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Back to Asia? South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula

The spectacular ordinariness of the Arabian Gulf in Kerala: Exploring the thing of migration

La spectaculaire banalité du Golfe arabe au Kerala : Explorer le fait de la migration
Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil


La migration de l’État indien du Kerala vers le golfe arabe est positivement percu comme moyen permettant de de donner naissance à la culture consumériste. Les ménages des migrants au Golfe, originaires du Kerala ont un meilleur accès à la technologie et à de meilleures conditions de vie. La matrice culturelle dans laquelle ces technologies et ces biens étrangers ont donné leur sens et mobilisé les affects est sous-étudiée. Prenant le cas d’un lait en poudre en conserve, Nido, comme une présence spectrale du Golfe au Kerala, cet article, tourné vers une lecture singulière adossée à des films mainstream, et à une variété d’archives de migrants du Golfe du Keralan, examine les façons dont la poudre de lait en conserve est entrée dans les valeurs culturelles existantes et a produit des discours autour de lui, tout en étant un excès de discours. Le document illustre la nature enchevêtrée de la migration, dans laquelle les objets traversent les frontières et les objectifs, est imputée, est se trouvent dottés d’une des essences, ou passentdu spectaculaire au quotidien. L’article montre que les contradictions de la migration dans le Golfe — les limites de la migration induite par la mobilité au Kerala d’une part, et le refus de la citoyenneté dans le Golfe d’autre part — sont résolues par la spectralité que la migration dans le Golfe projette et fait vivre comme expérience.

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Early drafts of this paper were presented as: a part of the talk series “Objects across Borders: Conversations on South Asian Materialities” organised by Vindhya Buthpitiya and Mallika Leuzinger, and hosted by the UCL Centre for the Study of South Asia and the Indian Ocean World, and the Fung Global Fellows Program and Program in South Asian Studies at Princeton University, May 20, 2021; with the title “The Other Scene: Migrant Photographs as Sites of Contestation” organised by Florian Schybilski for Department of English and American Studies in collaboration with Minor Cosmopolitanism Research Cluster, University of Potsdam, December 7, 2021; and with the title “On the Thing of Migration” as part of the conference Migrant Workers, Cultural (Re)Production, and the Culture Industry in South Asia organised by the Department of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam in collaboration with the Cultural Studies Cell, School of Arts and Humanities, Christ (Deemed-to-be-University), Bengaluru, October 17-18, 2022. My thanks to the organizers and all the respondents in these gatherings. I acknowledge my gratitude to my colleagues Neha Chatterji, Ranjana Saha, and E. Dawson Varughese for their suggestions, the constructive and encouraging comments by the two anonymous peer reviewers to the early draft of this paper, and to the editors of this special issue for their kind invitation to contribute to the issue.


1In a photograph from the late 1980s (Fig. 1), a boy, I, dressed in a white shirt and sky-blue shorts, holds open the door of a refrigerator. Inside one sees a sooty vessel perhaps with curry in it, some vegetables, eggs in paper tray (and in its proper place in the fridgequite a lot of eggs), some other packaged foods. What is on display, as much as all that has gone into it, is the idea of a full refrigerator, and the refrigerator itself.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Photo: Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil

2In another photograph (Fig. 2), a sepia tinged one from the late 1970s, a young man is buttoning his shirt as he looks into the camera. Next to him is a table, with things kept at its margins while its centre is occupied by a newspaper. An electric wire crosses overhead into a plug point, another electric plug point connects to an AC. Between the two plugs, a wall mounted shelf has more things. A picture hangs on the wall with bold English letters below it, on top of a pasted calendar spread. The AC extends beyond the photograph on one side, while a lit tube-light extends into the other. This is a crowded corner of a tiny room. A room made tinier with the abundance of things.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Photo: Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil

3These photographs come from the albums of migrant labourers from the south Indian state of Kerala to the Arabian Gulf. The large-scale circular migration from Kerala to the countries of the Arabian Gulf has been an ongoing phenomenon since the late 1960s. The poverty in Kerala and the labour crunch in the Gulf, together with the availability of undocumented means of transportation between India and the shores of the Gulf is what led to the early wave of circular migration. The phenomenon carried over to the next generation and only became stronger as the Gulf stabilized and refashioned itself. From around ten thousand by the late 1950s (Zachariah and Rajan 2012: 1-2), the number of Keralan migrants in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stood at around two million in 2014 (Zachariah and Rajan 2018: 57). Much of the early Gulf migrants were from poor families (Nair 1983), and indeed, the Gulf migration has been the single most important factor in alleviation of poverty and redistribution of wealth in Kerala since the 1970s (Prakash 1998). In this, the Gulf migration held out the kind of promise of liberation for the subalterns that the politics held out in the 1940s and 1950s Kerala (Jeffrey 1992: 12).

  • 1 Mappilas are a Muslim community, found mostly in Malabar region of Kerala. They are counted among t (...)

4Let us for a moment imagine how these images (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) would be seen in Kerala, in the working class Mappila Muslim1 households from which the migrants hail from. There are some identifiable objects – vegetables, eggs, the aluminium vessel, etc. But a lot of it is strange. This is a place in which polythene bags became available in the shops only in the 1990s. The refrigerators were rare. In the poor households from where much of the migrants to the Gulf came from in that era, there is mancha, a large wooden box which also doubles up as a place to sit or sleep. Inside things are stored in jute sacks or clothes or just strewn around. There are also wooden cupboards. But a refrigerator looks so different from these. This one is beaming white. And so new. Then there are all the packaged goods, identifiable only if one is familiar with these brands. Packages of various shapes. Frills that protrude one’s field of vision as things and more things cover the horizon. There is electricity and all that runs on it. This is not the low voltage electricity fit just for light bulbs to operate. This world, its light and air, is generated by electricity.

5In the eyes of the beholder is a migrant (or members of his family) caught among an array of things – undefined and unrecognizable things, happy things.

6What these photographs capture, is the spectacular ordinariness of the migrant life as it was imagined in the early decades of the largescale migration of labour from Kerala to the countries of the Arabian Gulf. What is captured is life in its ordinariness – indoor photographs, casual poses, ordinary clothes, homeliness. But what these photographs also capture is the wonder of the ordinary – all those things, the yet unformed contours of what worlds elsewhere look like, caught as if it is every day. In the process the ordinary is turned spectacular. The migrant life is imagined in the midst of all these things; the migrant life is one of those things.

7This paper reads the pull of Gulf migration in Kerala beyond the economic, and in its spectrality. This paper wagers that as much as the foreign exchange rates and wage differential between Kerala and the Gulf is even the most important factor of migration, the continued large-scale migration of labour from Kerala to the Gulf also needs to explain how the remittance translated itself (or failed to) in Kerala in the codes of legitimacy and respectability on the one hand, and as that which defies codes and makes possible the impossible on the other. In very simple terms, what was at stake was not just about making money, but how that money would claim for itself a social status and of upending every status.

8With respect to the Gulf migration from Kerala, Ratheesh Radhakrishnan (2021) has pointed out how objects which came from the Gulf, such as the wrist watches, the kandura, the video camera, etc. changed the orientations in Kerala and gave rise to new sensations. What this paper seeks to do is to read the thing of migration, all those things that make up the glitz of migrant life as conveyed through, say, photographs of the kind we saw, in literature and in films, as operative precisely in the ordinary and excessive nature of it, such that the Gulf is on the one hand translated to a source of income and thus short of being anything else other than a place of temporary migrant stay, with Kerala being the destiny of the remittance and of the migrant body eventually; and on the other, the Gulf as the futuristic space, the realm of oneiric sensations and stimulations yet-to-be translated to the here-and-now of Kerala. In doing so, this paper aims to look at migration in its affective pulls, and what such affective pulls tell us about the place of the Gulf as it was apprehended in Kerala. Both these aspects — its instrumentality as well as its spectrality — together explains the continued pull of the Gulf in the popular imagination of Kerala. While the instrumentality of the Gulf as source of remittance is well-studied, this paper takes spectrality as its matter of exploration.

The Thing and its Method

9It is the thingness of the Gulf migration that is the subject of this paper. The story of this paper is set in the late-1970s and 1980s, when India followed a mixed economy that was highly state regulated, but with a change in ethos from Nehruvian austerity to the virtues of consumerism. However, much of the glitzy consumer goods, such as wrist watches or leather shoes, were often consigned to advertisement images for those in rural India. The objects in the advertisement not only showed things which were unavailable in the actually existing market, but also the idea of a good life unavailable in the here and now (Mazzarella 2004).

10The thing, as Pierre Macherey puts it, is “an object whose limits we define by inscribing it in its proper place, from which it is never expected to budge,” but at the same time that “whose very evocation awakens a continually new surprise, pushing us to look for something in it that would be extreme and ultimately ungraspable” (2007:23). The thing is on the one hand the signifier that is also the signified, arrested without movement, and captured in a totalitarian gaze. It is thereby all too transparent, incapable of dupe. But on the other, the thing is that ineffable core that is the source of enigma. It is thus both a state of absolute correspondence and an excess that seeks a representation in vain.

11In keeping with the dialectical tension in the thing between the antecedent of definition and its excess, between the essence and the eccentricity, this paper engages in a singular reading of the Gulf migration in Kerala through one of the things associated with the Gulf experience. A singular reading is one which engages in non-modular approximation of its object, placing the object of its study in a matrix of ideas made strange. Being just to the continual transformation and enmeshed nature of the thing, a singular reading does not treat its object as one that can be completely known or be seen through. “That which defies anticipation, reappropriation, calculation – any form of predetermination – is singularity” (Derrida 2001: 21; emphasis in the original). Singular reading “protects the trace from the promise of the sign,” and is characterised by an intimacy (Spivak in Spivak and Damrosch 2014: 375). To protect the trace from the promise of the sign is to abstain from a modular reading that turns a singular event into a replicable model; it is to thereby note the trace as that streak of the foreign that will upset any putting-to-place.

  • 2 This is one of the critiques raised against the photo elicitation method when the researcher and th (...)

12The photographs discussed in this paper were collected by me from migrants from the 1960s and 1970s to the Gulf who settled back in Kerala in the beginning of the 2000s, as part of my fieldwork on the cultural expressions of Gulf migration in Kerala. These migrants were Mappila Muslim men, mostly in their sixties, and hailed from the Malappuram district, the highest Gulf migrant sending district in Kerala (Zachariah and Rajan 2012: 37). I interviewed the migrants, with the photographs provided by them as the aid to our conversation on their experiences as a migrant in the Gulf. For this paper, I have limited myself to reading the photographs as texts, without resort to the interviews. These texts are juxtaposed with other texts in Malayalam—such as literature and films—Malayalam being the language that is shared by my interlocutors and me as our native tongue. Besides reading these Malayalam texts, I have attempted to recreate the milieu in which these texts operated based on my own familiarity with the context as someone who speaks the language as his mother tongue, hails from the community, and grew up partly in the specific region in Kerala and partly in the specific region in the Gulf as my interlocutors, and have experienced and witnessed the disjunctures and conjoinings of the two regions in an acute sense. That both my subjects and I share a native tongue and symbolic universe reduces the possibility of cultural discordance on the nature and value of photographs and its relation to reality that can exist between the researcher and the subject, allowing me to read these photographs independently of the interviews.2 In any case my reading of the photographs does not claim to be exhaustive or fully faithful to the experience of its original audience, and may be treated as an approximation built from memory aided no less by the interviews themselves.

13To read the experience of Gulf migration in Kerala in singularity is to see it in unusual ways, and to look for connections that were unanticipated and uncalculated. A singular reading hopes to be a reading that defies showing the migrants their places, and run a streak through movement itself when peoples and names find themselves in odd places and bodies, in unforeseen combinations, unasked attributions. What follows therefore is a reading which will suspend the modular in the interest of the off-handed, and find theory in the pleasure of an idiom. To read Gulf at the edges and the margins, in a manner of speaking, in the arc of a gesture, the spectrality of a sign, and the aurality of a non-sensical sound, is the task this paper has set for itself. To illustrate this, the paper turns to one of the things that epitomise the Gulf migrant in Kerala—the Nido can.

Nido Can (s.)

  • 3 Powdered milk was developed in 1855 in England, and was used in baby foods. It was initially used i (...)

14A thing from these photographs makes its way into the lives in Kerala. A thing that is seen as part of many other things. A thing that makes up the backdrop of what the Gulf migrant’s life is. There it is, in the left edge of the first photograph (Fig. 1), only partly within the field of vision. It is also there in the second photograph (Fig. 2), towards the corner of the table. This is the Nido can, a commercial product whose self-image is that of cows grazing in the peat meadows of Netherlands. This tin can contains powdered milk, but beyond this function, it will always be the Nido can, will not let go of its name for its function, and will remain an icon of the Gulf experience.3 It is this thing and its knotted entanglements with the Gulf experience in Kerala, that I wish to explore for the rest of this paper.

15In the choice of word ‘thing’ I have in mind too Tim Ingold’s characterisation of the world as a continual entanglements of the things, in which the thing itself is “a certain gathering together of threads of life,” “a knot whose constituent threads, far from being contained within it, trail beyond, only to become caught with other threads in other knots” (2010: 8). In what follows I will be looking at the Nido can as a thing that is in continual transformation in “the meshwork of interwoven lines of growth and movement” (Ingold 2010: 4), never bound to its place (like the migrant) and as an excess that gives colour and is coloured by life it comes across (again, like a migrant). The objective of such an exercise is to see the ways in which the Gulf and Kerala, rather than being two distinct spaces, discharge and leak into each other in a continual process of life, moving in and out between the quotidian and the extraordinary.

16In the 1980s, and before, when India was not yet open to unbridled market and had heavy import duties, the tin can was in itself a novelty. The Nido can is bulky. But the migrants from Kerala who work in the countries of the Arabian Gulf are not put off by its size. For this and other gifts they carry between the Gulf and Kerala, they have the cardboard box with them, cellotaped as well as tied with plastic rope all around, with their names as well as the airways codes of the cities of their journey prominently written on them with marker pens. Before families became as nuclearized as now, there used to be the ritual of opening the box in the evening of the migrants’ arrival. The boxing and unboxing of these cartons was an occasion for people to gather. Those staying in the same room play a leading role in this packing, eight or ten men whose beds are arranged along the walls with a tiny middle space as the space for dressing, eating, some sedentary games, as well as packing this box. There will also be some friends, close relatives and those from the same locality in Kerala around the migrant in that last evening before departure to Kerala. The box will soon be filled with the last day’s shopping and the gifts that those around the migrant has brought for their folks at home. They have also brought letters. At a time when it would take around a fortnight for letters to reach home by mail, sending the letter in hand of course always made more sense.

17While the boxing was done usually on the eve of the migrant’s departure from the Gulf, the unboxing was to be on the eve after the migrant’s arrival in Kerala. This is the much-anticipated petti-thurakkal, or the unboxing. The box will similarly be surrounded by those in the house as well as close relatives who have come to receive what the migrant has brought home. Those households who have men at home will come to the migrants’ house to collect the parcel.

Petti-thurakkal refers to opening the box of goodies brought home by the migrant from abroad when they will be distributed among the gathered and also reserved for those absent. Petty bargaining among the gathered is usual and usually upsets the careful distribution that the migrant would have planned as he bought and packed the items. Though there is an element of pettiness to it in first sight, it would be naïve to reduce this event to the transactional material gains and losses, as the distribution of these goodies are also serious statements on where one stands in a cartography of complex familial and emotional layers compounded also by geographical distances, time constraints, etc. When one dreads that kannakannaal karalakannu (“if the sight distances, the heart too” - out of sight, out of mind), these ‘petty’ transactions go a long way in suturing oneself to those left behind and asserting belongingness even as the new found economic mobility might threaten to drift them apart, especially so in the yesteryears of migration, and in family networks where the migrants are far and few in between (Karinkurayil 2019: 41).

18The returning migrant’s box and its contents will smell of the fabled Dubai. Among all those goodies – the Malaya lungies, the Hawaiian flip-flops, the BIC pens, the Pears and Yardley soaps, there will also be the butter yellow can of Nido, to be used at home, for a milk tea for everyone. This tin can is painted in bright colours. Its upper two-thirds in butter yellow, and the lower, in bright red. On it also was Arabic, that language which signified a distinctive land, one of fabled gold and riches, and inflected the modernity suggested by English. The Arabic in itself appeared more squarish, with the letters sharing ample space between them, solidified and straightened as distinctive of the secularity of consumerism, and far from the Ponnani font of Arabic, the most prevalent in Qur’ans and other Muslim religious books available in Kerala at the time. The Nido can was a legible sign for the audience at home of “close distance” (Mazzarella 2004: 256): the chimera of good life that is abstract and attributed to foreignness, but can be partly experienced through consumption.

19The migrant narratives give us a sense of how important this packing was. In Babu Bharadwaj’s Gulf memoir Pravasiyude Kurippukal [Notes of an Émigré] (2000: 229-232), one reads of a migrant’s life as one of arranging gift boxes for the day one gets to go home, and of those migrants who used to get stuff for other migrants returning penniless so that the latter can save their faces during the unboxing. Similarly, in migrant ethnography, one hears of migrants who would arrive at the airport with packets of gifts when they get to know that someone has been given an exit pass and is leaving the Gulf empty-handed (Mini 2020: 155).

20In the next few days, the just arrived migrants’ time will be taken up by delivering the letters and the gifts. The first few days of a migrant’s arrival may remind him of the days he went inviting for his wedding—too many houses, too many milk teas. Since it also happens that many migrants get married after their first stay in the Gulf which may extend to two or three years, the two visits might be combined into one. Every single person he meets on the way asks him, “when did you arrive? When do you return?” Guests are to be treated to milk tea. For those who want to avoid the hot liquid in the hot and humid weather, there is Tang, another sign of the Gulf.

  • 4 In themselves, the food items are of different status. While lemon pickle is considered staple, shr (...)

21On the return journey, another cardboard box will be arranged. The migrant will have to attend to the series of guests coming to say goodbye as well as entrust with him letters and other goods to be sent to their person in the Gulf. On the return journey the cardboard box has jackfruit, jackfruit chips, banana chips, grated coconut, pickles of various things — lemon, shrimp, etc., pathiri (a very slender bread made of rice flour) for a few sittings, and fried and dried buffalo meat for a few days.4 Among the containers used for packing, there might also be a Nido can.

  • 5 A fixture in teashops until recently, the glass and the very idea of a standard tea glass is now be (...)

22Consider the world to which the Nido can made its entry in the late 1970s. Households bought cow’s milk, if they buy at all, from houses which rear cows. The milk was (still is, in these rural parts of Kerala) sold in terms of glasses. The glass here doesn’t mean any specific measurement but refers to the somewhat standard sized Kerala tea glass — which is not to be confused with the tea glasses associated with the urban centres of India, the latter usually called “cutting Chai”, which comes to less than half the size of the Kerala tea glass.5 The milk that is bought thus has to be boiled and consumed the same day unless one is preparing curd out of it. Refrigerator was a rare commodity, even in the late 1990s only 20% of the households in Kerala had them (Zachariah and Rajan 2012: 88), and a refrigerator doesn’t help much anyway for this milk exposed to air and sun in its journey to the household.

  • 6 According to Avaran, a local cattle marketer who has been in the business for the last three decade (...)

23Very few houses have cows. The investment required is heavy. Cows come at premium prices.6 There is then the question of daily upkeep, not just in terms of cow shed and hay, but also manpower which is hard to come by, especially when much of labour migrates to the Gulf. Cows are associated with upper caste Hindu houses in the filmic imagination (though there is no such monopoly empirically speaking), and are symbols of present or erstwhile glory. In popular Malayalam cinema of late 1980s, the cows are the last vestiges of the past glory of failing upper caste households, the last attachment to let go against the rise of the newly rich. In Thinkalazhcha Nalla Divasam [Monday is a good day] (Padmarajan, 1985) which thematises the fall of the upper caste households, the matriarch, the symbol of a lost world, as she departs from the house forever, to be left at an old age home, has her final thoughts on their cow. In Mukthi [Deliverance] (I.V. Sasi, 1988) the mother of the newly incumbent District Collector, as she shifts to stay with her son in the Collector’s bungalow, brings with her the cows, to the irritation of her son and the amusement of the staff of the bungalow, again thematising the loss of a former world order, and the arrival of a cynical new one. Rearing cows are also a matter of expertise; again, another quality that is associated with inheritance. In the hugely popular Malayalam comedy film Nadodikkattu [The Vagabond Wind] (Sathyan Anthikkad, 1987), it is in cow-rearing that the protagonists, two unemployed youth, try their fast-receding luck, where they are tricked into buying an unyielding cow by someone they trust, this failure at the last stand then forcing them to try their luck in the Gulf through a tout who promises to smuggle them by the sea route on the way to California. The duo did not reach the shores of the Gulf, and ends up in the shores of Madras (now Chennai), but only to prosper thereby. Had they succeeded in reaching the shores of the Gulf, they would have been part of the million strong Keralite workforce in the Gulf at the time, but then they could not have made it to the United States of America on Indian government spending (as happens in the third and final instalment of this trilogy).

  • 7 A particularly pathetic example is in Irattakuttikalude Achan (Sathyan Anthikkad, 1997). The role o (...)

24It is to this world that the Nido can arrived, a can of powdered milk that doesn’t go bad, in a tin can with metal foil sealed mouth and a plastic lid. Even though not for long, the powdered milk gives the sense of constant supply of milk. To offer tea without milk can only be done with a note of regret. To not have milk at home was the state of real poverty, as the 1990s Malayalam movies would show, an element that is to evoke sympathy for the protagonists who have fallen upon ill-luck.7 But at the same time, the milk powder is to be used discerningly, scooped with a dry spoon, sealed tightly with the plastic lid, and always mindful of who is being served. Even after the milk powder is over, the Nido can is repurposed, living other lives.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Photo: Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil

  • 8 For a reading of this photograph for its sartorial codes, see Karinkurayil (2022b)

25In a photograph from 1979, (Fig. 3)8 K., a Mappila Muslim Keralan migrant in Abu Dhabi, wears the kandura, and his smile communicates that he finds himself out of place in foreign attire. He is in a playful mood — “somewhere between the sobriety of a portrait and the playfulness of a candid shot” (Karinkurayil 2022b: 129) — and his friends around him have planted a Nido milk powder tin on his head.

26What is this crown of a tin can that his friends have found fit for him, this singular Nido can? On the Nido can it says coconut (thenga) written in green marker. The Nido tin can has just come from Kerala, where it was carried to some two years back. That the Nido can has thenga written on it is perhaps because there were other cans too, possibly with masala powders. And anyway, it is useful for a can to be labelled. Grated coconut goes bad in a matter of days, and a tight lid helps retard the decay. Grated coconut-based curry is an alternative to the onion-based curry. Grated coconut smells and tastes of home.

27The name of the state of Kerala, by some accounts, derives itself from the word kera which means coconut. At the same time a phrase like “what coconut is this?” (enth thengaya ith?) translates to “what nonsense!”. The interjection “thengakola”, which literally means a cluster of coconuts, is used to convey the meaningless of things. The word thengapinnakk, which refers to the leftover after the oil is extracted out of coconut, and is used as cattlefeed, can also mean “useless.” At the same time the coconut is the fabled kalpakavrksha, a tree no part of which is useless. On the one hand it is said that thenga chathikkilla, or that the coconut doesn’t cheat — which is taken to mean two things, one, that coconut always takes care of its cultivator in terms of financial returns, and two, considering that being hit by a coconut in the head in its downward fall can be potentially fatal, a self-reassurance that the coconut won’t kill. On the other hand, K, and tens of thousands like him, must migrate because staying back at one’s home was financially unfeasible, despite the abundance of coconut trees. Robin Jeffrey has summarized the abundance and privation of the land endowed with coconut trees most pithily:

The water in the nut provides a refreshing drink; the meat is a cooking ingredient; the oil extracted from the meat is used for cooking, lighting, bathing and soap-making; the residue of the pressed meat feeds cattle; the shell of the nut can be burned for fuel or made into utensils; the outer husk produces the rot-resistant fibre, coir, long prized by mariners for rope and netting; the bud of the tree gives a juice that quickly ferments into toddy, a pleasant, intoxicating drink, rich in Vitamin B; the palm fronds make an excellent thatch; individual fronds, marked with an iron stylus, long substituted for paper; a collection of stems makes a good broom; the hollowed-out trunk becomes a canoe for fishing. But by eating the products of the coconut palm alone, people cannot survive (Jeffrey 1992: 73-74. Emphasis added).

28The coconut is the symbol of the plenitude of home as well as its penury. Even though firmly placed in its soil, this tropical palm still has to migrate in other forms. As Krishnadas puts it in the memoir of his Gulf migrant life:

We are like the coconut palms struggling to survive in the desert along side (sic) the native date palms, Alikka would say…and recite the Vyloppilli’s (sic) famous Malayalam poem describing the agonies of Keralites who migrated to work in the tea gardens of Assam (2019: 137-138).

29The coconut tells you, in the fact that one has to carry it there, that one’s destination is after all not rich in everything. Whatever it might have, it doesn’t have the coconut that goes into one’s food. At the same time, it also tells of one’s own poverty, if one must migrate to a place which doesn’t have coconut. Once upon a time it was the sign of the fantastic life that the Gulf has in offer — powdered milk! — but it is now also a sign of what the Gulf lacks — grated coconut!

  • 9 ‘Punjabi’ refers to someone who speaks Punjabi, and in the Indian context usually refers to someone (...)

30Like all grand tales, the Nido can becomes capable of carrying in it the national essences. It can be that ‘neutral’ modernity that those at the periphery make theirs. One time in the migrant narratives, the Nido can is a Keralan. In the novel Salalah Salalah by Vijayan Puravur, the Nido can becomes the marker of Kerala. The novel is announced on its cover as important for being an early record of Malayali’s Gulf migration. The novel speaks of the travails of the protagonist as a migrant in the city of Salalah in Oman, the chores of the everyday, of the different types of people one comes across in life, the different jobs one has to take up in the face of one’s precarity, and ultimately how each migrant is alone as each person with whom one makes a bond one assumes to be lifelong will have to depart from this land, often leaving no to-address behind. In the novel we come across a situation when the protagonist and his friend, after a gruelling day at the seaport, are returning in a lorry driven by a Punjabi. The protagonist and his friend keep speaking in Malayalam, and the Punjabi driver doesn’t like the sound of it.9 The dislike is evident on his face each passing moment, but the chatterers don’t care. At the destination, as he stops the vehicle, the driver gets out, picks up an empty Nido can lying close by, put some pebbles in it, and keep shaking it to indicate to the chattering Malayalis that this is how their language sounds (Puravur 2014: 45).

The Thing as the Resolution

31What goes inside the Nido can, as well as what gets inscribed outside, can change its identity. The sound it makes, the inscriptions it is burdened with, can signal the distance from home, but also oneness with it. It can carry the weight of modernity, the smell and taste of home, but also be the parody of oneself thereby belonging to a realm beyond identity in a gestural refusal of all identities; it can be the self as seen through the others, and necessarily alienated from oneself. The Nido can is both a signifier of the Gulf and a container for what one materially lacks. But the milk powder is not the same as milk. The Nido can is thus both the thing but also never the thing. Both an excess and a lack.

32This paper’s modest effort has been to estrange the Gulf migration experience of Kerala from a seemingly transparent discourse of cause-effect rooted in migration, to look at the ways in which the Gulf makes itself felt in the everyday in Kerala. This quotidian aspect of migration is nevertheless also where it displays its fantastic qualities. The Nido can is the symbol of the Gulf and the richness the latter represents, right in one’s home. It is the envy of those who don’t have it. Its butter yellow is worth many photographs, but it will also be consigned one day to a corner of a dark storeroom by the kitchen. It is the continuous passing through the quotidian and the fantastic of the things of migration that allows the Gulf to be expressed in a set of contradictions — on the one hand, the Gulf is like an Arabian Tale, at the same time the hard labour there is very realistic; on the one hand it is all the barrenness of desert, on the other it is the plenitude of everything one can imagine.

  • 10 For a study of the genre, and especially the song “Dubai Kathu pattu” that inaugurated the genre, s (...)

33The Gulf has been the subject of contradictory discourses in Kerala. The searing heat and difficult life in the Gulf is the subject of the letter songs from the late 1970s.10 The husband in the Gulf sings to the wife of the scorching sun, and the wife asks him to return home to salvage what is left of their youth. The cassette songs of the 1980s (an evolution of the letter song genre), the mainstream movies and the Malayalam migrant memoirs of the early 2000s also speak of the harsh conditions of labour in the Gulf. However, none of these accounts are one-sided in the matter. As much as they speak of harsh living conditions, they also speak of the fantastically rich Gulf. In their photographs, the Gulf “is a place that is characterised by thrills and adventure and not the grime and harsh sun that standard discourse on labour would have it to be” (Karinkurayil 2021). The letter songs and cassette songs are narratives of how the Gulf money saved families in Kerala. For the few movies that speak of the labour conditions in the Gulf, there are as many in which the Gulf is the space of good life and glamour (typically, most movies carry both the accounts) (Karinkurayil 2022a). The memoirs which profile failed migrants are premised on the Gulf being a rich place and drawing out poor lives as a contrast.

34This contradictory discourse on the Gulf deserves attention, especially in the way it refracts into the everyday lives. For much of the Gulf’s attraction can be in this contradiction itself, which on the one hand is a language of sheer remittance and mobility, but on the other couches itself in specific orders of remittance. This, in other words, is one of those places where one needs to pay attention to the form of the specific fantasy and not be content with a scrutiny of the content. The ideology of the Gulf migration in Kerala is to be seen in the operation of this contradiction as a resolution.

35The strength of the contradiction lies in its ability not in one half serving as a counterbalance to the contradicting half, but in serving as the essential escape route from demanding that the latter progress to its logical conclusion. That is, each half of the contradiction is there to sustain rather than negate the other half. The contradicting halves — one the Gulf as a fantastic space of riches, thrills and adventure, and the second the Gulf as a place of hard labour — corresponds to two difficulties inherent to Gulf migration from Kerala — that one cannot ever hope to completely upset the social hierarchies through Gulf money, and one cannot ever hope to be citizens of the Gulf. As mentioned earlier, much of the early migrants to the Gulf came from poor families and with low educational capital. Osella and Osella (2000a) point out that money and consumption does afford some social mobility to the families of the migrants, but always within limits. The migrants refashion themselves through a turn to religion and conservative values (Osella and Osella 2000b, 2003), but in the process also sustain the cornerstones of hierarchy which deems them inferior in the first place (Karinkurayil 2022b). What the Gulf offers is another route to modernity, one which trumps the austere modernity in Kerala and expresses itself in futuristic ways. However, one can never belong to the Gulf. It will forever be a fantasy. The Gulf regime thinks of them as those who “can be brought in quickly…and sent back to their countries of origin when no longer needed” (Babar 2013: 123).

36The contradicting discourse on the Gulf resolves this double bind. On the one hand, the spectral futurity of the Gulf talks back to the dead-ends of social mobility as a different version of everyday life, one which refuses the pace and plane of everyday life in Kerala for one of glitz, glamour and thrill. This is the zone one inhabits. The photographs merge indexicality with iconicity — they are indexes of the icon that is the Gulf (Karinkurayil 2020). On the other hand, to the realization that one cannot however be part of the Gulf, rather than annulling the fantasy, supplements it with the image of labour, and thereby claiming a space and stake in Kerala as the source of its lifestyle (which is a result of Gulf remittance), while also, indirectly (and carefully so), staking a moral claim on the Gulf. It also says, ‘all we care about is the money,’ and ‘we have things you don’t.’ The spectrality of other possible lives become the screen to evade the fact that economic mobility will help one’s social mobility to an extent and not beyond that, while the discourse of hard labour is a way of saying that ‘it’s our labour that made this all.’

37The contradiction is therefore one which is a product of the circular migration itself and is an answer to a social system that scoffs at the gaudiness of the nouveau riche and where traditional codes of respectability still hold sway, and on the other, a labour regime that thinks of them as temporary and expendable.


38As I walk through the neighbourhood, I see that the land has acquired life in the Nido can. There it is, a Nido can, among the plants in the front yard of a house, rusted in its lower edges, acquiring the colour of soil. In the can there grows a plant. The red from the bottom now masts the top too of this Nido can. Across the top mast reads a message, one which would have attracted the buyer to it once upon a time in a city in the Gulf - it says that there is 10% free. Whatever was rightfully one’s, and whatever came gratis, all have been consumed, and is now one with the soil of the land. This Nido can has none of the spectrality of being the centre piece of a photograph. It is now in decay, to be consumed by a new life. The Gulf continues to beckon, with taller buildings, futuristic museums, humungous shows and exhibitions, a strong currency, and so on.

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1 Mappilas are a Muslim community, found mostly in Malabar region of Kerala. They are counted among the backward classes in India. Popular lores trace the origin of the community to the arrival of Muslim traders from Arabia during the time of the Prophet and their propagation of Islam and integration with the local communities. Historically, the community has had close relations with other littorals of the Indian Ocean. Roland Miller’s Mappila Muslims of Kerala is a classic account of this community. The community, known for its violent anticolonial struggles, was often perceived as a community at a frontier of the Islamic world. See, for example, Dale (1980). For a recent study of the community’s placement in the Indian Ocean Islamic textual cosmopolis, see Kooria (2022).

2 This is one of the critiques raised against the photo elicitation method when the researcher and the subject(s) belong to different cultures (Pink 2001: 68). For an exposition on methodologies in visual ethnography, see Pink (2001).

3 Powdered milk was developed in 1855 in England, and was used in baby foods. It was initially used in the manufacture of chocolate and confectionery products (Valenze 187). Imported powdered milk was available in India from the 1940s if not before. But this was far away from the life-worlds of our protagonists.

4 In themselves, the food items are of different status. While lemon pickle is considered staple, shrimp pickle is a delicacy. Buffalo meat, commonly referred to as beef, was until recently the cheapest of the meat available in market — the other options being chicken and mutton. Of these the latter is often prohibitively expensive for a large household, such as the households were for the period under consideration. While fish is the staple meat, it is considered a category in itself, and the word ‘meat’ does not refer to fish. Buffalo was the most common meat source for households until it got replaced by cheaper chicken in the last decade or so. Pathiri bread is considered a delicacy and requires much finesse in preparation. Ultimately, the pickles, the fried and dried buffalo meat, and pathiri make for good food items to carry as they stay fresh for a few days.

5 A fixture in teashops until recently, the glass and the very idea of a standard tea glass is now becoming a thing of the past in Kerala's teashops.

6 According to Avaran, a local cattle marketer who has been in the business for the last three decades, a cow cost around Rs.1200 in the late nineties (personal interview, 20.03.2021). The total remittance per annum per household for the same time was Rs.21469 (Zachariah and Rajan 2012: 75)

7 A particularly pathetic example is in Irattakuttikalude Achan (Sathyan Anthikkad, 1997). The role of tea in this milieu closely resembles the role of coffee in articulating the Tamil middle class, studied by Venkatachalapathy (2006). Tea is not particularly associated with Muslims in Kerala, unlike the Tamil case. On the contrary, teashops were one of the informal spaces where Kerala’s public could be articulated through a mixing of castes and communities (Harikrishnan 2023; Jeffrey 1992). For a study of the transformation of tea into a national drink, see Bhadra (2005).

8 For a reading of this photograph for its sartorial codes, see Karinkurayil (2022b)

9 ‘Punjabi’ refers to someone who speaks Punjabi, and in the Indian context usually refers to someone hailing from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. The stereotypical image that is mobilized in popular imagination by ‘Punjabi’ (man) is that of a turban wearing bearded man, an image popularized through Sardarji jokes and through Malayalam films like Punjabi House (1998). People in Kerala on the other hand speak Malayalam, and the two languages are very different from each other, the difference in the intonation being especially relevant here.

10 For a study of the genre, and especially the song “Dubai Kathu pattu” that inaugurated the genre, see Arafath (2020); also listen to the podcast “Dubai Kathu Pattu (Dubai Letter Song), S.A. Jameel (1977)” in the podcast series Empire Lines:

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Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil, « The spectacular ordinariness of the Arabian Gulf in Kerala: Exploring the thing of migration », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 17 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2023, consulté le 28 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil

Assistant Professor, Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE)

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC-BY-SA-4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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