You are on page 1of 20

Once upon a time in the West?

Stories of migration and

modernity from Kerala,
South India
C a ro li n e O s ella School of Oriental and African Studies
Filippo Osella University of Sussex

This article explores how members of an ex-untouchable, backward community of South India
the Izhavas of Kerala represent and make sense of their entanglements within modernity. Izhava
narratives suggest ambivalence: while failure stories remain individualized, narrated in terms of bad
luck or others cheating, success stories are presented as exemplars of a twentieth-century global
master narrative of progress. We note many correspondences between this ex-untouchable
communitys optimistic master narrative and another powerful and pervasive meta-narrative the
global story of modernity as development, promoted by state government, reform movements, and
development theorists alike. Life-history narratives forcibly bring us European interlocutors into
the same space as the tale-tellers, speak of encounters between Indians and Europeans, and urge us
to recognize that we live in one world. Malayalis stake claims for equal participation in modernitys
projects even as they point out ways in which coevalness is denied. This prompts us to suggest that
narratives of modernity in India and the UK should occupy the same analytical space, contrary to
moves to theorize multiple modernities. With our Malayali respondents, we are participating in a
confabulation/confabrication of a shared story which appears to be one about the nature of global
capitalism. Modernity produces dream and disillusionment, promising progress to all while
delivering to a few. In its seemingly endless capacity for self-regeneration and reinvention it is, as a
phenomenon in global history, far from over. Even as theorists try to write it off as a moment past or
a project failed, it still holds out its promises and provides a structuring framework for contemporary

Introduction: ethnography/theory/stories

The real, according to Taussig (1997), is just the really made-up, such that everything
comes down in the end to stories. Taking a more cautious line, a focus on narrativity
and the tropes shared by different forms of narrative might help us bring into the same
analytic space daily life and high theory, personal and social concerns, experience and
experiencer. Popular histories, myths, and life-stories are particular types of stories
which we might be able to use to connect to other, bigger, stories. This also seems to be
a comfortable way of using data, rather than chopping them up into tiny ethno-bites.
How often as ethnographer does one ask a respondent a question, to be treated in reply
to a lengthy narrative in which the respondent, his or her relatives, the local landlord,
a deity, and countless others appear in a complex drama which will certainly throw light
upon the ethnographers question, but also communicate context, history, moral force,
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

570 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

and a whole lot more (Carrithers 1995)? Here we follow these methodological suggestions towards a discussion of how members of an ex-untouchable, backward community1 of South India the Izhavas of Kerala represent and make sense of their
entanglements within modernity, bringing Malayali narratives about tradition and
modernity together with sociological meta-theories. We hope to do this in a more
nuanced way than simply using, for example, the life-history to read off what it tells us
about a particular phenomenon. Debates on Indian modernity have been informed by
classic sociological writings assuming unilinear and universal processes of modernization, the latter too often confused with or made to stand for modernity itself. Indian
experiences of modernity have then been made to appear defective, blocked, still in
transition, fundamentally other and therefore beyond the scope of modernization
theory or schizoid split between different arenas of experience, modern at work and
pre-modern at home (following Singer 1972). We will pit ethnographic narratives
against such analyses but also explore problems with recent attempts to posit multiple
or alternative modernities (see Eisenstadt 2000: 23-4). Informants life-stories suggest
a different framework for analysis, pointing towards modernity as a singular
unified and global phenomenon which is multicentric and locally nuanced (see
Sivaramakrishnan & Agrawal 2003).
Over the last century, Izhavas experienced some degree of social mobility, partly
taking impetus from their caste reform movement and from sporadic militant action.
Their struggle has taken place concomitantly with the flowering in Kerala of modern
institutions and a self-conscious wider regional commitment towards modern consciousness and away from an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century past commonly
characterized by Malayalis as feudal. It is through stories about such processes taking
place during the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century that we can approach
an understanding of ways in which modernity has been figured and experienced. The
Izhava story recounted at greater length elsewhere (Osella & Osella 2000a) is specific
and unique,2 but also exemplary. It represents one possible configuration of modernity
in a place at the so-called (semi-)peripheries which is actually a central topos of a global
story in which all of us are implicated and in which we are best advised to pay attention
to complex networks of mutual entanglement (Tsing 2000, 2004). Such entanglements
may reside, for example, in colonial and migratory histories which bring people together
and move them around (Gardner 1995: 269ff.), in the cosmopolitanism of local cultures
(Osella & Osella in press; Piot 1999: 21), or in parallel and connected histories unfolding
contemporaneously in different sites (van der Veer 1998: 290). We admit as real the
possibility of accepting modernity as a chimera (evidenced by the impossibility of
agreeing on its defining characteristics or time-scale see, e.g., Washbrook 1997: 410-13),
but have become convinced not only that modernity as a theoretical concept still
requires examination and especially interrogation in the light of ethnographic evidence
more than grand theory, but also that jettisoning modernity as a useless abstraction or
indefinable entity with which anthropologists are unable to engage (Englund & Leach
2000) ill advisedly ignores its salience in our lives and the lives of those with whom we
work. While a modernity corresponding perfectly to classical theories might never
exist,3 concepts, ideals, and practices of something called modernity certainly do exist
and are continually appealed to in peoples economic endeavours, political projects, and
identity craftings. This in turn suggests that while we share doubts about the value of
Modernity as a meta-category of analysis, we also believe that modernity, as an
historically and ethnographically specific body of ideals and practices, will remain
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 571

central to our understanding of contemporary societies. Meanwhile, developments in

narrative theory suggest that life-stories are not only constructed post-facto but are
actively used in the present to orient action (cf. Ricoeur 1984; 1985; 1988). This chimes
with our findings that lives lived and stories told are always orientated towards bigger
and longer-termed stories. The big stories braided in with informants talk are narratives of modernity as seen from some Kerala viewpoints. While satisfaction must
necessarily be deferred, being modern and making progress remain powerful in
popular imagination as desired (happy) story-endings.
Pre-reform and colonial stories: narratives of modernity

Sources published towards the end of the nineteenth century describe Travancore
Izhavas as a community closely associated with tending coconut gardens, production of
and commerce in palm-derived products, and production and sale of country liquor
(e.g. Aiya 1906 [1989]: 401; Mateer 1991 [1883] : 85; Menon 1993 [1929]). From 1834,
Izhavas involved in the liquor business a sector of the economy they dominated
profited from the introduction of new abkari (liquor trade) regulations.4 While the 1881
Travancore census showed around 25 per cent of all surveyed men engaged in extraction, production, and sale of toddy, Izhavas are introduced in 1909 by Thurston and
Rangachari as toddy-drawing castes (1909: 392ff). A section of Padmanabha Menons
1929 (1993 [1929]: 423ff.) history designates Izhavas traditional occupation as toddytapping, and is illustrated by two photographs: one of Izhuvas with toddy-drawing
pots and one of the communitys holy-man and reformer Narayana Guru, under
whose guidance ... the community is making rapid strides (1993 [1929]: 443). This
dramatic counterpositioning of photographic images evokes the communitys adoption and public projection under its reform movement, the SNDP, of a modernist myth
of linear progress from liquor production to reformism. Whether they actually abandoned tapping or not, the percentage of Izhava men recorded in censuses as following
this traditional occupation decreased from 20 per cent in 1911 to 8 per cent in 1921 and
just 4 per cent in 1931 (Kumar 1994: 90; Lemercinier 1994 [1974]: 201). By 1944 the
anthropologist A. Aiyappan, himself an Izhava, strenuously denied that toddy-tappping
had ever been the castes traditional occupation (1944: 106-7).
Many economic opportunities emerged with the colonial economy. Izhavas turned
their backs on the nineteenth-century agrarian order to become agents of modernity in
new forms of employment. Following increased demand on world markets, coastal
Izhavas became small-scale producers and traders of coconut products (Isaac &
Tharakan 1986: 6-7). Under the labour-hungry plantation economy, other Izhavas
found work as coolies or kanganys (middlemen). Those with (English) education, while
still barred from government service, could aspire to more prestigious and better-paid
white-collar jobs: the establishment of the Public Works Department provided new
opportunities beyond village labour relations. Some Izhavas, investing wealth accumulated over this period, began to emerge as large landowners. Many villagers told us
stories about the elites fabulous houses, filled with precious artefacts. A recurring
theme was that elite homes were decorated with solid gold life-size models of tapioca
and yam plants, crops which had provided Keralas staple in the pre-colonial economy
before paddy cultivation took off and rice replaced roots as the main and most prestigious food source.
The Alummoottil family is an exemplar of this rising bourgeoisie which built
substantial fortunes from new opportunities after 1870. Alummoottil Kuttakkakaran
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

572 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

Sekharan Channar was a major liquor contractor in Travancore, said to have had twelve
elephants with Nayar mahouts (elephant-drivers). Although extremely rich, pollution
rules prevalent until the late 1930s required Channar, on approaching temples, to
dismount and walk the back alleys while his Nayar (high-caste) mahout rode past on
elephant-back. Commenting on this well-known episode, an Izhava villager remarked
upon the anomaly that his servant could do what he couldnt. Stories such as this,
highlighting the anomalous positions of the castes elite and middle class, are common.
These stories relay with pride the ability of some families to outshine savarna (uppercaste) Hindus in wealth, even to hire them as servants, while recalling with shame and
anger the injustice of caste rules placing a myriad restrictions upon avarnas (lower
castes). These stories work upon the listener to assert the communitys right to respect
while highlighting the absurdities of caste.
When we examine the representations of modernity which emerge in narrative
life-histories of twentieth-century working mens lives, we recognize several major
themes such as technology, spatial mobility which theories of modernity also
consider as important. This might not be an entirely fortuitous coincidence, for, as
Latour (1993) points out, theories of modernity are themselves always actually stories,
narratives about modernity itself; Rofel is among those who discuss the affinities
between modernity and the narrative form (1999: 10-13). In any case, the tales as told
partially mirror modernitys own master narrative, asserting that hard work and thrift
lead to success and progress.
Anthropologists have a particular interest in and one would hope a skill at
narrative forms, since ethnography is a form of strongly narrativized writing. Ethnographers not only construct stories about the cultures they study but they learn about
cultural patterns by listening to the stories that people tell about themselves (P.J. Miller
& Hoogstra 1992: 94). A criticism often levelled at this method is that it fails to pay
attention to the question of whether, or to what extent, local modes of selfrepresentation include the idea of a life-story or narrative form. The life-story tends to
focus on one individual and on that individuals own account of his or her experience;
it tends to suggest to us the idea of a coherent or continuous self unfolding over time.
For these sorts of reasons it has been accused of being variously a Western, modern, or
psychoanalytically motivated construction inappropriate to local models of personhood or ways of talking about the self.
Recent work suggests, however, that people make sense of their lived experience and
the run of events which is everyday life by trying to make them into narrative forms.
These may not be lengthy coherent life-stories, to be sure, but they are certainly
episodic bits of stories, appealing to familiar narrative tropes such as suspense, revelation, opposition, resolution, and so on. These narratives, far from being individualcentred and ethno-specific, can be argued to always be produced in interaction with
others. These are stories told to others, or confabulated along with others, to use
Carritherss phrase (1995), while taking locally specific forms as exemplary life-stories,
parables, just-so stories, or allegories. We can happily acknowledge the artificiality or
elicited nature of the life-history and accept it as a contingent co-construction between
It has become commonplace to argue that narrative is used to add form or linearity
to the meaningless chaos of the disconnected events making up the flow of everyday
lived experience. Mattingly (1998) has proposed that we reject both this view and its
opposite the nave mimetism which would see narrative as simply re-presenting an
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 573

event which is long ago and far away in the here and now. She argues, startlingly, that
sometimes life actually is like a story (1998: 45). Following Ricoeurs suggestion that
action is in quest of a narrative (1998) and Bruners (1987) early manifesto of life as
narrative, she argues in her ethnography that actors work to create a story-like quality
to their actions. Even in the midst of flow, of being in the world, people are orientating
themselves towards plots, endings, characterizations, living the story and making the
story move on, trying to shape their story into a satisfying and positive one. What is
central in narrative is desire: the thing which is not present which one hopes to gain
through time. Yet this is form without linearity, for actors are always aware of the
possibility of a multiplicity of paths and endings. Cognitive and linguistic work on
intentionality and social intelligence supports Mattinglys (1998) assertion of the
importance in interaction of the attribution of motive to others whereby one turns
events into emplotted dramas.
Talking about reform and modernity

Several social reform and pressure group movements grew up in Kerala throughout the
1920s and 1930s, the most successful being the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam
(Society for the Preservation of Sree Narayana Gurus Moral Path, SNDP). The SNDP
started a state-wide process of transformation and radical reform of the untouchable
castes social, religious, and economic status. This, part of the general wave of reform
and social protest sweeping India at the time, was accompanied by attempts to improve
community members economic fortunes and to mobilize a mass campaign to abolish
untouchability and obtain political inclusion. As existing stigmatized caste identity was
repudiated and mobility sought, a new group identity centred on generalized ideals
of progress and mobility was formed while new imperatives education, respectable
employment, thrift and accumulation of wealth, and abolition of untouchability were
articulated. Izhava lives were presented as exemplarily modern by the tale-tellers who
spoke with us. As a result of processes through which Izhavas degraded identity was
erased consigned to an unreformed past all that remained was a modernist orientation towards the future. Daniel Miller, writing some ten years earlier of another
community, had argued that what does indeed make Trinidadians modern is the
fragility of their self-creation (1994: 293). If modernity is taken by many to be characterized by reflexivity and rupture,5 the post-colonies are sites of modernity as much for
the identity formations they foster as for their wilder excesses in capitalist production,
such as slavery and plantation, that they promote (Breman 1989; Gilroy 1993; Kelly
1991). Miller argues that it would be hard to find comparable examples of unremitting
rupture, alienation, or the denigration of custom in Europe (1994: 293). Izhavas are
hyper-examples of the processes discussed by Miller in as much as they consciously
chose as a group total repudiation of their nineteenth-century selves, thus leaving
themselves with an identity gap.6 This gap they chose to fill with a self-created identity
built in large part upon a sense of themselves as modern and placing them close to
Keralas progressive Christian communities and opposed to high-caste Hindus (savarnas: Brahmins, Nayars). The Izhava story represents a modern Indian trajectory which
complements the famous decline of Nayar dominance (Jeffrey 1976; cf. Fuller 1976).
Modernity tales, part of Izhavas collective memory, also suggest areas of collective
amnesia. Narayana Gurus universalist arguments (one caste, one religion, one god for
all humanity) were revolutionary calls common during the early twentieth century
when reformers like Dr Ambedkar7 proposed an undifferentiated segmentary social
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

574 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

body in which all would be the same. The Izhava reformer K. Sahodaran Aiyappan
(18891968) of the Brotherhood Movement analysed the problem facing his fellowcaste members as one common to hence requiring the unity of all lower castes, and
campaigned for inter-dining with lower castes and for inter-caste marriages. This
initially won him out-casteing and the nickname Pulaya Aiyappan (after a caste ranked
even lower than Izhava), which he declared a compliment. Aiyappan was an admirer of
the Russian Revolution; in 1919 he encouraged Izhava coir workers to follow the lead
of the Soviets and to take militant action against savarna castes. He eventually altered
the reformists famous maxim One caste, one religion, one god into the more radical
slogan No caste, No religion, No god (Isaac & Tharakan 1986: 10, 21ff.). The absence in
contemporary Izhava public rhetoric of figures such as Sahodaran Aiyappan testifies to
the SNDPs eventual reinterpretation of Narayana Gurus universalism as a selective
egalitarianism which seeks for Izhava equality with savarna castes while excluding if
not actually marginalizing lower status communities, including the adivasis (tribals),
whose relationship to land was severely truncated by plantation and settler farming
(Osella & Osella 2000a: 190ff.).

We now turn from wider Izhava narratives to engage with the life-histories of two
successful community members. The story of K.V. Krishnan (18831953), an illiterate
labour-broker turned factory- and mill-proprietor, is narrated by a descendant. Satyan
(born 1947), a mechanical engineer who was in Bombay during the 1970s and is now
part of Keralas skilled labour elite, narrates his own experiences of going to the Persian
Gulf to manage a European-owned workshop before returning to Kerala to launch
what he claims is Keralas first modern-style diesel workshop.8
The two protagonists have been successful by conventional reckoning. Both have
manifestly lived up to community ideals of self-improvement, wealth accumulation,
and rationalism, and their lives are thus exemplary within the grander Izhava community narrative of progress and modernity. That the stories were narrated to us, a
European couple, is relevant; conscious of our ethnic status but too polite to remind us
of the exploitative relations which have existed between our people and theirs, storytellers might be expected to present Europeans in a favourable light, capitalist production as benign wealth-improver for all, and colonialism as a blip in history. By the same
token, we might also expect to see modernity (as promulgated by European missionaries, colonial administrators, and entrepreneurs) characterized as a unilinear selfimproving trajectory away from nineteenth-century backwardness, signified by
illiteracy, poverty, untouchability, and so on. Yet within the overall optimistic and
conventional narratives, clear signs of ambivalence are discernible.
The great-nephew of K.V. Krishnan (KVK) spoke while sitting on the spacious
veranda of the huge nalukettu (nineteenth-century teak house) built by KVK. His story
is an exemplary narrative of the progress made by some Izhavas during colonialism,
when new possibilities of work and mobility unavailable to untouchables within existing local agrarian relations were opened up by the rush to the hills of the plantation
economy. While KVKs great-nephew is at pains to emphasize success, wealth, and
status, more complex threads are there to be unravelled.
From a very modest background, [KVK] left here to work in a plantation as kangany
(labour-broker), where he was taught by one of his labourers to read and write. This,
then, was a man with few options at home: untouchable caste status; poor family;
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 575

illiterate. KVK began as a low-level intermediary to European planters, organizing

comforts and pleasures for them, finding them labourers, and communicating their
will to workers. KVKs descendant told us that although he spoke no English, he could
always guess what the Europeans wanted, and so he gained their esteem and trust.
While the position of kangany is presented here as respectable employment and a
progressive step away from the village, Daniels work on plantation stories reminds us
that the kangany could be a hated and degraded figure, standing isolated between
workers and owners (Daniel 1996: 130-1; cf. de Neve 2000). The kangany can be seen as
the bosss lackey who ruthlessly schemes and lies in order to recruit labourers, and then
imposes the bosss exploitative demands on them without compassion. The kangany
is the traitor whose personal advancement depends upon in the Malayali idiom
soaping the boss.
KVK followed advice from his bosses and saved to buy his own plantation land, then
cheap and available. As his wealth grew, he started up several innovative enterprises:
mills, shops, a private bus, and even a cashew-processing factory. When he died, aged
70, he was buried in his own estate, on the first plot of land he ever bought. The
great-nephew, taking great pains to tell the story well and reflect his ancestor in a good
light, assured us that before death KVK partitioned his property, providing for all his
dependants. Such pre-mortem partitioning, gradually introduced from the late nineteenth century onwards, is linked to the transformation of matriliny and the modern
at the time shocking and much contested practice of including sons as heirs. Some
received 10 acres of plantation land and now they are rich. KVKs then appears a blessed
life marked by dramatic reversals of status and fortune made possible by a modernity
a phenomenon associated with colonialism and contact with Europeans which KVK
whole-heartedly embraced and exemplified.
Satyans story is set at the other end of the twentieth century, when untouchabilitys
worst excesses were but a memory and when forty years of progressive state government had improved benchmarks of well-being. The before/after contrast here is hence
less startling, but Satyans achievements are no less impressive. When father a petty
shop-keeper died, leaving the family destitute, Satyans mother became a day labourer
while Satyan underwrote study through agricultural labour. After passing matriculation, he went to Bombay in 1963 as an apprentice-engineer for a motor company. Nine
years later he was recruited by an English firm to Muscat, Oman.
At that time Muscat was only sand; I was the first Izhava from Valiyagramam to go to the Gulf. My
German manager put me in charge of the diesel-maintenance workshop ... he said I could use any
extra profits I could make to buy new equipment ... we became the best service station in west Asia ...
when I came back [to Kerala] I started a diesel workshop ... I calculated things very well ... and I know
the trade very well: I learnt it from the British and Germans.

In both success stories we recognize outlines of the rational working and economic
practices conventionally attributed to the modern outlook. Both men work hard, save,
invest, and plan their next move right the way through, overcoming miserable destinies
through sheer will. KVK ignores sentimental and prestige associations of village land to
buy property which in traditional thinking is valueless, belonging to the wild mountainous regions beyond village society. He is consciously contrasted as a rational
modern man to the backward-looking Brahmins, who fail to develop instrumental
rationality regarding land use or to perceive the value of land as commodity. In those
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

576 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

days, Brahmans held all the land; it was all forest and they never went there ... You
couldnt buy, but if you offered them gold, they would give you 200 or 300 acres. Satyan
similarly self-consciously dismisses traditional high-caste Hindu practice, characterized by rigid demarcations and scornful attitudes towards manual labour: If you treat
workers well, theyll work sincerely. I work together with my employees; help them out,
stay with them the whole time ... other owners only work as managers, turn up to give
orders and go back home.
In both narratives, as we expect, modernity involves breaks; it is a violent experience
in which the ruptures taking place are more than simple disembedding. Both KVK and
Satyan were induced or constrained9 to leave their native places in order to pursue
dreams of progress. There are movements framed not as mere trials along the road to
improvement but as near-intolerable experiences of loss and suffering. KVK lived all his
life on the plantation where he worked, returning for brief visits to Valiyagramam. K.V.
Krishnan built bungalows for himself and his family inside his own plantation but
didnt live there until one and a half years before his death: before that, he was obliged
to live in company quarters at Mundakkayam, where he continued to work. We remember here the isolation of the kangany, and the massive social costs of taking on such a
role. After ten years away in Bombay, followed by twenty in Muscat, Satyan was determined to return at any cost to his native Kerala: although I was much liked and well
paid, in 1990 I decided to return to Valiyagramam. I thought that I could take the risk
... all my friends said I was a fool ... I let them talk.
Turning from physical to social rupture, KVKs story emphasizes breaks with the
nineteenth-century social order. Brahmans are presented not as lordly heroes but as
innocent fools who sold valuable hill lands for next to nothing; they are represented as
declining patriarchs who no longer have the means or will to act as leaders or patrons.
In a topsy-turvy world, the story told is one of an untouchable distributing largesse and
moving into a social space where he is known to the aristocracy: In 1923 there was great
flood and famine here. The richest man in the area was the Brahman from the big house
next to the temple ... people assembled to beg for help, but he felt threatened and didnt
give anything. K.V. Krishnan, driving by, immediately sent his assistant into town to
buy rice and provisions, which he distributed in front of the Brahmans house while
standing on his car. The Rajavu (king) came to know of this.
While Satyan had no experience of the rigid nineteenth-century social order based
upon unapproachability, he still, as an Izhava, is privately considered untouchable by
many caste Hindus. Prior to leaving for Bombay he would have expected to remain
forever resident in the Izhava colony. Gulf monies have, however, enabled him to
overturn residential patterns in which house location and type correlate closely to caste
status. Satyan has built an impressive double-storey villa on a large roadside plot where
it easily outshines those of most higher-caste villagers, a fact that they acknowledge
with impotent resentment and a sense of shame and inappropriateness.10 However, like
KVK, Satyan is all too rarely at home to enjoy the comforts he has bought and built; his
workshop stands at the junction near his home and he is usually found there.
This illustrates the point that modernity, in these narratives, is about the overdetermination of work. Satyan told us that in the Gulf, I worked very hard doing lots
of overtime, while now I work together with my employees; stay with them the whole
time ... everyday I am the first one in the workshop. He mused that he had, paradoxically, spent more time with his family while a migrant; regular vacations home had
meant hiring a taxi and taking his wife and children on pleasure trips and holidays.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 577

When Satyan was living at home, his family was always asking him to take leave and
arrange a holiday again but he was unable to shut down or leave the workshop. He
thought at times that he might throw it all in, and was sincerely asking himself if the
long hours and lack of free time were worth it. It is similarly evident in KVKs story that
life centred on the plantation; even as he visits home, constructs lavish new dwellings
for wife and family, and opens up shops and factories elsewhere, the plantation is
KVKs constant centre to which he remained tied until one and a half years before his
death. Even that last year of life was lived in a bungalow built on his own plantation
land; after leaving for the hills as a young man, he never returned to settle in his natal
village or enjoy the magnificent tharavadu (ancestral house) he had constructed there.
Modernity, while offering possibilities of great material improvement, always also
involves suffering and privation. The initial process of leaving ones home in search of
progress is recounted as a physical ordeal. Both Satyans and KVKs narratives are
typical in making much of the hostile physical environment to which the worker
travels. The hilly regions where KVK got 500 acres of land are dangerous and impenetrable jungle. Forceful intervention, entailing camping out in an inhospitable environment, is necessary to tame this landscape sufficiently and make it yield profit:
Labourers felled trees and planted paddy for the first two years; only after that was the
plantation started. The Persian Gulf was even worse: Climate is the main problem
there ... you cant bear it without air conditioning (a convenience out of reach for many
labourers and in most migrant working situations).
While modernity in classical narratives makes strong claims to universalism and
equality, these stories compound physical suffering with social indignity and discrimination. Even as KVK ran from rural untouchability, he found himself at the wrong end
of plantation ethnic and class hierarchies. The following quote is particularly poignant,
mirroring the story of how the wealthy Izhava liquor contractor Channar was obliged
to dismount his elephant when passing temple land, which people commonly
recounted to illustrate the enormity of caste law:
In the plantations only European owners had cars; they used to buy a new one every four or five years.
K.V. Krishnan was allowed to buy one of these cars second-hand, but unlike the Europeans he was not
permitted to employ a driver, so had to learn to drive ... but if a European car approached on the
plantation roads, he had to get off the road, stand in the ditch by the car and let them go by.

Continuities with that past are also evoked in discussions of restrictions on consumption, recalling Travancores nineteenth-century sumptuary laws under which Izhavas
were forbidden the use of gold, silk cloth, or umbrellas.
Villagers stories continually draw such parallels between the beginning and end of
the twentieth century, stressing the similarities between caste hierarchies suffered
within the village and racial and class hierarchies suffered outside of it, and comparing
the old agrarian economy, colonial plantations, and Gulf labour camps. Subjective
experiences of hierarchy appear as analogous in many ways for those suffering discrimination and are marked by shared tropes such as the vehicle whose use was
forbidden by the superior in the elephant and car stories. These sorts of continuities,
parallels, and links were not initially picked up by the SNDP, whose attention from the
outset, under its bourgeois leadership, remained fixed upon caste. Contemporary
arguments in favour of positive discrimination have led to more sophisticated articulations of the problem as being one of historically accumulated discrimination. The
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

578 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

recognition of continuities by those subjected to discrimination deserves to be attended

to and theorized by social scientists not because caste is equivalent or analogous to
race or class, but because processes of exclusion and capital accumulation, as well as
those forging social hierarchies, work in similar ways insofar as class is lived through
modalities such as race (Bourdieu 1990; Bradley 1996; Fernandes 1997).
Unsurprisingly, we see an especially clear attachment to values of modernity among
those who profit directly from the expansion of colonial capitalism. This relationship
sometimes involves direct engagement with modernization processes: pursuing English
education; working on plantations; opening abkari (liquor) businesses and factories;
learning to drive; providing not only for ones nephews but also for ones wife and sons.
It also takes the form of close association with those who represent themselves as
bearers of hyper-modern values the Europeans. The Alummoottil family built a
European-style house, and has had several inter-marriages with Europeans, whereas,
for K.V. Krishnan, sahippus (Europeans) appeared as dominators controlling plantation workers lives but also proffered advice and gifts, while permitting styles of doing
business, living life, and asserting status alternative to those practised by local landed
high castes. Among those profiting from colonial capitalism, relationships may also,
significantly, be established with local Christians, who are the first to become modern
entrepreneurs, seizing new employment and business opportunities (cf. Jeffrey 1976;
1993: 96-117).
While Satyan was circumspect with us in talking about the German and British
bosses who taught him his trade, he would surely have some interesting stories to tell
to a different audience. Modernity in the Gulf still, fifty years later, does not mean
equality, and seemingly close relationships with Europeans remain ambivalent:
Where we live, theres no Europeans theyre in the cities in officer jobs just Filipinos, Pakistanis,
Bengalis. The Arabs dont mix with us at all; we mix with Pakistanis and with other Malayalis. Houses
are all different too: office workers get air-conditioned concrete houses; ordinary workers have brick,
wood, or metal sheeting.

Again, recalling nineteenth-century village residential segregation and sumptuary

restrictions, we note that modern production and social relations involve discrimination just as much as, and sometimes in exactly the same forms as, their pre-modern
While labour clearly plays a large part in modernitys wealth-creation, both speakers
also highlight capital. KVKs early investments included the traditional form land.
The uses, however, to which he put the land plantation, not paddy were novel. In
time land was surpassed by other investments: He built a weaving factory ... in the 1920s
he started the first local bus service ... he bought a 750-acre cashew plantation and
constructed a cashew factory, the first in that area. The modernity of the narratives is
closely related to technology, with fetishized and magical aspects. There is repeated
mention of KVKs car, also the first in the area, and his narrative ends on a note which
highlights the importance in the story of the close embrace of modernity in its fetishized guise as technology/transport: He died ... and was buried in his own estate ... there
is a memorial there where someone lights a lamp every day. His last car a Chevrolet
is also preserved there, and somebody looks after it. The person charged with taking
care of KVKs spirit as beneficent ancestor is also charged with care of the ancestors car.
As a low-caste Hindu, KVK was not cremated but buried and his Chevrolet is also
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 579

preserved, appearing as an evocation or perhaps continuing objectification of that very

modern spirit. KVK was an entrepreneur/pioneer; he was the first man to clear jungle
land, buy a car, and start a factory. The story of progress should have no ending, should
draw its protagonists into a continual search for underdeveloped hinterlands where
they can be always the first. With KVKs death, however, his story ends. The fetishized
Chevrolet, preserved and displayed at the grave, represents attempts to transcend the
eternal competition for first place and make enduring the ephemeral firstness.11
Although many go to the Gulf and return with some small savings, few to the
dismay and bewilderment of policy planners invest in productive businesses (Osella
& Osella 1999). Among those who do the vanguard of rational modern accumulation
and investment we find enthusiasm for technological projects: Valiyagramam Gulf
returnees run photocopying, phone, and fax bureaux, desktop publishing businesses,
driving schools, and video studios. What saved Satyan from agricultural labour and the
village was a technological skill mechanical engineering which served as a passport
to the modern centres of Bombay and Muscat. What distinguishes Satyans workshop
from other workshops throughout Kerala is the quality of its technology: I imported an
engineers testing bench from Germany. He maintains that his imported tools and
parts are higher quality than anything available within India; they are fetishistically
imbued with the spirit of Germany epitome of industrial modernity and efficiency.12
Modernity, then, is associated with progress, especially economic betterment, and
closely tied to capitalist production and technological innovation. What makes people
suffer hardships and indignities is the promise of material gain. This gain need not,
however, be associated with the individualism classically argued to be a necessary part
of the modern entrepreneurial spirit. While individual efforts and drive may be part of
the initial impetus for success, modernity remains deeply embedded in community and
family: the chief beneficiaries of the wealth amassed by KVK and Satyan are their
dependants and families, while the men themselves are too busy working ever to enjoy
or consume their own riches. Both men use wealth wisely in gift-giving, thereby
cementing family and wider neighbourly ties; KVK leaves property in his will even to
his driver and watchman. Wealth is also used in highly goal-directed consumption,
such as housing or private education, for future improvement of the household (Osella
& Osella 1999). The narratives offer a sense of KVK and of Satyan as workers and
entrepreneurs, but what comes through equally is their importance as family men,
householders, and patrons. While break and discontinuity are present, there is also a
sense of continuity or coherent trajectory. The spatial framework of the village not
only serves as the foundation of identity construction but is always present as a ghostly
backdrop even in its absence. Dependants provide the social framework of the lifehistories, the concept of a mans life-cycle or working life shapes temporality, and the
persistence of discrimination binds past and present (Osella & Osella 2000b).
While classical theory insisted upon disenchantment and rationality for modernitys
subjects, ethnography maintains that modernity has strongly non-rational aspects;
success in modernitys unfathomable game relies heavily upon luck and chance. Not all
who try to improve their fortunes are able to do so, and even those with a chance do not
always profit from it. KVKs great-nephew impressed upon us the scale of his ancestors
achievements, highlighting the contrast between KVKs impoverished and illiterate
beginnings and his spectacular end. He is shown as a super-human figure effecting
magical transformations: KVK gave 10 acres of land plus Rs 100,000 the biggest ever
donation to SNDP college, and the wealth of people who received from him has
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

580 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

increased ever since, while others have gone down. In its very telling, this life-story
seems to become myth, its elements beyond human proportions and the scale of the
mans achievements imponderable and surely a sign of divine blessing. This impression
was, in the storys narration to us, bolstered by the great-nephews careful selection of
a ritually favourable place and time to tell the story; he instructed us to arrive at his
home during an astrologically auspicious moment (muhurtam) and we were made to
sit facing the cow-shed to hear the narrative.
Satyan modestly refused in the final instance to take personal credit for his material
success; he reminded us at key points when the opportunity arose to go from Bombay
to the Gulf, when his workshop manager offered him a share in profits that lifes
outcomes do not depend totally upon personal effort. Satyans refrain, Bhagati
nammal, bhagati daivam (half our doing and half Gods), is a common Malayali
proverb. If success is always indicative of blessing or more generally and ambivalently
suggestive of mystical forces which have helped, failure stories where luck is not on
ones side make it equally plain that hard work, thrift, and rational application are not
enough. Imponderables such as luck or supernatural force are eventually the only
things which satisfactorily account for fortunes uneven distribution and its highly
arational falling upon deserving and undeserving alike (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999).
Winners and losers

We see that even modernitys clear winners share ambivalence towards material success
and the price at which it is bought. To throw these stories into sharper relief, consider the
case of the unsuccessful, who, in Malayalam idiom, lose out when life is a competition
and are consequently marginalized for failing to live up to community ideals of
progress and mobility. Many Izhava villagers have taken the same steps as KVK and
Satyan, only to return penniless and ill after a period of unsuccessful migration.
Sometimes the labour-broker cheats and fails to provide the promised job, sometimes
living costs in the place of migration are so high that no significant savings can be made,
and sometimes conditions are simply too hard, and the discouraged migrant returns.
Keshavan lives in a sparsely furnished two-roomed brick house. Over 60, emaciated
with hollow chest and a racking cough, he has been left exhausted by the physical
privations of life as a manual labourer. Keshavan went to 1940s Ceylon for plantation
labour, but, like many, returned penniless and, having loosed his ties with local landowners, was forced onto the open labour market. He worked as a ferryman, transporting
commodities along the by-then bustling canals to market centres. Keshavans 22-yearold son Premadasan was confident and cheerful in 1993 when borrowing his Bombay
train fare, telling us that within one week he and his friends would find good work and
make money. Back home two months later, thin and ill, Premadasan lamented,
I got a job as a trainee air-conditioner mechanic. The contractor got Rs 1,000 a day but I got just Rs
25 for crawling through the pipes. Nobody was giving us any money ... We paid Rs 4,000 deposit for
a room, Rs 150 per month for rent plus Rs 50 per month for water. We got water from 5 till 7 in the
morning and only had one bucket ... There is work, but the wages are no good and the works too hard.
Employers are thieves! You need a lot of money to live there! You travel 140 km a day just to go to work;
leave the house at 7 a.m. and get back at 7 p.m. how can you live like that?

We note here that of course many villagers are living exactly like that: packing toys
twelve hours a day in miserable sheds outside Chennai city limits; migrating seasonally
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 581

to Gujarat to work in prawn-processing units; travelling five hours daily from one
decrepit shared room in a crowded and expensive block to work at a tea-stall in central
Mumbai. Many Valiyagramam wives stay locally with children and elders because their
husbands, working away, cannot support families. The downside of modernity, with its
production styles involving high rates of exploitation and worker mobility and its
ever-escalating demands on the consumer, is all too obvious to such families.
The sources of modernities

The life-histories told to us can now be considered in a number of ways: as examples of

a universal human imperative towards narrativity in action; as acts of sociality in which
the tale-tellers hope to involve us as interlocutors; and as moments in which the
tale-tellers reflect on the present and connect it the here and now with the not-here
and the not-now. The latter opens up possibilities of connection with past and future
and with places beyond the veranda or shop-front where the tale is being told. This
leads us on to consider the several different types (we prefer not to privilege any of the
three by classifying them as levels) of narrative which become enmeshed in the act of
telling and our act of writing. Most obviously, we have the modern life-stories/workhistories as recounted. These form part of, or weave into, the tellers sense of his own life
trajectory and family (hi)story. As Izhavas, the tellers also hold in mind a familiar
confabulated group narrative of the castes history since the late nineteenth century,
which includes familiar dramatic anchor-points such as untouchability, poverty, plantation, Others (Nayars, Christians, Pulayas, Europeans), the reform movement, migration, labour and thrift, and the all-important goal of progress. Life-histories told in the
1990s are often as our two examples here show worked on to make a close fit with
this post-1930s community master narrative of optimism and progress. Sometimes,
however, narratives are constructed around another prototype, that of the wily Izhava
trickster who steals Brahmin knowledge or Nayar gold or successfully passes as a
member of a higher-status community. It seems, however, that a growing sense of
agency, entitlement, and ease in the world is tending to lead Izhava narrators to
abandon this prototype of betterment in favour of a less magical solution. Also responsible may be the correspondence of the communitys master narrative of optimism and
betterment with another powerful and pervasive master narrative the global story of
modernity and development promoted by the state government, reform movements,
and development theorists alike (see Franke 1993).
Modernity in these Malayali narratives does seem at first hearing to have a special
relationship with European-ness, particularly with British and German styles. Modernitys own master narrative prefers to present itself like this, denying equal participation to non-European Others. African narratives similarly paint Europeans as closest to
modernity, presenting them as the ones who enjoy mastery over motorized and airborne movement ... [able] to collapse time and space, and to control the velocity of
value (Comaroff & Comaroff 1993: xxiv). Yet careful attention to ethnographic narrative
content underlines that Indians people like KVK and Satyan, but also like Mumbais
entrepreneurs and mechanics, its Gulf labour-brokers, Keralas own early planters, and
those Indian consumers who want innovative goods and services, are, and have been
from the outset, equally involved in modernity, both as innovators and as participants.
KVK was buying land and setting up a plantation in the 1920s, at exactly the same time
as his European counterparts. As they were, he was experimenting with cashew
commodity production for international markets. Satyan was part of a wave of 1970s
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

582 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

migration to the Persian Gulf which also involved many Europeans hopeful of making
some tax-free cash; it was not the German owner but Satyans combination of
mechanical expertise and business sense which made the Omani workshop a financial
success. These life-histories suggest that modernity is not an external force brought in
by engagement with the colonial or post-colonial state to disrupt traditional relations
and identities. Modernity, together with a generalized commitment to progress,13
appears integral to actors self-defined identities and life-stories. Modernity, forged and
articulated from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, is here implicated in community identity through a dialogue between local ideas of justice and equality and
European-derived notions of modernity and reform (Chatterjee 1993; Hardiman 1987;
Oddie 1995; Pandian 1995; Prakash 1999). British and German planters and European
Gulf workers modern identities are of course also embedded in local forms involving
specific class backgrounds as well as, notably, racialized ethnic identities. Meanwhile,
other players the indigenous tribal groups displaced from the hills as settlers moved
in from the plains are entirely absent both from the Izhava narratives and from
Keralas master narrative of progress.
Here we take up the argument that narrative is action and that action proceeds via
narrative. When we search for the perlocutionary force within the life-stories, we can
identify it as emerging from the ways in which the stories are framed. In telling their tales
to us, speakers posited no divide between a European modernity out there and the
modernity of their own world.They do not present themselves as passive objects of global
forces. In choosing to speak to us European interlocutors in this way, speakers insist
on us granting Indians agency within the global story of modernity and progress (see,e.g.,
Mattingly 1998; Tannen 1989). While Europeans figure as actors, we are directed towards
another story one in which Indians move the plot forward as much as do Europeans,
in which principal characters might be Malayali labourers,and in which events might take
place in Oman or Idikki rather than Manchester. The force of desire within this version
of the story also points us towards a moral and a preferred ending, one anticipated in
Aiyappans monographs (1944; 1965), in which Malayali Izhavas (as proper moderns,
unlike the displaced and assumed feckless tribals) would enjoy the expected fruits of
modernity and progress wealth, leisure, equality, travel, and the like.
Rather than presenting a straightforwardly positive progressive movement, the
stories are threaded thoughout by ambivalence. While modernity brings freedoms from
poverty, from caste hierarchy, and from manual agricultural labour, it is also associated
with constraint. Modernity inflicts bodily suffering in harsh environments and unfamiliar labour disciplines, it submits persons to racialized discriminatory hierarchies,
and it forces them to follow work, regardless of inclinations. Modernity brings mobility,
which can be a pleasure for those who, like KVK and Satyan, enjoy car travel and the
deference offered by stay-at-home villagers to those who have ventured further abroad,
but a pain for the plantation labourer or Gulf migrant who bids farewell to family and
sets out on a journey from home in a frame of mind very different from that of tourist
or pilgrim. Associated with physical movement is a sense of expanded physical horizons
involving possibilities of cosmopolitanism and the promise that the migrant will
emanate the aura of sophisticated man-of-the-world on his return. Yet, at the same
time, plantation and Gulf workplaces appear as self-contained microcosms in which
people from many locations are held together yet stand apart, separated by class and
ethnicity and so absorbed in the work at hand that they become oblivious to the world
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 583

The narratives, then, offer complex and not entirely predictable pictures which
often go against the grain of more abstract and optimistic community narratives and
popular histories. We find in them rupture and rapid change, but also continuities
and a sense of appropriateness insofar as Izhavas see themselves as having long had a
substantial affinity with modernity and progress. The latter are experienced not as
linear, positive trajectories, but as ambivalent routes bringing social advancement to
some and imposing exclusion and stigmatization on those who fail to progress.
Modernity and progress also transcend modernist reason, becoming tinged with luck
and magic. And sometimes, despite agents best efforts, modernity simply fails to fulfil
its promises.
The narratives we present remain silent about women insofar as these are stories
of men who defy circumstance and struggle to achieve success, moving in space
towards eventual social mobility. Women as mothers and wives remain in the
background, overshadowed and marginalized by the heroic feats of their sons and
husbands. Yet women are essential to both KVKs and Satyans success. Satyans
mother takes on manual labour to save money to send him to school; KVKs and
Satyans wives, taking up the care of children and the family home, allow their husbands to concentrate on the task of accumulating capital. Withdrawn from paid
employment in particular from manual labour both mens wives come to
embody and demonstrate their husbands modern outlook and economic success. We
can read here the re-gendering of Keralas modernity via a work of purification. In
the name of development and progress familial roles are redefined through the ideals
and practices of upper-caste and bourgeois domestic morality. While modernity,
through the over-determination of work and employment, defines men like KVK and
Satyan as primary breadwinners, it simultaneously transforms their wives note here
the difference between Satyans mother and wife into housewives (Devika 2002a,
2002b; Lindberg 2004; Osella & Osella 2000a). In practice, however, this work of
gender purification cannot be complete. Working-class households for whom
progress illa (there is no progress) continue to rely on womens manual work to
make ends meet.

Ferguson observes that cynical scepticism has replaced an earnest faith when it comes
to the idea of a modernizing, progressing Zambia (1999: 14). He points out that what
gets missed in many discussions of modernization is the sense that so many people
have of being cheated and betrayed by this turn of events ... the breakdown of the myth
of modernization was no mere academic development but a world-shattering life
experience (1999: 14). Malayali narratives suggest a more ambivalent picture than this
Zambian one: failure stories remain individualized, narrated in terms of bad luck or
others cheating, while success stories, albeit dependent on individual luck and will, are
presented as exemplars of a twentieth-century global master narrative of progress in
which Malayalis stake claims for equal participation, even as they point out ways in
which coevalness is denied.
The life-history narratives forcibly bring us, as European interlocutors, into the same
space as the tale-tellers. They speak of encounters between Indians and Europeans,
urging us to recognize that we live in one world, that we should occupy the same
analytical space, and that we should be participating in a confabulation/confabrication
of a common story about the nature of global capitalism (Carrithers 1995: 275-6). Such
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

584 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

a recognition would force us to attempt to break away from the continuous process of
othering entailed in modernity and navely reproduced in much sociological analysis
(see, e.g., Giddens 1991).
David Washbrook has criticized Wallersteins world systems theory, which relegates
large parts of the world to the semi-periphery, as Orientalism all over again, albeit in
an inverted form that is well-meant (1990: 492). He suggests that the emergence of
capitalism had origins outside the Euro-centred world system, as well as inside it (1990:
491); and that [r]esearch on pre-incorporated South Asia is coming increasingly to
demonstrate its possession of many of the logics and rationalities which the sociology
of modernity defines as marking the unique Western origins of capitalism (1990: 492;
cf. Chaudhuri 1985; 1990). Washbrook urges historians to consider the virtues of a more
multicentered approach ... [in which] no center is explicable except in terms related to
others (1990: 502). This suggestion is still to be taken up seriously, recent developments
such as multiple modernities notwithstanding (see Sivaramakrishnan & Agrawal
2003). We suggest that our fieldwork interlocutors are also urging us to drop the vanity
of what Washbrook characterizes as the ontology of the imperial agents self-history
(1990: 501) and to work towards a singular history of a diffuse capitalism and modernity
which attempts to acknowledge the contributions of all players.
We note many correspondences between this ex-untouchable communitys optimistic master narrative and the powerful and pervasive meta-narrative of modernity as
development promoted by state government, reform movements, and development
theorists alike (see, e.g., Franke 1993; Franke & Chasin 1994). Social scientists since the
deconstructive turn are abandoning master narratives as totalizing; we scorn ideas
about progress as nave, and recent debates stress contingency and plurality. Yet, as we
have demonstrated, versions of the global narrative of modernization endure at the
popular level.14 At the same time, tensions exist between the promises made by modernitys developmental master narrative/myth and those made by ethnographys familyand person-centred narratives of progress which stress individual effort, hard work,
luck, connections, and so on. Maia Green has written about rural Tanzanians evaluations of the failure of participatory development programmes and has indicated that
their own definitions and aspirations regarding progress come about through the
development of a person by themselves (2000: passim). The Malayali histories
recounted above shift constantly between factors, stressing combinations of structural
(colonial economy) and personal (luck) issues.
Finally, we note from our ethnographic evidence that the crucial difference between
various styles and arenas of modernity is not the level of commitment or the degree
of penetration, but the extent to which the players are on the winning or losing side of
a process which appears in its bottom line as inextricably tied up with production and
consumption and the development of global capitalism. Like the Korean social mobility stories recounted by Abelmann, the Malayali narratives share preoccupations with
issues of social origins and destinations (Abelmann 1997: 786), and permit tale-tellers
to grapple with the justice and legitimacy of contemporary social stratification: beginning with the people nearest them, people consider whether social fates are deserved
(1997: 787). Modernity is, then, about dream and disillusionment, promising progress
to all while delivering to a few. In its seemingly endless capacity for self regeneration
and reinvention it is, as a phenomenon in global history, far from over; even as theorists
try to write it off as a moment past or a project failed, it holds out its promises and
provides a structuring framework for modern life-stories.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588
Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 585

We have received support for various periods of fieldwork in Kerala and writing up from June 1989 to
September 1996 from: the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain; the London School of
Economics; the Leverhulme Trust; the Nuffield Foundation; and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We have been
affiliated to the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala; Madras Institute for Development Studies, Chennai; the Centre dtudes de lInde et de lAsie du sud, Paris. We thank the following for
generous and thoughtful comments on earlier versions of the article: Arnar Arnasson, James Carrier, Val
Daniel, J. Devika, Joel Kahn, and Yasushi Uchiyamada. Names of all respondents and the panchayat are
One of the Other Backward Communities (OBCs), in governmental parlance.
Different, for example, from the Nadars, a similarly placed caste in neighbouring Tamil Nadu (see
Hardgrave 1969; Templeman 1996), or from Keralas tribal populations, which have been displaced from the
hills by Christian and Izhava settlers.
Although classical theories (taking off from Marx, Weber, Durkheim) often remain ambivalent towards
Western modernity, identifying problems which make it imperfect, incomplete, yet-to-be realized, pathologically contradictory, or plain undesirable, in all versions the theory is nevertheless embedded in a teleology
which sets the premises and promises of modernity as yardsticks for envisaging possible futures and for
hierarchically ordering the somewhat lacking presents of others.
Development of the liquor business is shown by increases in abkari revenues, from Rs 42,584 in 1834 to Rs
190,041 in 1880 (Aiya 1989 [1906]: 502-4; Mateer 1991 [1883]: 280-1; cf. Hardiman 1987: 110-11; Oddie 1978:
The latters own particular form of modern self-consciousness took the form of cultivating essentialized
identities rooted in tradition (cf. Friedman 1990).
We can argue that members of lower castes have an especial propensity towards embracing modernity
since the past, for them, represents not a glorious golden age but a miserable history (Osella & Osella
Dr Ambedkar was himself a Dalit (untouchable) political leader and fierce critic of Hinduism and the
caste system. He was also a national figure one of the architects of the Indian constitution.
We collected these two monologic narratives in single long sessions by pre-arrangement. The tellers had
responded to invitations at the end of earlier meetings that it would be interesting to hear much more about
Unlike earlier migration theorists, who were confident to speak of push and pull factors, we are reluctant
to even out ambivalence here.
Sumptuary laws which forbade, for example, double-storeyed houses to untouchables were abolished in
the 1920s.
We are very grateful to Yasushi Uchiyamada for this insight (pers. comm.).
Parry (1999) reports that the steel produced in Bilhais steel plant is of equal quality to any produced
elsewhere; the common Indian insistence on the innate superiority of foreign goods has perhaps been
accepted too easily by outside researchers willing to accept the flattering implications and to overlook the
deeply fetishistic nature of such assertions.
Lexicalized in Malayalam. People commonly speak of undertaking projects progressinu vendi, for the sake
of making progress.
Ferguson points out that
on the one hand, the narrative of modernization was always bad social science; it was (and is) a myth
... But on the other hand, the myth of modernization ... gives form to an understanding of the world,
providing a set of categories and premises that continue to shape peoples experiences and interpretations of their lives (1999: 14).
Abelmann, N. 1997. Narrating selfhood and personality in South Korea: women and social mobility.
American Ethnologist 24, 786-812.
Aiya, N. 1989 [1906].The Travancore state manual. 3 vols. New Delhi: Indian Educational Services.
Aiyappan, A. 1944. Iravas and culture change. Bull. of the Madras Govt. Museum (N.S.), vol. 5, no. 1. Madras:
Government Press.
1965. Social revolution in a Kerala village. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.
Bourdieu, P. 1990. The logic of practice (trans. L. Wacquant). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588

Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

586 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

Bradley, H. 1996. Fractured identities: changing patterns of inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Breman, J. 1989. Taming the coolie beast. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Bruner, J. 1987. Life as narrative. Social Research 54, 11-32.
Carrithers, M. 1995. Stories in the social and mental life of people. In Social intelligence and interaction (ed.)
E.N. Goody, 261-77. Cambridge: University Press.
Chatterjee, P. 1993. The nation and its fragments: colonial and postcolonial histories. Princeton: University
Chaudhuri, K.N. 1985. Trade and civilisation in the Indian Ocean. Cambridge: University Press.
1990. Asia before Europe: economy and civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the rise of Islam to 1750.
Cambridge: University Press.
Comaroff, J. & J. Comaroff 1993. Modernity and its malcontents: ritual and power in postcolonial Africa.
Chicago: University Press.
& 1999. Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African
postcolony. American Ethnologist 26, 279-303.
Daniel, E.V. 1996. Charred lullabies: chapters in an ethnography of violence. Princeton: University Press.
de Neve, G. 2000. Patronage and community: the role of a Tamil village festival in the integration of a
town. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 6, 501-19.
Devika, J. 2002a. Domesticating Malayalees: family planning, the nation and home-centred anxieties in midtwentieth century Keralam. (Working Paper 340). Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, India.
2002b. Family planning as liberation: the ambiguities of emancipation from biology in Keralam.
(Working Paper 335). Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, India.
Eisenstadt, S.N. 2000. Multiple modernities. Daedalus 129: 1, 1-29.
Englund, H. & J. Leach 2000. Ethnography and the meta-narratives of modernity. Current Anthropology
41, 225-48.
Ferguson, J. 1999. Expectations of modernity: myths and meanings of urban life on the Zambian copperbelt.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fernandes, L. 1997. Producing workers: the politics of gender, class, and culture in the Calcutta jute mills.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Franke, R. 1993. Life is a little better: redistribution as a development strategy in Nadur Village, Kerala. Boulder,
Colo.: Westview Press.
& B.H. Chasin 1994. Kerala: development through radical reform. New Delhi: Promilla and Co./
Institute for Food and Development Policy.
Friedman, J. 1990. Being in the world: globalization and localization. In Global culture (ed.) M. Featherstone,
311-28. London: Sage.
Fuller, C.J. 1976. The Nayars today. Cambridge: University Press.
Gardner, K. 1995. Global migrants, local lives: travel and transformation in rural Bangladesh. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Giddens A. 1991. The consequences of modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gilroy, P. 1993. The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness. London: Verso.
Green, M. 2000. Participatory development and the appropriation of agency in southern Tanzania. Critique
of Anthropology 20, 67-89.
Hardgrave, R. 1969. The Nadars of Tamilnad. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hardiman, D. 1987. The coming of Devi: Adivasi assertion in Western India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Isaac, T. & P.K. Tharakan 1986. Sree Narayana Movement in Travancore 1880-1939: a study of social basis and
ideological reproduction. (Working Paper 214). Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, India.
Jeffrey, R. 1976. The decline of Nayar dominance. Delhi: Manohar.
1993. Politics, women and well-being: how Kerala became a a model. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kelly, J.D. 1991. A politics of virtue: Hinduism, sexuality and countercolonial discourse in Fiji. Chicago:
University Press.
Kumar, S. 1994. Political evolution in Kerala: Travancore 1859-1938. New Delhi: Phoenix Publishing House.
Latour, B. 1993. We have never been modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Lemercinier, G. 1994 [1974]. Religion and ideology in Kerala. Trivandrum: Centre Tricontinental: Louvainla-Neuve and Institute for the Study of Developing Areas.
Lindberg, A. 2004. Modernization and efeminization in India: Kerala cashew workers since 1930. (NIAS
Monographs 95). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Mateer, S. 1991 [1883]. Native life in Travancore. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588

Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella 587

Mattingly, C. 1998. Healing dramas and clinical plots: the narrative structure of experience. Cambridge:
University Press.
Menon, K.P. Padmanabha 1993 [1929]. History of Kerala. 4 vols. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.
Miller, D. 1994. Modernity: an ethnographic approach. dualism and mass consumption in Trinidad. Berg:
Miller P.J. & L. Hoogstra 1992. Language as tool in the socialization and apprehension of cultural
meanings. In New directions in psychological anthropology (eds) T. Shwartz, G.M. White & C.A. Lutz, 83-101.
Cambridge: University Press.
Oddie, G.A. 1978. Social protest in India. Delhi: Manohar.
1995. Popular religion, elites and reforms: hook-swinging and its prohibition in colonial India, 1800-1894.
Delhi: Manohar.
Osella, F. & C. Osella 1999. From transience to immanence: consumption, life-cycle and social mobility in
Kerala, South India. Modern Asian Studies 33, 989-1020.
& 2000a. Social mobility in Kerala: modernity and identity in conflict. London: Pluto.
& 2000b. Migration, money and masculinity in Kerala. Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute (N.S.) 6, 115-31.
& in press. I am Gulf : the production of cosmopolitanism in Kozhikode, (Calicut) Kerala,
India. In Cosmopolitanism contested: The confluence of history and anthropology in the Indian Ocean (eds)
E. Simpson & K. Kresse. London: Hurst.
Pandian, M.S.S. 1995. Beyond colonial crumbs: Cambridge School, identity, politics and Dravidian movement(s). Economic and Political Weekly XXX: 7/8, 385-91.
Parry, J. 1999. Two cheers for reservation: the Satnamis and the steel plant. In Institutions and inequalities:
essays in honour of Andr Bteille (eds) R. Guha & J. Parry, 128-69. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Piot, C. 1999. Remotely global: village modernity in West Africa. Chicago: University Press.
Prakash, G. 1999. Another reason: science and the imagination of modern India. Princeton: University
Ricoeur, P. 1984. Time and narrative, vol. 1. Chicago: University Press.
1985. Time and narrative, vol. 2. Chicago: University Press.
1988. Time and narrative, vol. 3. Chicago: University Press.
Rofel, L. 1999. Other modernities: gendered yearnings in China after socialism. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Singer, M. 1972. When a great tradition modernizes. Delhi: Vikas.
Sivaramakrishnan, K. & A. Agrawal 2003. Regional modernities in stories and practices of development.
In Regional modernities: the cultural politics of development in India (eds) K. Sivaramakrishnan &
A. Agrawal, 1-62. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Tannen, D. 1989. Talking voices: repetition, dialogue and imagery in conversational discourse. Cambridge:
University Press.
1997. The magic of the state. London: Routledge.
Templeman, D. 1996. The nothern Nadars of Tamil Nadu: an Indian caste in the process of change. Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Thurston, E. & K. Rangachari 1909. Castes and tribes of Southern India. 7 vols. Madras: Government Press.
Tsing, A. 2000. The global situation. Cultural Anthropology 15, 327-60.
2004. Friction: an ethnography of global connection. Princeton: University Press.
van der Veer, P. 1998. The global history of modernity. Journal of the Social and Economic History of the
Orient 41, 285-94.
Washbrook, D. 1990. South Asia, the world system, and world capitalism. Journal of Asian Studies 49,
1997. From comparative sociology to global history: Britain and India in the pre-history of modernity. Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient 40, 410-43.

Il tait une fois dans lOuest ? Histoires de migration et modernit dans le

Kerala (Inde du Sud)
Les auteurs explorent la manire dont les membres dune communaut dex-intouchables arrire , les
Izhavas du Kerala, dans le sud de lInde, reprsente ses interconnexions avec la modernit et lui donnent

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588

Royal Anthropological Institute 2006

588 Caroline Osella & Filippo Osella

sens. Les narrations des Izhavas suggrent une ambivalence : alors que les histoires dchec restent
individualises, imputes au manque de chance ou la tricherie des autres, les succs sont des illustrations
dun rcit global type du progrs au XXe sicle. Nous relevons de nombreuses correspondances entre le
rcit optimiste de cette communaut danciens intouchables et une autre mta-narration puissante et
omniprsente : lhistoire mondiale de la modernit en tant que dveloppement, rpandue tant par le
gouvernement central que par les mouvements rformistes et les thoriciens du dveloppement. Ces
histoires de vie nous obligent, nous Europens, entrer dans le mme espace que les narrateurs, parler
des rencontres entre Indiens et Europens, et nous poussent reconnatre que nous vivons dans un seul et
mme monde. Les Malayalis revendiquent une participation gale aux projets de la modernit alors mme
quils signalent les moyens par lesquels la contemporanit leur est dnie. Cela nous incite suggrer,
lencontre des tendances thoriser plusieurs modernits, que les narrations de modernit devraient
occuper le mme espace analytique, quelles viennent dInde ou du Royaume-Uni. Avec nos interlocuteurs
malayalis, nous participons une confabulation/confabrication dune histoire partage, qui se rvle tre
celle de la nature du capitalisme global. La modernit produit rves et dsillusions, elle promet le progrs
tous mais ne le donne qu un petit nombre. Dans sa capacit apparemment infinie dauto-rgnration
et de rinvention, ce phnomne de lhistoire mondiale est loin dtre termin. Alors mme que les
thoriciens tentent de le rduire un moment dj termin ou un projet rat, il fait encore miroiter ses
promesses et donne un cadre structurant aux histoires de vie contemporaines.

Caroline and Filippo Osella are currently writing a monograph focused on Calicut Muslim society. Their
most recent work is Men and masculinities in South India (Anthen, in press).

Caroline Osella: SOAS Department of Anthropology and Sociology Russell Square, London WC1H OXG, UK.; Filippo Osella: Department of Anthropology, School of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, Arts
C, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SJ, UK.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 569-588

Royal Anthropological Institute 2006