From the San Francisco Examiner dated: July 1999
KERALA - the land of Marx and Maharajahs
By Adam Hochschild

San Francisco Examiner cover depicting Kerala boat race

During the five months that I lived last year in Trivandrum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, I went for a run every morning. My neighbors were thoroughly amused at the spectacle of someone odd enough to voluntarily work up a sweat in their sauna-like climate. Laborers gathered at the roadside stall for a cup of milky tea laughed and called out "Where coming from?" Children heading down the narrow lanes to school giggled and raced alongside.

India overwhelms the senses, caress and assault together. It was all there for me each dawn: The bat trapped in the telephone wires. The beautiful vista over a pristine, green valley floor filled with coconut palms (which hid, I discovered later, thousands of houses). The border of garbage lining every roadside, dotted with bright plastic shopping bags and providing a feast for crows. The dazzling, multicolored sari worn by each older woman, and the salwar kameez by each younger one a long dress, sometimes embedded with bits of mirror that flashed in the sun, worn with a gauzy, flowing scarf. The dead rat in the gutter. The strings of fiery-hot red peppers for sale at the roadside food stands. The massive, gated house of the neighborhood money-lender (36 percent interest for six months, compounded thereafter, with gold jewelry as security. "Maximum discretion. If a woman brings me her bracelet, her husband will not know. If a police chief needs money, he sends his servant.")

And the sounds: the soft chant of a Hindu prayer meeting coming through an open door; the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer from the mosque a half mile away; the hymns on Sunday from the Salvation Army hall down the street from our rented house. After the sun rose, along the lane would come calls from a man selling squawking ducks out of a box on his bicycle, from a woman selling fish from a flat basket on her head, and from the "ironing man," with his wheeled cart and clothes iron heated by charcoal. Later, also, came the whump! of coconuts dropping to the ground as, 40 feet above, a man clung to a tree with his legs and one arm and wielded a machete with the other.

All of these sights and sounds can be had elsewhere in India, but there was one thing that an early morning jogger would see only in Kerala. Even in the very poorest homes in the neighborhood two-room mud houses with roofs of narrow palm leaves woven into thatch, without even a chimney, so that cooking smoke rose through the roof someone would be sitting on the doorstep reading a newspaper. (The newspaper would usually not be in English, but in Kerala’s language, Malayalam. A written tongue since before Chaucer, it has its own alphabet of 53 beautifully looping letters.) In a country where roughly half the population is illiterate, Kerala is the only state where more than 90 percent of the adults can read and write.

Equally significant are some things I did not see on my morning jog. There were no children with the swollen bellies that indicate severe malnutrition. There were no people living in miserable, makeshift tents of plastic sheeting or sleeping on the sidewalk, such as you see by the millions elsewhere in India. (In Trivandrum, a city about the size of San Francisco, there were also no sidewalks, which made pedestrian life challenging). And there were no beggars even in the city’s downtown, there were far fewer than on Market Street or Telegraph Avenue.

Kerala has the highest immunization rate in India and more than three times the number of hospital beds per capita as the rest of the country. The average person born in Kerala today lives to 72, nearly a dozen years longer than someone born elsewhere in India. The infant-mortality rate is less than one-fourth that of the country as a whole. These statistics approach American and European levels they are better, in fact, than those for black Americans. Only 30 years ago, Kerala had the fastest-growing population in India, but today the state’s birth rate is 1.7 children per woman. A generation from now, Kerala’s population will level off and begin to drop.

Figures like these are all the more striking because Kerala has achieved them with a per capita income that, on paper, is only about 170 that of the United States. Furthermore, Kerala’s 33 million people roughly the population of California are crammed into a long, thin strip of coastal land laced with rice paddies and internal waterways that is smaller than San Bernardino County. For doing so much more with less, the state has drawn praise from everyBODY from United Nations agencies to Vice President Albert Gore to assorted radicals and greens the world over, who are eager to find a more just and gentle way of development than the cruel gaps between rich and poor that prevail throughout most of the Third World.

Does Kerala provide some answers? To explore these issues, my wife and I lived in the state when we recently spent half a year in India as Fulbright lecturers.  Kerala turned out to be far more complicated than the rosy picture of it gleaned from our reading beforehand. The statistics are real, and are indeed an achievement. But Kerala is also a place of many paradoxes, and the best way to begin is by exploring them.

The first paradox about Kerala is that credit for its accomplishments is strangely divided between a strong labor movement and Communist politicians on the one hand, and some feudal monarchs on the other.

Despite at least one infusion of CIA campaign contributions to the opposition, over the last 40 years Kerala has had several long stretches of rule by coalitions led by one or the other of India’s two main Communist parties (the old party split into pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions in the 1960s). Kerala’s Communists are somewhat like those in Italy: however unsavory their affiliations overseas, they’ve won a reputation at home for good government and for being noticeably less corrupt than the other parties. The reforms they have brought to Kerala include near-universal literacy, public health clinics, shops that sell staple food at controlled prices, and South Asia’s most substantial land reform.

However, the Communists built their welfare state on foundations provided by an amazingly enlightened series of maharajahs. In colonial times, about half of what is Kerala today lay in two "princely states" which, to a much greater degree than most of those elsewhere in India, were largely left alone by the British.  Furthermore, Kerala’s royal families were markedly different from their counterparts. For example, in 1817 the Maharani of Travancore, whose domain covered today’s southern Kerala, issued an edict declaring that "the state should defray the whole cost of education of its people." Few, if any, European kings and queens would have embraced so radical an idea at that time. Later in the century, Travancore was the first princely state to set up a legislative council and to begin a halting transition to a constitutional monarchy.

Other members of these royal families started schools and a university and studied medicine both traditional and Western. One member of the Travancore dynasty was a noted painter and another, who reigned in the early 1800s, was a polymath who spoke eight languages and was famous as the composer of many hymns and songs, some of which are still sung today. (A researcher recently claimed that it was a court musician who wrote the songs. But the mere fact that the maharajah wanted to be remembered as a composer says a great deal.)

Because of their unusual enthusiasm for universal literacy, the maharajahs welcomed Christian missionaries, who started what are still the state’s best schools. By the first decade of the 20th century the literacy rate in Kerala was more than twice that of India as a whole.

Kerala pictures

Since 1996, Kerala has once again been under a coalition government dominated by the larger of India’s two major left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M). Its red flags are flying everywhere. But the current Maharajah of Travancore, today without political power, still lives in a small palace in downtown Trivandrum, where I went to see him.

A roof of traditional red tile kept out the broiling sun, and beautifully carved wooden grillwork around the tops of the palace walls let the breezes flow through, making the rooms comfortably cool without air conditioning. A generator roared in the background, providing royal independence from Kerala’s anemic electric grid. An elderly Mercedes was parked under a portico.

His Highness Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the 55th Maharajah of Travancore, was a slight, lithe, upbeat man with a small mustache. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, a dab of yellow paint, signifying devoutness, in the middle of his forehead, and a mundu the standard Kerala male attire: a loose, combination pants and skirt that wraps around and between the legs. In a way I could never quite fathom, it can be instantly readjusted by its wearer to reach either just down to knee height, for coolness, or, as a sign of respect to someone you meet, all the way to the ankles.

When a servant ushered me into the large reception room where the Maharajah was sitting, he was still busy with his preceding visitors. He pointed cheerfully to a large portrait on the other side of the room and called out, "That’s my doctor ancestor. Take a look at him!".

After a few minutes, he motioned me over and showed me a genealogical chart of his forebears. "In 1809, we were the first to rise against the British, and when you are the first to get out of hand they are more severe with you. They start breaking up all your forts, disbanding your army, doing away with the police. And then they say, ‘You people are not very well behaved, so we will keep two British regiments here, for your protection for which you will pay!’"

The Maharajah went on to describe his childhood, his face lighting up with pleasure every time he could get off a bon mot: "I’m a graduate of the University of Travancore, in ‘41. But I never went to college. The college came to me!" Fourteen tutors, some British, some Indian, came to the palace regularly. Although he reportedly made and lost considerable money as a businessman while waiting to inherit the Maharajah’s position from his elder brother, the activities he wanted to talk about were, in his family tradition, scholarly, religious and philanthropic. Just this morning, he said, he had had a Sanskrit lesson and had gotten his weekly homework assignment. He said he is in the middle of writing a book of religious philosophy. "The Queen of England is Defender of the Faith. I’m an Attender of the Faith! I go to [the city’s major Hindu temple] every day, early in the morning, and that makes me fit for the next 23 hours." He has been a vegetarian all his life, "and I don’t think I’ve missed anything!"

Today there are no more tax revenues for "people of our breed," as he put it, but the family’s wealth is still there, much of it in a group of trusts which give money to schools and hospitals. Benefactions are carefully divided among Kerala’s different religious groups roughly 60 percent of the state population is Hindu, 20 percent Muslim and 20 percent Christian. "When I was a little boy, every Christmas Eve, Christians would come to the house and sing carols. Only after that would they go on to the town. Then on the birthday of the prophet, the imam would come, and only after that would he go to the town".

Does the Maharajah feel in conflict with Kerala’s current Communist government? Not particularly, it seems. "The other day, about a month back, they organized a Youth Festival. The Education Minister sent word to me, ‘Would you go and inaugurate it?’ " He did so. But, with a laugh, he implied that his own family originated most of Kerala’s social reforms. When I asked how many children he had he is 77, so they would now be in their 40s or 50s he said triumphantly, "Two! We thought of the limited family well in advance!"

He was right. Some months later I noticed in a history book that a member of his family had helped bring the American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger to Trivandrum in 1934.

In few places on earth today are the outward signs of left-wing politics as flamboyant as they are in Kerala. Beside almost every major workplace, even the temple the Maharajah attends, a sign marks the office of a union of its employees. Hammers and sickles, or sometimes a sickle and sheaf of grain, are painted on walls everywhere. Rare was the day when a group of people was not sitting in or fasting in protest against something in front of the main state office building. Posters of Marx and Engels abound; once in a while their bearded faces are joined by Lenin and, appallingly, Stalin. Almost every day some chanting group was carrying red banners through downtown Trivandrum, incongruously crossing paths with the occasional temple elephant. When a taxi I was in came upon a march of labor unionists one morning, I half-expected them to be hostile. But foreigners are a great rarity in Trivandrum; one marcher peered through the cab window curiously, then threw me a grinning salute.

It took many weeks for another of Kerala’s paradoxes, perhaps the most crucial one, to fully dawn on me: the state’s vocal politics of the left coexist with an extreme, deep-rooted social conservatism. Even more unexpected, most Keralites, as they call themselves, don’t see this as a paradox. There is little notion that the personal might be the least bit political. Few people thought it surprising, for example, that the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the much-venerated, long-time Kerala chief of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), plus all four of his children, all had arranged marriages within their own Brahmin caste!

For centuries, Kerala had the most rigid and complex caste hierarchy in India. When Dutch fortune-seekers killed more than 400 members of the Nayar warrior caste in battle in 1662, they were startled that "fishermen, and other classes, apparently of the same nation and country, looked on with indifference." Kerala had not only untouchables, but unseeables: people considered so polluting that they could not even be seen close-up by a Brahmin. A missionary reported how, in 1924, he saw a Brahmin walking along a road with a man in front of him armed with a stick, to ensure all outcastes would be more than 30 yards away when the Brahmin passed. Gandhi himself came to Kerala the same year to join a massive protest against laws that kept lower castes from using roads near certain temples.

Today all this has long since been reformed; untouchables are officially no more, and one speaks of "former untouchables." Indeed, the current President of India, the ceremonial head of state, is a former untouchable from Kerala. But, as with slavery and segregation in the United States, no heritage of centuries can be legislated out of peoples’ minds in a generation or two.

Gradually I began to understand how important these divisions were. A bitter factional dispute in the ruling Communist Party that made headlines last year, for instance, was partly connected to conflict between its mostly lower-caste rank and file and mostly upper-caste leadership. And my wife and I came to see some caste scars in our own neighborhood, an area where many former untouchables lived.

A few weeks after we moved in, the power line outside our house was struck by lightening. Wires sparked and sizzled, light switches leapt out of the walls, and everything went dark. We clearly needed an electrician. Happily there was a good one who lived with his extended family just three houses away, a cheerful Jehovah’s Witness. After he fixed the wiring, he and his wife came for tea several times. He was a former untouchable, and seemed immensely pleased to be visiting this house we were renting from a Brahmin doctor. But he keenly felt a vast gulf between the "little people" as he put it, and his upper caste neighbors, the "big people." Recently, he said, his father had suffered an accident and needed to be rushed to the hospital. The electrician had no car, and no telephone to call an ambulance. He raced from house to house on the street, begging for someone with a car to drive his father to the hospital. No one, he said, would do so even though perhaps a third of the homeowners on our street were doctors or nurses at a nearby complex of hospitals. He had to run a mile to the nearest taxi stand.

Sometimes the worst effect of discrimination is the way it gets internalized. Another former untouchable in the neighborhood was a young man who often visited our house to talk. But when we offered him something to eat or drink, I noticed, he always took it outdoors, as if he would somehow offend us by eating in our presence.

Kerala pictures

Kerala is similarly conservative when it comes to relations between men and women. Any time I went to lecture to a university class, the women always sat on the left side of the room as they faced the speaker, the men on the right. The same was true at a large political rally I attended where, among more than a dozen speakers over the course of three hours, not one was a woman.

Women factory workers are routinely paid less than men (when a researcher friend of ours asked a union official about this, he said disapprovingly, "Comrade, you are criticizing us!"). At construction sites, women do the hardest labor, carrying baskets of dirt and sand on their heads. And women do much of the toughest work in Kerala sitting by the side of the road in the broiling sun, using pitifully small hammers to break large rocks into gravel. Kerala women hold few high political posts and constitute only 5 percent of the membership of the ruling Communist Party.

As in all of India, the vast majority of marriages are arranged. Even in highly politicized Kerala, the Sunday newspapers’ matrimonial advertisements are classified by caste. We heard innumerable stories of couples being ostracized by their families for having a love marriage. One woman told me that an uncle of hers "simply will not come" to any wedding that is a love match, no matter who is getting married. This woman, now a graduate student, got to meet her own husband only once before her wedding, and that in the presence of many other people.

All these practices, curiously, cut across political and educational lines. One Kerala friend of ours, a professor who was once head of the international scholarly association in his field, was busily arranging his son’s marriage. (In this case, the bride and groom were allowed to spend part of a day together before the wedding a liberal-minded gesture unheard of in older times.) Arundhati Roy’s best-selling 1997 novel, The God of Small Things, is about a Kerala community’s violent reaction to a love affair across caste lines. And it makes no difference that the woman involved is Christian (and therefore supposedly without caste), or that her brother, who is horrified by the affair, is an Oxford-educated Communist. On this score, Roy got Kerala exactly right.

A defiant young man in a magazine advertisement for a line of clothing: "My parents chose the girl. Her parents chose the date. No one chooses my suit."

Another Kerala paradox is this: its citizens get quickly impatient with foreign admirers who praise their state for its ability to do more with less. They would urgently like to do more with more.

We may compare them with the rest of India, but they don’t. They compare themselves with Europe and the United States, where hundreds of thousands of people of Kerala origin are living. And the comparison hurts. Even more, they compare themselves with the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf and the Arab world, where an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Keralites, from doctors to stevedores, are contract workers. Indeed, the number of Kerala men away from their wives in "the Gulf" may be part of the reason why the state’s birth rate is so low.

Economically, Kerala is less a part of India than of the Arabian Peninsula. At the state capital of Trivandrum, there is one plane a day from Delhi, the national capital. But four to six planes a day make the longer trip from Kuwait, Bahrain and other Arab countries, their disembarking passengers bringing home armloads of radios, video cameras, TVs and tape recorders. In Kerala’s equivalent of a yellow pages phone book, there are 21 pages of Gulf listings, plus street maps of Abu-Dhabi and Dubai. Depending on the job market in the oil states, anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of Kerala’s income, it is estimated, is sent home by Keralites working abroad. People at every class level go to the Gulf for a few years at a time: the returnees we met just in our neighborhood ranged from surgeon to army officer to construction worker and more.

Whatever your trade, the chances are that you can make three to eight times as much by plying it across the Arabian Sea as you can in Kerala. Competition for Gulf jobs is fierce, and the agents who arrange these positions charge high fees and occasionally abscond with the money. Some Gulf returnees get caught up in a sort of Gold Rush mentality. Throughout Kerala stand thousands of "Gulf houses" huge, concrete, fortress-like structures (I saw one or two that even had crenelated ramparts) that dwarf their neighbors. Many are garish by design as well as size: one I passed on my morning run had a vast outbuilding of concrete servants’ quarters? A guest cottage? molded in the shape of a houseboat, with bow, stern, decks, deckhouse, portholes. Construction on a couple of gigantic Gulf houses near us had mysteriously stopped; perhaps the owner had lost his overseas job and had to make do with a Kerala salary.

Kerala pictures

Throughout the world, children are told to stay in school if they want a job; countries invest in schools and universities if they want their economies to grow. This brings us to the next paradox of Kerala: this state, which spends proportionally more on education than any other in India, has the country’s highest unemployment rate, three to four times the national average.

For one single advertised job opening as a municipal laborer some years back, there were 59,014 applications. At every Kerala shop, office or building site, people with time on their hands cluster about: friends, relatives, job-seekers, people among the hundreds of thousands of Keralites on the waiting lists for jobs. Economic growth per capita is near zero. Although Kerala grows a lot of coconuts, rice, cashews and rubber, it has very little industry. Indeed, fully half the state’s trade unionists, like those I always saw marching so militantly through Trivandrum’s streets, are, directly or indirectly, government employees. The million or more Keralites who’ve gone abroad or to other parts of India are not just going for the Gulf-level salaries; they’re going because there’s no work for them at home. The economy has been sluggish for so long that many people wonder if Kerala’s generous welfare state can continue in its present form.

What happened? Ask 10 economists to explain the paradox of Kerala’s educated people and stagnant economy and you’ll get 10 different answers. Business-oriented critics, for example, say that Kerala’s powerful trade unions have priced the work force out of the market. An Indian industrialist can find workers, even literate ones, who’ll work for half as much money in the poverty-stricken state of Tamil Nadu next door. To some extent this is true, and Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s other neighbor, Karnataka, have higher growth rates. But it doesn’t seem the full explanation for, despite all the marches and red flags, Kerala loses fewer days per factory worker to strikes and lockouts than does the rest of India. And, despite its name, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is eagerly putting money into industrial parks and other incentives for foreign investors.

One obvious drag on economic growth is bureaucracy and corruption. Government drowns in a sea of paperwork. Getting a telephone installed in our house, for instance, required a five-week odyssey of repeated visits to four separate offices of the telephone company in different parts of town and waiting for them to send reports to each other. Over the course of our five months in Trivandrum, we had to pay an astonishing 10 visits to something called the Foreigners Registration Office, to register, unregister and get various stamps and signatures and permissions. The dusty, dimly lit room was a scene out of Bartleby the Scrivener: ceiling fans slowly turned above jumbled man-high stacks of ledger books and bundles of files tied with string, some papers spilling out of the bundles. The files had turned limp and moldering in the humidity and looked as if they contained the registration documents of every foreign visitor to Kerala since Marco Polo, who stopped here on his way home from China.

Besides bureaucracy, there is a kind of institutionalized system of under-the-table payments. The scarcest commodities, jobs, are routinely sold. It’s an open secret, for example, that it costs you anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 rupees (about $5,000 to $12,500) to get a teaching post at a private college, where your salary is paid by the government. Then, if you’re the college president, a Keralite explained, "you really can’t fire the fellow, no matter how incompetent he is, because he paid you for the job! Meanwhile, he’s opened a private tutoring business on the side, so he can earn money to pay back the person he borrowed that payment from."

However, bureaucracy and corruption can’t be the major source of Kerala’s economic stagnation. The paperwork thicket is just as dense everywhere in India, and public opinion surveys rate Kerala as less corrupt, by quite a large margin, than any other state. In all our dealings with officialdom while we were there, we were never asked for a bribe.

One clear source of Kerala’s economic troubles is electricity, or rather the lack of it. Stagnant tax revenues have left the state government painfully short of money to improve the basic infrastructure, and nowhere has this been more crippling than with power. The proliferation of Gulf houses, air conditioning and appliances has surged far ahead of the electrical supply. In much of the state the current goes off for half an hour each night a blackout that rotates by schedule through different neighborhoods. There are many unscheduled outages as well. Furthermore, the voltage starts going down when thousands of offices put on their air conditioners in the morning and drops still further when millions of homes turn on their lights at night. The dim glow then is like dining by candlelight, but without candles. The ceiling fans in our house moved ever more sleepily as the evening wore on, and revved up to top speed only as midnight approached, when the city’s residents turned off their lights and went to bed.

Keralites cope with this in a variety of ways. When the state’s governor arrived at a conference I attended, his BODYguards carried a portable generator, so the microphone would not go dead while he was speaking. Our house came equipped with something that looked like a swollen car battery, that (when it was working) captured incoming electricity during the day and then fed it back to certain lights during the nightly power cuts. But you can’t have such a device for an entire factory or have an assembly line that slows down during brownouts.

Another, even more important reason for Kerala’s low-growth economy is the state’s extreme social conservatism. One curious way this shows up is when you look at the statistics on what happens to the money Keralites earn in the Gulf and other places overseas and then send home. Less than 6 percent gets invested in any sort of business. More than half of it goes into land or into building or improving homes. There’s no telling what proportion of that is spent by people merely trying to put permanent, decent roofs over their families’ heads for the first time (those roofs of coconut palm thatch, however picturesque, have to be replaced after every monsoon season), and what proportion goes to the huge, showy "Gulf houses" that dot the landscape and embarrass many Keralites. A glance around any Kerala city tells you that a goodly share goes to the latter. And this conspicuous consumption can’t be blamed entirely on the evils of global advertising. Some of it in Kerala comes from a reaction to the caste-bound society of the past, where lower castes were not permitted to wear gold jewelry or, sometimes, even clothing above the waist. Gulf migration is a Gold Rush that has happened in a partly feudal society, and it shows.

Kerala picturesKerala pictures

What else does the Gulf money get invested in? One study found a startling 22.8 percent of it going into "marriage of daughters," a euphemism for something nominally banned but widely practiced: the payment of dowries. Our electrician neighbor was shortly going off to the Gulf to start earning money he could put away for the dowry of his daughter who was now just 10 months old. Dowries make having daughters a financial liability. And a huge one, for Indian dowries sometimes can amount to a year or more of a parent’s income. And in Kerala, under the impact of Gulf money, the price is going up any "Gulf boy" can command a far higher dowry from a bridal candidate. Furthermore, much of that dowry is likely to be in gold and jewels which creates jobs for miners in Africa but not for workers in Kerala. In these ways, the feudal past still hobbles Kerala today.

What's the next step for Kerala? Each new left-wing government in the state introduces a program to be its hallmark; the last time around it was a big adult-literacy campaign. The current effort, bold and well-intentioned, and praised highly in a recent World Bank report, is a radical change in the way India usually does business. Thirty five to 40% of Kerala's state planning budget - money spent, not for recurring expenses like schoolteachers' salaries or road maintenance, say, but for economic development and infrastructure - is now being turned over to the villages to spend, within broad limits, as they like. Elsewhere in the country, these funds are jealously monopolized by the state government. For Kerala's villages, this is the first time they've gotten control of such large sums. Thousands of village and neighborhood meetings have been held up and down the state, and citizens have worked on inventories of their communities' needs. "Economic development" can include everything down to getting a goat or some chickens or a coconut seedling to plant in your backyard, so hundreds of thousands of Keralites have applied for grants.

I spent a day accompanying the guiding spirit of this program, a charismatic, immensely likable economist named T. M. Thomas Isaac, a member of the state planning board, on a visit to a mountain village named Vithura. Doormat-like sheets of whitish, freshly-harvested rubber were hung on roadside fences to dry. Isaac thought Vithura was making particularly good use of these funds and was a model that could inspire other villages. Officials had assembled several hundred people for an afternoon of speechmaking, tree-planting, and ceremonial handing out of some of the fruits of the program to the town’s citizens: envelopes of money for the construction of latrines, packages of vegetable seeds, a dozen pairs of pickax and hoe blades (you go into the forest to cut your own handle).

Isaac gave a speech to the open-air crowd, in which he told the story of a smuggler. Each day the smuggler showed up at a border post wheeling a bicycle with a sack of sand on it. Each day the police inspected the sand, poked at it, sifted it and finally laughed at this fool who thought he could make money by smuggling sand. But he was not smuggling sand, said Isaac, he was smuggling bicycles! Thus with the new program: the real change is not what the money gets spent on, it’s that this massive transfer of funds will bypass the huge, creaky state bureaucracy, will be less likely to be siphoned off by corrupt contractors, and will be spent more accountably all grants and grant applications must be public and at the village level everyone knows each other. The sand is the money, the bicycle is grassroots democracy.

I hope so, although it’s too early to be sure. I went back to Vithura myself several months later to see how things were going. It was not only members of the ruling party who were enthusiastic about the program, but also members of the rival Congress Party on the village council, one of whom accompanied me for much of the day. Was there less graft and corruption at the village level than the state level? I couldn’t tell, although members of both parties claimed this was the case. But, however promising the bicycle, I wasn’t sure about the sand. One woman I met had used part of her 500-rupee "economic development" grant as capital for starting a money-lending operation a kind of business India certainly does not need more of. And the village council had decided to use some of this money to build new concrete houses for some indigenous tribal people in a forest nearby. I walked a mile and a half into the forest to visit these "tribals," as they are called, who live in breathtakingly beautiful traditional homes where everything, from the roof thatch to walls to sleeping mat, is made entirely of bamboo. Through an interpreter, several told me that they planned to continue to live in these; if the council insisted on building them concrete houses, they will use them only to store their farm tools in.

Another contradiction of the new campaign is that the people who have every reason to covertly oppose it are the state government paper-pushers who will lose control over millions of dollars’ worth of spending. Yet these are the very people who, through their trade unions, are the core of the ruling party’s political support. And so a deal was cut: the government employee unions are giving their grudging support to the big change but in return none of their members will lose their jobs. Thus an already bloated bureaucracy lives on, with even less to do than before.

Kerala’s many paradoxes make it hard to view as the eco-sensitive paradise that so many Western progressives would like to find. Few Keralites themselves view it this way. There is a widespread sense that a genuine idealism of 30 or 40 years ago has been lost corrupted by the experience of political power, but more so by the way too many aspirations are modeled, increasingly, on the lifestyles, consumer goods and salary levels of the West, of the Gulf states and of the dreamworld on the TV screen.

Kerala pictures

In Face-to-Face, a film by Kerala director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the first half of the film shows a heroic young labor organizer, Sreedharan, in the early 1950s. An austere, self-denying revolutionary, he puts up a portrait of Lenin, organizes workers to fight miserable conditions at a tile factory, and rejects an attempt by the factory-owner to buy him off. The police wreck the union office. Sreedharan is beaten severely. Then the factory owner is murdered and the police try to pin the blame on Sreedharan. He vanishes. More than a decade later he returns, aged, bent, alcoholic, silent. In trying to get him to speak, his old union comrades reveal the various ways they have changed. One has become a sectarian guerrilla; another has various businesses on the side and tells Sreedharan not to believe all the things he will hear about him. All want Sreedharan to inspire them again, but he cannot. Then he is mysteriously murdered, and only this event once again draws the workers together, to solemnly march under their red flags, chanting "Long Live Comrade Sreedharan!" who has proven so much easier to celebrate in death than in life.

Someone else who has thought a good deal about Kerala’s malaise is Dr. K.A. Kumar, head psychiatrist at Trivandrum’s Medical College. He is concerned by the rapid rise of alcoholism in the state. Sixty percent of Kerala’s road accidents are related to alcohol, he says; one third of its industrial accidents, and more than 20 percent of male hospital admissions. "When I was a medical student [in the 1960s], when we saw advanced alcoholism with cirrhosis, the age of the patient would be late 40s, 50s or even 60s. Now we find it occurring in the late 20s and 30s."

Dr. Kumar feels Kerala "took a wrong turning," in the 1970s. These were the years large numbers of Keralites first began going to the Gulf. They were also years when unemployment grew worse, and when it became painfully clear that a high school or college degree would not guarantee you a job. Kerala was also affected by changes that came over all of India during this time, when the idealism of the Nehru years had been replaced by deep-seated corruption and the increasingly authoritarian Indira Gandhi and her 1975 declaration of emergency rule. Another symptom of Kerala’s malaise that Dr. Kumar sees is suicides: Kerala’s rate is nearly three times India’s national average, growing fast, and, at 27 per 100,000 people, is matched by few countries anywhere.

What lies behind the danger signs of soaring alcoholism and suicide rates? My own guess is that Kerala’s near-universal literacy, its extraordinary percentage of people with higher education, its millions of citizens who have worked abroad, its millions more who live in families with one member overseas have all given its people an unusually sophisticated awareness of the outside world. And that world is one where, we are led to believe, happiness consists of what you can buy. The men I would see on my morning jog, sitting on the steps of their two-room mud houses reading newspapers, were reading papers tailored, as everywhere, to the upscale readers advertisers are seeking; articles are filled with vacation travel ideas or tips on "How to Choose Your Child’s First Computer." Yet Kerala’s economic woes have made it impossible for most people to easily buy even a child’s first bicycle, much less a computer. From that disparity between the dreamed-of world on the newspaper page or the TV screen or in the letters of the relative in Chicago, and the mud-walled reality, arises a kind of despair, a sense of being on the periphery. And it’s small comfort to hear an idealist whether an Indian Gandhian or an American environmentalist saying that you shouldn’t be coveting material things to begin with.

Everywhere today, the borders between First and Third World are no longer between continents; they are within cities and countries. The white suburb and black shantytown in South Africa; the beachfront condo and the hillside favela in Rio; the sprawling slum and the fenced, guarded compound for World Bank and United Nations employees in Dakar or Nairobi. In Kerala, that border lies everywhere; it even zigzagged between the houses along the streets where I ran in the morning, where vast Gulf houses sat side by side with thatched-roof ones whose residents had to get their water from the roadside tap that flowed only early in the morning, if at all. Goats, cows and bullocks drawing creaky carts walked past garages holding shiny new Toyotas. Sometimes the line bisected a home: one Muslim family not far from us had electricity, TV and a radio, but had to walk more than half a mile a day for water.

Furthermore, in Kerala, that border between worlds does not divide people of different nationalities, religions, languages or skin colors. A family trapped, economically, in a thatch-roofed hut with a dirt floor may have neighbors who have a foot financially in the First World because of a family member with an overseas job. The border between them is of agonizing thinness: a few more years of education, or enough money to go to a private school instead of a state one, or a helpful relative already abroad. Almost all of us define our sense of being rich or poor not by absolute standards but in comparison to people we can see. And if we see them every day, that always makes the envy worse.

Yet for all its problems, and in a world where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are pressing governments to slash social spending, Kerala has managed to provide a basic social safety net under everyone: access to education, medical care, low-price staple foods, a welfare system that works. And it is a society where civic spirit is very much alive. Kerala regularly produces some of India’s highest voter turnouts, ones that far surpass the United States more than 70 percent in last year’s national election. My morning run took me past the Recreation Center for the Handicapped one of innumerable institutions for the blind, the deaf and the disabled proclaimed by large signs around town. It took me near the Medical College auditorium where, for a conference that I attended, Dr. Kumar assembled 173 high school teachers from throughout the city for a workshop in how to recognize and help the children of alcoholics. It took me within sight of a medical research institute which is developing a two-day workshop on learning disabilities that will be part of a retraining program for every teacher in the state. This is something that is not part of many American teachers’ training. In the United States, where social programs of every type are being retrenched in the name of budget-balancing and the supremacy of the market, there are some things we can learn from Kerala, after all.

coconut trees