An off-season December in the South Indian state on the Malabar Coast
I may have been born in India and have even spent time growing up in the Middle East, but when I think of December, I think of the snow falling past my apartment window in Mississauga, Canada. I think of the biting wind that sneaks between the buttons of my coat and whips my hair back and forth. I think of gray, white and brown landscapes, dotted with red, blue and pink holiday lights. I think of hot chocolate warming my hands through mittens and steaming up my glasses. The one thing I don’t think about? Green. And yet there I was in Kerala, surrounded by the colors of spring and summer in the middle of December.
For me, green and white were the defining characteristics of my week-long visit to the southwestern Indian state. My first real road trip, everything we did and saw was always on the way to our destination of the day—the place we’d be sleeping for the night. It’s safe to say we saw a lot, visiting six cities in four days and driving through many more. None of it was unexpected per se—I’d done a decent amount of research beforehand—but it was still a bit of a shock to my system. From the heat to the landscape, it was all around very different from my usual winter at home.
Kerala is located at the southern tip of India, along the western Malabar Coast and with the Laccadive Sea on its western shore and the Western Ghats along the eastern. Its geographic positioning gives the state three distinct regions despite it being such a narrow land, with mountains, rolling hills, and coastal plains.
Historically, Kerala has been a renowned spice exporter since 3000 B.C. It is this spice trade that later enticed the Portuguese and the Dutch to set their eyes on India, paving a way for the European colonies prevalent in 15th century South India, while the Islamic dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughals conquered North India. Although the cultural influence of those Europeans—who only conquered a few minor regions in comparison to the Mughals—is still somewhat evident, it’s the British legacy from the late 19th century that truly changed the face of India. In the Western Ghats mountain region, particularly around Munnar, a hill station in the east Kerala Idukki district, tea plantations cover near 60,000 acres of the sloping hillsides.
When the British East India Company set about establishing rule on the continent, mass tea production became integral to the Indian economy. Tea, while native to some parts of India, had been scarcely used. Even then, it was only for the purpose of Ayurvedic medicine. The company’s goal was to outdo the Chinese, where tea bushes are an indigenous plant, and they did so by planting imported Chinese tea seeds. Though the East India Company initially began creating plantations in the North East (Assam and later Darjeeling), the tropical climate of Kerala made it an ideal location for further expansion. Today, alongside coconuts, coffee and a whole range of spices, tea plays a big role in sustaining the agricultural economic growth.
Green and white. There’s just something about the blurred tea and approaching mist that defines Kerala in a very special way. A lot of the green we saw as drove to different cities was just the standard shrubbery and grasslands found in countless other places. But it seemed that every time I looked out the window, I would see the clouds come down to kiss the tea plantations. The slogan given to Kerala is “God’s own country” and it’s these kinds of moments, when there is no sky and no land, that places it beyond the world we live in.
To further jostle my notion of winter and summer, the rain was plentiful during our visit to Munnar. While it kept us in the car, it didn’t deter the tea pickers from working through trails carved into the plantations: a mosaic showing the history of their land. The trails have created a puzzle-like quality to the gardens and the women who weave through the maze, still harvesting by hand with plastic veils to fight off the heavy rains, are experts at navigating the grounds.
What’s interesting about this scene is the sense of gender disparity that persists despite the fact that women in Kerala generally have a higher standing in society as compared to elsewhere in India. The democratic nomination of the Communist Party of India in the state brought about many educational and social reforms. In conjunction with the matrilineal tradition that puts the woman at the head of the household, Kerala is also the only state where women outnumber the men, which has been important in increasing opportunities for women.
However, upward social mobility is still influenced by gender and there is much to do before proper equality is achieved. The women in the fields also demonstrate the economic hardships of working within the tea industry and the exploitation of poor laborers by large corporations. Kerala, in particular, was recently in the media when nearly 6,000 women under the name of Pempilai Orumai (“women’s unity”) protested against the plantation company and male trade union leaders alike. They successfully shut down Munnar, one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations, and the women’s initial demands were met after nine days. Their fight continues. Notably, they have entirely separated from the male-dominated union leaders to represent themselves. It is, in part, a testament to some of the state’s better policies that enabled the women to mobilize as they did. Through the education reforms in place from the Communist Party, as well as the mass education drives initiated by the government and private organizations, the literacy rate in Kerala—93.91 percent according to the 2011 census—is the highest in India. This is a characteristic shared equally by men and women.
There were other colors, of course. Whenever South India is portrayed in films, the colors are vivid and saturated. But the green that’s lacking in my usual December was so plentiful that it dominates my memories of Kerala. For a state that is teeming with flora and fauna—some natural, some imported—it seems fitting. There was so much I saw and yet, so much was left unseen that I’m determined to go back if only to find more colors hidden in pockets of green.
If you’re interested in reading more about Kerala, there’s a really great article written by Dawin O’Dwyer over at the Washington Post.