Learning Malayalam

Article in daily The Hindu, May 1978, Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), India. On the photo I am second from the left.

In 1978 my anthropological dream came true. It meant the financing of a long-term PhD fieldwork and time for write up.

My research was part of a larger project in the south Indian state of Kerala. With three other PhD students I started with learning Malayalam, that incredibly complex language with 56 letters, expressed by moving your tongue in different ways.

Once out in the field, I discovered we had learned a formal version of Malayalam that differed quite a lot from what people spoke that I interacted with.

Modern Poverty

Manohar Publishers & Distributors in Delhi, a leading business in Indian book publishing in India, devoted a special promotion of my book Modern Poverty, in 1992. See photo.

“Pre-modern poverty” arose from underpaid, forced labor for powerful land owners. But it also meant a guaranteed minimum of food and shelter provided by the landlord who needed the labor during farm seasons.

Nowadays, laborers are freer to move, but lost guarantee income. Their “modern poverty” comes from low wages and underemployment throughout the year. Even if wages are not bad, the days of work are often too few in number for a sufficient income, while prices in shops are rising.

For their survival, the modern poor bargain with shopkeepers for food, brave police raids by building huts on government land, buy and sell tiny pieces of land, or illegally collect edibles and firewood from common lands and forests.

Drop me a line

Peter van der Werff, PhD


+31 652 478 975

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter