Approximately sixty percent of India is literate. The literacy level among women and in many poorer states is much lower. The literacy level of women in Bihar (the poorest state on India) is about thirty percent. Which is why, when I learned that Kerala, the Indian state that hugs the West coast of the bottom tip of India, was ninety-nine percent literate, I added Kerala to our itinerary. I wanted to understand the impact of literacy on a culture and society. I wondered if the differences would be subtle or obvious. In fact, it is remarkably easy to see and experience the impact—and Kerala defies the stereotypes that Westerners have of India.
Fifty percent of the economy of Kerala is derived from tourism–due to the backwaters and the mountain areas known for their peaceful beauty, as well as Kochin and the beaches. While there are significant agricultural enterprises In Kerala, most of the population aspires to middle class, urban lifestyles.
Kerala is governed at any given time by either the Congress or the Communist Party–both parties committed to minimizing the inequality gap and ensuring education for all. It is strange, as an American, to see the communist flag flying in a fully democratic state–and to recognize that the commitment of the party to ideals of greater equality and literacy are largely the cause of Kerala’s uniqueness.
Keralans are proud of their state. Every person we met spoke about education, literacy, deep religious tolerance and economic equality. The caste system has been routed to a larger degree than anywhere else in India and women’s empowerment is a sources of local pride. We saw nothing even approaching a slum. Villlages reminded me of Mexico or Costa Rica rather than Rajasthan or Bihar. English is spoken widely and the local language, Malayalam, is typically one of three or four that Keralans speak, read and write. Keralans are known for their political engagement– the percentage of the population that reads papers is high and people pride themselves at being able to speak with intelligence about politics. Kerala will never, according to several people we asked, vote for a reactionary party. The explanation we heard is that people are not easily bribed and manipulated because they are literate and tolerance runs too deep. Also noticeable in Kerala are the cleanliness, the quality of the roads, a strong middle class population and the ubiquity of modern looking schools.
Much about Kerala remains traditional. Women and men wear traditional dress– sarees and salwars for women, dhotis (sarongs) for men. Sixty percent of marriages among Kerala’s Hindus, Muslims and Christians are arranged.
As I write this I am sitting at our hotel on the backwaters in Alleppey, listening to the sounds of women doing the laundry by beating it against the rock and cleaning it in the river. Bathing is done in the same river. We have limited running water and the small refrigerator that serves the kitchen seems to work only occasionally. The boats that pass include snake boats (long wooden boats) with motors, non-motorized versions and woven baskets holding two occupants.
I am absolutely sure that what I know about Kerala is inadequate to understand its complexity. I also fear that I am seeing things through rose-colored glasses–sensing that our guides, drivers and hosts are anxious for us to see their state in a certain way. At the same time, I am also sure that literacy IS something of a panacea. Shashi Tharoor is a progressive politician and writer, whose collection of essays, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone, sheds light on India from an insider’s perspective. He claims that education, and specifically the education of women, is the single biggest leverage point for change in India—that educated women have the greatest power to influence their families—and through their families, society as a whole. Kerala would seem to be evidence of this theory at work. And, most surprisingly, it appears that it is possible to effect this change without completely eliminating corruption. When I asked people whether corruption was less prevalent in Kerala than in other parts of India, the consistent answer was “not really.” My suspicion is that there is quite a bit less corruption and that Keralans themselves don’t realize this.
I am not sure why Kerala evolved so differently than most other Indian states. There seems to have been a tradition of strong, empowered women in the region. The history is less bloody than many parts of India (Muslims came as traders not warriors,) At the same time there are profound challenges.
Employment that fits the capacities of a more educated populace is not as plentiful as it needs to be. Increasing tourism is seen as a key to keeping its youth from leaving–so the emphasis on growing the industry is strong. Environmental issues abound. I wonder why there is not a greater influx of high tech–or if we just didn’t see where that is happening. Like everything else about India, I have more questions than answers. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the beauty and do my part in contributing to the local economy.