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Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: Kerala: Between the 'Icon' and the 'Supremo'

This article was originally published by Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Center on C

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: A Glimpse of Reality in Kerala

This article was originally published by Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Trivandrum—Our first interview in Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, yielded a disconcerting assertion: “The Kerala model is collapsing,” declared C. K. Vishwanath, a youthful, intense authority on communal strife. We pressed for details, having flown halfway around the world to visit what experts said was an outstanding example of democratic social progress. Our visitor elaborated: Yes, the south Indian state had achieved a first-world quality of life on meager average incomes, but it is a victim of its own success. “Kerala doesn’t produce anything, so it can’t provide job for its better-educated job seekers.” Moreover, its health care system is being overstretched by an aging population as life expectancy has reached Western standards. All true, but based on first impressions, not the whole story. Our tour began with a glimpse of reality. We wheeled through much of Trivandrum, but did not encounter the omnipresent beggars, nor were we grabbed by roving gangs of children pleading for rupees that we found in central Mumbai. Instead, an air of animated cheerfulness permeated the streets, accented by a rainbow of faultless saris on the matrons and the now trendy salwar kameez of the twenty-somethings (a fashion which has now migrated south from the Punjab).

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: Report on Mumbai

This article was originally published by Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Mumbai—We arrived on Wednesday, Nov. 11, in Mumbai, formerly Bombay and India’s financial capital, on the Asian leg of Project Patchwork, our year-long quest for examples of multicultural societies where people of different creeds seemingly live together peacefully. Why Mumbai? One may well ask: a year ago, ten young Pakistani gunmen glided unseen into this great port and in a three-day rampage slaughtered at least 170 Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, purportedly in the name of Islam. And we arrived on the eve of the first anniversary of the November 26-29 bloodbath. Yet we quickly learned that there is little new Hindu-Muslim tension. “Most people see the killings as an act of foreign aggression,” we were told by Naresh Fernandes, editor-in-chief of Time Out Mumbai and editorial board member of World Policy Journal. “Things have been calm locally during the last four or five years, and the real dispute nowadays is about linguistic nativism.” He was referring to a bizarre controversy over the politically and legally correct language to be used by an elected lawmaker in taking his or her oath of office.
Most native-born Mumbaikars speak Marathi, and a calculated storm arose in the city’s legislative assembly when an incoming opposition lawmaker from neighboring Uttar Pradesh took his oath in Hindi, India’s most widely spoken language. [Watch a video on the controversy here.] For this offense, he was roughed up by Marathi-only militants linked to a fundamentalist Hindu party, the MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) led by Raj Thackeray, who regards migrant workers from other Indian states as hostile aliens. The subtext for language is jobs. The MNS first targeted polyglot Tamils, then Muslims, and currently northern newcomers. As the furor mounted, Thackeray tellingly upped the ante by demanding that in Mumbai all job seekers at the State Bank of India (SBI) had to be fluent in Marathi. And this just as the SBI says it needs 20,000 new clerical employees.

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