In spite of my time here, I still have no understanding of the reality of life for most Indians. I’m aware that Kerala is not representative. I don’t know exactly what “communism” has consisted of in Kerala, but the result is a wealthy state, where wages are considered high and the inequalities less pronounced than elsewhere. Many people here are mobile, spending years in the Middle East, earning good money and returning to build big houses to make their neighbours jealous. Their children are well-educated and scattered across the world, but it seems less certain that they will return.
This is not, of course, the same for everyone in Kerala. In a couple of places in particular I have seen a little of what life is like for the people who are less well-off. I saw some around the tea plantations of Munnar and Wayanad, and some around the backwaters in Kumarakhom and Allepuzha. I could also watch my neighbours, immigrants from northern India and renting a rather substandard house, as they went about their daily life.
Electricity, though sometimes unreliable, appears almost universal in Kerala houses. Apart from a tiny tent community in Ernakulum (the only evidence of homelessness I saw), there always seemed to be electricity lines running to the houses. This would provide lighting and charge a cellphone and maybe run a fan, but, I suspect, little else. Kerala has not reached the degree of wealth where you can own a television and be considered poor.
Despite the climate, fridges are also on the luxury list for these poorer houses, condemning the women to the constant labour of preparing food fresh, since such things as cooked rice and curries cannot be stored. Nor can items such as milk, fish and vegetables. I can’t imagine life without a fridge in New Zealand, let alone the climate of India.
I have more comprehension of life without a washing machine, as I have mentioned in a previous post. I’m actually yet to see one here in any house I have visited, and I’m pretty sure that rather than being a luxury item they are simply considered unnecessary. They aren’t particularly practical for many of the clothes, and if you can afford to spend the money on a washing machine, you can probably afford pay someone to do the washing for you. The washing machine may wash your clothes, but it won’t remove them from the machine, put them out to dry and then fold up the dried clothes for you.
As far as I can tell, some items that we consider essential are almost unknown here. I’ve seen no sign of clothes driers or ovens. The cooking style doesn’t use ovens, and I suspect that clothes driers are both impractical for the clothing and prohibitively expensive to run. I can’t help thinking that they would be useful in the humid climate though.
On the other hand, I’m yet to see a house without ceiling fans. Air conditioning is a luxury but popular, but I think that living in a house without fans would be considered hardship – worse than life without a fridge.
Cars are another item that are considered virtually essential in New Zealand, but they are a definite luxury here. I don’t know how much a car costs to buy, but petrol is comparatively expensive – it was somewhere around NZ$1.40 per litre. This sounds cheap to us, but in comparison to incomes and other prices it is not. A 10-15 minute trip on a bus cost me 14 cents, while the same journey in an “auto” (auto-rickshaw, basically a scooter combined with a rickshaw) cost about $1.60. A similar bus fare in Wellington would cost more than 20 times the Kerala price, and I’d wait a lot longer for a bus. On the other hand, Wellington buses come with windows.
Motorbikes and scooters are more common than cars, and it’s not too uncommon to see Mum, Dad and a child or two on a scooter. Most were ridden by men, but it was common enough to see women ride them too. Scooters seem more popular with women as you can wear a sari and ride a scooter. For passengers, it’s easy enough to ride pillion on a bike wearing salwar kameez (or churidar as they call the outfit in Kerala) – I know because I’ve done it myself. But if the passenger on a bike is wearing a sari or full Islamic hijab, she’ll ride sidesaddle.
While motorbikes a common, helmets are just slightly more common than washing machines. Most of the ones I saw appeared ornamental, as they weren’t done up. I don’t want to think about the road toll, although mercifully the congestion does keep the speed down in many places.
Of all the necessity/ luxury distinctions, it is the situation with water which is the farthest from my comprehension. We’ve all heard about the hazards of water in India. I’ve had dire warnings from the travel doctor, colleagues and friends about amoebic dysentery, cholera and typhoid. I spent my first two weeks here in a state of paranoia about every drop, even using bottled water for tooth brushing.
But I’ve reached the point now that if I was to visit any reasonably well-off house in Kerala, I’d take an offered glass of water and happily drink it. This is not because I’ve discovered that Kerala water is pristine – it’s because boiling household drinking water is routine here. On the scale of necessity to luxury, drinking water directly from the tap doesn’t appear – it is somewhere beyond.
Domestic water supplies come from a range of sources – reticulated supply in some towns, household wells, rainwater tanks and rivers. Where I’ve been staying is in a village, and there is a well with an electric pump which is used to pump water to a roof tank. Water is reliably supplied to all the expected taps indoors, as well as several outside, but hot water is considered unnecessary. Given the climate, this isn’t much hardship. The quality is pretty good – although the drinking water is boiled, I’ve probably swallowed a fair bit of unboiled water from washed fruit and dishes that were still a bit wet, and I’ve come to no harm.
The house next door has given me an idea of what life is like for the less well-off in Kerala. I’ve already mentioned that the tenants have to hand-draw water from their well for washing. Every day – several times a day – I see them lifting water from the well by hand, and scrubbing dishes and clothing on a concrete area beside the well. It must be constant struggle to keep things clean, as I’ve also been told that the house has a dirt floor, and looking at the state of the roof, I suspect it may leak. Kerala has a rainfall similar to New Zealand’s West Coast, so it must be miserable at times.
However, in having their own well, I realise that they have something that many don’t, because the well water is good water. In a previous post I mentioned the traditional way of washing was to use the river, but I didn’t realise that this is still important for many people. If there is one thing that has shocked me about life in Kerala, it was that people are still dependent on what must be some very polluted rivers.
I know it is the traditional way, but the rivers of Kerala are not what they once were. I’ve been told by a number of older people that when they were young the rivers were clear, and washing in them was no problem. But they are not clear now. They are murky and greenish brown. The sandy bottoms of the rivers have been dredged up for construction materials and now they are muddy. The mud encourages the invasion of the submerged weed cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and rafts of floating weeds like water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) drift down the river, collecting plastic bottles and other rubbish in the tangled mats. In the upland areas like Munnar, some of the water is clearer, and, I assume, cleaner, although in an agricultural area of India I’d wonder about the pesticide levels. But the famous backwaters, which attract tourists to their houseboats and tranquil setting, are slow-moving lowland canals and lakes. By the time the water reaches there, they have collected every bit of pollution that Kerala can throw in them.
And from a boat puttering slowly around these backwaters, I saw people constantly in the water, scrubbing clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves and fishing for food. The steep edges of the canals are punctuated with steps and platforms so that people can access and use the water. The murky, green liquid is the centre of their lives.
It makes me realise where the wealth of Kerala really lies, and how vulnerable it is. This state has always had what much of India hasn’t – abundant water. Unlike everything else I’ve discussed in this post, water is a true necessity for all of us. Phones, cars, fans, fridges and even electricity are luxuries compared to water. But, like New Zealand, Kerala is in danger of squandering that wealth. And the first to suffer – as usually happens with environmental damage, are the poorest people.