Crude stereotypes and a dish that must not be named: It’s Rajdeep Sardesai in Kerala

The nation needs to know: who is the intended audience for this ‘northsplaining’ of Kerala?

WrittenBy:S Harikrishnan
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When I watched the episode of Rajdeep Sardesai’s Election On My Plate in Tamil Nadu on India Today, in which he jokingly told a local correspondent that Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh make better dosas, I secretly hoped he would do an episode in Kerala.

He did, and it did not disappoint. Rajdeep’s Kerala tour was part of his assembly elections coverage, and the 51-minute episode was packed with interviews with political leaders, including chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, multiple conversations with the public, some mispronounced Malayalam, and – true to the show’s name – five food breaks.

And while Rajdeep arguably packed as much as he could into the episode, his Kerala sojourn seemed like a hasty, ill-prepared ground report by a parachuting journalist who “north-splained” Kerala while his hapless local correspondent did his best.

Northsplaining Kerala

South Indians aren’t unfamiliar with being stereotyped. It’s something we see coming every time a Bollywood film portrays a South Indian, as if the five states are a monolith. There’s the fake accents, gold ornaments, dark skin and, of course, a lungi dance reference or two.

But it’s one thing to see Bollywood do what it does best, and another to see a seasoned journalist pass off chicken in pineapple curry as “classic Kerala style” while ostensibly reporting on an election. In the process, Rajdeep’s hot takes on Kerala culture came off as misinformed, even condescending.

First off, he greeted India Today’s Kerala correspondent, Gopikrishnan Unnithan, with a namaskaram and a bow. They then chatted with locals about the election, welfare schemes, and the gold smuggling scam. At one point, Rajdeep was surprised to meet someone who speaks decent Hindi in Kerala.

Rajdeep looks at a chenda player for validation that doesn’t come.
Rajdeep bows to Gopi while greeting him at the start of the episode.

He then met a couple who were having their wedding photos taken and, as you do, asked them their political preferences. When he realised they support different political parties, his advice was: “Happy marriage. Don’t divide yourselves politically like this.”

I’m unsure whether it genuinely surprised Rajdeep that supporting different political fronts is the reality of a large number of families in Kerala, mine included. So this advice, as well-intended as it was, is glib, even ill-informed. But this was only the beginning.

At one point, Rajdeep visited the fishing community and asked them about business and politics. He then announced that he was going to “participate” in a fish auction, only to wait silently and watch a basket of fish being auctioned off. He then turned to the auctioneer and said, “What is this, boss, I was going to give Rs 3,100!”

Visiting a cashew processing plant near Kollam, Rajdeep asked women workers about their livelihoods. A woman responded without looking up from her work; viewers were told that she’s paid by the kilo of cashews that she processes, so every minute counts. So, Rajdeep tried his hand at raking the cashews being freshly roasted in the hot furnace.

Two minutes in, he exclaimed that he was tired and needed to change and have a good meal. “Trust me, it’s worth it,” he proclaimed to his audience, as the workers silently continued their work behind him.

Rajdeep then headed to Paragon restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram where he excitedly chatted with a group of friends who were happy to oblige. “Enjoy your lovely state of Kerala, enjoy Paragon,” he told them affably. He then decided to give Gopi – who is, to refresh your memory, the Kerala correspondent – a “culinary experience” of Kerala by explaining dishes to him.

Secular food, Kerala’s 'genius'

Breakfast was the first meal on the episode and Rajdeep was introduced to puttu (steamed rice cakes), idiyappam and appam for a traditional Malayali breakfast. Do these dishes “cut across all divides”, he asked and Gopi nodded. Rajdeep declared this as the “genius of Kerala” because the state is as “diverse as ever but united in its food habits”.

Two minutes later, viewers got a reminder: “What I like is your variety. It’s like your state. Hindus here, Muslims here, Christians here, all at the table eating in perfect harmony.”

Now, I don’t know about puttu, idiyappam and appam, but I do know there’s one dish that cuts across religions in Kerala that Rajdeep conveniently forgot to mention. Hint: It rhymes with deef.

Rajdeep ‘participates’ in a fish auction, much to the amusement of the gathered fishing community.
Rajdeep demonstrating how different dishes on a table is the ‘genius’ of Kerala’s secularism.

Later in the episode, Rajdeep and Gopi visited a toddy shop – arguably the best place in Kerala to talk about the bovine “genius” that Rajdeep forgot, since it’s a self-proclaimed delicacy at toddy shops across the state. They settled for tapioca and fish and there was no mention of beef. A safe choice.

Someone then told Rajdeep that 90 percent of people in these parts drink toddy, a dubious statistic that I am fairly sure is incorrect and which surprised Rajdeep far more than it should have. When the food arrived, Rajdeep also said that karimeen is known as fish moilee in Delhi – a claim I cannot verify but which my North Indian friends have pointed out as incorrect.

Incidental politics

For such a short trip to Kerala, Rajdeep does manage to speak to political leaders from across the spectrum: Pinarayi Vijayan and KK Shailaja from the Left, Ramesh Chennithala and KC Venugopal from the UDF, and Kummanam Rajashekharan from the BJP.

Among other questions on ongoing controversies and the Left’s prospects in the election, he asked Vijayan: “Some of your critics say Pinarayi Vijayan is like Narendra Modi. You give a lot of benefits but you’re also a tough leader, very intolerant of criticism. Is there a model? Do you see yourself as a strong leader...this tough leader?”

I must admit that if this was a veiled criticism of the prime minister, it’s the closest I’ve heard Rajdeep come to it. Vijayan joked, “I think this is the last question,” and Rajdeep responded with awkward laughter.

Next he had a quick chat with health minister KK Shailaja who was sitting in her car. He reached out to shake her hand, his mask down to his chin, and asked her if rising Covid cases are a reason for concern. He met KC Venugopal at a rally and asked if he would be among the chief minister contenders if the UDF wins. If this wasn’t a rhetorical question, it just shows how disconnected the Delhi media is from the election in Kerala.

Rajdeep visits the chief minister at his official residence in Kerala, and greets him with a swagatam.
Mask down to his chin, Rajdeep asks Shailaja Teacher if the rising Covid cases are a concern.

Who is the intended audience?

I’m no puritan when it comes to how a culture is portrayed. There are a hundred ways to present Kerala, just as there are a hundred ways to present any state and its culture and society. But when a show hosted by one of mainstream media's most well-known journalists claims to explore the food and politics of a state, you expect to hear more than just generous compliments of how Kerala is “wondrous” and exotic, or learn about the host’s love for fish. At one toe-curling moment during his lunch, Rajdeep asked whether the curry being served with his lunch was fish and the chief minister can be heard replying: “The fish will come, the fish will come.”

So, at the end of Rajdeep’s Kerala trip, one is left wondering: who is his intended audience? Surely not the Malayali who has the choice of turning to the state’s diverse regional media for election news and ground reports. I assume it was aimed at the English-speaking, non-Malayali crowd. If so, Rajdeep and his show seem to have arrived in Kerala a decade too late for two reasons.

First, this election saw some very refreshing content and ground reports in English from smaller media organisations, Newslaundry included. Some of them used local cuisine to actually explain Kerala and Tamil Nadu politics to non-natives without reducing it to stereotypes.

Second, and most importantly, at a time when academics and journalists are learning to pass the mic to people to tell their own stories, Rajdeep’s show comes across as accidentally patronising and annoyingly underprepared. Let me end with something Rajdeep says in this episode of Elections On My Plate that best explained my issue with his coverage: “Let me explain this to you because I’ve been here before.”

'Gopi, let me explain this to you because I’ve been here before.'
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