Two puzzles of modern India one well known, the other overlooked form the core of this book. For fifty years, the state of Kerala has been famed, first as a home of Communists, then as a perplexing model of development . But why Communists? And why development, especially in a place where the economy usually underperformed even lowly national averages? Part of an answer lies in the unusual place of women in Kerala and their changing role in the past 200 years.
Another part lies in the other, often under-analyzed focus of this book: media and communication. Printing and publishing in Indian languages and accompanying questions of literacy and language identity present tantalizing puzzles.
Since data were first collected in the 1950s, Kerala s people have been India s greatest newspaper consumers. Do literacy and newspapers mobilize people for political action or does politicization make people into newspaper readers? To what extent do media wait on consumer capitalism before they break into the countryside to become truly mass media, as they have in India in the past thirty years? Media and Modernity ponders these questions, first from the perspective of Kerala, often a forerunner of developments elsewhere, and then at an all-India level. Readers intrigued by questions of development, communications, politics, and the role of women will find in this collection stories that surprise and arguments that provoke.
Images of two women capture the essence of these essays. The first is of an old woman in white sitting on a tiny verandah in a narrow street in a village near Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala as the monsoon poured down early one morning in July 1968. She wore big, bottle glasses, and spread out expertly across her knee was her morning news-paper. The second is of a thinner, grubbier woman: a fisherwoman leaving the Connemara Market in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) at evening, basket on her head, walking briskly barefoot down the main road. She sees a leaflet on the ground, and without breaking stride, picks it up with her toes, transfers it to her hand, and reads it as she continues her march down the hill.
The two pictures provoke reflections about communications, literacy, education, gender, technology, printing, newspapers, class, caste, religion, social change-and always, politics. The white apparel of the first woman marked her as a Syrian Christian, high-status and influential people in Kerala society, claiming descent from converts of Thomas the Apostle. Her newspaper was in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. In 1968, English-language newspapers were not readily available in the early morning in Kerala; but Malayalam ones were. Her spectacles indicated either that her family was reasonably well off or that, well off or not, she had read all her life and would not be denied the capacity to read-that spectacles were as important as breakfast. Although younger, the second woman was thinner and smaller than the first. She was barefoot. Poor. She may have been a Hindu or a Latin Catholic. The two women-or people like them-were unlikely to meet, separated as they were by 250 kilometres and divisions of caste, religion, and class. But they both could read; they both followed events of the day, either in newspapers or by discovering what local handbills were advertising; and they lived in the same political entity, the Indian state of Kerala, where communists and anti-communists had been squaring off since the 1930s.
In north India in the late 1960s, it was uncommon to see village people, men or women, wearing spectacles. Newspapers were scarce and rarely got to the countryside; if they did, they could be days out of date. The idea that a 'coolie woman', as the fisherwoman in Thiruvananthapuram might have been described in the north, would be able to read would have been remarkable. Female literacy in the giant north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1971 was 11 percent; in its large neighbour, Bihar, it was 9 per cent. In Kerala, on the other hand, 54 out of every 100 women could read and write.
A certain sequence explains how these essays came about. They began with a basic question: 'Why is Kerala different?' That question led at once, as the images of the two women suggest, to exploration of women's roles, literacy, and education. There was nothing new in this: foreigners have been fascinated by the place of women in Kerala for 500 years. 'These kings do not marry,' wrote Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese traveller in 1516, 'only each has a mistress, a lady of great lineage and family, which is called nayre [Nair], and said to be very beautiful and graceful.' Not surprisingly, in the twentieth century, academic anthropologists were attracted to Kerala. And anyone encountering Kerala in the years after Indian independence also confronted another feature: a powerful Communist Party that won elections and formed a government, often said to be the first freely elected communist government in the world, in 1957.
The essay `Matriliny, Marxism, and the Birth of the Communist Party in Kerala, 1930-1940' tries to explain how Kerala's matrilineal system dissolved and how that dissolution resulted in an uprooted generation, many of whose members found certainty and purpose in Marxism and the Communist Party. As with Protestant Christianity, one had to be able to read the (Marxist) scriptures in order to be converted to the true way. Kerala's remarkable levels of literacy provided a foundation for the communists to propagate the 'modern' and `scientific' ideas of Marx. Kerala's literature of social reform and political revolution, and its Marxist publications, became legendary. An English missionary in the 1940s was surprised to see 'working class folk' on a ferry 'studying the Communist Manifesto' and 'other books by Marx and Engels.'
‘Governments and Culture: How Women Made Kerala Literate' attempts to explain how Kerala achieved literacy rates far above other parts of India. It concludes that the role of women was the crucial ingredient, not just because higher female literacy pushed up overall literacy statistics, but because literate mothers were more likely than fathers to ensure literate offspring, both girls and boys. The essay argues that the combination of the matriliny of influential Hindu groups (which made it acceptable for girls to go out in public and to school) and the educational zeal of Protestant missionaries propelled Kerala's female literacy. Male literacy, thus prodded, marched a few steps ahead. The fact that Kerala was notably literate did not lead to its notable elbow room for women; rather, it was women's relative freedom of manoeuvre that drove Kerala's high levels of literacy.
If there are schools and reading, there must be schoolbooks, printing presses, and probably newspapers. How do ideas move? By word of mouth, no doubt; but the two women with whom this introduction began were reading Malayalam printed work published nearby and only hours earlier. What was the story of printing in Kerala, and how had its political economy evolved in the twentieth century? A little of that story is attempted in 'Testing Concepts about Print, Newspapers and Politics: Kerala, India, 1800-2009'. Textbook publishing made printing presses profitable investments from the nineteenth century, and if you ran a press, you might as well run a newspaper, in which you could sell advertisements and augment your income.
Printing can be profitable, but it can also be dangerous, as the suppression of three Kerala newspapers in the twentieth century illustrates. The essay contends that print was a more troublesome medium for Kerala governments before it became a mass medium. When print was scarce, it was valued, respected (more than it sometimes deserved), and often in the hands of publishers for whom the cause was more important than the balance sheet. As a mass medium, print and newspapers are the cutting edge of capitalism. They need governments-for patronage and protection. They may challenge governments they don't like, but they are always controllable when the chips are down: mass media are big and vulnerable to the coercive apparatus of modern states.
Modern states justify their existence by claiming to act in the interests of 'the people'. The immense challenge that the Indian state accepted after independence was to improve the living standards of 'the people'. Even its questionable overall success has varied from region to region. By the 1970s, Kerala stood out as having far better social statistics-life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, sex ratio-than any comparable unit of the Indian federation. Scholars and policy-makers began to refer to a 'Kerala model of development'-a place where the quality of life improved, but without the experience of a red, green, or industrial revolution.
`Women and the "Kerala Model"' puts women at the centre of the `Kerala model'. But the essay denies that there is 'a model' (hence the fussy quotation marks around 'Kerala model') in the sense of a set of policies that could be applied successfully elsewhere. Again, the argument is that the peculiar position of women in Kerala was essential for producing the characteristics that came to be referred to as a 'Kerala model'. Crudely, the place of women had a great deal to do with making 'the model'; the policies of Kerala governments had much less to do with creating the place of women.
There are teasing chicken-and-egg problems in such arguments. What came first? What caused which? For me, the answer seems clear: the unusual position of matrilineal Hindu women, and of Christian women influenced by aggressive Protestantism (Catholics responded to Protestant challenges), made Kerala unique. Much that has resulted in Kerala could not have happened without this combination.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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