Monday, November 21, 2005

Kerala Diary II

Missing the kiss

My latest trip to Kerala began with a piece of advice coming from a stranger. ‘‘Don’t miss the kiss, so kiss the miss,’’ someone had written on the lavatory door of Allepey Express. It takes patience to write a grafiti like this: usually they’re short and obscene. I could almost picture the guy who wrote it - someone in his late teens or early 20’s, perhaps an engineering student, a quiet, shy boy who could get only as far as a kiss. Or was it the handiwork of a female? Unlikely. They don’t scribble such things on walls. Or do they? The advice kept dancing in my mind as I walked back to my berth. The kiss I didn’t know, but I certainly didn’t want to miss the early morning landscapes of Kerala. So I went to sleep.

Red and white

Kochi - the city, that is - lacks the geographical character of Kerala. The roads, flat and wide, lined by plush buildings and shopping complexes. And there is life on the roads: it is the commercial capital of Kerala, after all. Sometimes you see another kind of life: there are people who are perenially unhappy - except when their comrades are in power - and always want to take to the streets. And these days they are a common sight in Kerala: two women walking in the front, holding a banner, and following them some hundred other women and men, shouting slogans. They’re usually a peaceful and disciplined lot, but other than adding (red) colour to the streets, what do these processions achieve at the end of the day. Yes, the red does complement the shades of white that people prefer to wear. Missing the boat Kochi has a small Venice tucked away - in the form of the 14 islands that dot its shores. The real Venice of the East, though, is a little to its south - Alleppey or Alappuzha, which is famous for boat races. And what a life people in these islands lead. Instead of bus-shelters they have boat-shelters, and it’s not the nine ‘o’ clock bus or train, but the nine ‘o’ clock steamer. The steamers ply at regular intervals throughout the day - the last one is available at about 9 pm. In the city, you can always take an autorickshaw or a taxi if you’ve missed the bus. What if you miss the last boat? You can always wake up the good old boatman. But when you can see little other than the frighteningly black waters and hear little other than the splashes, such a ride cannot be for the weak hearted.

Fishing in history

It’s only when you drive towards the old city that the real character of Kochi starts unfolding. That’s where they all came - the Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese and the Dutch. Somehow, you can feel their invisible presence. In any case, they’ve all left their legacies behind. The Chinese fishing nets, for example, are still used widely in Kochi. They line the beach on Fort Kochi, overlooking various islands and passing steamers and ships. For those who have only seen breathtaking pictures of these nets, clicked during sunrise or sunset, the reality can be disappointing. The beach is filthy, and the nets look cruder than they seem to be. They have to be crude - the device is nearly a thousand years old and unaided by technology, but it works. The catch is usually passed on to the stalls that sell a large variety of sea fish. If you think the fish will be cheap just because they’ve been freshly caught, you’re wrong. But you have the choice of getting them fried and eating them right there. For fish lovers, that can be a delightful experience. Only that you have to constantly shoo off crows and cats wanting a share from your plate.

Catching a train

Whether a railway station is good or bad, you get to know only during your departure and not on arrival. When you arrive in a new place, you usually hurry out of the station and do not even notice it. It is only when you wait for the outgoing train that the station suddenly matters. And stations in Kerala are, by far, the best in the country. They are spotlessly clean: garbage bins are everywhere and sweepers are constantly at work. Vendors don’t price bottled water at their whims. And the man behind the enquiry counter is courteous and helpful. There is also a chart telling the position of your bogie from the engine. Difficult to imagine a more organised life in India.

October 2002

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