I imagine that in most parts of the world, when you are set to move, you get a couple of relocation companies to give you some quotes and then zero in on one where the price-value equation makes sense. The movers roll in, pack all your stuff, cart it off to your new home and, perhaps, even unpack your belongings and set it all up. At least that’s the way it happens if you can afford the prices that movers charge. And if you can’t afford movers, I guess you cart all your stuff to your new home with some help from friends and family.
In Kerala though, moving house is a bit like being part of a velichapad or temple oracle’s performance ritual. Just as you are never quite sure of what the velichapad will say or do when possessed by the deity, so too are you never sure of just how Kerala’s unique headload workers’ unions will behave.
In most parts of India, if you bring something in a truck to your house or shop or office, you can pay people to unload the stuff for you. In Kerala, such work is the exclusive preserve of members of the headload workers’ unions; and each locality in the State has its own complement of headload workers’ unions.
What that means is that you — personally — can unload your belongings from a truck, but cannot employ just anyone to do it for you. Instead, you have to employ members of the various unions to do it for you. No complications so far. Where this practice really gets interesting is that the charges for unloading your stuff are usually decided by the unions.
Things get even more interesting when you have to load or unload very heavy objects or things that require the skills of specially trained workers. In such cases, the union members do not do the work; instead they watch the work being done and are paid ‘nokku kooli’ or a wage for the privilege of viewing the work. Nokku kooli, even the unions officially agree, is illegal, but it happens.
There are, of course, ‘officially fixed’ rates for unloading various things; a price list of sorts. Most often though, what you pay for unloading your stuff depends on your negotiation skills and, more important, on the whims and fancies of the union reps in your locality. So if you get them during the ‘happy hours’ you may be socked with a whopper of a bill and then again, you may not. It’s all very unpredictable.
Which is why unloading stuff from a truck and, some times, loading it on to one, in Kerala is very similar in spirit to the velichapad’s whirls, swirls and mumbles when he is in the deity’s thrall. A dance with a blend of choreographed and spontaneous moves.