On a recent road trip into Tamil Nadu I was really struck by the ways it differed from Kerala. Although the states are direct neighbors, and many Tamil live and work in Kerala, the contrasts were striking.
They were small differences, subtle even, but enough to give the states a different flavor, if you will. Maybe its that Keralites seem a bit more serious, a bit more focused on their modernity and business acumen. There was something more colorful about the way life was portrayed next door. Although there is the old adage that the “grass is always greener on the other side”, an irony in this case to be sure, as Kerala is a far greener state in almost every meaning of that word. (I highlight the word almost because, as Sung wrote in a previous post, much of the produce eaten in Kerala is grown in Tamil Nadu, despite their far lower rainfall.)
The short time I spent in the state left me with an impression of a less mechanized world. A land of brick works and goat herds, of Bullock carts as lorries, of fields and fields of crop cultivation.
But the biggest difference related to the people. In Kerala when we walk along the street there are bound to be looks. Not just looks, expressions of curiosity, of questions, “What is your good name?”, “Where is your place?” in numerous variations of opportunity to practice a few English words. We’ve shared this experience in posts like this one.
Granted, in Tamil Nadu we were in the car a good deal of the time, but the moment we passed through a village and there were people on the street (which there always are…) some child or other would shout out: “Vella-kkaran!” Aby (a Keralite) was driving and I joked that the boy had yelled out “White People!”. But the joke of it was that was exactly what he had said.
Was it a matter of relative rarity? There are areas of the state that receive tourist traffic. I don’t think we were driving through one of them. There was a palpable difference between cities and towns of similar size in Kerala. We were, indeed, an oddity, and one worthy of note apparently because the phrase followed us throughout our journey. There wasn’t a hint of negativity in the voices, they had the same tone I would have used when sighting a Great Indian hornbill during a trek.
It became an anecdote in the car as we made our way back to Thekkady. Shortly after crossing the border back into Kerala we passed the Kumily bus station. A group of white backpackers were walking down the road drawing no apparent attention, exotic plumage and all.