Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 12 - EPILOGUE

Chapter 12


So I said goodbye, and all that to Mangalore, and Munnabhai. Direct train tickets to Bombay weren’t available; hence my idea was to go to Mangalore and from there to board a train to my final destination. Munnabhai helped me get a second class sleeper ticket; I didn’t ask him the means he employed, but he told me that I was to pretend to be one “Idris Hassan” through the journey to Bombay. He came as far as the train with my bags and loaded them on the luggage rack of the Matsyagandha Express. I paid him a generous tip of Rupees One Hundred and Fifty which also included the rickshaw fare. This was slightly less than what I had paid to Sojan and Rajesh but he had the rest of the day to himself.

As the train trundles over the lush green foliage of the Konkan coast I look back upon the journey that had begun two weeks and a half earlier from New Bombay. This green belt extended all the way down to the beautiful countryside I had just left behind, God’s Own Country. When I think of Kerala I think of it as a sacred land where God is as important as Godlessness, where history and traditional values are respected and observed, a land of idol worship and anti-idolators, a state steeped in stories and legends.

It is the motherland of great kings such as the Chera king Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan, who ruled for fifty-six years, the great reformers Udaya Marthanda Varma and Marthanda Varma and the noble Velu Thampi Dalava who led a rebellion against the British. They were benevolent rulers who commanded respect like the legendary king Mahabali who though he was a demon king, was so loved by his Malayali subjects that the Gods became jealous of his popularity.

It is also the land of Adi Shankaracharya who in his limited thirty-three years on this earth led what is believed to have been the greatest religious revival of India at a time when Hinduism was slowly being overshadowed by Buddhism. In the short span of his life he established the four Mutts, or, monasteries, that still function as the fountainhead of spiritual leadership for Hindu believers in India.

In a land blessed by Gods, thousands of pilgrims converge on Sabarimala every year to do penance and ask for redemption of sins. Sabarimala Ayyappan, or, Manikantan, is revered as a reincarnation of the maintainer God, Vishnu. And thousands of Christians visit Divine Nagar at Pota to seek spiritual rejuvenation, and find spiritual solace inside this sanctuary. There is a world-renowned Christian meeting that takes place every February on the sandy bed of the Pampa River near Kozhencherry, near my village of Kidangannoor. Faithful Syrian Christians from all over India converge on this sandy river bed during the dry month of February.

The journey is also memorable because of the wonderful people I met. Hamid, who sold me Police sunglasses for Rupees One Hundred and Twenty, Komalan, the politician, who sold cold buttermilk in trains, and Munnabhai, who took me around Mangalore as my guardian angel and bought me a difficult-to-obtain train ticket for the journey back to Bombay. Friendly Sojan and Rajesh, my captain and cook respectively on a century-old river boat, simple folks, who, though only paid for a month what a single meal would cost in a developed country, looked after me on my backwaters cruise on a stately, centuries-old Kettuvallom. Sojan taught me how to fish and Rajesh taught me how to navigate the house-boat through the placid canals of Alleppy. Not to forget the somewhat boastful Kumars on the journey from Kerala to Mangalore in the air-conditioned second class coach.

Johnny the tour operator for the backwaters cruise had told Sojan and Rajesh that I was a writer and therefore I should be treated with respect and shown all the sights along the route. They did. In Kerala a writer is not a writer but a “Sahityakaran,” meaning, a man of literature. And, I found out, a man of literature is a respected individual in God’s Own Country.

In a little over two weeks I had cut a wide swathe, travelling from the most modern part of India Bombay – across to one of the most industrially backward, though prosperous areas of India. The contrast between Bombay and Kerala is stark. On the one side is the ugly face of industrialisation and modernity and on the other is a traditional sanctuary that still clings to centuries-old beliefs, superstitions and godliness so much as to be called God’s anointed country. 

In Cochin I discovered a shop selling products of a privately funded trust. It created wonderfully crafted and intricately-designed articles from reeds, bamboos, and metals. The range was vast and the prices were not too high as to be intimidating. I bought a pen stand that had space to keep a mobile phone and a picture frame made from reed. Cost me around Rupees one-hundred-and-fifty. Several traditional crafts are dying for want of buyers and I felt I was doing something to help.

Cochin is full of huge posters of Hindi movie star John Abraham. Reason: he is half Malayali. For a people who worship matinee idols as Gods this isn’t surprising. I also see several gigantic posters of Mohan Lal and Mammooty, both Malayalam film super stars.

A journey that had begun two-and-a-half weeks earlier was almost complete, I mused, as I passed rivers, waterfalls, gorges, and mountains of a rain spattered Konkan coast. It had begun, about a week ago, at Center One in New Bombay.

Goa was peaceful, beautifully green and litter free. I couldn’t find the odd plastic cups and carelessly thrown plastic bags that was omnipresent on the journey towards Goa. Then I see this sign on a road in a sleepy little Goan hamlet in this most beautiful of Indian tourist destinations.

“Dumping garbage is strictly prohibited.”

At least the Goans have, with their love of languages, got their English right! Perhaps there is a lesson in it somewhere. If rules are written in simple and direct enough language, people would be less fussy about its observance. Something for our law-makers to take note. Most of the rule books in India are written in arcane language, with mistakes to boot. Sad to say, they evoke laughter and not observance.

It is a Sunday and throughout Goa I could see the faithful going to Churches that are ever present in this former Portuguese colony. The men all wore trousers and shirts and the women wore skirts. The usual Goan bon homie could be seen at village intersections where groups of men and women in their Sunday best clothes stood talking and smiling in the best free-spirited Goan way, which I knew so well from being with Goan friends in Bombay. 

Goa will eternally be Goa, spotlessly clean, with its charming fresh-painted bungalows, its churches, its crosses. That makes me think to myself, some day I am going to make a personal journey to Goa and write about it. When I was there last, Prakash (about whom I have written earlier), a rickshaw driver, had escorted me around Panjim, acting as my personal chauffeur and valet, just as Munnabhai had in Mangalore. The simplicity and honesty of such acts of friendliness and kindness touched me throughout my journey through South India. I wondered what Prakash would have been doing when I passed through Goa. Is he doing well? May be he is busy helping another tourist.

Then I thought of the various atrocities committed on travellers that I had read in newspapers. May be travellers and tourist in India should learn how to respect local cultures and not act high handed or talk down to the local people. I was kind and friendly and I received heavy dollops of kindness and friendliness throughout my travel.

On the train I meet a family from Cochin that is travelling to Bombay to visit relatives. Benny is a worker in Cochin Refinery and his wife Beena is a quality controller of a church reconstruction project in Cochin. Coincidentally I, too, attend the same church when I visit my brother’s family in Cochin.

I am somewhat awed when Beena, a civil engineer, tells me that the project is estimated at over Rupees thirty million. Churches are a matter of pride for the community and such projects are grandly conceived and executed. A lot of hard-earned money from the Persian Gulf goes into these constructions. All around Kerala I see such huge churches that would any day rival the Judaic Temple of Solomon in grandeur. I have met the vicar of the church and a cousin of mine is on the church committee. So again a connection is established proving the maxim that there aren’t six, but only two degrees of separation between a Malayali and a fellow Malayali. Benny’s family and I become friends.

Benny and I talk about the law and order situation in Cochin. He is concerned about the growing crime rate. Beena’s god chain was snatched in broad daylight from inside a bus. She immediately went to the police station and lodged a complaint, but apparently she had no luck. The police did nothing and the thieves were not traced. Benny lives in the heart of the city and he tells me that property rates are so high that his meagre house and property would fetch him Rupees forty million if he is to sell it at the present market value. But, no, he has no intention of parting with the property of his ancestors.

It is eight a.m. when we touch Madgaon, or Margao, as the Portuguese used to call it. My Goan friend Tony Carvalho would tell me that the Portuguese who had ruled over Goa till 1951 were respected, and in some ways, even admired. His childhood was spent in Goa and he had said that one could go visiting without even locking one’s house and there wouldn’t be any burglaries. At a few Goans weddings I have attended in Bombay, guests, in keeping with tradition, would still speak in Portuguese. And from the train I could see a long procession of men dressed in trousers and half-sleeved shirts and women in skirts, with scarves tied over their hair, walking through the greenery of coastal villages. A pretty picture, I must say.

To me it appeared that there is great similarity between Goa and Kerala. Both are states which have been colonised first by the Portuguese, and both have sizable Christian population. In both states rice and fish are the staple diets.

Or, perhaps, on the contrary, the Portuguese must have been strict enforcers of the law and that may be the reason for the observance of the law in this tiniest of states of India. But Goan roads are cleaner than roads in any other parts of India and you will rarely find unauthorised hawkers in any precinct of Panjim, the capital city. Also cheap grocery stores do not display their wares outside the shop, along the footpath, as they do in Bombay.

But I digress. The train moves speedily from Goa into the south of Maharashtra state into areas such as Kudal, Ratnagiri, Sindudurg and Roha. There are several deep gorges along the path which are connected by viaducts. There comes over me a tremendous feeling of something having passed, some world that is left behind. Bombay would mean a mechanical existence with deadlines to meet and no time to sit and stare in the daily churn of events.

But I feel fulfilled and satisfied that I had kept notes on this journey, clicked pictures and that I had the opportunity of meeting some wonderful people and learning about their lives. I would advise anyone undertaking such a journey to go with an open mind, to accept things and situations as they are, and not as they should be. You are travelling through a time warp, or timelessness, a state in which some people still live in some areas of India. There still are tribal people living in secluded areas, in isolation, cut off from civilization, shopping malls, and outsourcing units.

I had undertaken a wide range of crisscross journeys across Kerala and had tried as far as possible to keep my eyes and ears open. As a returning son of the soil – I was born in Kerala, and have spent eight years of my life there before migrating to Bombay – I had the added advantage of knowing the language, culture and traditions of South India and Kerala. If one is not conversant in the languages of South India, I feel a good knowledge of English would suffice as most Malayalis have undergone school education and can understand English.

As I got down at Panvel, quite near Belapur, where I live, I could look back upon the fulfilment of a dream I had nurtured for a long time. The dream was of recording Kerala through my own experiences, as I saw it. My apologies if I may have passed on a few images coloured by my biases towards my native state.

However what was enchanting about God’s Own Country was the feeling that I had visited a different time and age, a place where ancient wisdoms and traditions co-exist with modern thoughts and styles, and where people are learning to cope with modernity in their own individual ways. Corporations and businesses see Kerala as a fast growing market for their products, as there is a lot of money flowing in from its expatriate sons and daughters.

The phenomenon of opulent consumption or materialism could be true not only of Bombay but of Kerala too. I remember the Malayali mother inside Center One exhorting her child with, “No, no, no,” and the Gujarati father saying, “Sirf Joyiye, nathi levano,” which translates to, “Only see, do not buy,” when I had started my journey from New Bombay. There is a desire to be modern and own the latest mobile phones and gadgets, but there is also financial restraint.

The great transition from an agricultural society to a modern, networked society has, perhaps, come too soon, I think, as I see two trendy young people in the latest clothes flirting at an upmarket shopping complex in Marine Drive, Cochin. A group of boys, in more traditional attire of dhotis and shirts, jealously ogle at them as they pass. The contrast between their lives is immediately apparent. The couple in trendy clothes have someone abroad supporting their modern lifestyle while the group of boys only have dreams of being similar to them some day.

Kerala is not Camelot or Utopia but as near as possible to a Shangri-la, which has existed in a time warp till the very recent past, is modernising very fast, and is slowly being re-discovered and recorded for posterity. And I hope this account is one of the many humble chronicles of this serendipitous discovery.



OVG said...

Interesting Reading, Informative and in simple language

OVG said...

Great Writing Saar

John said...

Hey OVG,

Thanks, saar!