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Published: January 18th 2011
When in Rome, understand the Romans. I can’t say it was a purpose that I set out with, but rather a purpose that fell in place somewhere along the course on the backwaters (the waters that we never made it!) trip to Kerala.
A friend of mine, Tuija, and me had decided to go on a tour of the backwaters in Kerala, but busy schedules until the day of tour meant that we had little time to do background research. What little blog-reading I did on the day of departure provided me with this: among the various backwaters options, Allepey provided more houseboat options, but was also the more polluted; Kollam had fewer, with less of the accompanying pollution. Based on that, Kollam was the obvious choice for the two of us who were running away from the chaos of city life. At Kollam, however, we found no suitable accommodation near the backwaters and instead decided to stay near the beach, a very non touristy place. Coming from Goa, I was no stranger to beaches, so there was little for me to marvel there. Nevertheless, there was a lot by way of being in a different land. Already, I was
noticing the differences: in the way the natives conducted, in the way they received us, in the manner they laughed. And so I took to exploring more of the local customs.
The differences start… with the rickshaw drivers. Anyone who has been to any of the cities popular among tourists in North India would know what it is to be entreated – no, the right word here is ambushed – by rickshawwallahs who will offer to take you to the best hotel at the cheapest price and stick to you like bees to nectar until you threaten to swat them. In Kerala, the rickshawwallahs are where they should be - in their rickshaws. But this time we did need some advice on where to go. We sought out one who seemed honest and good-natured and told him we were seeking a place near the backwaters and one that was situated in green surroundings. He replied to us in chaste Hindi, “Ha jee jaroor leke jaunga (Yes I will take you there).” It turned out that he had enrolled for an evening class taken by a retired school teacher. He led us through the main Kollam town, showing us the
popular hotels, and towards a huge bus depot. Then he turned into a gate, stopped and told us were at the “green” hotel. He had brought us to a place that was adjacent to a noisy bus station! “Arey bhai, humey aisi jaga jana hai jaha shanti ho, hariyali ho (we want to go to such a place where there is peace and greenery),” I said. “Idhar hariyali nahi ji, idhar sab malyali, (there is no hariyali here, only malyali) he retorted in his sweet voice, apparently unable to comprehend the meaning of 'hariyali'. My hindi had clearly gone above his head! Tired and hungry, we asked him to take us to the beach where we could be assured of a breeze in the very least.
Tuija had her own agenda of items and they were far removed from getting a tan on the beach. We had crossed a temple a little before reaching our hotel and that soon made its way on her list: “visit the temple”. The next morning when we set off, Tuija headed straight to the temple. I was apprehensive to say the least, knowing how orthodox south Indian customs were. At temples in Thiruvananthapuram,
notices were put up barring non-Hindus from entering. Still if you had a brown skin and weren’t dressed like a mullah or a church priest, how was anyone to know what religion you belonged to? Tuija’s fair skin, though, would bear her out. I had to make up a good story that would be convincing enough in case I was needed to speak in Hindi on her behalf: she was studying the scriptures or she converted to Hindu religion or we just married…
As I found out, there was no need for any of these. We entered the temple, and moved in slow steps towards the deity, passing lightly almost like shadows so that when the temple pujari (priest) saw us besides him praying to the diety, his surprise was complete. If his mind had drifted to the rulebook and how it behove the custodian of the temple to act in such circumstances, we gave him no time to act on his thoughts. No sooner did he cast his gaze on us that we bowed reverently and made to encircling the deity, as is the custom in temples. The temple had a courtyard so that by looking up we
could gaze at the blue sky. It felt very relaxing.
We came back and asked for tirth (water, mixed with some medicinal herbs, which is poured from an urn into the palm of one’s hand; after drinking it, the remaining drops are applied over the eyelids.) The priest poured it to us and gave us each a leaf packed with some items, all the time wearing a stern expression which said he wasn’t very pleased about our presence. But in any case we were on our way out.
Surprises can bring out the real qualities of a person. As we walked out, whom should we bump into but another pujari. We were taking photos posing alongside the temple, and smiled when we saw him. He returned our greetings with a friendly nod. His disarming smile had a catalyzing effect; we asked him if he could take our photograph and he readily obliged. Tuija seized the opportunity to ask him the contents of the leaf pack and if she should apply both the orange (vermilion) powders and the red (kumkum) one. “Yes,” he said…or did he say “no”? I wasn’t paying attention 😞
Another item on Tuija’s ‘to-do’ list was buying a lungi and learning how to wear one. Tuija had been fascinated, or rather besotted(!), by locals who wore fashionable lungis and by all the “sexy things they did with them,” swaying the loose ends in their hands and folding them when the fancy took them. We got a lungi each from a shop in Kollam’s Bishop supermarket. Back at the hotel, Tuija persuaded me so much to try it that I finally went to the bathroom and tried draping it like I would wear a towel. When I looked at my own poshak, it was clear it wasn’t the right style. I darted out and straight down to the hotel lobby, seeking to take the assistance of one of the staffers hailing from Kerala. There I met Sumegh, who smiled in the manner most Keralites in the hospitality business do – a smile that is at once warm and genuine. 😊
Sumegh undertook to teach me how to wear the lungi. By this time Tuija was down too and had put in her request so the class was for both of us. The trick in having the lungi nicely tucked in lay in breathing in deeply while doing so. “Ladies wear them too,” Sumegh explained, “but mostly during Onam and always over another garment.” Too bad it wasn’t going to be all that sexy for Tuija :P
Lungis formed an integral part of Mallus' weddings, Sumegh went on. It was mandatory for the bridegroom to come dressed in a lungi, regardless of whether he was used to wearing it or not. In fact the guests assembled would identify the groom by the colour of his lungi, which is to be a white one with an attractive border. The groom and his close friends, who are seated next to him, get special treatment from the bride’s family – they can throw any tantrums but the bride’s family can't afford to displease them. And, as we had guessed, lungis (often a silk lungi) are given as presents to the groom.
We got more of the ‘have-you-dropped-from-Mars?’ reaction when we went to Kollam beach. As I ran down the beach a group of lungi-clad men, who seemed to be my age, waved their hands as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” At first I ignored them, but when on my return lap I found that they were still gesticulating and had the same query writ over their faces, I felt I should give the local sons-of-the-soil more regard. I waved from a distance. They signaled me to come up to them, as if I was an errant ship and they were the customs department. Having nothing to lose, I went up to meet them. I soon found, however, that there was no conversation to be had - they couldn’t utter any words in English other than “halloo” and “bye”! I remembered what Sumegh had told me – there was so much popular literature in Malyalam, the native language of the Keralites, that locals had little need to read English. And those from the villages rarely did. Besides, though Kerala boasts of a 100 percent literacy and English is a compulsory language in schools, only a few attain the required proficiency to speak fluently. “We would learn some of the most common essays by rote and simply reproduce them in the exams,” Sumegh had told me in Hindi (Sumegh’s father had an all-India-transferable-job and so he had picked up Hindi).
My meeting with the menfolk aroused the curiosity of a group of kids who were playing in the vicinity. They abandoned their game to see what the matter was, seemingly glad that their everyday play had been thus interrupted. This time I knew better how to talk to them. Less talk, more action. “Salaam from Mumbai ka bhai,” I told them and with a flourish raised my hand to my forehead and stood at attention. That was enough to prompt a cackle of laughter. “Salaam,” the more imaginative of them croaked and making a monkey-face, raised his hand in a crude salute. It was time to take out the camera. I showed them how to look through the eye-piece, and with a steady hand click a picture. All the kids were eager for their turn, while the rest put on their rowdiest appearances.
It turned out that Tuija, who was walking along the beach, had a similar encounter, only in her case they were little school girls. “They giggled and asked me questions in Malyalam to which I could only reply by smiles and nods of heads,” Tuija recounted. The girls then ran back but after a while one of them returned. She opened her palms to show some wild flowers which she had plucked and offered them to Tuija. How very lovely 😱 Flowers do help us speak a universal language.
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