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Once upon a time in the West? Stories of migration and modernity from Kerala, South India

Authors


Caroline Osella: SOAS Department of Anthropology and Sociology Russell Square, London WC1H OXG, UK. Co6@soas.co.uk; Filippo Osella: Department of Anthropology, School of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, Arts C, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SJ, UK. f.osella@sussex.ac.uk

Abstract

This article explores how members of an ex-untouchable, ‘backward’ community of South India – the Izhavas of Kerala – represent and make sense of their entanglements within ‘modernity’. Izhava narratives suggest ambivalence: while failure stories remain individualized, narrated in terms of bad luck or others' cheating, success stories are presented as exemplars of a twentieth-century global master narrative of progress. We note many correspondences between this ex-untouchable community's optimistic master narrative and another powerful and pervasive meta-narrative – the global story of modernity as development, promoted by state government, reform movements, and development theorists alike. Life-history narratives forcibly bring us – European interlocutors – into the same space as the tale-tellers, speak of encounters between Indians and Europeans, and urge us to recognize that we live in ‘one world’. Malayalis stake claims for equal participation in modernity's projects even as they point out ways in which coevalness is denied. This prompts us to suggest that narratives of modernity in India and the UK should occupy the same analytical space, contrary to moves to theorize multiple modernities. With our Malayali respondents, we are participating in a confabulation/confabrication of a shared story which appears to be one about the nature of global capitalism. Modernity produces dream and disillusionment, promising progress to all while delivering to a few. In its seemingly endless capacity for self-regeneration and reinvention it is, as a phenomenon in global history, far from over. Even as theorists try to write it off as a moment past or a project failed, it still holds out its promises and provides a structuring framework for contemporary life-stories.

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