February 22, 2020
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The Alchemy Souk

Kochi, god’s little city, now conjures its own field of illusions

The Alchemy Souk
The Alchemy Souk

In Kerala’s popular culture, Dubai is a protean fantasy variously imagined—a flat and arid landscape which contrasts so starkly with the verdant abundance of the native land and yet exerts a mystical influence over the human spirit. Dubai has a way of transforming the drudgery that an average Keralite would perform only under acute duress in his home environment into the determined pursuit of status. And that alchemy of the spirit emanates from the power imbedded in the international architecture of finance, which transforms meagre earnings eked out in the arid landscapes of Dubai—a generic term that subsumes much of the Gulf Arab region—into storied fortunes in Kerala.

For long years, the Dubai dream allowed an escape from the realities of a stagnant economy where service sector occupations enjo­yed a certain cachet, but entrepreneurship and risk-taking seemed severely at a premium. The Dubai dream was a potent distraction, sucking up a society’s entire risk-taking ability, leaving little in reserve. Crossing that dream threshold was a step in the journey of progress, embodied first in the baubles of conspicuous consumption and then in gold adornments, those most eloquent among the badges of status. But the final consummation had to be that patch of land to call one’s own, preferably in Kochi, Kerala’s only city with the pretensions of cosmopolitanism. In the sacred but all too limited topography crea­ted by divine commandment, that was the sole assurance mortal man had of an afterlife.

Dubai came to be synonymous with a new building aesthetic and soaring asset prices, nowhere more so than in urban swathe of Kochi. Town and village squares in all of Kerala were awash in cars and buses bought by benevolent migrants seeking to set up near and dear ones in secure livelihoods. Yet, for all that, it was a tenuous and precarious affluence. Conditions of work for those living the dream were akin almost to indenture and the cost of the slightest misstep, a rapid plunge into penury.

Circumstances then conspired to bring Dubai across the waters into the very grain of Kerala’s life. Archaeologists in the realm of ideas still need to unearth the forces that propelled Kerala from a remote outback on the glo­bal tourism map into the must-visit destination for even those with the means to go where they chose. Continuing ethnic warfare in Sri Lanka, an erstwhile magnet for the global traveller, probably invested Kerala, endowed with very similar climatic and topographical features, with a certain allure. Then came that quirk of the bureaucratic imagination which resonates to this day. It was an old phrase used by colonial settlers struck by the pristine beauty of the lands they were expropriating from native populations. Yet there was not the slightest hint of irony in the tourism bureaucracy’s commandeering of that term from history, to declare Kerala “god’s own country”.

Kochi was now the first port of arrival for tourists seeking divine benediction. And thus was a city of overflowing drains, insuperable waste disposal issues and proliferating mosquitoes obliged by a bureaucratic quirk to effect its own transformation. Kerala had also by then been infected at least in part by the revolution of rising ambitions of the Indian middle class. From being a dom­ain where dreams are mined, ‘Dubai’ had become a field for entrepreneurship. In 2013, for the first time, the Forbes ‘rich list’ for India was adorned by two billionaires of thorough Keralite pedigree among the top one hundred. And they both earned their fortunes in the land across the seas, the mystical ‘Dubai’ of the dreams.

Construction magnates Yousuf Ali and Ravi Pillai now possess the confidence to bring their affluence and commercial clout home. Times have changed and the antidote that Kerala has devised for the conundrum of private affluence subsisting within an expanse of civic squalor is to have still more conspicuous displays of wealth. And as god’s own country becomes a field of dreams for an international clientele of pleasure-seekers, it conjures up a field of illusions for its denizens to take transient delight in. The older dream of a just social order where all have equal opportunity, meanwhile, recedes into a distant future.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Delhi but hometown Kochi is much on his mind.)

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