Status claims among Muslims in Malabar, South India

This note shares preliminary reflections on the way status claims are being made by Muslims
in Malabar, South India, by conducting family gatherings. These claims complicate
the existing notions of status based on the identity of each social group. To show these
complications, I share stories of two family gatherings.

Published in Anthropological Notebooks 2017,  23 (2): 103–105.


Three Poems

Painting: Elia Art



The nadir of despair, have you seen, my friend? Look here.
The broken bones and seared flesh of Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan
The chilling presence of a missing Najeeb from JNU
And a countless under-trials behind the bars on flimsy charges for days on end.

People have always created noise, you might say.
The holler was there off and on, from the concerned, you might add.
We protested against such violence, you might assert.
We always stood by the victims, you might mention.

But, have you looked at your own hands, what are those dark blots?
Are they of blood stains or beauty spots in a wrong place?
Are they wrinkles because of old age or of shame taking its own shape?
Is the hardness of your palms due to resistance or because they too joined the beatings many times?

Remember, the tears we weep have reached their seams.
Know that our bodies have hardened because of your beatings.
Realize, we have understood both our allies and enemies.
Beware, we are coming like a hurricane, not the occasional storms you’re so used to.



With a perennial bellyache, mother would convulse on the floor,
like a centipede, she would coil, holding her belly, she would scream.
Her eyelids always failed her tears, her lips contorted, sobs filled the room.
I carried her pain in my heart and showed it to a Thangal, she is a firm believer.

Sihr is the word! accusations ripe, relatives chagrined, feud ensued.
Swearing on Koran, one after the other denied doing anything.
Some even cried, prayed for her health; gave her medicines, herbs.
Evil was hiding in nooks and crannies, she still convulsed.

Scraps of paper with Arabic numbers in columns and some verses
With red flowers, betel, rice, and a wick mother would circle on her head.
Once it is thrown into the oven, she feels relieved, after an hour, she is fine.
But after two days, bellyache would recur, I would abuse the Thangal.

I went with her to meet a jinn, she felt I too suffered from jinn.
In the black room, one jinn held my ear. I swept my hand, the jinn howled.
The jinn touched various parts of my mother, she screamed often.
On the way back in the train, my mother felt better.

The jinn failed to pluck the bellyache, and I ended up with a panickar.
He estimated the bellyache on his shells; I went to a faraway temple
with jaggery, coconut, and a stipulated amount. My mother still convulsed.
I exhausted fear, belief, and reason and lost faith.

She had eight consecutive sessions and the bellyache went away.
It was an untreated ulcer for many years. She is still a firm believer.



On the seventh day of his death, many rooks came, cats and dogs too.
The feast lasted into the evening, birds dozed, and cats tired, dogs to their fill.
Relatives and neighbours prayed for the soul, some even cried,
after the prayer, ate belly-full, burped to satiety, bid adieu.

The scene repeated once more, on the fortieth day, but with a twist, relatives rushed in, gleefully, hawk-eyed, rooks announced guests, unusually rueful.
Revering the property due to them sleepless nights they spent in between,
Now they said, division must be done at the earliest, lest it hurt the soul.

A half-witted aunt, ready to give up her share, but the sober brother wouldn’t relent,
whatever law gives is his due, croons he, injustice the stupid books teach,
so are men. Ere long the dust settled, the soul found peace with itself,
memories dampened, greed set in, things one ought to get must be won.

The mother and the girls, still grievous with tears and parched lips gasped,
and cursed the fate, howled at the dead, in misery clenched their fist.
The mother, still in black, tramped out of the room, kept her face low
flung the documents on their face, and shut the door.

Originally published here

When I met Dostoyevsky

I have wandered the streets, nooks and corners and alleys of Saint Petersburg with Raskolnikov. I have felt tremors and numbness in my legs when I had to accompany him to the old-lady’s room. I have often got entangled in the arguments of Mitya, Vanya and Alyosha and lost in thoughts. But how I met Dostoyevsky himself is rather a pleasant memory of my undergraduate days.  

You may all have stories of how you found your own much-loved writers. My story took its beginning when I was an undergraduate student of English literature.

If my memory serves right, I started reading literary texts when I was in eighth standard. I was fortunate to have a friend who was six years elder to me at that time. He was instrumental in orienting my readings into thicker, longer versions of the stories I unearthed in the little magazines. 

Both of us were huge book-lovers and have gone to various libraries on foot, trekking for miles, walking on the mud-parapets, crossing the paddy fields. He prompted me to read  books like Asuravitth, Ummaacchu, Sundharikalum Sundharanmaarum. 

The memories of going to various libraries are etched in my mind. This particular library where I met Dostoevsky was in a sorry state. It was not actually a library, but one displaced to a stitching institute owing to lack of funds. It did not have a regular staff and most of the times it remained closed. One lady was entrusted to look after it, but she hardly turned up. Many authors, from Dickens to Thomas Hardy to Vaikom Muhammed Basheer enjoyed the rhythm of scissors, that too from the hands of adorable damsels. Basheer would have written secret letters to them, for sure. He would have been the most sensitive to be intoxicated by the scents of oil and talcum powder filling the room.

There were two, three big shelves of books in no order. It was a library which lost its glory and the authors in the shelves felt claustrophobic. The occasional, lucky readers sometimes gave these authors an outing. It was in such chaos that I met Dostoyevsky in ‘Choothaattakkaaran’ (The Gambler). He was a big gambler himself who gave everything to the game.

when I reached home and started reading the book, I was overcome by an unprecedented emotional turmoil. I used to be an avid reader then, who would not care for anything including food. I could just lie down in my bed and read for hours together. Now, such marathon readings seem unachievable, maybe you enjoy the book differently when you are older.

Once I finished the novel, I could not control my emotions. I was literally jumping in my room out of psychic explosion. When I felt that I would be unable to contain my feelings, I dressed myself and ran to the public telephone booth. I had a mobile phone then. Maybe there was no balance, I am not sure. I called up one of my graduation friends who was as crazy as me over books. 

We had this strange habit of calling each other in the middle of reading, if we are overwhelmed by certain passages. Mostly, I used to call him. Then, I would read out the passages that touched me. Then, we would discuss n-number of things about the book each of us has been reading. We were lovers through books. 

I do not exactly remember what all I talked to him about The Gambler. But I am sure I spilled my beans for more than half an hour and he patiently listened to all my outpourings. I would have told him how much I felt like pulling Dostoyevsky from the gambling table, just to put some sense into his ears. Or, how much I enjoyed being at the table with him, as agitated as he was! Or, I would have joined in his cursing his luck at one moment, and the instant consolation that being part of the game is more important, not winning. I would have felt pity for his sufferings and envied his resilience in hardships.

I have been hooked on to him then, once and for all.  

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