In my childhood there was a lot of talk of treasure. Many people hunted for treasure, even though finding a trove was fraught with risk. Buried by rich families who had fled dire circumstances, treasure stashes were thought to be cursed and guarded by venomous snakes.

That didn’t stop the quest.

There were rumours of shovels clanging against earthenware while a road or the foundation for a new house was being dug. Sometimes, the diggers would come across urns – called nannangadi – in which human bodies had been buried centuries before.

Many had actually found treasure. It was visible in the dramatic ways in which their lives changed. Thatched, single-roomed huts were replaced by concrete homes. Rough lungis gave way to see-through muslin double mundus or glistening flared trousers. Beedis were swapped out for 555, Rothmans and Dunhill cigarettes.

These were the migrants who worked in the Gulf, returning once every two, three or even five years, to spend a couple of months at home.

The Gulf, as the Arab countries of West Asia are referred to, on the other shore of the Indian Ocean, seems to have been a place full of treasures. In the Arabian tales of migrants, one kept hearing of the Arabi ponnu, or gold. Those with no job training, who had passed no exams and possessed no cultural capital were now returning with perfumes and tape recorders, cameras and duty-free shopping bags.

The Gulf became, for Kerala, a zone of exaggerations.

People dressed up as Arabs during a festival in a village in Kerala's Malappuram in 1985.

The kathaprasangam is a performance in which the dramatic narration of a story is interspersed with songs that propel the narrative. Kathaprasangam performers spoke of a Gulf where everything was extra-large. “Haven’t you seen our puttu [steamed rice cake]? They are so small. Have you seen the puttu in Dubai? They are so big!” the performer would exclaim and his hands would make a wide gesture, as if giving a bear hug.

People would throng such performances, travelling in jeeps with four people in the front, many more in the back, one seated on the spare tyre fixed to the back door and a crowd hanging to the roof with a toehold on the running board.

“In Dubai, they travel in the planes hanging by rods,” the kathaprasangam performer would narrate and we would imagine a land where people travelled in aeroplanes just like that.

Anything was imaginable about the Gulf. A new social energy was unleashed in Kerala. Canadian-born scholar Robin Jeffrey notes that in the 1940s, Kerala experienced social turmoil as the underclasses were swayed by the promises of radical politics. In Jeffrey’s words, this was the time when the folded hands of the depressed classes, which signaled their servility, gave way to raised fists of protest. But the radical politics did not carry this spark for long.

He says that the Gulf phenomenon of mass migration in the 1970s and ’80s held the same promise of social transformation in Kerala as politics did in the 1940s.

The author in Abu Dhabi in 1991.

In the late 1970s, when my father built the first concrete house in our village, he had already spent half a decade in Abu Dhabi. People flocked to see the elsewhere-world now being born in our village too. It would have felt like Macondo, the fictional town that author Gabriel García Márquez refers to in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude, where things did not yet have their names and had to be named afresh.

The Gulf was an event in Kerala unfolding in the shape of the multitude of departures and arrivals of millions of migrants. When a migrant was about to leave for the airport, everyone would form a line on either side. There would be an empty path between the migrant and the vehicle that would carry them to the airport. All chappals, except those of the migrants, would have been removed from the door of the house.

As migrants walked to the vehicle, they were not supposed to look back. They might hear the murmurs of their mother, the distant cry of their children or feel the determined stiffness of their spouse. But they were not supposed to look back, a reminder of the stories where the warrior, upon turning around, is turned into a statue incapable of movement and life.

The photographs of migrants and mainstream Malayalam films of the 1980s gave glimpses of the fantasy that the Gulf was, strengthening these ideas. In these photos, taken by the migrants themselves thanks to the cheap cameras that became available in markets there from the late 1970s, the Gulf was a place of wonders: not of deserts but of vibrant urbanscapes, of landscaped gardens and tall buildings, of consumer goods and caravan housing.

Malayalam films of the early 1980s also brought home what development looked like – with glimpses of Tokyo and Florida and Singapore and Dubai.

Yet, when the Gulf is studied, it is largely along two aspects. One is that of remittances: of the money sent back home and how it is spent. The magic of the Gulf – its promise and perils, its demands and covenants – is reduced to money, its need, its use, its trajectory.

The other aspect is exploitative labour conditions – such as the kafala system that binds the labourer to a native employer – the pangs of hunger, the unpaid salaries and the coffins of migrant labourers.

Analysing remittances and labour conditions are important to enable better conditions for migrants. But also necessary is research into the reasons for the apparent disconnect between current academic language and the discourse about the Gulf from the 1970s and 1980s all the way to the 2000s.

Often, the ignorance about the “real” Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s is attributed in Malayalam discourse to the silence of migrants who do not want to speak about the hardship or their real jobs in the Gulf.

But speaking to migrants and looking at representations of migrants right in the 1980s, it is fairly clear that the migrants did speak about their hardship to those back home. Some families even lost relatives in the Gulf. It was known that life in the Gulf was perilous.

So why is the story of the silent migrant so hegemonic?

There are several reasons why discussions about the Gulf both became private but also acquired the form of myth and exaggeration, or tears and sweat.

The reasons include the withdrawal of politics from the issues of livelihood in Kerala, the association of labour with the idea of citizenship and national progress. The labour practices in the Gulf, too, made discourse about the Gulf “private” and unavailable to “public” speech, such as academic enquiry.

For academics, the task is to forge a new language that will communicate this wonderland of private talk. This language will have to be sensitive to the grammar – the dead weight of past generations and the ineffable intensities of new social energies – that shape the dreams and aspirations of the migrants and those they leave behind.

The story of migration is made of the biographies of many journeys and their universal resonances. The story, however, is also made of how these migrants try to distinguish themselves from those who have not yet seen the Gulf.

It is, therefore, a story of translation in two senses – one, the Gulf as a foreign land had to be translated into local idioms of respectability in Kerala so that the migrants feel they were different from the others. The other translation is the way the migrants translated their experiences to a story of humankind that transcends all boundaries.

It should be possible, within the bounds of academic language, to go back to childhood, relive the thrill in those possibilities of treasure, while not losing sight of a revolution that could have been, forged in the lonely length between the door and the car, encouraged, blessed, admired and envied by people on either side.

Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil is Associate Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities. He is the author of The Gulf Migrant Archives in Kerala: Reading Borders and Belonging, Oxford University Press, 2024.