The Cynical Malayali

Most people would agree on this, that an average Malayali is somewhat cynical. Sometimes his pithy and sarcastic answers comes across a bit negatively and pessimistic, for example if it was raining, he would opine that the sun is unlikely to come out for a number of days as though you were in for big trouble (of what? Reduced vitamin D intake?). Once the sun comes out, he would grumble Oh! Finally the sun decided to pop his pompous head out, eh? More commonly, if a bus arrived on time, he would slight the driver for having some ulterior motive for the good deed such as a function at home or that the other drivers had decided not to use the road on that particular day and that was the only reason for the unusual event, not once agreeing to the conscientiousness of the driver. A Malayali hardly compliments another, and if at all he does, it is done in such a begrudging way that the impact is long lost before he finishes. And you may not realize it, I have also been told that we are horrible at accepting compliments, not doing it enthusiastically (to be frank, I am also part of that league) while in person.

The subtle sarcasm in their remarks, is only understood by another Malayali and that is why a dubbed or subtitled Malayalam film is never the same. Check out some Jagathi comedy scenes and you will all agree with me. Or for that matter, look at the audience’s faces in a Malayalam stage show. Shreya Ghoshal might be singing her heart off and I guarantee, every single viewer would be tingling inside, but their faces would be grumpy, wooden and totally opaque. I recall that Usha Uthup was one of the first to mention this, and she should know, being married to a Malayali, that getting applause for anything in Kerala is very difficult. So if she got some, she was contended.

I still laugh remembering Abraham’s Bangalore bred Kannadiga wife Anu. Abraham hailed from a sleepy village near Tiruvalla. Can you imagine the scene when they went home for their first vacation after marriage and his chirpy and bubbly wife rushed to the bare bodied, middle aged, dhoti clad Appachan and hugged him, shouting ‘Appacha, we are home’? The Appachan looked like lightning had struck him, with thunder pealing all around (idi vettiya mathiri) and with difficulty squirmed out of her embrace, only to throw a rotten look at Abraham. Anu would regale us with that story ever so often, accompanied by much guffawing and I could only share a grin with Abraham, understanding fully well his situation.

I recall often how it was when I went home after a year abroad and my dad would look up quizzically and ask sans emotion if the flight had for once, arrived on time. That was it. My mom would grumble that I had lost weight and after a few questions trudge off to the kitchen, her haven, to continue with her cooking. Just imagine the filmy (that’s what the cynical Malayali would say) situation when the son gets back for vacations in a Punjabi household. Puthar would be engulfed in embraces by all the eagerly waiting aunties, parathas would be on the stove, butter bubbling on them, the dad himself will arrive with a patialawala peg for the son, and balle balles would start. Can you imagine the situation if you went and embraced your dad, like Modi hugged Trump recently?

Some say Malayali’s are driven by reason, not by emotion. I am not sure, but perhaps it comes with knowledge or awareness, and the feeling that you are fully entitled to your opinion. Hype, spin, godmen, movie stars, all ingredients of much furor in other parts of India, even neighboring Tamil Nadu hardly elicit huge responses in Kerala. But one thing brings out a sarcastic response, that being politics of all sorts. The ruling party is never spared and no Malayali is satisfied with anything that is or that is not done for him by his own elected representative, the politician is usually a scumbag at best and good for nothing for the common Malayali.

I agree that things are a bit different these days and the much vaunted character is changing, with movie fans associations and so on, but sometime I feel like other Malayali’s that this business of movie fans associations is nothing but a sham. No chance a Malayali would make a temple for Nayantara, like they did in the neighboring state.

Was it because society promoted free thinking and logical thought or was it something that permeated from the old days where the Nambudiri was always a cynic? Did those Nambudiris on top of the caste pyramid, the only rich and educated of the medieval times, have a perpetual fear and distrust of the minions beneath them and as a result passed on a cynical trait to them? Or was it that the Malayali never trusted the British to take care of their interests and as a result imbibed the habit if cynicism?

Anyway the average Malayali became just that, a cynic. If he saw somebody dressed in a bright shirt, it was too loud. If he smoked a pipe the jealous fellow would decry it mentioning how arrogant it looked, though nobody had asked him and it was none of his business. If somebody came with a good looking lady in tow, he would be seen to highlight the good lady’s shortcomings. If he came in a flashy foreign car, he would grudgingly mention that all this foreign stuff was bound to fail with Indian conditions, and that nothing could beat a Maruti. If he himself purchased one in later life and was asked about it, he would say that he was forced to buy this stupid car as his beloved Maruti had become obsolete.

The definitions of Cynical is something to study - believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity, doubtful as to whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile, concerned only with one's own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them, contemptuous; mocking. Think back and you will agree that many of us, our friends and relatives would easily fit into this category. But then again George Bernard Shaw thought otherwise and I tend to agree, for he said "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

The police and the politician usually bear the brunt of Malayali cynicism. Public servants, they claim are paid from their taxes and so owe their entire existence to the masses. If they are not selfless, and as you know most of them are not, they are usually the objects of all kinds of barbs. The police, well, the poor blokes suffer the biggest of the ridicule for their (in old times) stiff shorts, their pot bellies and apparent inefficiency. For the cynical Malayali all MNC’s exist only to rape the land and drain away their precious resources, but keeps silent about his son who works for one.

The cynical Malayali would berate the practice of spending tons of money on weddings, but would not like reduced opulence when his own daughter has to get married. You may have noted that most of us brethren are trapped in that facade of cynicism, which has crept on us like a habit. Look at a farmer in Palghat, even if he gets all the rain he wants, he will complain about the labor or the quality of the seeds or the fact that the fertilizer had got washed away. Perhaps it is all just a tough demeanor that he uses to mask his own inadequacies. Perhaps PKB Nayar was referring to his compatriots when he once wisely mentioned - The cynic will still scoff and berate research, long-run or short-run, as empty employment for the idle academic.

Krishna Menon was considered to be a cynic by most who met him and it is easy to understand why by looking at this typical retort when complimented by a well-meaning Englishwoman on the quality of his English. "My English, Madam," he said to the hapless lady "is better than yours. You merely picked it up: I learned it".

All that said, it might be interesting to take a deeper look at the word and the philosophy behind it.  Maybe that will help us understand how we are what we are! I wonder if any of you had a look at an article I wrote some time back on the connections between Utopia and Malabar. Take a look at that and the fact that the school of Cynicism which existed in ancient Greece actually defined Cynicism thus. For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting conventional desires and lead a simple life free from all possessions.

What astonished me was that in those times, they equated Cynics to dogs and the word Cynic itself was derived from the word Kynos for dog! Why so? Was it an insult because Cynics abhorred convention?

It goes thus as described in Dudley’s History of cynicism, quoting Diognes- There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, instead advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and idealistic way of life. I could opine here that cynicism crept into the early medieval Malabar society as early English missionary scholars well taught in Greek and Latin classics used these theories of cynicism to battle the ancient practices prevalent in old Malabar to bring about a change in what they felt were unacceptable to their own moral fabric. Others would say that the advent of leftist thought and rule in Kerala brought about these changes, but a cynic would soon shoot it down and say that the questioning nature was inborn, not taught.

Anyway, philosophers, as is typical of them, decided to redefine the term itself and today it means something else. They say that Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.

Perhaps this makes sense, for you can see the three manifestations in modern Kerala, them being
frustration, disillusionment, and distrust and the end result of them all, a high incidence of suicides, alcoholism, divorces and what not, on the negative side. On the positive side, it brought about a torrent of creativity by way of great books, films and astute actors. Nevertheless, as they demurred ‘an active aspect of cynicism involves the desire to expose hypocrisy and to point out gaps between ideals and practices’ and that I agree is forever a part and parcel of all Malayali’s, though I must hasten to clarify, happens mostly when a Malayali meets others from his land or when he is in Kerala.

Ayn Rand once said this - When one discards ideals, the fact that a given policy (such as government controls) is evil, does not constitute a reason for rejecting it. On the contrary, such an estimate serves as an incentive to adopt and expand that policy: to a cynic’s mind, that which is evil, is potent and practical. Though I am a great fan of Rand’s fiction, I am not too sure I agree. It was while researching the Greek aspects that I read a psychoanalysts take on Cynicism. Jennifer Kunst wrote an article about the trait and how it kept people from going after goodness. She says

It is important to understand how fear and cynicism are related. Cynicism is related to fear because it offers the promise of protection, which is a deep human need. The way that it offers protection is simple: it promises to keep out the danger. The rules of cynicism are simple and straightforward: trust no one; don’t believe anything; close ranks; keep your guard up and your head down; keep your door locked and your weapons at the ready. Danger: do not enter. Because of its appeal as a protection from danger, cynicism has gained a lot of ground and respect in our culture today. Sometimes I think that it has even been promoted to virtue status. Cynical people are seen as smart, strong-minded, independent thinkers. Cynical people are viewed as realistic, scientific, and even cool… She warns - The cost of cynicism is great. It blocks change. It burns bridges. It builds walls. It undermines good will. It sinks compromise. It escalates conflict.

Hmm. Try telling that to the people you meet in Travancore, I still recall the typical fella in Trivandrum, working in the secretariat. Before he sets out, of course after completing most of his daily chores at home leisurely by around 10AM, despite the fact that he should be at his office desk by then, he would amble on to the Pazhavangadi Ganapati to offer his daily prayers and then catch a bus up to Statue and stroll in haughtily to his piled up and dusty dusk at 11AM or so, just in time for his well-earned tea break. Then he would launch forth into his cynical lectures to all and sundry around him on the state of the universe, the impact of American pressure on the third world, the dilution of Maoism in China, the sad state of Cuba, the writings of Paulo Coelho, the unnecessary promotion of Indian Cricket at the expense of the only game that should be regaled, that being football(soccer) and the glorious days when Victor Manjila stood firm at the goal post to pound away the opposing teams forays, the sad state of Malayalam cinema now promoting super stardom instead of John Abraham’s or Aravindan’s movies, the horrible political situation, the slow break down of the city’s electrical and water supply systems, the difficult state faced by the Malayali in the Gelf, the migration of so many young men to become singers in Kollywood and not to forget the fact that many a young girl was drifting away to Madras to become popular actresses in Tamil. His litany of worries if documented would rival the length of his Brahmin neighbor’s silk saree and would traverse the breadth of the Shankhumukham beach.

By then it would be time for lunch, and he would complain of the time when he could go to the MLA canteen and get a lunch for a pittance, while at the same time diving into a huge mound of rice with sambar and fish fry. That done, it was time for a nap, more practically a one eyed snooze as the ancient fans whirred above. Now I hope you can understand why others view the employees at the secretariat cynically.

But seriously, that is what makes my state so rich, the abundance of original character, these pithy and cynical retorts. At heart he does believe in his compact home and takes care of it and his children with all seriousness, he halfheartedly believes in god, though not taking religion seriously. He is mostly drifting back into memories of his childhood, of the fields and unspoilt life as a child, though not trying to relive it. And that is what makes these so called ‘Tempered Cynics’ excel in their fields, be it politics or otherwise, in many a remote part of the world and do well. Every once in a way something happens which is not to his agreement and he will come up with his quick and smart rejoinder. Maybe, as somebody once defined it, Kerala if full of scholarly cynicism, that is why the ruling party elected to power, changes after most elections. Who else would promote change like this, unless he is a scholarly cynic?

I have been rambling aimlessly, and now it is time to go, but before that I will once again retell a joke related to VK Krishna Menon and told by Kushwant Singh, who used to work for Menon and who hated Menon with such fervor.

VK Krishna Menon, onetime defense minister was a bachelor and hated people with large broods of children. In his early career as a barrister, a neighbor couple with three girls in tow called on him and suggested that he accompany them to the theater as they had an extra ticket. The six some waited for a bus and the first one had only room for four (no overloading). The second one came after five minutes and had only three vacancies and the third had two. So they decided to walk the distance instead of being late for the show.

Menon was tramping on the cobblestones, on the pavement, tuck tucking with his walking stick. The father already irritated at not getting the bus, remarked ‘Damn it Krishna, can’t you put a piece of rubber at the end of your stick?’

Pat came Menon’s reply “if you had put one at the end of yours, we would have got into a bus by now’

Have a good day, all my fellow cynics…………..



Kadambari said...

I am a Tamilian married to a Malayali. Can totally relate to Usha Uthup's comment. If he eats dinner without a comment, I should assume it is actually good :)

Thanks for this particular 'rambling' though.
Set my mind at ease.. :)

Maddy said...

I had to laugh reading this, Thanks Kadambari. My wife will agree and she has decided to stop experimenting with new dishes as a result of my occasional barbs!!


Ha ha ha,.I enjoyed that immensely.

Maddy said...

thanks Raji
been ages since i heard from you, hope all goes well!

balaji said...

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed and got a lot of insight about the psyche of malayali through your article. Please also explain the fact of that psyche where each malayali makes groups outside kerala and works tirelessly without any murmur to outbeat his rivals. I am a tamilian by the way.

Maddy said...

Thanks Balaji,
That is a tricky one, the Malayali usually knows which side of his bread is buttered. And then again, he bares his cynical heart only when other Malayalis are in the conversation and vicinty, usually.

L N Srinivasakrishnan said...

The Krishna Menon joke though amusing is slightly artificial. The usage of 'rubber' for condom is distinctly American and was the source of much mirth between the GIs in England and the local girls during World War II.

Maddy said...

thanks LNS..
yeah! that was a good catch. Many a time I have felt that Khushwant Singh had a big book of jokes which he borrowed from, massaging the original here & there