There are a few commodities in Kerala that will always be in high demand. Rice, obviously, and the coconut products that invariably accompany it at mealtimes. Liquor, as previously mentioned, is on an upward consumption curve. And then there's gold. Even as ubiquitous and controversial as liquor has become, it cannot hold a candle to the influence of gold in the average Malayali's life. The desire to acquire and hoard it seems to be hard-wired, a vital element in the struggle to survive and, if you're fortunate, to be upwardly mobile. To put it simply, in Kerala, gold – like Gordon Gekko's greed – is good.
This love affair with gold apparently has its roots in the global spice trade during the years of the Roman Empire. Kerala, and in particular Kochi (Cochin), was a key port among the channels of trade and frequented not only by Roman ships but also by Greeks, Jews, Arabs and Chinese. The foreign merchants and their customers back home were so besotted with Indian pepper, cardamom and cinnamon that they were quite happy to part with increasing amounts of gold in exchange. It surely follows that if a Keralite had gold in those ancient times, he must have had some dealings involving foreigners, and would as a result be viewed by his peers with greater prestige. Thus, the value of gold in Kerala would have risen as more people wanted to increase their status by possessing that precious yellow metal.
Status remained the driving force behind gold consumption over the ensuing two millennia, but that underlying factor has been replaced by a very prominent, overriding one in the last century or so. That new factor is dowry. Dowry used to be the preserve of Muslims, Christians and the most elite Hindu families, until one day somebody hit upon the notion that marriage gives all women a meaningful life. That meaning, of course, has value. Soon, every family with a son of age was demanding a suitable dowry in the 'marriage market', with the requested amount decided by the family's economic and social conditions (and what the next-door neighbours got – status never far from the equation). In the modern age, it can take the form of beachfront land, a job in a hardware store or a new Maruti, but the most important part remains the number of gold sovereigns.
If you don't have gold in Kerala, you find a way to acquire it, especially if you have a daughter. The easiest way is to simply go to any one of Kerala's dozens of jewellery chain stores like Josco, Joyalukkas and Bhima; soon you'll be able to go to the enormous, nearly complete Gold Souk Grande in Kochi, its similarity with the modernised gold souks of Dubai forming yet another link between Kerala and the Gulf states. This walk-in option is only straightforward for the upper middle class or higher, though. When the time comes for a daughter's wedding, the majority of Malayalis have to scrimp together a couple of lakh rupees through meetings with family members close and distant, friends and neighbours, and in many cases a loan shark or two.
Naturally, the effort required in obtaining a few prized sovereigns for a dowry payment often leads to a crippling debt. If you have managed to ferret some gold away yourself, you have the option of going to a bank and pawning it to cover a particularly hard time, then buying it back later at a fixed rate. There's also the option of home-based babus offering 'private finances', which are essentially the same thing – but with interest rates of up to one percent a day. It might seem like the best option would be just to let them keep the gold and have done with the debt, but as noted in this excellent article from National Geographic, Malayalis are more desperate to keep that gold than to be debt-free. Of course, if you don't have any gold in reserve, then for many the only way to escape those mounting interest repayments is the last resort of all: suicide.
As things stand, Kerala is a state that lives and dies on gold consumption. This shiny stuff holds most of the Malayali population in its thrall, and present signs indicate that consumption will only continue to increase. If it isn't already clear, my own stance towards it mirrors that of the American investor Warren Buffett: “[Gold] gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.” What's your view?
A list of resources used in researching this article is available in the comments.