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India's Kerala Has It All: Beauty, Bananas, Long Life, Girl Power

President Obama gave a shoutout to the beauty of the "backwaters of Kerala" when he visited India last month.

So our intrepid village correspondent in India, Wilbur Sargunaraj, went to make a video about it. Off he went to the southwestern state, whose canals, ocean beaches, mountains and abundant wildlife have put it in the top 10 paradises of the world according to National Geographic Traveler.

Sargunaraj had been to Kerala once before, about 20 years ago, visiting an uncle who lived in a banana plantation. This time, he came as a tourist, sampling the coast and backwaters. "I've heard all my life it's so beautiful," he reports. "It really is gorgeous."

If you get tired of exquisite natural beauty, there are other ways to spend the time. Kerala is known for its massages and elephant rides. Sargunaraj urges tourists who are interested in the latter to be on their best behavior: "Elephants have such a tremendous memory, so my mother would tell me, 'Always be kind to an elephant, treat the elephant with deepest respect.' "

And then there are the bananas. He saw "red bananas, small bananas, tiny bananas." One vendor was hawking "sugar-free bananas." Sargunaraj reports that the sugar-free bananas — yellow-skinned, very skinny and shaped "almost like a cucumber" — were not as sweet as a typical banana but still "sweet to my taste."

"I think it's a gimmick," he says, catering to sugar-fearing tourists.

But Kerala is in fact a healthy state. The average life expectancy there is 74 years, making it No. 1 in India. So maybe those bananas do have some secret powers?

What's more, Kerala is a very well-educated state. In 1991, India's National Literacy Mission honored it as the only "state with total literacy." The actual rate is in the 90th percentile, comparable to that of the U.S. and far higher than the rest of India, where the literacy rate is around 65 percent. A Christian Science Monitor article attributed the high rate to a refusal to cut the education budget:

"The Queen of Trivandrum issued a royal decree in 1817 that said, 'The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment.' She hoped education would make her people 'better subjects and public servants.' "

Kerala also stands out for its "sex ratio" — reportedly 1,084 women for every 1,000 men. In other parts of India, men outnumber women because of the practice of "gendercide" — the killing of unwanted baby girls.

"I would say they value women in Kerala," Sargunaraj says. "That's not to say [the state is] devoid of any problems. You do hear about rape, domestic violence and abuse cases all around India — and it's a shame that we are treating our women like this!"

But to his mind, Kerala is different in the way women take a full part in society. "I saw so many women driving the boats in the canal. I would love to see more women thrive in male-dominant jobs in rural Tamil Nadu." That's his home state, which borders Kerala on the west.

If you're inspired to check out Kerala for yourself, Sargunaraj's video gets you off to a good start by teaching a few words from the local Malayalam language. Perhaps the most essential phrase is "Kurachu kurachu Malayalam" — roughly translated as "I speak little, little Malayalam."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.