable in parts of India that are less tolerant.
As I smelt the fragrance of evening flowers, I crossed a modern and floodlit football pitch, where I heard loud young men screaming the names of their teammates. Naseer, Chris, Ajit…This is the India I knew and loved as a child. I am glad that it still exists somewhere, in the age of communal politics.
Here, in Malabar, I feel a sense of liberation; a citizen of the country that the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and father of the Constitution, BR Ambedkar, envisioned more than seven decades ago.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.
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