No Malayalam please, we're Bongs

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By V. Kumara Swamy visits a small town in Kerala where the predominant languages are Bengali and Hindi
  • Published 10.08.08

The restaurant has no name, but its menu speaks for itself. It boasts of machher jhol, or fish curry, and dimer dalna, curried eggs. The list of sweets is more elaborate —you can have a rosogolla, rajbhog, langcha or mishti doi.

The restaurant is in Kerala.

The people outside Mohammed Mansur’s shanty restaurant in Perumbavoor, waiting for their Sunday afternoon meal, speak mostly in Bengali. A red banner strung up in front of it spells out the cuisine in three languages —Bengali, Hindi and English. What’s missing is Malayalam — the local language. But then, while it may be Mansur’s mother tongue, it is certainly not spoken by the regulars there.

“That doesn’t matter. Not many Malayalees in Perumbavoor are even aware that our restaurant exists,” says Mansur in broken Hindi. He need not worry. His clientele includes Oriyas, Biharis, Assamese and, of course, Bengalis.

Perumbavoor looks like any other up and coming town dotted with signs of modernisation — supermarkets, Internet cafes and ATMs. But, of course, if you are there on a Sunday you’d be pardoned for thinking that you were somewhere in eastern India, or perhaps the north.

Every street alley along the road has people speaking a different language —Bengali, Assamese, Oriya or Hindi. Even shopkeepers have switched to broken Hindi to woo clients.

Sunday is pay day — and the newcomers are all migrants, who are helping Perumbavoor’s economy grow. The town, some 40 kms from Ernakulam, has been sliced right down the middle by a state highway that connects Thiruvananthapuram to Angamaly, on the outskirts of Ernakulam. “Today, almost all businesses in the town depend on these migrants. This was not the case a decade ago,” says M.P. Shaji, the owner of Royal Electronics, an audio and video store. Every Saturday night, Shaji replaces his Malayalam music and films with Hindi, Bengali and Oriya CDs and VCDs. Shaji says he earns Rs 3,000 more on Sundays than on other days of the week.

Shaji’s customer Krishna Bhowmick’s eyes light up as soon he spots a music album he has been looking for. He buys Piyar Chokhe Jal, and with his friend Litan Sikdar, heads for a mobile phone shop to check out the latest sets.

Bhowmick works in a plywood factory at Vengola village, a few kilometres from Perumbavoor. He came to Kerala eight months ago after a friend in Bongaon, near Calcutta, promised him a job here. “It’s been good so far. I earn around Rs 170 per day and I manage to save most of it,” he says.

Migrant labourers such as Bhowmick and Sikdar are the lifeline of hundreds of sawmills, veneer and plywood units and textile mills that have sprung up in recent years around Perumbavoor along the tree-lined village roads of Mudickal, Okkal, Vengola, Vazhakulam and others. “It was almost a ghost town till a few years ago. Now look at the progress we have made. This has been possible because of the right industrial climate and the availability of cheap labour,” says industrialist C.K. Abdul Majeed, president, Plywood Association of Kerala.

According to government officials, there are an estimated 1.35 lakh migrants in and around Perumbavoor. Kerala has some 6 or 7 lakh migrant workers. No accurate figures are available, and so the government late last year decided to conduct a “proper survey” of the migrant labourers in the state. The report is not yet out. Majeed says the total turnover of various companies in the region runs into “thousands of crores of rupees.”

Locals are employed as supervisors, clerks and at other important levels while the migrants do the manual work. The reason, some argue, is because higher education levels have prompted local Malayalees to opt out of manual labour. Agricultural labourers are scarce and the daily wage rate for the locals is Rs 250-300. And with droves of semi-skilled workers such as carpenters and masons having headed for the Gulf, contractors have started importing cheap labour from the north, the east and Tamil Nadu.”

“As soon as we learn a few words of English, we start to look down upon manual labour. I cannot afford to employ a local labourer. He may demand even Rs 300 a day, whereas I pay less than half that amount to a migrant labourer," says Shahir M. Aliyaar, owner, Chandrika Plywoods.

Raj Kuli from Dhemaji in Assam, an employee of a saw mill in Khizakkambalem, says he migrated to the town two years ago for money. “I had no job, except for working on a small patch of land. One day I caught the Guwahati-Trivandrum Express and landed here,” he says. Kuli says he sends around Rs 3,000 a month to his parents.

According to E.S. Anees, head of the Perumbavoor post office, migrants send home Rs 7-8 lakh a month in money orders. “Most of the money goes to the Phulbani, Ganjam and Puri districts of Orissa and Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur in Assam,” says Anees.

Although Bengalis from Midnapore, Nadia and North 24 Parganas constitute a substantial portion of the migrant labour, they send money home through a local group head who has a bank account. The workers’ money is deposited in his account in Kerala and withdrawn in Bengal. The money is then distributed among their families through a courier service.

Safikul Islam, a contractor who has been in Perumbavoor for the last five years, charges Rs 50 for a remittance of Rs 1,000. He alone sends more than Rs 2 lakh to Bengal every week on behalf of his workers. Some of the workers like to spend money on their own needs. Mobile phones are a hot favourite. “We opened our mobile shop two years ago because of the migrants. They drive our business,” says Mukesh, part owner of Mobile Bazar shop. He sells 12-15 mobile phones every Sunday.

For the workers, mobile phones are a symbol of the money they have started to earn. “It is a source of entertainment,” reasons Sikdar who now wants to acquire a phone with a Bluetooth application. “Perumbavoor to these people is what the Gulf was to Kerala in the 1980s and the 1990s,” says Majeed.

Not everything, of course, is as rosy as Majeed wants you to believe. With the police suspecting that some of the people claiming to be Bengalis might be Bangladeshis, security checks have been tightened, especially after the recent bomb blasts in parts of the country. “We are asking the factory owners to issue identity cards to their employees. We are also confirming their addresses,” says Benny Thomas, deputy superintendent of police, Perumbavoor.

For the workers though, the distant land of Kerala is their El Dorado. Akash Pradhan says he came here from Phulbani two years ago with only a bag full of clothes. “Now I have helped my sister get married and rebuilt our house. I will work here as long as I feel safe,” says Pradhan.