Staying Connected

Keralites working in New Delhi preserve their spiritual and cultural heritage

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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It is 9:30 p.m. when the mobile phone rings in the living quarters of St. Clare Hostel for Working Girls – a home in New Delhi for young single women from the Indian state of Kerala, some 1,500 miles south of the Indian capital.

Luby Thomas and seven other women, with whom she shares a three-room apartment and use of the phone, jockey for position around the chirping device.

All compete to catch the first glimpse of the number on the phone’s display. The din of their voices reaches a feverish pitch.

Finally, Ms. Thomas connects the flashing number to a real person. She lets out a screech in her native language, Malayalam, grabs the phone and bolts to another room for more privacy.

For most women in their early 20’s – living for the first time away from home in what can be an unforgiving metropolis – a call from mom or dad is just what they need to get through another day.

But for this crop of Keralite immigrants, members of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, their dream call tonight is not from a relative or friend in Kerala. Rather, it is from a potential date, perhaps a handsome colleague or an accomplished man listed in a church marriage bureau registry.

Ms. Thomas, who at age 22 has already earned a master’s in business administration, describes the outlook of her Keralite girlfriends. “All the girls here are single,” she says frankly. “After marriage they will have to stay with their husband’s family, they will need to be at home. So now we are trying to enjoy our independent life.”

Independent life for them does not entail remaining in Kerala, where opportunities are scarce, the pace of life, slow. Instead, it means exploring the world, developing a career and saving up for a dowry.

“Even a rickshaw driver,” says one of the young women, “demands a dowry of 1 lakh [about $2,000].”

For these young women, their adventure begins just as their neighbors back in Kerala advised them, with a safe landing at one of the nine hostels in New Delhi run by religious communities for women.

The sisters, who like their tenants hail from Kerala, understand the pitfalls facing these women and have established a support system to guide new arrivals. For 550 rupees ($12) a month in rent – less than half the market rate – a single girl from Kerala receives a place she can afford and, more important, a place to call home.

The value of the sisters’ support is not lost on Ms. Thomas. “New Delhi is so different from Kerala,” she says. “Here I have to take care of myself in a place I don’t know, with people I don’t know and in a system I don’t know. The sisters’ help is needed. Here at St. Clare’s we are best friends. If I stayed with people speaking a different language, I would be homesick, but everyone here speaks my language, so I don’t miss home.”

Restless in Kerala. Today, both Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics are flocking from Kerala to New Delhi in numbers that would make any pilgrimage organizer proud. Except in their case, the reward they seek is economic, not spiritual.

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Tags: India Emigration Economic hardships Women (rights/issues) Employment