My visits to Kerala so far have been in a way only “duty visits” – visiting family (read inlaws) and attending family functions. So, it seemed like a good idea to do a bit of tourism after attending my husband’s niece’s engagement on Saturday at Cochin. With our daughter being away on a school excursion, it was also a time to get that much needed time together ( after may be fourteen years?)
The first thing that struck us when we drove from the airport towards my brother-in-law's house were the hoardings –most being ads for jewellery shops and for a ( hold your breath) clinic that addresses “sexual problems”!! Strange combination that…!!! And ofcourse not to miss the fact that every other place is land marked through a bakery- there is “famous bakery’ . “Wonderful bakery” etc etc. While Cochin may have lots of places whose locations are marked by various bakeries in Trivandrum they do not bother about the name of the bakery – an important junction just goes by the name “Bakery Junction”!
The engagement was a simple and small event at a popular hotel. However what really had us interested was the official photographer from the “would be groom’s” family! A short man with curly hair, beard and a pot belly he had the appearance of a hyperactive orang-utan. One could see him jumping from here to there aiming his camera like a AK47 gun. He was also what I would call “an extremely creative individual”. As the guests started trickling away after lunch, he caught hold of D and her fiancé making them strike different poses and clicking away. So we had the groom –to- be go on his knees and offer her a bunch of flowers ( hastily pulled out from the flower arrangement on the dais), all the bride’s friends were made to stand one behind the other in a line holding each other’s shoulders ( like how we used to stand in our childhood while playing “in and out the sparkling bluebells”) with the bride-to-be resting her hands on her fiance’s shoulders. It had all the girls giggling and the elders irritated. My husband and myself decided that we absolutely needed to click the photographer in action. While I was game for chasing the guy with my camera my husband decided against letting me do it. His explanation being “you never know in Kerala – someone may think you are interested in that guy”. So he offered to do it. After about a quarter of an hour he came back – with just two snaps of the (in) famous photographer saying “It must be easier to shoot a tiger through a camera than this guy. He is so restless! Does not stay put in one place”. Finally the elders got antsy about all the posing that D and A were doing ( after all there is many a slip between the cup and lip) and indicated their displeasure by telling our photographer hero to end the “photo session”. He agreed grumbling all the time that he was not allowed to “finish his work” properly.
Post lunch we drove to Allepey and got on the “Rainbow Cruise” boat for an overnight tour of the Vembanad lake! I did not know what to expect – I had only seen these boats on television programs on tourism. My better half was worried about swarming mosquitoes ( “All that water around”).
But we were in for a pleasant surprise! Not only were there no mosquitoes – the weather itself was very pleasant and windy. The boat was very well maintained and had a bedroom with a four poster bed and an attached bathroom! What impressed me most was the almost near absence of water hyacinth on the vast stretch of water body. This obviously meant no mosquitoes! However there were other insects that began to buzz around post sunset resulting in the sliding glass doors around being closed. I had the feeling of being in a “bell jar” experiment in a science lab- floating on water!
Dinner aboard the deck was excellent! The cook had excelled himself with an assortment of vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes! Our only regret was that we were too sleepy to do justice to the complete meal. The boat was moored to a side later in the night. The sound of silence was something that we people from the city do not hear very often- pleasant indeed, broken only occasionally by the sound of lapping water against the side of the boat. My last thought as I feel asleep was that this would be a great honey moon destination for a young couple!
I woke up in the morning to a strange sound- it was the sound of a coconut being scraped. The men in the kitchen were busy. We could hear them just behind our heads! So this was obviously NOT the right place for a honey moon destination- given the close proximity of everyone on the vessel. “Everyone would know what the honeymooners are upto at any point of time. These cruises are good getaways only for much married couples like us” said the husband a grin!
Breakfast aboard the deck was much more enjoyable than dinner. We were able to do better justice to the dosas, chutney, bread and the pineapples. The boat had resumed it journey and we passed emerald green paddy fields –some of them located at levels lower than the water. The water community was also alive- we passed nearly a dozen boats in less than 20 minutes.
The secular culture of Kerala never ceases to amaze me- we passed an Orthodox church with a loudspeaker chanting prayers in Aramaic at one point only to emerge at another point where there was a temple with Sanskrit chanting being played on another loudspeaker. Devotees of both religions were on board boats visiting their respective places of worship.
This same amazing amalgamation of cultures was visible as we went into the “Jew Town” in the Fort Cochin area-Synagogues and old buildings with the star of David still engraved on their grills. Kashimiri shopkeepers tried to entice us to buy pashmina shawls as we walked into the synagogue. A group of old ladies who were ahead of us inside the Synagogue suddenly kneeled down in front of the screen behind which is the “Torah” and closed their eyes in prayer after which they crossed themselves. They had me confused…!!! There were a couple of old buildings with signboards in a strange script – probably Yiddish or Hebrew.
The Dutch Palace also was a very interesting reflection of the cultural mix of the state. Thampurans whose fathers were Nambuthiris- a matrilocal system that was abolished by the British and a dress code that introduced a sense of morality that was totally out of a western culture! A fine martial art “Kalari” whose practice was banned by the British and former kings who were now chartered accountants!
The culture of Kerala is something that has transcended religious identities. While not denying that these identities do exist- I think the state has been able to stay away from letting communal and caste identities from creeping into the creation of exclusions. Call it the influence of Communism or the result of a Social movement –Kerala has been able to move ahead in terms of development indicators and preserve the wealth that nature bestowed on her in terms of flora and fauna!
Not surprising that they call it “God’s own country”!