...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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February 20, 2006 || 10:27 pm

Apologies again for lack of posts. I had a lovely break in Kerala last week, far from emails, computers, English grey February days. It was my first time in the most 'equitable' state in India, famed for its successful war against the caste system, its 91% literacy rate, welfare system and supposed equality of women, thanks to its communist government - the first democratically elected one in the world, dating to 1957.

What I saw of Kerala certainly stood out against my previous brief visit to Delhi and Ahmedabad. Granted, this time I was a tourist pure and simple, not seeking out slum dwellers or sprawling rubbish dumps. But nevertheless, I saw less beggars, almost no street children and plenty of, if not wealthy, at least decently living people, even on the bus journey through the outskirts of the city of Cochin where you might expect to see endless slums and wretched poverty.

We saw the famous, beautiful and ingenious Chinese fishing nets, dipping back and forth slowly on the shore, rarely seeming to catch anything more than a handful of sardines, being snapped by slightly flaccid Western tourists living out their somewhat hippy dreams from the late 1960s in a way commensurate to their entry into the mainstream of holidaying society. We watched sunsets on the beach alongside Keralans who all seem to come out too at that time of day, to perch on rocks, eating twists of roasted nuts, watching the sun disappear into the haze of the horizon. And the extraordinary synagogue, made famous by Salman Rushdie in The Moors Last Sigh, the remnant of a Jewish community dating back perhaps to Babylonian times and certainly to the first century AD, and now reduced to a mere four families thanks to the incentives to emigrate from the Israeli government. Its hand-painted Chinese tiles, dating to 1100, and strange trompe l'oeil ceiling were magical and odd, the mixture of the European and the Indian something very particular to Kerala as a whole.

Elsewhere, old Portuguese churches - grand and large in the cities, similar in atmosphere to some remote Andalucian or southern Italian churches with their naive, gaudily painted statuary bleeding drops of lurid red paint against impossibly pink skin. In the backwaters, where we spent an extraordinary three days in a watery world, they are smaller, even more naive, thick with the accumulated layers of slightly blue-tinted whitewash that gives them a somewhat papier-mache air, like the effigies that get burnt as ceremonial fireworks in Mexico, similarly garlanded with flowers. Adorable nuns and impossible cute schoolchildren murmur lessons behind barred windows or traipse along the dusty paths in impeccable uniforms. Jesus, on top of a tower or column, carries an umbrella to shade him from the strong sun, as do the nuns.

The backwaters life was extraordinary, eccentric and moving. A completely different form of human life, occupying thin strips of solid land between canals and marshy paddy fields or partially reclaimed swamp, everything dictated by the water. Thin slipper-like canoes seemed almost an extension of the human body. Women (liberated? I don't know) rhythmically slapping their washing on smooth flat stones by the waters edge was a sound that accompanied us everywhere, from dawn till dusk. They stood knee-deep in the canals, saris hitched up, swinging the clothes with a weary accustomed air, sounding like the beavers that I heard in the swampy rivers of Alabama. Or washing metal pots and dishes with a very particular movement unlike how we wash dishes and scooping water up with them to fling into the air.

Men with wider canoes often work fetching mud (for reclaiming land) or sand (for building work) from the bottom of the canals - a human dredging act that looked horrendously taxing, diving down with a basket or metal tray, scooping up mud or sand and rising to tip it into the canoe until it was heavy and the edges only an inch or two above water, when they paddle it to its destination, unload, return and repeat. These mudmen, dressed only a ragged white loincloth, were wiry and, given the pollution of the water (not as bad as the urban watercourses but still the repository for everyone's shit and rubbish) I dreaded for their health - but they always smiled at us, even so.

For some reason, there's a lot of duck farming on the backwaters (again, I dread the inevitable advent of bird flu) with the flocks swimming around or dabbling on the edge of paddy fields like flocks of sheep, crowded together in large herds although not penned in, with seemingly no desire to escape from the crowd. I saw one 'herd' get shepherded by a man in a canoe, gently moving them along to a little ramp leading up from the water which they obediently waddled up and over to the field on the other side. Very strange.

We were floating on one of the ubiquitous 'houseboats' - converted rice barges that ferry tourists around with a driver or two and a cook to cater, luxuriously though simply, to your every whim. Breakfast of fresh pineapple, Keralan steamed rice cakes or eggs and chapatis; lunch of spicy fried fish, a myriad of little vegetable dishes, puffed-up pappadums and rice; tea -time with banana fritters or bean cakes; dinner of fish or meat, maybe a kind of Keralan biryani, occasionally a pudding. It's on the one hand, a horrendously decadent way to travel - you don't need to lift a finger, just lying on the shaded deck reading or watching the world go by, stopping for the odd church, eating and drinking tea. On the other, our boat was also very simple - no TV or radio, no frills, no endless hassling to buy tourist tat from the shops of uncles and brothers or nudging winks about whether we wanted to get drunk on local booze. We stopped by the house of the skipper's aunt one day to drink fresh coconut juice and laugh at jokes in Malayalam that we couldn't understand but still found hilarious, and then our skipper, after serving us our delicious dinner, shyly asked if it would be OK, but he lived just across the water and he wanted to go home to stay the night.

Altogether it was an incredibly beautiful, restful and eye-opening week's break. A different, calmer, more harmonious-seeming (at least, to my untutored eye) India. However, its amazing how quickly that sense of easy well-being can leave you after several hours of airplane airconditioning and the rude shock of cold England. Plus, the boy returned with me and has full-on jetlag after his ten weeks away, so keeps waking up at 4am. Which doesn't exactly do wonders from my state of Zen-like calm...



Happy to read and know How people admire our state Hope you will visit again and again

By Anonymous manju, at 6:27 pm  

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