When it comes to prejudice, Indians lead the rest of the world by a very long mile. Every community has a very poor view of all other communities. Not just that: the closer the other community is in terms of caste, geography, and language, the less charitably it is viewed.

That is why, while a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh would never have heard of Palghat Iyers (or Aiyars), a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu will at once turn up their nose.

And it doesn’t stop there.

If you are an Iyer from Tamil Nadu, you will not only wrinkle your nose at Palghat Iyers you will also harrumph a bit. Iyengars, on the other hand, will merely purse their lips and change the subject. There were no, or very few, Iyengars when the slow migration began. Iyers worship Shiva and the Iyengars Vishnu. It was natural, therefore, that the migrant Brahmins would be Iyers.

Meanwhile in Kerala, where the Palghat district is on the northern border with Tamil Nadu, they will actually become agitated. There is also suspicion, distrust, dislike etc. This is partly because Palghat Iyers are highly intelligent, educated, well-off and successful at whatever they try their hand. The Malayalis call them pattars, a derisive term for Brahmins in Kerala.

Furthermore, as someone said, they are seen as being in Kerala but not of it. They speak Tamil at home with a thick Malayali accent, which irritates both the Tamils and the Malayalis.

As the centuries rolled by, the Iyers of Kerala became something like the Ashkenazi Jews, who formed a distinct, standalone, rich and influential group with a markedly different identity in the Holy Roman Empire about 1,000 years ago.

If you are a North Indian, you can only understand these attitudes towards Palghat Iyers in terms of Sindhis and how they are viewed in North India. In a country where even the slightest difference becomes a reason for detestation and prejudice, prosperity is a very big one.

This book ­– Saga of Kalapathy: The Story of Palghat Iyers – by MK Das, my friend of three and a half decades, a former editor at the Indian Express Group and now serial chronicler of Kerala’s institutions, tries to find out who the Palghat Iyers are, where they came from, and why they are viewed as they are.

The Pattars

According to the generally accepted version, which Das doesn’t dispute, a group of people from Tamil Nadu, including Brahmins, started drifting south through the Palghat gap in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats. They settled on the banks of the river Kalapathy in the Palghat area.

This started happening from about the eighth century onwards. The reasons were the usual suspects: famine, persecution and the quest for a better life.

The people of the land beyond what is now Coimbatore – a mere 55 km from Palghat – were different from the Tamils. Their rulers found the usual reason for welcoming the Tamil speakers: overall economic usefulness and a way to edge out the Namboodiris from priestly functions in temples.

Das says this was win-win situation for both. The Tamils found a better life and their hosts were happy to use the services of the migrants who were intelligent, hardworking and not unwilling to take over the rituals in temples. The Namboodiris, who were hugely influential, developed an abiding dislike for the Iyers.

But, unlike the Jews in Europe who retained their culture but not their language, the Tamils retained both. So even though over the centuries they became indistinguishable from the local population, they never got fully assimilated.

Let it be said to the credit of the Malayalis that the Iyers of Palghat were never persecuted, at least not until recently when democracy showed its ugly side and they came in for some mildly discriminatory legislation. The relationship had long ago become a purely instrumental one and it has remained that way.

It was, as is the custom all over the south in inter-community relationships, live and let live. Das explains this and other aspects of the Iyer-Malayali relationship in detail.

The book reminds me of another book, Tamil Brahmins: The Makings of a Middle-Class Caste, written by Haripriya Narasimhan and C J Fuller of London University, whose research on the Nayars of Kerala is a classic. There is a major difference, however: that book was full of statistics and short on lore.

This one is the other way round. That makes it a great read.

Saga of Kalapathy: The Story of Palghat Iyers, MK Das, Ahalia Publications.