173 Malayalee families resettled in four villages of Raisen district in erstwhile Bhopal state in 1955

As 10 days of festivities of Malayalees culminate in Thiruvonam on Monday, 74-year-old Nirmala Nair will wash the steps of a small Chottanikkara Amma temple at Intkheri in Madhya Pradesh. She will do puja for Lord Mahabali and then watch her grandsons play football with the children of her neighbours.

Ms. Nair is one of the last survivors of the 173 Malayalee families who had resettled in four villages of Raisen district —Intkheri, Uradmao, Imaliya and Majoos Kalan— in the erstwhile Bhopal State in 1955. They were brought here to work in a central mechanised farming project which wound up after Bhopal, Vindhya Pradesh and Madhya Bharat amalgamated to form Madhya Pradesh in 1956.

“We did not know Hindi and we had only cultivated paddy. Our wheat crops failed and we became very poor. No one helped us. But we still survived and we’ve done well. We built this temple 15 years back,” says Nirmala, who had come here as a 16-year-old from Changanassery in Kerala.

Ms. Nair has been performing pujas at the temple and conducting Onam rituals since 1970. She has been the priestess of the temple since it was built in 1998. Everyday, she is joined by 101-year-old N.K. Shankaran Nair, oldest resident of Intkheri. Mr. Nair has lost most of his memory of Madhya Pradesh, but remembers the names of friends and places in Kottayam, his birthplace.

His son-in-law Gokulan Nair says, “He longs to go back but we have nothing left in Kerala. We still visit the homeland for weddings but Madhya Pradesh is now our home.”

Residents have petitioned successive governments in the State and Centre since 1970 to grant them pattas for their land. Politically active Keralites like Purushottam Nair— a BJP worker— have been able to get pattas for a few residents. Most of them have documents for their fields, but not their homes. This, in the recent past, has created land disputes in Majoos Kalan.

“When our parents came here, they strongly lobbied for setting of schools. All families here have at least one member in government job,” says Purushottam, who retired from the forest department. Now a grocer, he stocks his shop with Onam delicacies like upperi and sarkara varatti.

‘Petty jealousies’

“Onam used to be a large community celebration. But most of the families migrated for work to other parts of India. Now Onam is a one-day affair and is largely confined to individual homes,” he explains. Politics has caused the decline of Onam festivities. “Petty jealousies,” he says, adding “Not the dirty and violent politics of Kerala.”

His friend, P.K. Lakshmanan, served four different police forces, finally retiring from the Border Security Force. “We have included local deities like Ganesha in our Onam celebrations. Earlier, locals would break their earthen pots if we drank from them. Now they speak a few Malayalam sentences. There have even been a few marriages with them,” he says.

Saurabh Nair is among the third generation of Malayalees here. While he speaks Malayalam often with a mixture of a few words of Hindi, he regrets not being able to read and write the language. “We watch how grand Onam really is on Malayalam TV channels. But the truth is we don’t know how to celebrate it like it is done in Kerala. What I wait for every Onam is the sadhya [feast],” he says.

Mr. Nair and his friends, however, have inherited one of Kerala’s passions— football. The annual Onam football match here is as much a tradition here as the athapoo flower arrangement.