Wealth and washing clothes in the Keralan backwaters

David brought his laptop into paradise, and I’m quite glad of it. The backwaters of Kerala are watery roads that connect towns and villages, whose livelihoods were traditionally etched out in rice paddy fields and fishing boats. Dusk is settling on the water, evening light playing its last dance amongst the ripples. Coconut palms are silhouetted endlessly across a dark sky, and some kind of Indian music is warbling across the water, counterpointed by lapping water and the occasional chirp from a frog. I can hear the sound of cooking – our chef is at work, preparing our dinner. The boat sways and I’m taken some place else.

The houseboat David and I hired has been drifting through this array of rivers and canals all afternoon long, while we wave at the villagers washing their clothes and generally going about their daily life. We have a chef and a driver. How rich we are.
I step off the boat when it docks for the night, keen to get a glimpse of life in a backwater village. The houses snake around the waters, perched on narrow banks. I greet the women and children with ‘hello’ or ‘namaste’. The children grin at each other then stand erect and finally brave, “What is your name?” “My name is Andreana. What is your name?” And that’s as far as the conversation goes, before they erupt into a fit of giggles and run away.

I am trying to get used to averting my eyes when I pass a man: I’m not concerned for my safety, but it doesn’t feel proper for me to be constantly catching the gaze of men.
“Madam!”
I look up.
“What did you do to your arm?”
He is a good-looking Indian man in his 30s, wearing a lungi and bare feet. I show him the last piece of gauze tapped to my forearm, and explain how I fell in a ditch in Allepey.
“Ah I see.”
He asks where I’m from and I tell him. He says he has worked in tourism, on the houseboats, which explains why his English is so good.
I want to know about this village: why it appears so wealthy, for example. We are in the middle of nowhere, but the houses are stout and colourful and people look happy and healthy.
“Do people own their own houses?” I ask. I’m interested in land and how people hold it, because it’s one of my research areas back home in Melbourne.
He tells me that they do – and not only that, but everybody owns their own plot of paddy field land as well. People work together in the fields, because you can’t farm your own bit of land on your own. When he speaks, his lips come together tight and stretch wide again, like a piano accordion.
“Has it always been this way?”
No it has not, I am told. Before independence, the state of Kerala had a system of feudalism, where tenant farmers paid rent to landlords. After Gandhi and independence, a series of socialist governments brought many changes of Kerala, including land reform. People don’t have to pay rent anymore; the wealth stays in their own hands.
He tells me that the wealth also rides on the back of the Portuguese, who set up the first trading routes from the south of India, and later the missionaries, who helped to achieve 100 percent literacy. The south, I am told, is a very different place from the north.
“So is land reform the key to Kerala’s wealth?”
He is leaning casually on one leg, while I stand properly with hands clasped, listening earnestly. A few curious children gather around while we converse. He asks if I have time – he can explain more, if I like. I tell him I have some time (although I’m a bit anxious because David is waiting back at the boat). He says that the real backbone of Kerala’s economy are its emigrant workers. The north of Kerala is heavily Muslim, so many Keralans work in Middle Eastern countries, sending capital back to their families. This part of Kerala is far further steeped in Christianity than Islam, but even so, remittances mark deeply on the economy.
“Out of 100 households in this village,” he says, “30 or 40 would have a member working in another country.”
I point to a small but sturdy house standing behind us, with the sound of a TV wafting out of open French windows and a satellite dish fixed to the side of the wall. “Is that why the houses are so nice here?”
“Yes,” he answers.
Aside from farming and selling labour overseas, many in this area work as fisher people. For the aspirational young, however, the future seems to be in tourism – operating houseboats like this one, for example. “Here in Kerala,” he tells me, “agriculture is becoming less and less, and we are turning more into a consumer society. For example, we no longer grow any of our own fruit and vegetables – we buy from other states.”
“Is this a problem?”
“Yes it is, because it drives the prices up. It is ok if you are middle class, as many of us are. But if you are poor, it is very difficult.”
“And so the gap between rich and poor is growing?”
“Yes it is.”

I think about my home in Melbourne, which is also largely a consumer society. There are people who lose out there, also. I guess standards of living can only get so high before people start falling through the cracks. Gain that is beyond your share is always founded on somebody else’s loss. As we get more, we become more selfish and stop looking after each other. I think about the Keralan rice farmers, who can’t farm their own piece of land by themselves, so they have to work together. If they were richer they would have machinery, and wouldn’t need to collaborate as much. The ties based on economic interdependence would begin to dissolve, and thus the ties between people. That’s where wealth disparity begins.

“Some people here are beginning to buy washing machines and things like they. They don’t need to, because we have everything we need to wash clothes.” He points at some steps leading down to the darkening water. “The washing machines are just there to tell everybody how rich you are.”
“Status symbols?”
“Yes, status symbols.”

He wants to know about Australia and I tell him it’s not so different – only we are further along than Kerala. Our eroding wealth goes much deeper and further than the way we wash clothes.

He invites me to chat more – he motions in the direction of his house. It is beginning to rain and the mosquitoes are biting; it’s getting dark and I told David I wouldn’t be long. We each express gratitude for an enlightening conversation, and I wander back to the houseboat to listen to the sounds of dusk falling.