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Layered World of Malayalis

Susan Visvanathan

By Prema A. Kurien
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 217, Rs. 545.00


This is a cautious but ambitious work, and tends to fall between two stools. It asks the right questions, but for existential reasons, it cannot answer the magnitude and range of the problems posed by the author. For instance, Prema Kurien does explain why Kerala’s success story is India’s story, since the revenue from foreign exchange is credited for India as a whole, but the actual expense accounts and ledgers for the family shows consumption rather than investment in Kerala to be the index of the state’s brittleness. The pages that are worthy of a university publisher are limited to about sixty pages, there are interesting data on consumption patterns of Gulf returnees to Kerala, yet she is startlingly deaf to the kinds of insights provided by Goody and Tambiah, for instance with regard to the questions of moveable property.   It must be difficult to study one’s own people. “Malayaliness” which is the common denominatory against the divisiveness of religion, caste, class appears here as the absent category. So many definitions of ethnicity have been provided over the last decades that each author proceeds to conveniently forget in application, the contributions of the last in the field, while dutifully going over the mandatory review of how the term is used. Prema Kurien’s book has some serious deficits though it does provide the curious apparatus of the insider looking into her own society through a glass pane, and allowing her class position to be an obstacle to the understanding of those who are trying to improve their lot. In admitting to this bias, several pages of print are necessary, but it remains her Achilles heel and the data is indeed lost.   Firstly, the chapter on history called: ‘Colonialism and Ethnogenesis’ is shockingly poor. It generalizes in an alarming way. Categories are blurred, and the most contemporary source for the Syrian Christians cited is S.G. Pothan, circa ‘60s. Prema does not seem to know that the interest in Kerala has multiplied and all of us are tillers in an overworked field. Influenced perhaps by Robin Fox, whom every undergraduate loved dearly in the ‘70s, who systematized kinship studies in a manner that cannot be forgotten, there is a remarkable methodological mnemonic provided to us: “Economic behaviour is simultaneously social and symbolic behaviour and is therefore shaped by the context within which it is embedded.” One must ...

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