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Dam it, my way

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In the west, above the Palani Hills, the sun splinters into a dozen colours, all in different hues of tangerine, even as a cold early-January breeze whispers through the eucalyptus groves. With its plantation-style homes, mock-Tudor churches and snug pre-fab hotels, Munnar continues to lead the facsimile life inherited from homesick Englishmen, which is now part of what the tourist brochures describe as Exotic Kerala.

However, of late, things have taken a turn that might not sit comfortably with that pricey tag. In the wake of the convulsions caused by the Mullaperiyar dam dispute, Munnar saw strident demonstrations in December demanding that it be allowed to secede to Tamil Nadu.

This quaint hill town sits on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, high up in the Western Ghats, and though its population is overwhelmingly Tamil, life here for the most part is oriented towards Kochi rather than Chennai. The official holidays follow the Malayalam calendar and those in the rain shadow are generally regarded as unreconstructed pagans who sport XXL sideburns and half-saris.

"Yes, there are the jibes we make at each other, there are other small differences too, but we take them in our stride. There are thousands of Tamils settled here. In our work places and daily life, we get along very well with Malayalis and we are fully integrated into local life, " says S Alagesan, an office bearer of the Tamil Sangham. "Right now, the anti-Kerala protests are held by those with political agendas. However, we cannot afford to be complacent because generally my community is very emotional in its response, " he adds.

The tussle for territory is a latent threat in this part of the world, where languages and cultural identities overlap, and both Kerala and Tamil Nadu are equally guilty of brandishing long-lost maps and other relics of their pre-Independence, bloated selves. Munnar itself has been relatively peaceful, except for the odd eruptions, with the epicenter of protests on the Kerala side being Kumily. On the Tamil Nadu side, it is Cumbum from where every day, in normal times, thousands of Tamil men and women cross the border to work in the pepper and cardamom plantations of Kerala's Idukki district.

With the stalemate continuing over the century-old dam which is in Kerala but has been leased out by the state's erstwhile rulers to Tamil Nadu for 999 years, both Tamil plantation workers and Malayali estate owners have been seriously impacted. But thanks to atavistic impulses and simmering resentments, economic common sense has taken a back seat.

On each side, stereotypes about the other abound. Most of them are harmless, but some are the legacy of a rich though fraught history between the two peoples. It might not be articulated as such, but a common assumption among Tamils, including, or especially, educated ones, casts the Malayali as a Shylock-like figure, the proverbial Jew, not in a religious or ethnic sense, but as an enigma: the outsider whose loyalties are suspect even as we can't do without him, the impersonality and isolation of his intellect, his inscrutability.

"It might not be politically correct to say so, but there are fundamental differences between the Tamil and the Malayalis. The latter's language and sensibility are highly Sanskritised - it's a kind of hieratic second language, something to be acquired, where the rules come from elsewhere. Tamil, on the other hand is a vernacular in the most positive sense of the word, " explains Prof Venkateshwaran from the Centre for Democratic Societies. "At the popular level, for instance, there is this stereotype, especially in Tamil Nadu, of the Malayali's proclivity for black magic. It is nothing but a distorted reflection of the Malayali disposition for selfdoubt and the accompanying scepticism, " he says.

Such insinuations might not be palatable to most Malayalis, but various Kerala artists have boldly confronted them. In his 1985 movie Chidambaram, the renowned auteur G Aravindan explored the Malayali sense of entitlement vis-a-vis the trusting and emotional nature of Tamils. Set in Munnar, and starring Smitha Patil and the acclaimed Malayalam actor Bharat Gopi, the movie was more than just an examination of human foibles and the largely exploitative nature of relationships between relatively powerful men and na?ve, younger women.

At Mattupetti, a small hamlet in Munnar, little has changed since the days Chidambaram was shot here. The huge Indo-Swiss cattle farm, where in the movie Sankaran (Gopi), a superintendent at the farm, seduces Sivakami (Smitha Patil), newly married to a farm labourer, remains the only sign of modernity. From near a tattered windsock flapping in the wind atop a small hill, the terrain slopes away gently to the dusty plains of Tamil Nadu. Here the border is only an idea, a place at an angle from the insistent here and now, one you can't buy, sell, lease or fence. Here, thoughts are released from their tethers and what Regis Debray famously said - that a "border is a vaccine against the epidemic of the wall" - comes unbidden to mind.

While elsewhere in the region walls are being erected between the two states with incendiary statements, thoughtless acts and deliberate legal wrangling, here in Mattupetty sanity prevails because of a porous boundary. The annual festival of a local temple is in progress and hundreds of people from both sides of the border, among them lots of Malayalis, participate feverishly in the fertility rites dedicated to the mother goddess in the hope of heading home with the ultimate family souvenir.

Tamils and Malayalis, as the ethnographer and scholar Kamil Zvelebil has hinted, are somewhat like the akam and puram (literally, 'inside' and 'outside' ) conventions of ancient Dravidian poetry. They are distinct and separate entities, but finally meaningless without the other. K Ravi Prasad, however, would want to add a caveat to that. At one of the more modest tea estates just outside Munnar town, Prasad, a planter who doubles up as an amateur wildlife photographer, is enjoying his siesta in the luxe comforts of his bungalow. Most of his workers are Tamils, so are some of the managers. Like most people here, he is worried about the Mullaperiyar imbroglio and what it could do to tear asunder the delicate social fabric of his town. "It's like those Rajinikanth films, the plots centred on his trademark 'double role', " he quips. "It's either the separated-at-birth syndrome or it becomes a battle between good and evil which becomes all the more life-threatening because hero and villain have the same face. " One only hopes it's the former.

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