Malappuram, breaking stereotypes

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As the district turns 50, it is striving hard to extricate itself from the negative impressions thrust upon an ingenuous populace

When the State film awards were announced recently, a low-budget film by a debut director won many accolades, bringing focus once again on the unique socio-cultural ambience of Malappuram district.

Sudani From Nigeria, a film by Zakariya Mohammed, portrayed the football craze of the Malappuram people, their bonding, innocence and compassion.

The film held a mirror to real-life Malappuram. It drastically changed the perception about Malappuram in the minds of a large number of people in Kerala. The people of Malappuram are glad that negative stereotypes about the district, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in about 100 days, are being dispelled.

Ever since Malappuram district was carved out of Palakkad and Kozhikode on June 16, 1969, the land and its people have marched through testing times.

As Mapilapattu lyricist O.M. Karuvarakundu once remarked, the district “has been more sinned against than sinning”.

Malappuram has become the most populated district in Kerala. Politicians and bureaucrats alike agree that 45 lakh people are pretty large for a district to manage. “Ensuring equity and justice to all people at all levels is a challenging measure,” said P. Ubaidulla, one of the 16 MLAs from the district.

Outsiders’ perception

Even as the district is bursting at the seams and the demand for bifurcation is heard pretty loud from different corners, Malappuram continues to be looked down upon by people from other regions.

A few years ago, a medical student from the Government Medical College, Kozhikode, refused to attend a discussion on college ragging The Hindu conducted at its Malappuram office, for fear of the people and the place. “I’m afraid of Malappuram people. They carry daggers in their waist belts. My mother has advised me not to go there.” This was the excuse The Hindu got from the student hailing from Wayanad for skipping the discussion.

If this was an outsider’s view of Malappuram, insiders seldom feel so. “When I reached Malappuram in 1976 from Manamboor in Thiruvananthapuram, there was only a waiting shed here for even long-distance KSRTC buses. Things have changed a lot. I didn’t feel like leaving this place because of the people’s innocence, their passion for culture and love of humanity,” says poet Manamboor Rajanbabu.

Choice of many

Thousands chose to settle down in Malappuram because of the hospitable nature of the land and its people. The district enjoys a high position in the State’s cultural firmament. Malappuram is the most fertile soil for cultural grooming, they agree.

“Malappuram deserves to be the cultural capital of Kerala,” says Mr. Rajanbabu, who heads several cultural forums, including the Rasmi Film Society, which holds the record for the longest-serving film society in the country.

“The people of Malappuram nurtured this film society, which has been working without a break for 43 years. No other film society in India has such a distinction,” the poet says.

Cultural hub

The presence of the Thunchan Memorial Trust named after the father of Malayalam language; Mahakavi Moyinkutty Vaidyar Memorial Mapila Academy; Poonthanam Illam; Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala’s PSV Natyasangham; major temples such as Thirumanthamkunnu Temple at Angadipuram; Kadampuzha Bhagavathi Temple and Thirunavaya Navamukunda Temple, and the Islamic cultural centre such as Ponnani are reasons enough to buttress the claim made by Rajanbabu.

According to novelist C. Radhakrishnan, Malappuram has made large strides in the cultural sphere. “There has been a conscientious effort to revive the old and prestigious culture of Malappuram. Several art forms are being revived. Arab-Malayalam, a culture by itself, is being revived. Similarly, theatre culture is also returning,” says Mr. Radhakrishnan.

Of late, there have been efforts to revive certain religious-cultural festivals such as Nerchas centred on Muslim shrines, though they were met with resistance from some groups on the grounds that they were revivalistic and that they spread fear of erosion in faith.

This Muslim-majority district is known for the harmonious coexistence of people belonging to different faiths, in spite of the venomous propaganda by vested interests.

Harmony all around

Malappuram-baiters continue to call it a mini-Pakistan because Muslims make up two-thirds of the population. “That’s why I said Malappuram by far is more sinned against than sinning,” says Mr. Karuvarakundu.

The harmonious religious fabric of Malappuram witnessed a tear in the wake of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition. “After the demolition, Muslims have become more Muslim and Hindus have become more Hindu,” says Mr. Rajanbabu.

Mr. Radhakrishnan too said that Malappuram’s acclaimed communal amity had begun to show signs of fading largely because of politics based on caste and religion.

The district has made noticeable economic progress largely because of the inflow of funds from expatriates in the Gulf region. But the economic development has had its flip side too. Agriculture took a back seat when concrete jungles rose across the hills and dales. “Infrastructure-wise, there was no development at all. We have built concrete mansions by inflicting irreparable damage to environment,” says Mr. Radhakrishnan.

Food and health

The district’s health index has kept abreast of the rest of the State, but more cases of lifestyle diseases are being reported in tune with the spike in wayside eateries that offer exotic meat dishes, particularly Arabian. Dishes such as Manthi, Majboos, Shawaya, Alfahm, Muthabak and a host of other Arabian dishes are common across the district.

Malappuram takes pride in hosting the State’s hospital town. Perinthalmanna town has three super-specialty hospitals and a private medical college. Although the district is a Golconda for doctors in the private sector, much more health facilities are sought in the government sector.

Worrying factors

The health authorities here have been working overtime to countervail the backlash it suffered in the eradication of major diseases such as diphtheria and tetanus. Till last year, the district had immunisation coverage of less than 65% – too low a figure to be counted for a robust health index. But a concerted effort by the Health Department took this figure, according to official estimates, to 90% this year. Yet, the sporadic outbreaks of diphtheria are worrying.

Teenage marriage is a bane the district is battling even now. “It’s a social issue. It can be eradicated only by moulding a well-informed new generation that realises that child marriage harms its social, physical, economic, cultural and religious well being,” said District Probation Officer Sameer Machingal.

In spite of such negative pulls, the district has shown the world that it is a model to emulate in philanthropic activities. The palliative care movement and the kidney and cancer treatment care movements the district initiated years ago continue to inspire many.

A wide array of charity organisations carry out humanitarian work. Their service range is vast and varied – from free neighbourhood ambulance service to building houses to the poor to sponsoring wedding expenses of orphan girls.

Unfortunately, stereotyped, negative perception about the district – such as the one held by the medical student – still survive. And these hurt the sentiments of the loving, friendly and hospitable people of Malappuram.

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