Thursday, March 08, 2012

'Why do Malayalis treat their women badly?'

Finnish journalist Mikko Zenger has come to God's Own Country several times. He is fond of the place, but is shocked at the way the women are treated

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1992, Mikko Zenger, a freelance journalist from Finland, had come to Kerala. He wanted to do an interview with EMS Namboodiripad, the former Chief Minister. But at the AKG Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, the CPI(M) party leader Thomas Isaac shooed him away, saying that Namoodiripad was very busy. But Mikko saw that Namboodiripad was sitting at one corner.

“So I went up and whispered in his ears that I lived in the same building that Vladimir Lenin [great Russian Communist leader] stayed during his visit to Helsinki, Finland, in 1910,” says Mikko. Lenin was on his way to Copenhagen in Denmark to attend the Russian Socialist Democratic Worker’s Party meeting. When Namboodiripad heard this, he immediately granted Mikko an interview.

The Finnish journalist has been coming to India since 1977. “Kerala is my favourite state,” he says, as he stands, in the afternoon sunshine, wearing a cotton shirt and brown shorts, near the Parade Ground in Fort Kochi. “The gap between the rich and the poor is much less in Kerala, as compared to other parts of India. Also, there is some semblance of democratic politics, although I know that there are many problems.”

He admires the multicultural society where Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side by side, which is so evident in Fort Kochi.

In fact, in a celebration of this multi-culturalism, a few years ago, when Mikko bought two cows from a farmer in Vaikom, he called one of them 'Agni' and the other, 'Urdu'. “If I had bought a third cow, I would have given it a Christian name,” says Mikko.

For this trip, Mikko has brought along a group of 16 children, along with their parents. “About 13 of them are of Indian origin, adopted from orphanages in north India and Tamil Nadu,” he says. Mikko arranged a programme, at Mattancherry, where there were Muslim dancing groups, followed by a Brahmin who sang Carnatic songs, accompanied by the harmonium, and Bollywood dances. “The Finnish children found it very exciting,” says Mikko. “They met other Indian children for the first time.”

Mikko finds the openness of the Keralite very alluring. “They are very interested to know about happenings all over the world,” he says. “Malayalis are ready to have a debate at any time. Whenever I enter a coffee shop or hotel, I will just say, ‘UDF’, ‘LDF’, ‘Mohanlal’ or ‘Mammooty’, and immediately an animated discussion will begin.”

But a candid Mikko says that he is disappointed by the position of women in Malayali society. “I say this, despite the fact that their status in Kerala is far better than in other parts of India,” he says. “My question is this: why do Malayalis treat their women so badly?”

He spoke of instances when men made fun of their spouses in front of him. “A man told me, 'Just look at how fat my wife is?'” says Mikko. “Kerala women are educated and admired all over the world for their nursing skills. And what do the men do? They drink too much, come home, and start criticising their wives.”

Asked to compare Finland with Kerala, Mikko surprised by saying there are, indeed, a few similarities. “In both places, the government invested first in setting up the social sector,” he says. “It was much later that the emphasis was placed on the economy. In Kerala, as well as Finland, there is a strong labour movement.”

And, till recently, both Finland in Europe and Kerala in India topped the highest annual suicide rates. Mikko then cracked a melancholy joke: “In some countries, they use the right side. In other countries, they use the left side, but in Kerala they use three sides: the left side, the right side, and suicide.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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