The Gulf Wives of Kerala

Behind most Indian men working in the Gulf is a wife back home, living in a shared house bringing up his children with the help of her extended family.

May 28, 2010 - India - Rasiya Eramacka Veedu, 48 stands beside a few of her husband's belongings at the family's home in Calicut. Rasiya's husband, Moideen Koya, has recently returned to Calicut after working in Abu Dhabi for 32 years. 

Charla Jones for The National
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Behind most Indian men working in the Gulf is a wife back home, living in a shared house bringing up his children with the help of her extended family. Rajni George talks to some of these women about what makes them stay behind and what life is like as a Gulf wife of Kerala. Photographs by Charla Jones Amisha Nuhman, a slender 23-year-old Malayali Muslim, has been married for two years, most of which has been lived in Kerala, away from her husband who works in Dubai.

'I want to live here,' she says, referring to Thekkepuram, a tradition-rich village inside the boundaries of Kozhikode in Kerala. She grew up with a large, omnipresent network of grandmothers, mothers and aunts in a joint household, and it is clear that the generous sprawl of the extended family is her most natural habitat. Moreover, for her husband, who works for the UAE Exchange, a money transfer company, this arrangement is the most convenient one. He maintains a household in the motherland and earns more money than he would back home.

Nuhman is what has become known as a Gulf wife. She is one in more than a million. A 2008 Kerala Migration Survey conducted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala's capital Thiruvanathapuram concluded that there are 1.06 million of them in the state, living a separate life from their husbands. Settled in large ancestral homes with their relatives on hand and welcoming their men home every few months, they find balance as they reap the benefits of a modern economy and perpetuate an age-old way of life. Coastal Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), the third largest city in the south Indian state of Kerala, is home to many Gulf wives. The bond between these two disparate parts of the world is longstanding, as Kozhikode has a tradition of trading ties with the Middle East and a history of intermarriage into the Arab community.

The Zamorin of Kozhikode (the rulers before the British arrived in India) earned the trust of Arab Muslim traders during their rule from the 14th to 18th centuries. There is a charming, possibly apocryphal tale of two Arab aristocrats who sailed the world to establish trade with Kozhikode. At each harbour, they would deposit three jars of date pickles in which gold was hidden, looking for a port where their gold would not be robbed; only at Kozhikode was their faith redeemed. The Arabs settled and formed a major community here, from where Islam spread, as it had from earlier trade links. Today, Muslims in Kerala account for a quarter of the state's population.

Once the traditional capital of Kerala, Kozhikode is now, in a sense, a bustling ghost town: bustling because it continues to thrive and expand like many second and third-tier Indian cities, a ghost town because a large part of its financing comes from a labour force that is largely absent from community life. For the last half century or so, Kozhikode's people have been supported by the export of labour to the Gulf. Hyundai and Levi's showrooms are features of a city that would not normally have been this cosmopolitan; those who stay behind have the opportunity to capitalize on the financial gain of those who earn overseas. Like Quilon in South Kerala, another big hub of Gulf-sustained economy, its resident population is more often than not financed by the labour of relatives, rich, poor and middling, in the six GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries that are a source of earnings for its neighbouring third world countries. The regional influence is all-pervasive in Kozhikode; tangibly in signs that advertise the Saudi Bakery and Gulf Bazaar and currency exchange shops which proclaim dirham and rupee rates, making it seem like a far-flung outpost of the Gulf.

After her marriage Nuhman went to Dubai for ten months, then returned to Kozhikode to bring up their family. 'My husband can come home every six months,' she explains. There are migrants who return even more frequently, some every few months, Air Arabia fares being as low as 700 dirhams return. Not only are costs lower at home - many Gulfies, especially those in lower income brackets, find the cost of living with their families in the Gulf prohibitive - the secondary caregivers who will help bring up their children are easily accessible. The people of Thekkepuram, mostly from the Koya suddivision of the Mappila community, have a unique joint family system; women continue to live in their ancestral houses after marriage and their puthiaplas (husbands) join them there. For every married couple, a new room called the maniyara (wedlock room) is added on.

'Most young girls want to go there if they haven't been, they don't know what it's like,' a Kuwait-returned Malayali male relative of Nuhman says. 'They can't take the loneliness. There they have to prepare food and do everything else on their own, here their relatives will take care of them and their children.' Most homes have two or three family members in the Gulf, and in the case of large joint families like Nuhman's, their tharavad (large family home) and conservative way of life are sustained mostly by the largesse of their husbands and sons. Nuhman's home in the village of Thekkepuram, where 20 percent of the population is said to be working in the Gulf, is surrounded by many large households whose residents sometimes live together even if there are no direct blood ties.

Her tharavad is large, airy and full of multiple rooms. At its centre are solid pillars, discreet drainage areas and large living spaces where the family congregates. Children run freely, clinging to the burkhas of various mothers, aunts and cousins when a visitor is announced, assured of attention at every instance. There are anywhere from 30 to 40 residents in the tharavad at any given time. Most of them are women, but men who are visiting their wives add to the population now and again, particularly in the summer when full-time workers return home.

The kitchen area in its interiors is communal in feel but divided into separate mini-fiefdoms where each wife will individually prepare meals for her own family, except in the case of special meals or celebrations where a combined feast is undertaken. Upstairs, there is a row of rooms, each one reflecting a universe of its own. One room is austerely outfitted, almost spartan, and across the corridor, within the same space, is an ostentatious, elaborate room more evident of Gulf salaries. Each room reflects the wealth and taste of each nuclear family unit. Most tharavads contain anywhere from 20 to 40 bedrooms, and while some old tharavads have been destroyed due to disrepair or a desire to build new and smaller residences, 90 percent of these charming old houses remain.

A big draw for tourists, this village has a singularly antique feel. The easy grace of green, rural Kerala infuses the scenic central chira (pond) of Kuttichira, Thekkepuram's capital. Bordered by coconut palms and accessed by a series of stone steps, the chira was the site of state proclamations in the time of the Zamorin, and today is a popular local hangout. Near it is the ancient Mishkal mosque, which is the centre of daily rituals. Nakhuda Mishkal, a renowned 14th century trader and shipowner from Yemen, built this mosque of wood, using the expertise of tharkhans (skilled craftsmen). The lovely old structure radiates the same calm that old tharavads in this part of Kozhikode do; the calm of an older world that is sustained in modern times.

Another family member, Tabarra Usman Vanissery, 27, returned from Dubai two years ago when the economy slowed. "Everyone who grows up here has the dream of going to Dubai," Tabarra says smiling. She used to live in Deira, Dubai's residential middle-class area, full of souks and Indian marketplaces. "It's the same in some ways," she explains, "except there is no help; my husband would help, and if we didn't want to cook we would go out. But I missed all the functions in Kozhikode; the weddings, funerals, births. When something happened here, I would miss out." She seems wistful yet briskly forward-thinking, and doesn't seem to want to dwell on the negatives of her Dubai life that she sees as less important.

The older women of Thekkepuram are most comfortably ensconced, unassailed by the doubts one might see in younger women acclimatising to either the Gulf life or the increasingly common lifestyle of a Gulf wife. Another resident of Amisha's tharavad, 48-year-old Rasiya Moideen Koya, had a husband in Abu Dhabi until very recently, and leads a cheerful, busy existence here. Her husband was in the Gulf for 32 years after three years at home. "Chance kittiyal, poghum," she says, smiling". ("If I get a chance, I'll go there.") She has a 24-year-old daughter working in Kozhikode, in tourism. They have made the choice to educate her and it is clear that in a community were women marry early - "At 17 or 18 we start looking, by 20 to 22 the girls usually marry" - this young woman is being allowed to follow her own path to some extent. There is a suggestion, as we chat, for example, that the career-minded girl will eventually find a husband who will allow her to continue working: not a very common practice in this fairly orthodox community. Rasiya also has a son, already a steady earner in a hospital in Doha.

The network of family in Kerala is mirrored in some ways over in Qatar, the country that plays a significant part in the financial support of her family; her 22-year-old son lives with her sister in Doha, finding some comfort in family there. Before he retired, Rasiya's husband worked at a restaurant in Dubai. He managed the restaurant with a partner in the UAE, which enabled him to spend more time in Kerala. Every six months he would come home and his partner would take his place in Dubai. Then, they would swap. Through this canny rotation, the two made the most of Dubai's wealth and their own home comforts in Kerala. In this model, not only does the man of the house get to know his children and help his wife raise them - a luxury for most Gulfies - he manages to maintain regular access to the riches of the GCC. "He always said, life is good here with the family, and money is there," says Shaid E Veed, another relative, jokingly. "No money, no funny."

While many compromises are made, Gulf wives all suffer from one glaring and indisputable problem; their companions are away for some, or most, of their married life. "What is the impact of migration on the wives and children left behind?" asks Dr S Rajan, associate fellow at CDS in Thiruvanathapuram and a leading expert in Malayali Gulf migration studies. Rajan is in the process of researching the economic benefits of Gulf migration versus the costs on the women left behind.

He explains the Malayali impulse towards the Gulf as a necessary ambition, speaking of the Eighties, when Kerala opened up and migrants moved to Bombay. "Dubai was close by. If you are already smoking a bidi, why not a cigarette?" he says, sitting in his study in the Laurie Baker-designed CDS building. In the relaxed environs of Trivandrum, as it is commonly referred to in English, such ambition seems like an unnecessary uprooting. Yet, Gulf migration has contributed to the alleviation of poverty and the turn-around of Kerala's economy.

In Kerala's Gulf Connection, the book Rajan co-authored with two other psychologists, loneliness is cited as the most serious problem Gulf wives face, followed by the burden of being the chief person responsible when a member of the household needs medical care or other help. How does one weigh this kind of loneliness against the other kind that both Amisha and Rasiya say they want to avoid, the loneliness of being in a foreign country without a social support system? Every immigrant life is shaped according to how they respond to this essential conflict. The question they are unwittingly responding to, of course, is what makes them happy and how?

Interestingly, when the study surveyed a cross-section of Gulf wives, nearly 60 per cent wished their husbands were back home, while 40 per cent felt "the economic benefits outweighed the costs". However, most women would want to have a son-in-law who was working in Kerala. Conversely, a total of 83 per cent said they preferred potential husbands to work in the Gulf. These women, like the men they marry, are compromising on companionship and normative families for a future generation who, they hope, will not need to make the same sacrifices.

Rajan's study lists other adverse consequences such as increased anxiety, problems with in-laws, and misunderstandings with husbands. It concluded that the news exaggerates the plight of Gulf wives, but also added that it is possible that Gulf wives are reluctant to reveal their full story to strangers. In these insular communities, it is difficult to get these women to open up about the downside to being alone. What one can conclude, however, is that being able to account for basic needs is one major step towards happiness.

Moreover, what Rajan and his fellow researchers found is that the women who have had to take charge in the absence of their husbands have become more confident and independent, and this points to a significant change, even in conservative societies such as that of Thekkepuram. EV Mustafa has been a travel agent for 30 years and is a prominent figure in Kozhikode, specialising in journeys to the Gulf. He explains how people stick it out, despite having to leave their wives at home and the vagaries of the financial crisis: "Our people know how to stick, to stand."

The Gulf wife, especially, knows how to stick, to stand, sometimes without ever having moved. Behind every man who sticks it out is a strong woman back home, ensuring that home is still home.