THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: When S S Agarwal, a businessman, came to Kochi from Salem in 1985 to establish a flour mill, he was apprehensive. Every day when he would open the newspaper, he would see that one company or the other was on strike. At that time, there were eight flour mills in and around Kochi. “Out of that, four were always closed because of a perennial labour problem,” he says.
When he enquired, he discovered that the unions, instead of asking for ` 10, would ask for ` 100. The management, instead of giving ` 10, would only want to give ` 1. “There was no scope for compromise,” he says.
But Agarwal opted for a compromise. He met the union leaders and came to a mutually agreed amount to be paid to the labourers. Then the charade began. Meeting after meeting took place every night outside the factory where the leaders harangued the management.
“This was to show that the leaders were with the labourers,” says Agarwal. For the tenth meeting Agarwal was invited. Then the union leaders shouted at him, in front of the audience, and pretended to punch him. Finally, a settlement was reached.
“By this method, I did not lose a single day to a strike,” he says. “Today, however, things have changed because a lot of the labour come from outside the state. The problem with Malayalis is that, most of the time, they are not flexible.”
Agarwal was speaking at the discussion, ‘The Malayali psyche’ at the Wednesday Club, which is a Kochi-based forum to develop public speaking and leadership skills.
The noted writer and intellectual KL Mohana Varma, who had been an administrative and accounts chief of the Integrated Fisheries Project of the government of India, in 1976, had several interactions with unions at Kochi. “The union people were good workers, but they wanted promotions without qualifications,” he says. “I refused, so they threatened me with physical violence.”
But these workers could be adaptable. Once when a Telugu film crew arrived, they wanted to take some shots of people jumping into the water and doing swimming. They offered to pay Rs 50 per day. Varma asked the union leaders whether they were interested.
“In the end, all these people became film actors, and started jumping into the water,” he says. “That is a Malayali for you. He can adapt to anything.”
The retired senior technocrat Dr KPP Nambiar says that the Malayali does not know how to deal with equals. “Either you are below me or above me,” says Nambiar. “When he is abroad, like in the Middle East, and has to clean the toilet, he cannot treat everybody as if they are under him. But when this same Malayali comes home, and sees a Tamilian doing the same work, he will tend to look down on him.”
Businessman CM Daniel, who has spent more than four decades abroad, agrees. “In Kerala, the Malayalis want to put down the other person,” he says. “They fight over small issues. It happens all the time on the road whether the driver is right or wrong.”
One reason is because the DNA of the Malayali has a high concentration of sarcasm, says senior lawyer George Tharakan. “A Malayali will never accept, appreciate or admire another Malayali instinctively,” he says.
Researcher Pradeep Koshy highlighted the Malayali’s reluctance to do blue-collar jobs. “They feel it is beneath their dignity,” he says. “So we encourage people from other states to come here and do the physical labour which we are supposed to do.”
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Senior professional TB Venugopal says, “Malayalis are good workers, provided you know how to make them work. Things are changing.
The IT Parks at Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram have been a success. In the service sector we are very good, because the people are educated. We should not ignore our plus points.”
Johny Abraham, a leading member of the travel industry, says, “We are so successful in tourism, we must be doing something right. You go anywhere in the world, and you will notice that the Malayalis are doing well.”
Others agreed on the Malayali’s dynamism outside. “They are street-smart, adventurous and enterprising,” says senior professional Patrick Xavier. “They are a great support when you are in distress.”
Brigadier N V Nair (Retd.), who spent many years in different parts of India, says that the Malayalis outside are industrious, sincere, ambitious, and hard-working. “We are an educated and cultured people and know how to behave with others,” he says. “As a result, Malayalis have been successful outside.”
Interestingly, the majority of personnel help, secretarial or household, to most of the top political leaders in Delhi are Malayalis. “Even the private secretary of the late Phoolan Devi [former MP and dacoit], was a Malayali,” says Varma.
“The cooks in Sonia Gandhi’s house are Malayalis. Who can outshine us?”