A homecoming in Kerala
I ARRIVED IN KERALA in June 2016 from the US, fully prepped to begin my PhD dissertation research. One of my first visits was to a palace museum where a very nice man took upon the task of showing me around. He had been overjoyed to run into a person as interested as he was in local history. We talked for over an hour about the Travancore royal family, the history of subaltern reform movements, the sad state of museums in Kerala and so on. When he learned that my dissertation was on Kerala’s pre-modern art, he whipped out his cell phone (ringtone set to KJ Yesudas lovingly serenading Guruvayurappan) and gave me a list of people that he thought may be of help. As we walked down the grand flight of stairs, each teak-wood tread creaking from our weight, he said, “So, you are not married.”
Having grown up in Kerala, I knew privacy was an overrated concept, but the comment with no question implied still surprised me. I confessed my marital status and for shock value added that I have a child. The man looked thoroughly confused.
Experiences like these were precisely why I had set out for my dissertation research with a sense of trepidation. I had left Kerala at 17. Actually, I had picked up my skirts and run away from the casual misogyny of the conservative small town. My family’s liberal, sometimes even feminist, values had placed me at odds with Malayalee society. I had not returned to live here in over 15 years. Studies, marriage and motherhood had kept me away, seeing less and less of Kerala as the years went by. Now I was back, living in the state full-time for half the year, for two years in a row. Kerala’s dichotomy as one of the most literate yet patriarchal states has always concerned me. How can people who appear to be so aware of the world be so closed to new ideas? How was I going to live here now, after living abroad for more than a decade, and put up with life here if I couldn’t do it at 17?
I came across good men (and women) like my museum guide almost every day as part of my research travels. The subtext of their comments was clear. I was breaking the unspoken Malayalee code of conduct: a girl is always highly educated, finds work after graduation, then immediately gets married, and within the next couple of years makes a baby. Then she lives happily ever after, expertly juggling a 9-to-5 job and motherhood, being a wife and a splendid cook, and all the while preferably placing her husband’s needs above hers. And here I was with a young child who was being taken from town to town across three continents, often left in the care of his grandmother, while living away from the husband for months on end—all for what? For lying under a 300-year-old bed at Padmanabhapuram Palace in Tuckalay, a town on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, trying to figure out how this object was put together!
Yet, if you can accept, at least momentarily, the Malayalee curiosity and patriarchal leanings and move ahead, you get to the good stuff.
The big cities in Kerala have undergone a seismic change over the last decade. Glistening malls are making their presence felt, there are more tourists out and about, and traffic in cities like Ernakulam is necessitating the construction of Metro rail lines. But beyond the bounds of these cities, a constant in Kerala is its slow- paced way of life. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the British certainly could not stand it; the 18th-century pioneer Reverend Claudius Buchanan complained that the state’s Nairs did nothing but fight wars or celebrate festivals, with its Christians learning the miserable habits of Nairs and making a mockery of their religion as well. The martial culture is now long gone, but festivals of all kinds remain.
Marari, a fishing village turned tourist haven in the district of Alappuzha, epitomises this laidback quality more than any other place I have visited in recent memory. The bluish-green Arabian sea is schizophrenic here. On one part of the beach, its serene beauty lies almost as still as a pool. You can walk many feet into the waves rippling around your legs, confidently searching for shells, of which there are many kinds. But walk a few yards north, across a dried-up estuary, and the sea takes on a different avatar. It roars, huge waves breaking on the sand with such threatening furore that you wonder if you imagined its placidity. In the evening locals walk by with fish they caught for dinner, little ones that you will not find in stores. Fish that look like anchovy but pack a wallop taste-wise, like fat mackerel.
The more I travelled, the more Kerala became familiar in a way that I had not experienced while I grew up here. I always knew that it was a beautiful place
The amazing thing about Kerala, though, is that you don’t have to go to a beach to find the kind of joy one seldom finds in the bustling streets and hipster cafes that I adore so much elsewhere. (Indeed, aside from Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram, you will hardly find a town with a decent Café Coffee Day or Starbucks, forget hipster cafes entirely.) Starting around May (if you are lucky) and all the way into October, you can sit on any porch and cloud-watch. For when it rains in Kerala, you will find that the incessant humidity and nearly-unbearable heat was worth it.
Thunder in Kerala doesn’t rumble, it roars like a caged animal unleashed. And when it does, you run to unplug electric cables and then make some really hot chaaya.
It rained early this year. As it rained, my toddler who can otherwise never sit still, did not utter a word. We watched the sparks silhouetting the dancing trees until it was time for bed.
The more I travelled, the more Kerala became familiar in a way that I had not experienced while I grew up here. I always knew that it was a beautiful place. But it had always been a place of legends and myths, not so much history. What was made had gone back to being mud, for the Keralites of yore steadfastly used laterite and timber to construct their houses and temples, and they wrote on olas (dried Palmyra leaves)—materials that hardly have a shelf life of beyond a few hundred years.
Last year, in the course of my research in London, I came across a British East India Company document containing the account of Tipu Sultan’s attack on Kerala in 1789. Tipu, the fearsome king of Mysore, unleashed his armies first on the petty chiefs of North Malabar, subjugating them one by one, by sword or marriage. His great army came to the northern borders of Travancore and Cochin, and here they encountered the rampart called Nedumkotta, a line of fortifications that stretched from the Arabian Sea to the Western Ghats. Nedumkotta impeded Tipu temporarily, and it is said that when he returned, he destroyed the Lines, blasting it from east to west out of pure spite.
I wanted to see if there was anything left of Nedumkotta. So I gathered together my young octogenarian grandmother, mother, and my son, and set off along National Highway 544. We eventually found what is called the Konoor gate, the first entry point of the Mysorean army. We climbed the steep mound which was all that was left of the Lines. Amidst the undergrowth, there are still huge granite slabs that may have been the roof of sepoy hideouts, and at two points, the laterite outer wall displayed greyish black shadows—spots were Mysorean canons had hit the rampart. Ever since we ‘conquered’ the Konoor Gate, I can only imagine NH 544 as the path by which a massive army marched across fields and rivers and mountain passes, burning and pillaging as armies are wont to do, but laying a road that is still the backbone of Kerala.
History in Kerala is often a lived experience, as it is in many other parts of South Asia. How can it not be when I cross railway stations named Chirayankeezhu and Neyyatinkara while reading a British survey from the 1810s that talks of these little towns: the narrow lanes that lead to temples, the numerous ponds in which people bathe, the homesteads surrounded by gardens filled with the jack, mango, arecanut, cashew, and the omnipresent coconut trees? It is easy to Orientalise interior Kerala as seemingly bound in a time-warp, as the colonisers once did, but we know better.
Thunder in Kerala doesn’t rumble, it roars like a caged animal unleashed. And when it does, you run to unplug electric cables and then make some really hot chaaya
As I rolled out from under Marthanda Varma’s bed at Padmanabhapuram Palace, the lady guide stationed there asked me: “Have you seen the lizards?”
I was flummoxed. Did she mean there were lizards under the bed? As I continued to look around for imaginary mini-reptiles, the guides exchanged grins and led me to the little connecting door off the main room and unhooked it. The lady guide pointed and said, “There are six. Can you find them?”
Malayalee humour had found its way into the beautiful wooden door, within the carved foliates of whose central plank are a number of little lizards sculpted so as to be seen only if one looks closely. I could almost imagine the craftsman who made the door smiling to himself as he bent over with his chisel thinking: ‘I am going to give the king something to do every day before he goes to the ladies.’
In the course of the last two years, I have encountered things so beautiful, things that not many have seen because as with everything in Kerala, you have to search to find them. Hill Palace in Thrippunithura, considered an inferior cousin to the Dutch Palace at Mattanchery, was Kerala’s answer to the engineered gardens of Europe. Time and neglect has wrought havoc on its terraced landscape, but if you walk the grounds at Hill Palace, you can still find gorgeously-ruined fountain basins and beautiful lion-shaped spouts that once carried water into them through a patchwork of canals. If John Ruskin were alive (and decided to be less of an Anglophile) he would have found these gardens, and Kerala at large, covered in the ‘patina of age’ that he much admired in the architecture of Ancient Greece.
But, as importantly, in Kerala I have met people who have been kind even when they were being parochial. I have had KSRTC bus personnel stop the bus and run after a paper file that I accidentally dropped when I boarded the bus. A government office clerk personally mailed my permit letters because she knew how important it was for me to receive them. A fellow passenger looked away to give me some privacy as I teared up watching my son on WhatsApp, missing him so much that my insides felt like they were melting. And there was a police officer who acted as if he didn’t see me taking a photo that I wasn’t supposed to take but needed for my research.
None of this is like those ‘God’s Own Country’ advertisements. They don’t show the big fat mosquitoes by the backwaters, the ridiculous humidity that will clothe you in sweat before you leave your bathroom even after a cold shower. And unless you really, really want to see Kathakali performances, you are not going to see them. But, what the advertisements also miss entirely is that sense of peace you find in ordinary journeys looking out of the window of the Jan Shatabdi Express at the numerous backwaters dotting Kerala’s coastline, wondering why it is that you ran away from all this in the first place. My research has forced me to see Kerala with new eyes, to look beyond its sins and follies, and bear the patriarchy with more tolerance. Maybe that tolerance is possible because I now know that change is gradual, and while we agitate for change, we still have to live with and amongst those who disagree with us.
I am still not sure if I belong here anymore. But it is certain that Kerala will always be a part of me, for Malayalee humour is in my blood, the spicy beef and pork dishes are in my bones, and the sights and scents that made me find my way back home will hopefully be etched in my dissertation.