Kerala’s Bittersweet Phenomenon

Emigrants and their families back home pay dearly for the remittances fueling a burgeoning economy

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Lizamma Peters took a seat at her kitchen table across from Father Philip Anjilimoottil, her parish priest at St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Tiruvalla in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. Father Anjilimoottil often visits his parishioners and that day Mrs. Peters had invited him over for tea after her long absence. As the two sipped the steaming hot brew, Mrs. Peters admired the reminders surrounding them that hard work and sacrifice have their rewards.

The construction of Mrs. Peters’ one-level, two-bedroom home was almost finished. The walls smelled of fresh paint. The white marble floor, which alone cost her 100,000 rupees (about $2,340), sparkled as though it were the lobby of a five-star hotel. The staircase to the roof needed only a railing. And the next phase, an 800-square-foot second-floor addition, still fell within the $35,000 budget.

“I want each of my boys to have his own room,” said the 37-year-old mother of two.

For good reason then, Mrs. Peters praised the Lord when she returned home from Saudi Arabia for the first time in 10 months and saw what her hard-earned money had built.

For the past three years, she has been working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, sending home nearly 99 percent of her earnings. The money has made possible the construction of the family’s new home and covered countless other household costs.

But on her first day back home, Mrs. Peters also experienced the high price she and her family have paid for her many months away. Unfortunately, the price cannot be counted in Indian rupees, U.S. dollars or Saudi riyals.

“When I came home two years ago, he looked at me like I was a stranger,” she told Father Anjilimoottil, referring to her younger son, 4-year-old Basil, who was playing in the foyer with his newest toy – a bright yellow plastic dump truck. Basil yanked the tethered truck into the air and slammed it down onto the unforgiving marble. Over and over again he repeated the routine in willful disregard of his mother’s requests to play more gently.

“It’s getting better,” she continued, keeping positive. “He knows who I am now and says he misses me. ” But the undertones of concern in her voice betrayed her optimism.

For the moment, it seemed that Mrs. Peters’ daily phone calls and annual trips home have not succeeded in cementing a strong mother-son bond with Basil – at least not yet. Rambunctious, moody and defiant, Basil behaved like a boy growing up without the security of motherly love. Mrs. Peters worried whether or not her son’s development had suffered irrevocably as a result. Her husband tried his best to fill the gaps, but he had his own personal struggles – alcoholism – to manage. With two years still remaining on her five-year contract, the fortunes of the Peters family warily hang in the balance.

Keralites enjoy telling visitors a familiar joke about their penchant for moving. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, what did he hear? Response: “Choodu Chaya Kappy … Chaya Kappy, ” the typical pitch in the local Malayalam language used by Keralite street vendors selling tea.

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Tags: India Kerala Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Emigration