Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.
It begins with a gold-tinged scene of a waterway at dawn. Burnt-out husks of dead trees rise from the water like the Devil’s fingers – and after more than ten seconds, one of them moves! The landscape is alive! Run for your lives! It is in fact a humanoid figure, long-legged and brandishing a spear. There are no signs that it will be aggressive, but one senses that it might become so at any moment.
WHAT THIS MEANS: Welcome to Kerala.
A Hindu wedding is dominated by colour: the red of the bride’s one-off sari, the tint of the gold chains around her neck, the white and green of fragrant jasmine flowers, the black of the groom’s hair and moustache – all illuminated in intense clarity by the camera crew’s megawatt bulbs. My first Hindu wedding was on merely my second day in Kerala, my venerable new neighbour eager to have the new saip present at his second son’s marriage, and the whole experience was utterly intoxicating. Some of that initial sheen has worn off after attending so many more, but enough of the magic remains that my enjoyment of each occasion extends beyond simply paying my respects, or ‘blessing with presence’ as one friend’s elegant invite read.
There are a few commodities in Kerala that will always be in high demand. Rice, obviously, and the coconut products that invariably accompany it at mealtimes. Liquor, as previously mentioned, is on an upward consumption curve. And then there’s gold. Even as ubiquitous and controversial as liquor has become, it cannot hold a candle to the influence of gold in the average Malayali’s life. The desire to acquire and hoard it seems to be hard-wired, a vital element in the struggle to survive and, if you’re fortunate, to be upwardly mobile. To put it simply, in Kerala, gold – like Gordon Gekko’s greed – is good.
It starts as soon as I open the door: that bizarre, enigmatic sensation of being somewhere utterly contradictory. The Subway restaurant on the edge of Trivandrum’s Technopark campus is the only American chain restaurant for literally hundreds of miles around, and this makes it both the starkest example of Western influence on life in Kerala and the most jarring collision between that influence and the steadfast conservatism of this corner of India. The restaurant is right next to the building in which I work, so today I’ve decided to spend my lunch break there.
The music always hits me first. No Bollywood vocoders or Malayali whistles here: the dial is always tuned to an American radio station, generally near full volume. As I walk in, a track by one of my favourite groups, Arcade Fire, blasts out of the PA – a group I don’t think I’ve even heard in restaurants back in NZ, let alone in India. “I woke up with the power out! Not really something to shout about!” shrieks singer Win Butler as I walk to the vegetarian counter. Living as I do in rural Kerala, this line is peculiarly apt.
I usually skim over and delete forwarded emails within seconds of receiving them, but when Sean-Paul Kelley’s scathing assessment of India popped up in my inbox, I carefully read and re-read each word with rising irritation and, ultimately, anger. Kelley is an American travel writer whose bio on several sites, including The Huffington Post, states that he has had several very good jobs, he maintains a highly regarded blog called The Agonist and he has travelled in more than 47 countries. While this last fact makes his voice a little more deserving of deliberation, it does not transform his words into gospel, even if the majority of what he writes is true; the accountants’ truth matters little if couched in words that are roundly negative, Westernist and irresponsible.
A brief summary of Kelley’s piece:
India (except Kerala) is polluted, infrastructurally backward, bureaucratically inefficient and riven with corruption. And things aren’t going to get better, because no Indians (except in Kerala) “give a shit”.
I was at a work meeting a few months ago when something curious happened. We were sitting at a long table, and I noticed that on the opposite side from where I sat, every person had a moustache. As I looked along their faces, all focused intently on the boss’s rhetoric, I was spontaneously seized by a powerful urge to burst out laughing. It seemed so hilarious, like this unofficial uniform – absurd, almost, if it weren’t for the fact that I wore a moustache myself.
…read more at The NRI…
I have never seen a Mollywood film all the way through, but I know all about Mammootty and Mohanlal. If you’ve spent any time at all in Kerala, you’ve met them: at the barber, the supermarket, the mobile phone shop, the inside of your rickshaw. From these various static vantage points, their visages keep a close eye on everything that goes on in any given town. It goes without saying that Mammootty and Mohanlal are always on TV in Kerala, often on more than one channel at a time. Wherever you go, whatever you do, the state’s two superstars are looking over your shoulder. And that is only the beginning of their influence.
…read more at The NRI…
I found out about the BBC’s recent big story about Kerala when I was browsing in the Reliance World internet café below my office. One of my colleagues – a Malayali, same as 95% of the people who work in my Technopark office – came to me with a big grin on his face. “Hey, did you hear there was a story about Kerala in the BBC today?” I told him I hadn’t, but was quickly interested to know what it was about. Kerala in the news! Exciting! “Yeah,” he said, grin still fixed to his face. “It said that Kerala consumes the most alcohol in the whole of India!”
There it was on the BBC’s front page. ‘Kerala’s love affair with alcohol’ read the headline in bold type. I had expected an appreciation of the palm trees and backwaters seen in Incredible!ndia, or something equally charming and inoffensive, but this was an exposé of the state’s runaway drinking culture. Normally, when there is bad international press about your homeland, you tend to react with either shame, disgust, protest or a combination of the three. My colleague, however, seemed almost overjoyed to tell me that he and his fellow Malayalis were becoming world renowned for their drinking prowess. A typical reaction of a young male anywhere, I guess, but it neatly sums up the attitude here.
So, here in Kerala, I am a ‘saip’, or white man, and will be that before anything else as long as I am here. Whether I’m tucking into beef curry for dinner, wearing a lunghi, sporting an impressive moustache or even someday speaking fluent Malayalam, I am unlikely to ever escape the outsider category I came with.
I experienced a somewhat similar phenomenon in Japan, my previous home. The Japanese approach to foreigners tends to be dominated by the dichotomy of ‘uchi’ (inside) and ‘soto’ (outside). As a foreigner, you are destined always to be ‘soto’, regardless of how Japanese you have become – even if you renounce your country of birth and take Japanese citizenship. You look different, therefore you must be different.