One can almost smell the backwaters in the long shots of the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi. The sun hits the brackish lagoons, along with the swaying coconut trees. But for Dr Joe Thomas Karackattu, a professor at IIT Madras, and his documentary, Guli’s Children, his home state is more than just its scenic backwaters, touristy Ayurveda resorts and scrumptious cuisine.
Born and brought up in Delhi, but originally hailing from Kottayam, the 35-year-old’s fieldwork during his academic research over the last two years took him back to the period when the tentacles of colonial rule had not seeped into the economy, politics and society of the Indian subcontinent. It took him to a time when the country’s shores were constant hosts to a number of international visitors, particularly the Chinese. An important maritime destination for spices, especially pepper, and luxury items such as kingfisher feathers, along with textiles and fabrics, India (especially in Kozhikode and Kochi) was a transit point for most foreign traders. But with China, her interaction was at its peak in the mid-15th century. “In fact, China and India were doing so well that they contributed to 50 per cent of the world’s GDP,” says Karackattu.
In the process of exploring an extensive cultural-historical narrative that the two shared between the 12th and 15th century, Karackattu stumbled upon a long-forgotten link between the two cultures. Guli’s Children, a visual representation of his work, hence, takes off from citations and footnotes and delves into the Indo-China interaction on the shores of Kerala, particularly pertaining to traces of human genealogy, making a remarkable connection with a legacy all the way to China, through a 14th generation Malayalee family settled there.
In the 42-minute film, Karackattu’s passionate pursuit is evident in the drawling visuals, succinct interviews with various sources, and abundant shots of his own personal journey. “During my research, I had come across accounts of Kozhikode ambassadors, who were banqueted in the Ming court. I also came across accounts of individuals that moved from Kerala to China. I was curious as to what became of those Malayalees,” says the academician, who teaches at the Humanities and Social Sciences department at IIT Madras, “That curiosity took the better of me, and before producing the paper with detailed citations, I thought of showing this finding visually,” he adds.
He travelled in Kerala earlier this year, where he came across an account of a family in China that traced their forefathers to Kozhikode. He began an intense process of a literature survey on the family, interviewing people to locate the last-known authors on the subjects, using their leads to locate other publishers, and finally, locating the family in the south of China. Earlier this year, he landed 20,000 km away from home to the Guangxi province, to meet the present generation of the Ma family, the custodian of the Jiao Pu, their family genealogy records that go back to 700 years. Quite old (“possibly in their ’80s,” he says), the family of husband and wife welcomed him as “lao xiang”, or “fellow hometowners”. The ‘Guli’, in the title Guli’s Children, then aptly borrows from the Chinese word for Calicut.
Karackattu did find another account of a Calicut ambassador by the name of Ge (from the 16th century), who erected a tablet in Fujian, but there is no further trace of him. Which is why the Ma family is exceptional. “The descendants of the Ma family moved from Kerala to China during the Yuan dynasty (roughly 13th-14th century). They have meticulously recorded their family tree down from the first Malayalee (named Ma Li ke) who arrived in China. I haven’t come across specific accounts of other Chinese families with Malayalee ancestry,” he says.
After a recent private screening of the film at the Jindal Global University in NCR last weekend, the academician, who is an alumnus of St Columba’s School in Delhi, an Economics graduate from St Stephen’s College, and a PhD graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, plans to screen it across universities in the country. For now, the film has been selected to be screened at the Roma Cinema Doc festival in Italy and Wolves Independent International Film Festival in Lithuania. “Personally, I feel that a lot needs to change about how we look at China. I suspect not many are aware of the rich history of interaction that Kerala and China once had. We need to get out the time-warp and paradigm-warp we are stuck in vis-a-vis China. Hopefully, the film will spur new imaginations in researching about China, and even promote a relook at fieldwork itself — beyond simply note-taking and material collection,” says the Fox Fellow at Yale University, who treats this research as an ongoing project.