Published: January 30th 2012June 5th 2011
a performance of Kathakali in Fort Cochin
The pages of my diary feel limp and damp. Fresh towels smell musty. Laundry dries, but only relatively speaking. The Calcutta-acquired Polos are soft and crumbly. We are kept awake by claps of thunder more deafening than any I’ve ever heard. Our movements to and from dinner are delicately gauged to try and avoid the worst of the downpours. My Mac waves the white flag and sacrifices its mouse-click capability, and the cursor develops a life of its own. The local football pitch resembles a lake; the boys play on regardless.
Welcome to the early days of the monsoon in Kerala, or, as our sweet chatty host puts it the next day, the “pilot rains”, the actual monsoon being yet to come, so we’re told. We’re sceptical.
A month later, I was walking down the street in a wet Edinburgh thinking that the Scottish attempt at liquid precipitation really isn’t much to write home about. Call this “rain”? Rain is where you roll up your trousers and wear rock sandals rather than boots because the streets so swiftly resemble rushing torrents that paddling – if not wading – is unavoidable. Rain is where you don a waterproof to cross
even five yards of open ground in the vain hope that, thereby, you will somehow fall a step or two short of full drowned-rat-ness by the time you reach your destination. Rain is where the drops hit the ground so hard they bounce off the already water-logged surface.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Knowing that we would have nearly three weeks at our disposal after the Bhutan trip, we had wondered where in India to focus our attentions. Late May/early June is not the best time of year for anywhere on the subcontinent. During our first weekend in Delhi, Niti had suggested Kerala. Who were we to argue? I had never been, and had long wanted to explore this lush and tranquil part of the country. Logistics and time-constraints dictated that, from our starting point in Assam, we would probably have fly via both Calcutta and Mumbai to get there, so we took the opportunity to stop off in both cities. (Lorraine, in a month’s worth of time in India, was rapidly clocking up states and sights to an extent I had only achieved after half a dozen trips to this part of the world.) After a few
(my thanks to Lorraine for letting me use this one of her photos)
days in Mumbai – the city where I first fell in love with India (and, oh, the joy of being able to wander around without maps and guidebooks) – we boarded our third flight that week. Destination: Kochi, central Kerala.
The first afternoon, dozy from our pre-dawn start in Mumbai, we meandered through the streets of Fort Cochin, the northwest section of archipelagic Kochi’s most ocean-ward island and the oldest part of the city, one that has seen traders and adventurers for, quite simply, millennia. The Chinese fishing nets off the coast seemed anomalous, until we read that the Chinese had been amongst those early traders. There are churches of every size, shape and colour – Indian Catholicism at its most numerous – and a synagogue down the road in Jew Town, another testament to the variety of peoples who have passed through. Sadly this, now the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth, is now falling into disuse, with few of the Jews who remained here after the post-1948 exodus to the then newly-formed Israel still alive.
That evening we were treated to an unexpectedly private demonstration of the incredible skills of Kerala’s Kathakali actor-dancers. The daily performance of
this classical art form was unusually deserted, so one of the actors multitasked his intensive make-up application and chatted with us about where we were from and his time teaching dance in the UK. Kathakali make-up is so time-consuming and complex to apply that the actors do so on stage as part of the show while the singer/narrator explains their methods and materials to the audience. Natural powders are applied in layer after layer by the actors themselves, but the “noble male character” needs help creating his stylistic white beard, so an assistant comes on stage and carefully cuts and moulds and fixes into place rows of cardboard to curious but impressive effect.
Even the hour or so that the actors spent applying their make-up in front of us was not long enough to transform two slightly plump Indian men into their fabulous mythical characters. They left the stage to complete the process and don their spectacular costumes while the musicians and singer/narrator demonstrated the kind of music that would accompany the performance, a hypnotic – and, at times, deafening – beat carried by two drummers with the singer’s eerie vocals. Then one of the actors came back to
synchronised make-up application
preparing for the Kathakali performance
illustrate Kathakali’s startling techniques and stylised emotions, all communicated through exaggerated facial and hand movements. To the beat of a drum, he flicked his eyes left and right and up and down faster and faster (our eyes watered just looking at him); his hands mimed and acted specific emotions so fluidly and delicately it was as if they were independent of the rest of his body. I have admired the hand movements in other forms of classical dance in India and southeast Asia, but this was something entirely different. Truly, his hands danced. At one point, they enacted a bee being lured into a flower and the effect was so graphic that we could almost see the insect’s wings beating.
The actual play was no less incredible. We’d been given a written synopsis, although the storyline was simple: Nakrathundi, a powerful demon disguised as a beautiful damsel, attempts to seduce Jayanthan, the son of the king of heaven, Indran. We knew that Nakrathundi was being acted by a man, but his/her feminine mannerisms and initially coquettish, then increasingly explicit, advances were remarkable. All the time the beat was growing in intensity and volume, and it seemed as if Jayanthan
must succumb, but time and again, with increasing vehemence, he rejected her persistent attentions. Yet there were no words; the only language was in hand, eye and facial movement. Actual “dance” – at the foot end of things, as it were – seemed to be limited to rhythmic stepping, largely invisible under the characters’ skirts. Finally, the demon was sent away, although mercifully without any sign of the gore suggested in the synopsis dialogue: “I will cut off your nose, ears and breasts”. Emerging into the now-dark streets, we could hardly believe what we’d just seen. Conversation that evening kept drifting back to the performance, a magnet for our thoughts. It had been spellbinding.
“Kerala is where India slips down into second gear, stops to smell the roses and always talks to strangers,” says the Lonely Planet seductively. Our delightful host, Anthony, certainly embodied the state’s reputation for friendliness from the moment we met. The niceties of checking in completed, he spent a good half hour with us and our map, pointing out sights and restaurant recommendations, explaining nuggets of history, and infecting us with his love for his home town. During the week we spent at the delightful
Spice Holidays Homestay, he and his wife increasingly treated us as their own personal guests, spontaneously preparing food and titbits for us to sample. If we had stayed a second week, we would never have left.
In the meantime, we slipped down several gears. The freneticity of Guwahati, Calcutta and Mumbai, not to mention lingering exhaustion from our adventures in Bhutan, began to catch up with us. The second night, freed of the crashing thunder the previous evening and any need to wake early the following day, we slept well into Monday morning. In fact, I’ve a sneaking feeling I missed Monday morning altogether. Lorraine gave in to a threatening cold/’flu, and uncharacteristically slumped onto her bed for much of the next few days. But, I must confess, there seemed little to get up for. The “pilot rains” of our first night and day were rapidly succeeded by what even Anthony admitted was now the “real” monsoon, and we had soon forsaken our tentative plan to explore Kerala further, electing to stay in Fort Cochin for a tranquil week, rather than rush around clocking up muddy mile after muddy mile.
On the Thursday afternoon, we decided we were
feeling stronger again, and began to stretch our legs outside our hereto purview of a street or two in each direction. But our timing was not great. By the time we were ready to extend ourselves beyond Fort Cochin itself, we were into Friday and, had we read the small print before setting out (not one of my strengths, I’ll admit), we would have realised that the main sights, Mattancherry Palace and the Pardesi Synagogue, would then be closed to visitors. Undeterred, we contented ourselves with wandering through the streets of Mattancherry and Jew Town, enjoying the delightful spicy aromas of Calvathy Road, and our foray into this less touristed part of town… albeit in the company of the monsoon. As we walked down the street away from the Synagogue’s gorgeous gates, the first spots began to fall. We'd learnt by now – though I always remained optimistic that this wouldn’t be the case – that a few gentle drops turn into a torrential downpour more rapidly than the time it takes to say “south-west monsoon”. We huddled in the doorway of a jeweller’s shop waiting for any sign that it might be letting up.
“Beautiful rain,” he said
to us from time to time, a sentiment echoed later on the ’phone by Niti.
“We Indians love rain. We can just sit and watch it. It makes us very happy.” (Finally we realised why she’d recommended Kerala at this time of year, when Delhi is wilting in endless days of forty-plus temperatures…)
If we’d only known, the café we were then seeking – one of Anthony’s recommendations – was less than half a block away, as we finally discovered after a couple of sprint-splashes down the road when we tired of watching the rain from the jeweller’s step. Like a military offensive, we had planned each of these manoeuvres carefully, first identifying a destination with a sufficient overhang for shelter, and then working out a route through and across a road that was now more closely resembling a lake. We dripped through the door of the Sri Krishna Café and wondered for how long we could spin out our lunch of uttapam and coffee.
By the end of the week, we could hardly have claimed to have made Kerala’s acquaintance, although we felt very much at home in Fort Cochin. Marooned by the monsoon for most
of the time, we had at least managed a brief (if soggy) trip on the Keralan backwaters on the Sunday. Perhaps the rest of the state would have to wait for a more European-friendly time of year.
There are more photos below