“People are gentler, and drawing rooms are refreshingly free of tense conversations on communalism.” My wife was summing up her impressions as we caught the flight to Delhi after an extended stay in Ooty and Bengaluru during the recent State elections.

I consider myself privileged to have been installed as the regional editor of the Indian Express from 1979 to 1984, headquartered in Chennai. I supervised editions in Bengaluru, Vijayawada, Hyderabad and Kochi and all the districts in between.

In Kerala, the principal News Bureau was situated within a stone’s throw from E.M.S. Namboodripad’s house. This provided me with easy access to one of the finest political minds I met in 50 years of journalism.

The great foreign correspondent, James Cameron’s advice began to make so much sense after every conversation with E.M.S. “Whenever I travel to a country to cover a major event, I first visit the local communist party office where the background to the story has been analysed ahead of other parties. All I need to do is to sift out the ideology and I have the outlines of a first rate situation report in my notebook.”

At the bureau in Thiruvananthapuram or the main publishing centre in Kochi, the editorial staff worked with extraordinary diligence on days when a renowned Kathakali artist, like Kalamandalam Hyderali, was performing. Extra work was put in earlier in the day so that the scribes could be free for the show.

My colleagues knew the Katha (story), Nritya (dance) and Natya (drama) like the back of their hands. The culture sustained by Urdu as the central column of what came to be known as our “Ganga-Jamuni” tehzeeb, was disrupted by Partition and a scramble for Western education as the guarantor for bread on our tables. The South was spared these travails.

Partition or the primacy of English for jobs created no turbulence in Kerala. Muslims came to Kerala not as rulers from Central Asia but as traders from Arabia. There was no urge to impose a culture, as in the north, but to adapt to local cultures as a means for expanding trade.

It was because of this enthusiastic acceptance of Malayalam that resulted in Muslims excelling in poetry, literature and all the performing arts including cinema in which Prem Nazir entered the ‘Guinness Book’ for having acted in a record 750 films.

Considering that M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) in Andhra Pradesh built lasting political careers based on cinematic charisma, why did Prem Nazir not end up dominating Kerala politics?

A little reflection provided the answer: the Kerala voter has been too politicised by an expansive and deep communist movement, and too educated mostly because of the influence of the Church.

It is not commonly known that the first mosque in Kerala was built in 629 AD, three years before Prophet Mohammad’s death, making it among the earliest mosques anywhere. It was built by a Hindu nobleman, Cheraman Perumal. He was simply filling a need: an increasing number of Arab traders needed a place of worship.

Not only is there no evidence of Urdu being promoted except in areas under the Nizam of Hyderabad’s vast reach, there are numerous incidents of prodigious works in Malayalam or Tamil by Muslim scholars like Justice Ismail in Chennai who was regarded as the sole authority on ‘Kamba Ramayanam’. He was the single source for scholarship on the subject.

Likewise, to C.N. Maulana of Kerala goes the credit for having broken a taboo imposed by the clergy: God’s language is Arabic and the Quran can therefore not be translated.

It was this kind of rigidity that Urdu poet Yaas Yagana Changezi had debunked:

“Samajh mein kuchch naheen ata

Parhe jaane se kya hasil

Namazon mein hain kuchch

Maani to pardesi zubaan kyon ho?”

(If there is to be meaning to your prayers, why should prayers be in a foreign language?)

In my appreciation of the South, my friend, the remarkable cartoonist Abu Abraham, played no mean role across the many conversations we had. His angry outburst on one occasion surprised me because a joke I had told him “smacked of uneducated, North Indian prejudice.”

I had just returned from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) first convocation addressed by Balraj Sahni, film actor and a leading member of the Progressive Movement. The speed with which All India Radio was incorporating “difficult” Hindi in its news bulletins had elicited a quip from Sahni’s Bollywood friend, the comedian Johnny Walker.

“Ab yeh naheen kehna chahiye ki aap Hindi mein samachar suniye” Sahni quoted Johnny Walker, “balki yeh kehna chahiye ki ab samachar mein Hindi suniye.”

(Newsreaders should now say ‘listen to Hindi in the news instead of news in Hindi.)

Abu was livid. “You North Indians must know that a more Sanskritised Hindi is that much more intelligible to us.”

That all Indian languages, with the solitary exception of Tamil, have some proportion of Sanskrit, helped me understand cultural variations in India that much more. I cannot claim to have understood anything of the great Trinity of Carnatic music, Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar but I became sufficiently acquainted with the form of their verse. I even visited the great Veena player S. Balachander for advice on elementary Carnatic sangeet.

One day the door of my third floor office on Mount Road opened and in walked Balachander in a high state of agitation. Renowned vocalist Semmangudi, he alleged, had the patronage of the Travancore Palace.

So what? I asked. He is lobbying in Madras to elevate the musician prince Swathi Thirunal to the level of the great Trinity. He wants Thirunal’s photograph alongside the great Trinity in the Music Academy, virtually the headquarters of all the performing arts in South India.

Beads of perspiration covered his forehead. “This will happen over my dead body,” he said. He lifted both his hands and brought them down on my table with such force that the glass top splintered.

Saeed Naqvi is a senior journalist and writer. The Views expressed here are his own.

Cover Photograph: India’s oldest mosque in Kerala