Munching on fish fingers and salad at a restaurant in St. Kilda beach in Melbourne, I had an opportunity to converse with Robin Jeffrey about his long-standing academic engagements with Kerala. He is the author of many books and articles on Kerala, including The Decline of Nair Dominance and Politics, Women and Well-Being. The write-up below is drawn freely from that conversation.
Said: Could you tell us why and how you came to India and to Kerala?
Robin: I came to India in 1967 with the Canadian University Service Overseas (Cuso), which was the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps. I had just finished my BA and had also worked as a journalist. My first placement in India was supposed to be with the Haryana Family Planning Agency, but eventually, it didn’t happen. So they transferred me to the Punjab Institute of English in Chandigarh, as a teacher.1 And I taught English in the Government Boys’ Basic High School in Sector 20 for two years. That was wonderful because, as teachers have long holidays, I could travel across India. During the holidays, I went to Kerala for the first time in December 1967. I had met and become friends with a Punjabi family who had business in Kannur, and I went to Kannur and stayed with them for a couple of nights.
Then, in the summer of 1968, I came back to south India for holidays. This time, I travelled in Tamil Nadu particularly, and flew over to Cochin, and came back up from Cochin to Kannur. This journey made a big impression on me and one scene is still fresh in my memory. While I was coming out of Kochi in a KSRTC bus, the bus had its tarpaulin shutters down to cover the windows. It was monsoon and there was heavy downpour. When the bus stopped somewhere, I lifted the tarpaulin and saw on the veranda of a house, very close to the road, an old lady wearing big glasses and reading a newspaper. I had taught a hundred and fifty kids in the school in Chandigarh; none of them had specs except one. And here was an old woman, with these big specs, reading Mathrubhumi or Malayala Manorama, probably Malayala Manorama in Kochi at that time. That picture stuck in my mind.
When learning to read and write was such a big deal for both women and men in other parts of India, it made such an impact on me to see people reading so widely. Of course, lots of people have said this about Kerala. Leslie Brown, one of the last English bishops in Kerala, had a story about literacy in his memoirs. He was travelling on one of the ferries around Vembanadu Lake, and saw people all around him reading Marxist tracts, as if they were reading best-sellers. This was in the late 1940s.
Twenty years later, I shared some of that amazement. I thought Kerala was a very interesting place and very different from Punjab and other places I had been to in India.
A Malayalam version of the interview appeared in Mathrubhumi Weeky 97 (33), 2019. The whole interview was published in English in two parts on Ala: Kerala Studies Blog. See Part 1 and Part 2
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