The day after Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died, over 15,000 km away from the Caribbean island, Kerala government officer Baby Castro discussed ideas about how he could live up to the icon’s name.
“I can do justice to my name by involving myself in the issues of working-class people thanks to my current position as the labour officer,” said Baby Castro, 47, who lives and works in Kannur.
When he died on Friday at the age of 90, Fidel Castro was been hailed as one of the most influential world leaders of the 20th century. This influence stretched to Left-leaning Kerala, where for decades, students, politicians and filmmakers have drawn inspiration from the communist leader. It also inspired many in Kerala to name their children after him. That is how Baby Castro got his name. His father, AS Narayana Pillai, was a big fan of the Cuban leader.
Baby Castro grew up to become active in student politics and even rose to the post of district secretary of All India Student Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India, in Wayanad. But he abandoned politics in 2000 after he joined government service. At present, he is the district labour officer in Kannur.
Kerala remembers Castro
On Sunday, thousands of people met at street corners in Kerala to pay their respects to the Cuban leader who died on Saturday at the age of 90. The mourners observed a two-minute silence, lit candles, recited poems of revolution and recalled the legacy of Fidel Castro’s battle against US imperialism.
The huge turnout, cutting across age barriers, indicated the extent of the Castro’s impact on Kerala’s politics and culture.
For students, especially, Castro offered a egalitarian socialist world view in contrast to the excesses of capitalism.
“Fidel’s movement against Vietnam War and his efforts to unite people of Africa, Latin America and Asia had influenced students like us in the early ’70s,” said historian KN Ganesh, who studied at Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, Kerala. “Fidel was a major topic of discussion in our campus.”
Said KT Kunhikkannan, a district committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), “Fidel re-energised Kerala youth and gave them a sense of direction.”
It is little wonder then that Kerala stood steadfastly behind Cuba and offered it support when the US imposed additional sanctions on the Caribbean nation in the 1990s.
“Contributions poured in when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) began the campaign to support Cuba,” recalled politburo member MA Baby in the party mouthpiece, Deshabhimani, on Sunday. “It helped the party send 10,000 tonnes of rice and 10,000 tonnes of wheat [to Cuba].”
MA Baby was a member of a party delegation that travelled to Cuba in 1992.
Communist leaders from the state who met the charismatic leader still cherish those memories.
Communist Party of India leader and former Kerala minister, Benoy Viswam, recalled Fidel Castro’s two-and-a-half-hour long speech at the World Youth Festival in 1984 as captivating.
“He didn’t mince words when he spoke about the threats posed by the US,” said Vuswam. “He also talked about the responsibility of communist leaders across the world. I was very lucky to get an opportunity to interact with him. It was an unforgettable event in my life. Fidel meant a lot to Indian communists.”
Equally fascinating were the memories of Berlin Kunjananthan Nair, former European correspondent of the Blitz – the now defunct investigative weekly tabloid newspaper – who was among the first Indian journalists to interview Castro.
“When Fidel visited Germany [in 1973], my editor asked me to interview him,” recalled Nair, who is now 90 and lives in Kannur. “The Cuban Embassy allowed me to talk to him for 30 minutes. I asked him about the future of communist movements all over the world, and Cuba’s relationship with China and erstwhile Soviet Union. He answered all questions, through an interpreter, with clarity.”
Inspiration for filmmakers
Cuba and Castro inspired Kerala’s film directors too.
In the 2007 Malayalam movie Arabikkatha, which deals with the Communist movement in Kerala, actor Sreenivasan played the role of Cuba Mukundan, a working-class leader from a village. The movie, directed by Lal Jose, was a hit.
“Cuba may be a small nation. But under Fidel Castro, it showed that a small country can defy US – a superpower,” The New Indian Express quoted Jose as saying on Sunday. “Cuba survived right under its nose and emerged as a symbol of resistance. We knew many people for whom Cuba is a passion. So, when Iqbal Kuttippuram penned the story of a virtuous hardcore Communist in Arabikkatha, Cuba was the finest prefix for the protagonist. Hence was born Cuba Mukundan.”
B Unnikrishnan, another prominent director, had a character named Castro Vareeth, modelled after Fidel Castro, in his 2010 movie Pramani.
Sporting a beard and khaki shirt, veteran actor Janardhanan played the role of Castro Vareeth to perfection. Also in the film was actor Mammooty, nicknamed America.
Earlier this year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) evoked Fidel Castro’s name to pacify a party veteran. When the Left Democratic Front government, led by the Marxist party came to power in Kerala in May, there was a tussle for the chief minister’s post between incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan and VS Achuthanandan.
After days of deliberations, the party picked Vijayan to be chief minister, but the central leadership pacified Achuthanandan by describing him as the Kerala Castro. ”Comrade Achuthanandan has played an important role in party’s success in the election,” said Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “He is like Fidel Castro. What Fidel Castro is to Cuba, Comrade Achuthanandan is to India.”