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Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
The opening remarks of R. L. Bhatia, the governor of Kerala, were brief but galvanizing. Having set the tone for the seminar on governance and development, the governor proceeded to formally inaugurate the event by lighting the large brass lamp located center stage. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the audience, but it died out awkwardly as the governor struggled to light the last wick on the far side of the lamp. Despite the governor's strained efforts with a rapidly disappearing match, the wick refused again and again to light. A young man eventually entered from stage left, carefully resoaked the wick, and, to the relief of the strained necks in the audience, finally set it alight. With renewed applause, the seminar was now set to begin.
Over the course of three days in December 2005, the national seminar on Kerala's developmental experience attracted politicians, community organizers, scholars, and public officials from around the country to the leafy suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram. Participants were given an ambitious agenda: to discuss new orientations for Kerala's developmental and governmental future. A sense of urgency charged the seminar atmosphere. Many spoke in the dystopic terms of crisis and decline, referencing high suicide rates, the "disease" of consumerism, aimlessness among youth, the moral breakdown of family life, and rising violence against women. A few were more optimistic, configuring the present as a turning point. What kinds of horizons might be imagined at this critical moment in Kerala's history to move the state forward to a brighter future? Could Kerala's former international status as a so-called model of development be recaptured, this time in novel and visionary ways?
Although the seminar's objective was to envision new political futures, the past was what featured most prominently in the opening speeches and discussions that first day. References to Kerala's earlier achievements on the world stage of development were prominent in the welcome speech made by the seminar's chairman. But if "the Kerala of the past" had once been widely praised by Western scholars, that Kerala was no longer, remarked the chairman. The earlier gains of the Kerala model, once celebrated by scholars around the world, were being rapidly undermined by globalization while the developmental horizons that had once delivered the region to international acclaim were receding into obscurity. Symptoms of social and moral breakdown were everywhere. Now was the time to forge new trajectories for the state, he declared. Rallying his audience to action, the chairman urged that if the economists, social scientists, and politicians among them were to accurately assess the needs of the people to envision better futures, then conventional metrics such as the state's oft-cited high literacy rates had to be abandoned altogether. Such indexes were insufficient to capture the "reality of Kerala" at a time of globalization. "There needs to be less talk about the GDP," quipped the chairman, "and more about the state's GDH." GDH, or "gross domestic happiness," would reveal the "true condition of the people," a condition that had become "most miserable" in the last decade, as suicide rates made clear. Even with all of their material comforts, the chairman observed in his speech, Malayalis were unhappier than ever before. Indeed, by the metric of happiness, the people of Kerala ranked among the least developed in the world.
In Kerala public discourse, high rates of suicide reported since the 1990s have gained widespread visibility as the preeminent symptom of an ailing social and political order. Explanatory narratives for these unhappy developments abound. In the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, many discussed the suicide crisis in ways that extend beyond individual pathology to implicate broader political, economic, and social developments in the region. Much as the seminar chairman did that December morning, city residents spoke in terms of historical contradiction, crisis, and decline to account for the social and moral ills they linked to contemporary Kerala life. But explanatory narratives for what ails Malayalis today are not merely tales about past and present. More critically, they are important at the level of identity and experience. In warning of a GDH deficit, the seminar's chairman spoke of the failure of a particular dream of progress. By his account, this has caused a dramatic shift in regional identity and experience: if an idea of the "Kerala people" was once linked to exceptional development, it is presently characterized by unhappiness and suicide. Narratives such as this one are also political and moral claims. They position disillusionment, frustration, and suicide as the bitter fruit born of historical trajectories and projects of modernity in the region.
This chapter explores perceptions and experiences of betrayal, contradiction, and decay in Kerala's postmillennial time. Through narratives about the past and the declining present, Thiruvananthapuram residents I spoke with during my fieldwork reflected critically on the postcolonial condition in the state, a conjunctural condition shaped by regional and national development, liberalizing reforms, transnational migration, and global change. They also made sense of the present as a time for suicide. In the capital city, many construed the suicide crisis to be the historical product of collective struggle and the tragic fallout of the misperceived aspirations of the people. Explanatory narratives for these developments were therefore a critical means to articulate anxieties and contested ideas about horizons of progress and modernity and to assert the psychic injuries these horizons have produced in daily life.
City residents I spoke with understood and experienced the declining Kerala present in myriad ways. Individuals and communities claimed different relationships to migration, globalization, the local developmental state, and the promises of the Kerala model. Older-generation upper-caste elites, for example, tended to align themselves with a nationalist ideal of state-centric development and with a once-triumphant tale of the Kerala model. Through narratives of moral and social decay, they accused a "new generation" made up of consumerist, globally oriented youth of undermining Nehruvian socialist ideals and the developmental achievements of the past. With the diversification and widening of the middle-class social field in Kerala, many of the upper-caste elite also perceived social crisis through intimate urban living with the upward mobility of formerly lower-class and lower-caste communities. Meanwhile, young people facing uncertain futures often spoke critically of the contradictions and failures of development. In doing so, they gave temporal depth, political meaning, and moral force to everyday experiences of unemployment, social vulnerability, frustration, and powerlessness. Through explanatory narratives about the ambivalent postcolonial present, young people made sense of the uncertain.
These anxious times feel very different, then, from differing social vantage points. At the national seminar that December morning, the predominantly male technocrats, politicians, and developmental academics in attendance perceived the present through a particular elite discourse about Kerala's ascendance and decline on the world stage of development. The shared tone was one of lost bearings. If record educational achievements and low infant mortality rates no longer captured the "reality of Kerala" in the present, as the seminar's chairman suggested, what suitable metrics could measure "happiness"? To be able to progress toward it in the making of new futures, how would happiness be recognized? If the Kerala model was now obsolete, where did the future lie? True happiness, many agreed, would not be found in moral surrender to globalization, the most prurient symptom of which was said to be the "disease" of consumerism spreading in the state. The Kerala present, they seemed to say, faced two impossible paths: one marked by the invasive and morally suspect forces of globalization, and the other by a receding developmental horizon. This predicament recalled for me the words of twenty-four-year-old Priya, who once described her life as trapped between two dead ends: between the pursuit for a first-class life that risked drowning debt and suicide on the one hand and the failure to keep up with social expectation on the other. She described it as being caught between the devil and the deep sea.
Unhappy Developments in India's Developmental Miracle
In his comments that December morning, the seminar's chairman pressed for an alternative metric that might capture the state of disenchantment in Kerala today. By promoting the need for a happiness index, he not only criticized the failure of standard yardsticks of development, such as infant mortality and literacy rates, to register the collective malaise in the state. He also faulted development itself for failing to deliver on aspects of living rather than merely improving chances of survival. In the Indian state once hailed a developmental miracle, biological life has been made to thrive, and successfully so. Yet by the chairman's assessment, something has been critically missed if, however "developed," Malayalis are in fact so very unhappy.
While dressed in the new garments of an emergent science of happiness circulating in policy and governance frameworks, the chairman's critical commentary on development in Kerala was itself hardly new. Disillusionment with the so-called Kerala model of development-a model based on the state's achievement of significant improvements in material conditions of living in spite of its relatively low per capita income-has been voiced from many angles for some time. Whether they charge the model for failing to deliver meaningful and radical change, for not yet realizing its promises, or for bearing poisonous fruit, ongoing debates over the merits and claims of the Kerala model have had profound effects on cultural and political imaginaries of the region.
As J. Devika observes, "The desire for 'Development'-often defined vaguely, working as a catch-all term for economic growth, social welfare, and socialistic redistribution of resources-has been intimately linked to the construction of the idea of a 'Malayali People' as a distinct sociocultural entity in the post-Independence period." In the 1970s, dreams of Kerala's developmental exceptionalism appeared to many within and outside the state to have been achieved. Widespread popular support for the Family Planning Campaign was read by the Malayali press as evidence of everyday people's commitment to the goals of population reduction as prosperity. State-led land reforms fueled dreams of egalitarian development. Infant mortality rates had dropped, literacy rates were rising, and the other progressive social indicators for which the Kerala model has come to be known were emerging into view. By the 1980s and through the 1990s, however, enthusiasm for the Kerala model would become increasingly muted. A looming fiscal crisis, concerns for the environment, political stagnation, and acute levels of unemployment were raising difficult questions about the sustainability and fundamental merits of the developmental dream. Although international scholars continued to remain optimistic, policy makers and scholars in Kerala were declaring a state of crisis.
In the wake of concerns about the viability of the Kerala model, an assortment of explanations and responses has proliferated. Some scholars suggest that the state's worsening fiscal and political crisis is the result of factors endemic to the Kerala model itself. In making sense of these experiences, many have framed Kerala's successes and failures in the language of "paradox." Others have retooled the claims of the model to emphasize its positive attributes. This discourse of "progressive Kerala" highlights the state's social developmental achievements as notable in their own right rather than as merely ancillary to economic development. Some are actively working to develop a "new" Kerala model that might reconcile social, labor, and environmental objectives at the local level. Still others have hopefully declared a turnaround. Radical critiques have focused on the ways the Kerala model narrative of social progressivism obscures inequalities and important elements of the history of modern social reform in the region.
As optimism for the model waned through the 1980s and '90s, the sociologist Joseph Tharamangalam noted the crushing feelings that emerged among technocrats, social reformers, and development academics. When it became clear that the model was "in the throes of a major fiscal, economic, political and cultural crisis that threatens, not only its future development, but the sustainability of what has already been achieved," these troubling realizations provoked "soul-searching self-analysis and self-criticism that has often sunk into the depths of despondency and despair." But these disappointments were never the domain of academic or policy circles alone. Uncertainty and skepticism for Kerala's developmental future and for the sustainability of past achievements have generated "near-frenzied and compulsive dystopic visions" that have been the defining feature of public discourse since the 1990s.
That the dream of developmentalism has been thrown into crisis strikes at the very heart of, in the words of one journalist, "what it means to be Malayali." In a newspaper editorial by the same title, the political columnist T. J. S. George boldly declares that misery is the defining feature of being Malayali today. George is clear about the origins of this unhappy state: it lies in the "tragedy" of Kerala's fall from grace on the world stage of development. "What it MEANT to be a Malayali would have been a pleasant topic to think about. What it MEANS today to be a Malayali is not such a happy subject," George begins (emphasis in original). "This is because the progress of the Malayali in the last thirty years has been downward. All that made us a proud and civilized people was lost." Plotting this precipitous turn of events, George observes, "Fifty years ago, Aikya Keralam was flush with hopes. . . . And excel we did. Literacy broke all records. Primary health centers opened up in every village. Electricity became available in all nooks and corners. Population statistics turned the Kerala model into a world phenomenon. Educational levels became the envy of others." But this ascendance would not last, says George, lamenting "the great tragedy that we could not sustain this astonishing progress." He concludes with a grim pronouncement: "What it MEANT to be a Malayali? Proud. What it MEANS to be a Malayali? Miserable." George's account of Kerala's decline before an international audience configures a regional identity defined by misery in the present, one that he ultimately attributes to political stagnation and rampant corruption. The betrayal of past hopes and achievements is a most unhappy subject in the pages of Kerala's recent history, one that has produced, in the eyes of this journalist, unhappy subjects of the state.
Whether presented in the guise of utopia unfulfilled or the reversal of gains made, narratives such as this one are built on a particular idea of the linear progression of Kerala modern history. They reflect the developmental telos that has been central to a dominant construction of the region and that plots Kerala modern history as the progressive advancement against the forces of backwardness. By these accounts, developmental markers were "achieved," inequalities "overcome," primordial attachments "replaced" with the allegiances of modern citizenship, and the oppressed were "emancipated"-only for these gains to be "lost" in the present. Discourses of progress and decline like the one above see regional history from the eye of the Kerala model discourse and its beneficiaries, its proponents, and even from the eye of many of its opponents-those who may dismiss the model yet reinforce its master telos by lamenting the failure of its promises. This is a version of Kerala modern history that also claims to speak on behalf of a unitary and singular "Malayali" experience while rendering invisible the upper-caste Hindu male subject that it privileges.
So even though these dystopic tales appear as if to speak to a universal Kerala history, this is the past and present rendered from a specific vantage point. This narrative of decline belongs to particular authors: those who are privileged to claim a relationship to a dominant story of Kerala progress and are thus in a position to mourn its demise. The predominant makeup of the gathering at the December seminar, with which this chapter opened-male state officials, policy planners, and preeminent figures of development academia-suggests some of those who have stakes in this version of Kerala modern history. The last few decades have seen the mobilization of radical feminist, dalit, and adivasi political struggles in the public sphere that have raised fundamental challenges to this narrative. Dalit, adivasi, and coastal communities do not claim the relationship to these dominant constructs of the region that the authors and supporters of the Kerala model claim. Nor do these communities share in the experience of ascendance and decline that shapes perceptions of the present for elites and new elites in the capital city.
The progressive narrative of the Kerala model has now been radically disassembled from many angles. Yet it still animates perceptions of the present in uneven ways in Thiruvananthapuram. Many older generation elites and new elites lament its unrealized promises; meanwhile, young adults and nonelites question its fundamental merits and claims. But dystopic narratives in the Kerala present are not only about development as lost object or failed promise. Development persists as a recalcitrant claim and reoriented project in the liberalizing present, one that articulates in new ways with contemporary transformations. City residents express moral concerns for the ways globalization, liberal economic reforms, and transnational migration in the contemporary moment are shaping the legacies and emergent orientations of the developmental state.
Narratives of decline with regard to Kerala's developmental experience cannot be understood outside these transformations. Transnational migration, for example, has profoundly shaped the region's social, economic, and cultural landscape and has been looked upon by some scholars and state technocrats as a new route to development. Migration between Kerala and the Persian Gulf since the 1970s, as well as migration to other regions of the world, has been an important release valve for the state's high rate of unemployment and a needed stimulant for the economy. Migration now features centrally in the horizons of expectation and projects of worth among young men and women. Together with migration, national economic liberalization has also encouraged an expanding circulation of commodities, money, and mass media images, fostering a now broad perception of Kerala as a newly consumerist society. These transformations and their reorientation of the developmental state shape the larger landscape in which city residents make sense of the present as a time for decay and suicide.
During my time in the capital city, anxieties about suicide overwhelmingly focused on "consumption itself as a fetishized object." Consumption has been recognized to be a critical site for debates and imaginings about values and identities in India's liberalization era. Skepticism about consumption is neither new nor unique to Kerala. Yet the distinct contours of its threat are molded by the region's developmental and leftist political histories and by fears of an unfolding suicide crisis. In the Kerala public sphere, left-affiliated discourses have framed consumption as a manifestation of the growing reach of multinational corporations after liberalization. These discourses reflect concern that liberalization has wildly expanded the aspirations of everyday people, including the poor, to the point of self-destruction. Forwarding its own anti-globalization politics but in different terms, the conservative Hindu right has argued that consumption threatens Western adulteration of "Indian traditions" and "Indian values." City residents across political and ideological divides blame debt from consumption as one major proximate cause of suicide, folding this into a broader discourse about the "problem" of aspiration in Kerala today. Suicide here, as one sociologist told me, begins with "big dreams and big purchases" and ends in sinking loans, unmanageable debt, and suicide.
Many in the capital city spoke to me of a historical and moral rupture from the temperance of Kerala's precolonial, developmentalist, or communist past to proclaim the dramatic effects wrought by conspicuous consumption in the present. They did so selectively, drawing on particular chronotopes and temporal maps that play up the state's "exposure" to the dangers of globalization after long periods of leftist rule, while downplaying, for instance, Kerala's place in a vibrant, centuries-long history of transoceanic relations. Some, like Veliyamma, drew on ideas of Kerala as a newly consumerist society to rend a strident generational divide between regional and national political virtues associated with the past and constructions of globalized youth in the present. A sixty-three-year-old grandmother and retired government schoolteacher, Veliyamma belongs to a respected, upper-caste Nayar family. In the comfort of the well-appointed home where she lives with her daughter's family, Veliyamma spoke with me one afternoon about the greed (aarthi) that has taken over Kerala youth. Although some money is necessary to clothe, feed, and shelter the body, said Veliyamma, today that need (aavashyam) has turned into greed. By her account, greed is at the root of all problems plaguing Kerala society today. The greed that drives young men to rob women in broad daylight for their gold necklaces, said Veliyamma, pointing to the front-page story of the morning paper, is the same greed that drives whole families to debt and suicide. When I asked her to explain further the difference between need and greed, she spoke of the body. "The body needs eighty milligrams of vitamin C each day, along with other minerals and vitamins in their own exact amounts," she explained. Even if a person eats too much, taking up more than the body needs, the body will only absorb the eighty milligrams of the vitamin C that it requires. Rather than storing the excess, the body flushes it out. Like the person who eats greedily and stretches his stomach, Veliyamma said, today's youth are gorging themselves on fancy mobile phones, cars, and motorcycles. Not only are these items unnecessary to live; the energy spent "eating" excessively leaves the body wasted. That is why youth today are directionless and have no energy (oorjjam) to care for anything but consuming the latest gadgets. As a counterpoint to the greed she observed around her, Veliyamma recounted to me how she had donated her gold earrings and bangles to the national war effort during the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
Veliyamma's comments fit with a broader discourse of consumption as a generational "problem" associated with a particular construction of globalized Indian youth. Her narrative of decline replicates a key binary in nationalist understandings of globalizing India, drawing an ideological, political, and lifestyle divide between the "new" and "old" generations. Through her metaphor of nutrition and the body, Veliyamma spoke of basic needs in a manner that reflects the socialist-inspired ideals associated with Nehruvian development's focus on national eradication of famine and poverty, Gandhian notions of austerity, and Kerala's left-affiliated politics. She contrasted this with a popular image of intensively consumerist, capitalism-embracing, globalized youth today. In doing so, she replicated a pervasive discourse about a disengaged generation that has turned away from politics and service to the nation in order to focus on enhancing the self. Such narratives gloss together youth, consumption, and globalization in a manner that positions an undifferentiated body of "youth" as an index of the reach and influence of globalization and as a barometer for social decay in the present.
For Veliyamma, the greed she witnessed everywhere around her not only made everyday life in the city unhappy and violent; it also symbolized a dramatic loss of the nationalist values she associated with an idealized past, values that once led her to donate her gold in higher service to the nation. This vision of the "newness" of consumption is shaped by social and political histories that inflect the virtues of restraint. Yet issued from her social position as upper-class and upper-caste, Veliyamma's critique also enacted a double standard. It selectively erased the contradictions in the ways she spoke passionately about austerity as a moral good and a higher duty while surrounded by the latest household amenities and two foreign-brand cars in the driveway.
Discourses about consumption, moral decline, and suicide were strongly inflected by the cultural politics of class, caste, and community. From the breezy covered veranda of her home, nestled in a quiet lane in one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods, thirty-year-old Gita outlined the problem of suicide and social decay from the specificity of her social position as an upper-class, upper-caste woman. "I belong to a middle-class Nayar family," she began in English. "We are all well-educated, many of us have professional degrees. But we don't believe in accumulating or acquiring material goods. So we live a simple life." Emphasizing that her family has lived this way for "many generations," Gita spoke of how carefully she and her husband manage their finances, purchase only the necessities to live comfortably, and never borrow money under any circumstances. Condemning families that take out loans at exorbitant interest rates to purchase cars and jewelry, she preached, "If you cannot afford such things, you shouldn't buy them." Gita then began to whisper about the neighbors. "Nowadays, if my family has a car like a Sandro [a Korean car], these other people [gesturing to the house directly across the lane] are suddenly trying for the same things. They want to buy the same car to feel some 'in-groupness.'" By Gita's account, in seeking membership through intensified consumption, those who aspire to be upwardly mobile have brought problems upon themselves. "For my family, having such material things is something we are used to. But these other people will buy and buy, take loans, and won't pay them back. That's when they commit suicide," she told me. "That is what I think is the problem."
Social histories of community, caste, and class were critical to elite discourses about decline in the Kerala present. The prestige of consumption in the region had historically been associated with upper-caste Hindu Nayar and "progressive" Christian communities, emblematized in the figures of the nineteenth-century Nayar landowner patron and the wealthy twentieth-century Christian entrepreneur successful in trade, commerce, and agriculture. In her neighborhood, where upwardly mobile Ezhava families now live among Nayar and Christian families, Gita perceived social decay through intimate urban living with new elites. Speaking frankly of the upwardly mobile as "those other people," she made clear to whom she was referring. Pointing across the lane to the home of an Ezhava family whom she was aware I knew well, Gita unequivocally asserted the caste and class stakes of her experience of the declining present.
Social and economic mobility has been claimed as part of a broad community-wide project of social reform and development among Ezhavas since the turn of the twentieth century. Through strong anti-caste reform movements, together with the attainment of respectable employment, the accumulation of wealth, and alignment with upper-caste Nayars and "progressive" Christian communities, the Ezhava community has redefined itself as being no longer untouchable. A consumer-intensive orientation has also facilitated the community's entry into a mainstream, middle-class Hindu fold. Gita feared the moral and social decay of the present through the challenge this consumer-intensive orientation has posed to conservative class- and caste-based relations of hierarchy and dominance. New displays of wealth among the upwardly mobile-an intimate presence in Gita's neighborhood-inspired reproach and a tinge of envy. By framing suicide as a pathology of intemperate aspiration among new elites like her Ezhava neighbors, Gita retooled ideas of social hierarchy and difference by presenting herself in contrast as a responsible middle-class subject with the moral capacity to distinguish "good," restrained consumption.
By contrast, Dr. Samuel, a psychiatrist in his fifties, spoke of consumption as the strange harvest of Kerala's developmental experience. From a wealthy, high-status Syrian Christian family that once owned extensive rubber plantations farther north in the state, Dr. Samuel drew on a hegemonic tale of Kerala development to explain what he called the "craze for consumerism" among Malayali youth today. "My feeling is that young people in Kerala today are very sensitive, very much affected by changes outside," reflected Dr. Samuel speaking in English. "Their thinking is, 'I've heard this beauty powder is good for my skin, this nail polish is a bit expensive, but it's good for me.'" He contrasted this to elsewhere in India. "If you go to Tamil Nadu or Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, most people live in villages. They don't think these things. They only want to make both ends meet. If a multinational company goes there and says, 'Your skin will glow better if you apply this beauty cream,' they will say, 'My son is hungry and crying and would be happy with some rice.'" "But in Kerala," said Dr. Samuel, "we have enough food. We want to make ourselves pretty with lipstick and creams. Here, the priorities are different." Laughing and throwing his hands up into the air, Dr. Samuel declared, "Kerala people have always wanted to be on top of the world. These adolescents and youth are thinking, 'I want to be on par with the West!'"
In no uncertain terms, Dr. Samuel characterized youth consumption as an act of moral surrender to the influence of multinational corporations. Malayali youth's unique sensitivity to global change, argued Dr. Samuel, is the direct result of development in the state. Freed of having to worry about the basic needs of living, they have the luxury to consume, aspire, and dream. In drawing a contrast between the priorities of Malayali youth and those of Bihari villagers, Dr. Samuel's national imaginary appears to resonate with left-affiliated discourses that critique the Indian state for the withdrawal of welfare provisions and growing support for neoliberal reforms. It seems to push back against the diminishing importance of basic priorities like alleviating poverty in India's liberalizing present. At the same time, the locus of blame in Dr. Samuel's critical commentary centers not on the state but rather on the ostensibly slavish desire and stubborn fixation among Malayali youth to be on par with the West.
Reading between the lines also reveals the subtle but important ways Dr. Samuel framed the problem of material aspiration as more than a generational or regional issue alone. Indexed by the use of cosmetics and beauty creams, consumption is implicitly imagined here through the bodies and practices of women. Dr. Bina, a psychologist in her forties from an upper-caste Nayar family, highlighted for me the gendered stakes of globalization and consumption in the Kerala present. One morning when I was observing Dr. Bina receive clients in the outpatient psychiatry department of one of Thiruvananthapuram's hospitals, a young woman entered the waiting room. Unlike many others her age, who, at the time of my fieldwork, mostly wore the churidar (long tunic with loose trousers, also known as the salwar kameez) in public, she wore jeans and a fitted T-shirt with the term Fashionista emblazoned on the front in pink sequins. At this government-funded hospital, where most of Dr. Bina's clients are of the lower-status working poor, the young woman attracted the psychologist's disparaging comments. "See this?" Dr. Bina whispered, nudging me behind the desk where we were both sitting. "This is the impact your culture is having on our youth today." Dr. Bina, whom I knew from our many hours in the hospital together to be a compulsive doodler, began drawing on the corner of her notebook a busty female silhouette complete with mini skirt and tank top. A few minutes later, she nudged me again. Pointing to her finished picture, Dr. Bina said that this was the reason why Kerala society was in decline. When girls begin to dress "without shame" (naanamillaattha), values disappear and families break down. "Women should be the lamp of the home," Dr. Bina said. How could a girl dressed in such a way be the guiding light for family and society?
Notions of Indian Womanhood became a major site of contention in colonial and nationalist discourse in India, in which women were often represented as icons of tradition and nation. Women continue to be central to struggles over the cultural effects of globalization across political and ideological divides in India's liberalizing present. As part of these concerns, women's bodies and definitions of proper dress have served as critical domains for debating definitions of community and nation. While leftist and conservative right discourses speak in different terms, Ritty Lukose has pointed out that there are important alignments in their postcolonial preoccupations with ideas of female respectability as they are linked to constructions of public and private and of modernity and tradition. Like the nineteenth-century discourses promoted by cultural nationalists discussed by Partha Chatterjee, Dr. Bina's anti-consumerist stance framed women and the idea of Indian Womanhood as icons of the moral reproduction of home and nation, requiring protection against the prurient West. Articulated from her social position among the upper-caste elite, Dr. Bina perceived the threat of moral and social decay through the newly consuming, lower-status female subject. The social worker's pictorial rendering of a curvy, full-figured female silhouette makes clear that this threat is linked to the expression of an overt (hetero)sexuality, one that defies the locally respectable, classed ideal of the contained female body.
While many in Thiruvananthapuram spoke in the dystopic language of contradiction and decline, their perceptions of past and present were shaped by their social coordinates and by personal and community histories of struggle. Elites in particular drew on the "newness" of consumption as a central organizing theme to articulate the social and moral crises created by liberalizing reforms and global change at an anxious juncture in Kerala development history. In doing so, they reflected on the particular stakes of class, caste, community, and gender that have shaped their experience of the declining Kerala present. As those like Gita, Dr. Bina, and Veliyamma spoke apprehensively of shifting political and moral values, lifestyles, and identities, they enacted powerful claims and counterclaims around the questions of what ought to define the good life and who are its proper claimants.
A "Return" to the Happy Family
In a time of decay and dystopia, where do city residents look to secure a better future? What hopeful horizons do they envision? At a time when the state's social welfare provisions are retracting and loss and failure appear to be the individual's alone, the elite discourses I heard often posited a solution, not in a turn to the state, but rather in the improvement of self and family. In popular discourse, families are increasingly called to reform themselves in order to mend the social fabric, salvage "traditional" values, and stem the suicide crisis.
Psychologist Dr. Biju once accounted for Kerala's high rates of suicide through a story about food. Describing to me the ways modern life has altered social interaction, Dr. Biju spoke of the deterioration of the family meal: "Scientific advancements have taken away the harmony and pleasures of sitting together. Even if it's not over bread, butter, and jam, we should all sit and eat together. Food is a symbol of love," he said, "but now most parents and children don't sit, eat, and share." For Dr. Biju, the shift from food as social practice for the nourishment of family life to food as foreign-identified marker of prestige symbolizes a broader dissolution of "traditional" values in contemporary Kerala. Observing that simple pleasures like sharing a meal have given way to the fast pace and materialism of modern living, Dr. Biju sadly concluded that in Kerala today, "the basic happiness of being alive is gone. And when life becomes miserable, there is always an option: I can commit suicide."
In popular discourse, social decay has acquired its most troubling manifestations at the site of the family. Widely circulating media accounts of murder-suicide pacts among families escaping insurmountable debt, for example, link consumption gone awry to the wholesale destruction of households. In targeting the nuclear family institution as the breeding ground for the problems plaguing modern life, the elite discourses I heard simultaneously heralded the rehabilitated family as the path to a suicide-free collective future. Consider Dr. Biju's optimism that, despite the grim state of most families in Kerala today, "basic happiness" can still be rekindled. Families only need to rediscover the intimacies "that were once there." Parents, he encouraged, have to learn once again how to talk with their children, not just about their test scores, but about their thoughts and opinions; likewise, married couples have to make space to reclaim "quality time" (using the English term) by taking walks together and speaking openly about their hopes. Dr. Biju's proposal to rediscover once again the basic happiness of being alive appears as a matter of simple revelation: the unveiling of a secret that has resided in conjugal and parent-child relationships all along but has been latent, buried under the modern-life rubble of television screens, computers, and atomizing individualism. By Dr. Biju's account, the path to happiness lies in the "return" to a seemingly pure and originary form of the nuclear family and its intimacies.
Yet if the antidote to modern malaise appears by such accounts to lie within easy reach, this "return" to the simple pleasures of the middle-class nuclear family is a mythological one. It conveniently forgets that there is in fact no pure or originary form of the family to return to. In a region once characterized by diverse patrilineal and matrilineal joint-family practices, social and legislative reform movements beginning in the nineteenth century gradually "modernized" these practices by shifting them toward legally recognized patrifocal residence, patrilineal descent, and patrilineal inheritance and succession. Historian and feminist scholar J. Devika has charted the many forces by which the small, patrifocal, conjugal family form gained moral and practical purchase across social groups by the mid-twentieth century in Kerala. This was a process driven by demographic anxieties, the production of modern citizen-subjects for whom "liberation" from the large family was considered fundamental, and colonial and postcolonial struggles to "civilize" matrilineal practices in the region. As legislative interventions and economic transformations rendered earlier modes of family arrangement and inheritance unviable, the small, patrifocal family emerged as the reasonable, economical, and desirable life option. Dr. Biju's nostalgia for an originary nuclear family intimacy omits these histories of social and legislative reform. It forgets, moreover, that this class-specific dream of domesticity was never "had" in any straightforward manner by communities considered outliers of development. The past to which Dr. Biju encouraged a happy homecoming to save the future is an imagined one.
Proposals to reform kin intimacy as the solution to social decay circulate widely in popular discourse. They enact nostalgia for different imagined pasts. If Dr. Biju looked longingly upon a mythological nuclear-family intimacy in ways that erased histories of social reform and their exclusions, others cast their gaze on an idealized "traditional" joint family consigned to the past as the foil to contemporary nuclear family living. Consider one newspaper article whose title staidly declares, "No More a Happy Family." In the article, veteran journalist Leela Menon explains the rise of family murder-suicides in the state. Asking how such tragedies could ever come to be, Menon paints a grim picture of Kerala's nuclear families that references debt, marital mistrust, domestic violence, alcoholism, and depression. "At times it could be the wife of an alcoholic, depressed from years of torturous domestic violence, deciding to end it all, [who will] poison, drown, hang, or burn the children and commit suicide, ignoring the children's right to life," describes Menon. "Kerala, topping the chart in alcohol consumption, also has a population of Othellos, suspecting their wives of infidelity, and demanding DNA tests of children. Alcoholism coupled with suspicion leads to domestic violence, in which Kerala takes the lead. This breeds depression in women, sapping their zest for life." In Menon's dystopic vision, kinship has been corrupted: mothers murder their children, husbands accuse wives of adultery, and fathers demand the incontrovertible evidence of genetic testing. The nuclear family appears as the social engine for depression, domestic abuse, and suicide, and it is women and children who must bear the burden of its violence. Concerns for Kerala's family murder-suicides are not misplaced. National crime statistics cited in the article reveal that Kerala has reported the highest number of family-murder suicides of all Indian states. Debt from loans is a reason frequently reported in the media.
In counterpoint to Dr. Biju's nostalgia for a mythological nuclear-family intimacy that has "always" been there, Menon acknowledges that the small family is a relatively recent development in the region. Indeed, at first blush this account appears deeply ambivalent toward the institutional rise of a class-specific form of the nuclear family, particularly its gendered relations and forms of prestige consumption. The journalist's account of alcoholism, abuse, and depression aligns in this sense with efforts among feminist historiographers to recognize the gender inequalities on which the small family was built. Problematizing assumptions about Malayali women's "empowerment" that have been key to dominant narratives of Kerala development, these scholars have argued by contrast that gendered subjects and patriarchal inequalities were produced as a foundational part of the Kerala modernity experience. Through the spread of modern domesticity and the small conjugal family, social reform and political movements inaugurated forms of patriarchy founded on the dichotomization of the male breadwinner and the female housewife. In spite of the rising educational levels of Malayali women overall, this gendered division of labor has become further entrenched in recent decades among middle-class families. Indeed, the relatively high educational achievements of Malayali women compared with those of their husbands, coupled with their limited agency in making household decisions and their disenfranchisement from inheritance, have been shown to render women vulnerable to domestic violence, dowry abuse, and suicide. Menon's dystopic account shares in these concerns, appearing to question the notion of the small, conjugal, patrifocal family as an unproblematic social good. Nuclear family living seems less a middle-class dream than a nightmare.
In the end, however, Menon's critique stops short. Its locus drifts from the orchestrated violence and inequalities of modern domesticity to the mothers who ostensibly fail to adjust to its demands. Menon observes that it is ultimately mothers who are at fault: they are the ones who decide to kill themselves and who choose to take their children with them rather than abandon them to an unknown fate. This may be a surprising development, says Menon, in light of ideas about maternal nurturance and protection: "This attitude of the mothers is in sharp contrast to the commonly held belief that mothers would endure anything to protect their children. Obviously there is a qualitative change in the value system in Kerala, which turns mothers into killers. It is a single-handed decision of the mother who tricks her children into death." Mothering here takes an aberrant twist, the extreme perversion of women's "natural" instincts.
In declaring "no more a happy family," this account implicitly constructs an idealized joint family of the past as the moral foil to the troubled nuclear family in the present. And yet Menon acknowledges that there is no turning "back." Instead, efforts must be made to make women better managers of the nuclear household, an institution that, Menon concedes, is a practical reality of contemporary life. Local women's organizations can prevent such death pacts by teaching mothers "strategies of stress management, healthy coping behavior, family economics and streamlining life within a budget to avoid a debt trap." The development of women's skills as household managers reshapes the scope and meaning of women's agency and domestic responsibility in this age of suicide. Cast now in the language of popular psychology, good household management demands stress management, coping behaviors, and improved emotional health as protection against family suicide. The gendered stakes of these domestic projects are clear: it is a mother's charge and hers alone to ensure frugal accounting and defensive resilience on the course to a family that is "once more" a happy one. This is a classed discourse that presumes that the model housewife is the desired role that all can and must take. Reclaiming the happier family is a responsibility borne on the backs of mothers in a manner that produces classed and gendered domestic subjects against the threat of suicide.
Proposals to reform the institution of the family to stem social decay and salvage the future shore up classed and gendered ideologies about kin intimacy and household management. They also construct different imaginings of the past. If Dr. Biju looked to a mythological origin that never was, Menon looks ahead. Yet in some respects, their proposals to salvage the future are not so different. Like Dr. Biju, Menon enacts a pointed amnesia. By enjoining women to be consummate householders, Menon proposes an optimized nuclear family as the path to happier futures, one that magically erases the inequalities, vulnerabilities, and conditions for violence upon which this very home is built.
"We Get Agitated at These Developments"
Crisis-ridden narratives about the Kerala present and proposals for a better future like those above are important for the cultural and ideological work they do and the erasures they enact in public discourse. But they tell us little about how perceptions of past and present shape the experiential and affective dimensions of everyday life. Many young adults I spoke with, themselves in times of personal transition, actively drew on ideas of historical contradiction and decline to give political meaning, moral force, and temporal depth to everyday experiences of unemployment, social vulnerability, and frustration. In doing so, they reflected on the ways they were simultaneously enabled and hindered at the crossroads of development, liberalization, and global change.
Srijith claimed a deeply personal stake in a development-defined notion of progressive "Malayali-ness." It shaped his self-perception in powerful ways. A doctoral candidate in Malayalam literature, when we spoke Srijith was in the ninth year of his graduate program. The thirty-one-year-old had been taking on piecemeal teaching jobs for several years despite the unofficial completion of his dissertation. Srijith's extension of his student status reflects the uncertain period of "waiting" that characterizes the prolonged transition to adulthood many young adults in Kerala now experience. As in other postcolonial settings, at a time when access to mainstream schooling is expanding, opportunities for salaried work have declined across social groups and classes, contributing to high rates of under- and unemployment. Srijith's condition of educated unemployment may also reflect the postcolonial legacies of an educational system overbalanced toward forms of higher education mismatched, reformers argue, to the needs of a liberalized economy.
One afternoon over tea at the university canteen, Srijith drew on a dominant narrative of Kerala ascendance and decline to make sense of suicide among his peers. "The problem is that Kerala has become something else," he explained to me in a fluid mix of Malayalam and English. "Internationally, Kerala is considered a very developed country, the place where literacy is high, the place where people are aware [with an ironic tone], the place where people read the paper every day," he told me. "The state is now getting a very different face as the state that commits the most violence against women, the most suicides. And of course, Kerala is known as India's 'suicide capital,' so the whole face of the state changes, you know?" For Srijith, the crisis in a development-defined Malayali identity strikes at the very core of who he understands himself to be. "Those of us who have seen the progress, who have their own notions about Kerala, their own nostalgia-we get agitated at these developments." When I asked him if Malayalis still wished to believe in the idea of Kerala as exceptional, Srijith chimed, "Of course! The only people who don't believe in it anymore are those who commit suicide. For everyone else, at least in their subconscious, that particular model still persists. Somehow we want to hold on to this particular concept, destroy all doubts against it. We want to hold on to it and reinforce it from the outside."
From a middle-class Ezhava family, his parents having secured the government jobs coveted by their generation, Srijith spoke that afternoon from the perspective of those "who have seen the progress." His faith in a hegemonic narrative of Kerala development emerges from his family's experience of upward mobility and access to social opportunities and from a self-created Ezhava community identity more generally. For Srijith, an idea of Kerala exceptionalism was multiply mirrored across family, community, and region. The stakes of holding on to this facet of his identity are high: losing hope for Kerala's developmental dream means losing hope for life itself. Yet this is a shaky grip all the same. While Srijith claimed an idea of "progressive Kerala," his voice also expressed a tinge of irony when he characterized Kerala as a place "where people read the paper every day." In referencing in this way an oft-cited portrait of Malayali literacy, he reflected a critical awareness that the Kerala model ideal is itself a constructed discourse.
As Srijith struggles to hold on to a sense of what makes Kerala exceptional, he asserts distinction in other ways. He insisted, for instance, on the unique intelligence of "the Malayali people." The state's unparalleled educational achievements had endowed Malayalis with a special intelligence and resourcefulness, as their many achievements overseas could attest, said Srijith. Whether in the Persian Gulf or the United States, Malayalis found success all over the world. Through an updated narrative of transnational migration and global competitiveness, Srijith retooled the claims of a development-identified regional identity to construct a new sense of Malayali exceptionalism. Regardless of the state of the Kerala model, there were enduring attributes born of the state's past achievements that continued to set Malayalis apart. Srijith's evolving claims pronounced "the people"-and himself-as exceptional still.
Twenty-three-year-old Philip spoke more critically of Kerala's development history to make sense of the frustrations and contradictions he felt in daily life. Upon Philip's request that we talk over lunch, I found myself one afternoon in a salmon-pink room with framed posters of Ravi Varma's iconic paintings covering the walls. Electronic instrumental versions of soft rock floated sleepily over the speakers. Philip had arrived early, and I found him busily texting on his phone. After ordering food, he began to explain to me in flawless English that it had been nearly a year and a half since the completion of his law degree. He was still searching for a job. Ideally, he told me, he would find a starter position with a reputable firm here in Thiruvananthapuram and leverage it into a position with an international organization in Canada or the United States. While frustrated by his fruitless search thus far, he was also hopeful. From a wealthy Syrian Christian family, Philip had security many of his friends could not claim. In the worst-case scenario, he told me, he could always work for the family restaurant business. For now, he was living at home with his parents and younger sister in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood in the city.
Mentioning his friends' similarly poor employment prospects as recent graduates, Philip began speaking more broadly about frustration and rising suicide among Malayali youth. These troubling trends, Philip said, were the direct result of Kerala's educational achievements. Alluding to the expansion of secondary schooling and the "high aspirations" of Malayali youth and their parents, Philip said that these days even children dream expansively of becoming engineers and doctors in places like London and the United States. But most, he said, would never realize their dreams, stuck instead in Kerala to compete for jobs that weren't there. For Philip, this gaping divide between opportunities and young people's horizons of expectation proved that education in Kerala has turned out to be "as much a curse as a blessing." Asked about the nature of this "curse," Philip answered concisely: "We know what others have that we don't."
The problem was that Malayalis were "too intelligent, too aware." Philip told me that Kerala had transcended the grinding poverty that afflicts "other Indians," since, "unlike Biharis, Malayalis have the luxury to think beyond where their next meal will come from." But when "compared to Americans like you," said Philip, educated Malayalis "know that they are deprived." He concluded, "That is the biggest problem, when people know that they legitimately have the right to be a better position. That is a very specific problem to this state." This "relative deprivation," as he called it, creates the experiences of aimlessness and frustration he and his peers were now experiencing. Educated young people like him were well aware of the first-class life that others lived, and while equally if not more deserving of that life, they were stuck at the margins of its dominant articulations. Frustration and anger, together with the suicides that are their final result, were in Philip's powerful words, the "plight of the overeducated Malayali."
If Srijith asserted the unique educational achievements of the "Malayali people" to cling to a life-saving narrative of exceptionalism, by contrast, Philip understood these achievements to be a curse in the present. He felt this curse in the ways his life had come to a grinding halt. For Philip, disillusionment and frustration among youth were the products of development "successes" coming home to roost. The heralded educational achievements of India's most literate state have structured the aspirations and horizons of expectation among educated youth like him, endowing them with a sense of efficacy and belonging. Yet many remain at the edges of the first-class life they aspire to. Philip claimed an experience of relative deprivation to express the felt contradictions that simultaneously station educated youth like himself at the center of development and at the peripheries of global modernity. Through the lens of his own search for adequate employment, Philip configured the present as trapped in multiple, nested disjunctures: between the Kerala model's receding development horizons and global capitalism, between educational empowerment and cultural marginalization, and between entitlement and deprivation. His critical reflections are a powerful example of what K. Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Agarwal call "stories of development": stories that not only challenge the hegemony of developmentalism but also draw attention to the ways individuals actively speak back to and make sense of development as discourse in the contexts of everyday life. In speaking back to historical trajectories in the region, Philip questioned the notion of education as unproblematic social good promoted by development academia and by the state. At once well-educated, disillusioned by employment prospects at home, and casting his fortunes on the chance to migrate abroad, Philip embodied felt contradictions and disappointments at the crossroads of development, liberalization, transnational migration, and global change.
Given that English-medium education has been a critical component of Syrian Christian advancement and identity in the region, Philip's criticism is a particularly trenchant one. His sense of betrayal is also shaped by his desires for those professional occupations he sees appropriate to his education and social standing and their mismatch with the changing field of employment around him. Because of his access to resources in this period of posteducational transition, Philip has had more room to be critical and to hold out for suitable employment. When he updated me months later, Philip explained that he was still looking for salaried work. But in the meantime, he and his friends were keeping busy developing a modest, small-scale magazine publication. Targeting unemployed young adults like themselves, the magazine, Philip explained without irony, would feature interviews with employers and successful graduates, information about job fairs, and advice on every step of the employment process from how to dress for an interview to how to write a résumé. Philip's father had offered to front the start-up costs. Unlike Srijith, who defended the intrinsic worth of his education with little else available to him, Philip, enabled by cultural, social, and economic resources, exercised a greater freedom to impeach developmentalist claims about the value of education. If Srijith clung to an idea of Kerala exceptionalism against the loss of hope, Philip criticized the failures of development with options before him.
Unlike Srijith and Philip, twenty-four-year-old Priya did not speak explicitly in historical terms to account for frustration and disappointment in her life. Yet the exclusions and contradictions she acutely felt as an underemployed, upwardly mobile lower-caste woman were also structured at the intersection of regional, national, and global trajectories. Having completed her college degree in history, Priya was navigating the terrain of labor conditions and marital life in an attempt to find work when I met her. Frustrations in finding a job had made it somewhat easier for strong-willed Priya to eventually relent to pressure from her husband and in-laws to remain at home. Six months pregnant with their first child when we spoke, Priya explained how she had cleverly worked around her in-laws' injunction against work outside the home and taken up a job as a medical transcriptionist for a U.S.-based company. Since this work could be done from home on their desktop computer, it was flexible enough for Priya to do at her own scheduling and did not interfere with her household responsibilities. While just part-time, it brought in enough pocket money for occasional cosmetics for herself and small items for the household. Describing to me the tedium of sitting through hours of recordings and transcribing them into English, Priya expressed deep frustration over the futility of her degree. She had not expected her in-laws, who had earlier said they would permit her to work, to change their minds. As was the case for many middle-class and aspiring middle-class families I met in Thiruvananthapuram, for Priya's in-laws the domestic ideal is the educated housewife who channels her capital toward raising quality children and a well-managed household, rather than toward economic gain outside the home. These expectations shaped the disappointments and exclusions Priya experienced as an underemployed college graduate.
Priya also felt the loss of her education and labor potential in another way. Now that her husband, Sabu, had started a position at the government medical college as a physician, she told me that they both felt intense pressure to live up to the consumption standards of Sabu's colleagues. One afternoon, after discreetly shutting the bedroom door so her in-laws wouldn't overhear, Priya went into this subject with me in great detail. "Right now we need money," she explained in Malayalam, sitting cross-legged on the cot in the corner of the room. "We need money for different things. And it's only because of the class difference-the way his friends are living. We can't reach their level. They are all veryposh!" Switching from Malayalam to English to mark the discourse of her husband's peers, Priya said, "And you know what? Many of his friends, they take vacations in Dubai, Singapore . . . just to shop! They say, 'Oh this life! It's so boring. The college, clinic, the patients. We have to escape for a week!' So to get rid of their tension they go abroad to have a good time, spend lots of money, and then come back. That is the way of life for most of his friends."
Despite their best efforts, the young couple's inability to keep up with the consumption standards of their peers continually reminded them of their precarious status. She explained to me that as low-caste (scheduled caste) Hindus, she and her husband felt pressure to keep up with Sabu's high-status, upper-caste Hindu and Christian peers. Describing for me how the young couple had carefully saved up over several months to buy Sabu a new pair of brand-name Woodland shoes, Priya said how disappointed they were when none of Sabu's colleagues had commented on the purchase. "They cost almost twenty-five hundred rupees," she told me, a significant portion of Sabu's salary for the month. "They are very, very expensive, and they look so nice, so nice. He wore them to work. When he came home that evening I asked, 'Did anyone say anything about your shoes?'" Priya shook her head in frustration. "He told me, 'Who would look at them? Everyone else has the same on their feet. They probably have two or three more pairs at home.'"
Priya's phrase that is the title of this chapter captures with eloquence the particular predicament she perceived in her life at the time we spoke. Priya described being trapped between two dead ends: between the pursuit for the posh life that she felt was expected of her family and that she herself desired on the one hand and the risk of debt and suicide on the other. In navigating this trap, Priya was both facilitated and hindered. Endowed with a college degree, yet struggling to claim social and economic mobility through her husband while prohibited from working herself, Priya experienced the contradictions of the postcolonial present through the specificity of her gender, class, and caste location.
Shaped by development and globalization's structures of aspiration while situated at their edges, Priya, Srijith, and Philip spoke eloquently of the promises and exclusions they experienced in their everyday lives. Each felt enabled and disenfranchised in particular ways as they drew on available resources to navigate economic and social uncertainty. When I visited with Priya several years later, she proudly showed me the new car she and her husband had purchased with the help of a bank loan. The month-to-month payments at high interest rates were difficult, Priya confessed, particularly now that she had given up her medical transcription job. But it was worth it, she said, smiling. For her husband to show up at the medical college in a motorcycle like those his students took to class, Priya said shaking her head, was simply unacceptable.
"'God's Own Country' has been forfeited to the devil." Inverting Kerala's well-known epithet and state tourism brand, Prabhu, a retired government servant in his seventies, made this comment to me with staid pessimism. Like Prabhu and others introduced in this chapter, many in the capital city announced an unhappy Kerala present, one marked by the failures of collective struggle, and uncertainty about the future. In accounting for contemporary suicide as the bitter harvest of historical trajectories, city residents spoke back to political, economic, and social developments in the region. Their explanatory narratives about the anxious present offer powerful insight into how projects of modernity and their disappointments feel and are made meaningful in ordinary life.
Many in Thiruvananthapuram now express deep skepticism for the Kerala model and its claims and do so from a variety of angles. The exclusions, contradictions, and betrayals people perceive in the present produce both ambivalences and opportunities. Some lament the inexorable decline of an ideal; others draw on historical narratives to make sense of personal frustration and uncertainty. Individuals and communities experience these anxious times in ways shaped by their particular social positions and by their perspectives on the past. And in doing so, they struggle with the question of what ought to define the good life today and who are that life's rightful claimants. In this time of suicide, the stakes behind these questions could not be higher. For some like Prabhu, they wager no less than the forfeiture of God's abode to the devil himself.
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