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Monday, 08 June, 2015, 16 : 30 PM [IST]

Our Critical Interface: Guide Talk

Once upon a time, we were guides.

Before we became travel writers, we volunteered to become guides to find out what tourists were looking for when they came to our land. We took a French and an American group of travel agents around Kochi. Ever since, we have continued to learn a great deal from the guides who have escorted us through a myriad places in India and the rest of the world. Guides are the most significant members of our travel industry. What they know, how they behave, and what they say leave a lasting impression on their clients, moulding the attitudes of visitors towards their destinations.

The best guides are those who have enough knowledge to vary their commentary to meet the special needs of their group. Visitors are better informed than they used to be, thanks to the IT revolution, and Google can be a guide’s best friend and worst enemy. But, even that universal guru cannot do what a good guide can, i.e. give critical insights into the lifestyles and behaviour of local communities. Increasingly, people are more interested in people than in artefacts and the past. And so, to get back to our travel roots, here are the sort of comments we would make if we were taking a group of informed visitors around Kerala, today. Many of the statements are deliberately provocative and designed to start a discussion in the group. That keeps them alert and involved, though a good guide will always be willing to concede a point if the argument gets too heated!
  • Where Kerala is today, India will be tomorrow - Early in its history, Kerala was exposed to international influences - Romans, Chinese, Jews, and Arabs. Consequently, such insular taboos as a fear of crossing the ocean, the kala pani, did not have an impact on Malayalis. Such easy access to, and interaction with, the outside world, led to the development of multi-racial communication skills and a high literacy rate. Most other Indians are still trying to acquire these abilities.
  • The Information Age dawned early in the state - The urge to know more has resulted in every wayside tea stall being festooned with magazines and newspapers - a phenomenon unique to Kerala. Consequently, ideologies based on hype and superstition find little traction in Kerala.
  • Kerala’s voters regularly rotate parties - Their fate is decided in political discussions in the morning in those chai kadas dotting the roads of the state. This is true, participative democracy in action. Kerala was the first state in the world to vote Communism to power and also the first to vote it out.
  • There are no larger-than-life politicians in Kerala - Political fortunes rise and fall with tidal regularity. The well-informed Malayali is averse to fawning servility and hero worship - an attitude that defeats the rise of egoistic demagogues.
  • Women have a very special place in Malayali society - In a fine balance of opposing trends, matrilineal succession is balanced by a patriarchal hierarchy; the maternal uncle is the acknowledged head of many families. This balanced attitude could account for the fact that Kerala led India to producing women star athletes and the first woman Supreme Court Judge.
  • Co-operation - The co-operative movement has struck deep and successful roots in Kerala and continues to thrive, bypassing middle men. This seems to be a viable solution to the current big-business vs mom-pop store conflict.
  • The Mosaic of Diversity - In spite of having a plethora of distinct communities, the tight-knit society of Kerala had created a slot for all. In fact, there continues to be an inter-religious acceptance of the traditions of other faiths. Old Syrian Christian churches have oil-lamp holders in their walls just as temples do; the same decorated elephants, drummers and ceremonial umbrella-holders are an essential part of festivals in Hindu, Christian, and Muslim shrines. Onam is as widely celebrated by all communities as Christmas is with illuminated stars alight across the state.
  • Social Flexibility - In a state that once had a caste of unseeables, Kerala has achieved remarkable egalitarianism. When the Gulf Boom ended, and Malayalis came back home, they took to tourism like ducks to water because it gave them an honourable livelihood of some status. Their pride in their varied ways of life continues to offer visitors a wide palette of lifestyle experiences accounting for much of the enormous success of tourism in God’s Own Country today.
This is the Kerala template.
Similarly, every state has its own unique quality and a good guide will highlight the same. Our nation is a brilliant mosaic of 4,635 distinct communities, each with its own customs and traditions, speaking its own variations of our 22 officially recognised languages, and living in every geographical terrain on earth. That’s an unlimited treasure trove for every resourceful guide.
 
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