Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 6 - A Country of Many Gods

Chapter 6


Syrian Christians like me believe that Christianity had made its mark in this state when Jesus’ disciple Thomas visited Kerala and converted a number of families to Christianity. This fact has been proved by many scholarly studies. Rev. Thomas, a Jacobite priest and a relation, had told me once that the language of the liturgy used in Jacobite churches in Kerala is Armaic, the language spoken by Christ, and the language in which the first church worshipped.

Today Kerala Christians take pride in being one of the oldest Christians in the world, their parents having become Christians in the first century. This is yet another claim Kerala can make of being God’s own country, a country where Gods of such diversity had co-existed over several centuries without any great upheavals, wars, or revolutions. More of this occurs later in this account.

When writing about a country of many Gods, I would be less than justified if I do not mention the handicrafts of Kerala. There is a wide variety of handicrafts churned out by traditional home-based enterprises. An amazing array of handicrafts awaits the casual visitor to Cochin, the commercial capital of Kerala. Cochin is to Kerala just as Bombay is to India, the hub of commercial activity.

With time on my hands, one day, I roamed around Cochin’s Mahatma Gandhi Road and bought a tambourine, something I had wanted for a long time. I got an instrument, finely crafted from wood for Rupees Two-hundred and sixty-five. At that time, I considered it a good bargain.

Next I visited a church built in the form of a ship, which also called the “Kappal Palli,” meaning “church that looks like a ship.” Actually its name is St. Xavier’s Church. The church also had a bell tower that sported three gigantic bells and I could imagine what it would sound like when they tolled together. Then I visited the Kerala handicraft store on Mahatma Gandhi Road. The variety of handcrafted items on show there amazed me. I had never imagined that there was such a rich legacy of handicrafts in the state.

In the store I saw the “Para” the measure of paddy which brought pleasant memories of harvested paddy lying in neat piles on bamboo mats after the harvesting of rice. I had watched the whole process of threshing with the feet, the winnowing with bamboo baskets, and the rhythmic chants of the master of ceremonies who filled the “Para” with paddy after months of toil. I was mesmerized by the sight of the “Para” now nestling in a corner of the handicraft store. Farming in Kerala is still done the old-fashioned way with bullocks and ploughs. People here apparently have never heard of machines that winnow paddy.

The workers would sing plaintive songs as they thresh and winnow the paddy. The whole process had had an old-world feel to it as I watched it at my native village of Kidangannoor. No paper notes were kept and there was such consummate ease in calculating how much each thresher would take home, which is arrived at after some complicated mental calculations. I had tried my hand at these calculations and, obviously, failed. There is such dexterity of mind and presence of mind that I, as someone used to a calculator and excel sheets, cannot even think of mastering. The operating term here would be “native intelligence” and Kerala men had that in plenty.

In the same abovementioned store was a sign warning visitors, “Beware of steps.” Why should I beware of the poor, harmless steps? Can steps bite? Uh-oh, a literal translation of “Beware of dog,” that can be found painted near the entrance of every house in Kerala that has a mutt, small or big. Then I saw the curiously-shaped steps that many a visitor to the store must have sprained their ankle upon, you know, while gawking at the handicrafts and walking backwards. Another sign on a magistrate’s office warned, “Persons making nuisance in court premises are liable for prosecution.” “Nuisance” is a broad term in Kerala, indeed in India, that can mean anything from talking loudly to urinating to other unmentionables. Again, I digress.

Other products in the handicrafts shop included cute elephant-shaped bookends, elephants supporting shelves, beautifully carved stools, trays, lamps, treasure chests inlaid with brass, wick lamps made of brass, vases, replica of Chinese fishing nets that was a specialty of the Cochin fisher folk, and chess boards with regal-looking carved pieces for king, queen, and bishop. I could marvel the rich cultural heritage of the state that had nurtured such traditional arts over the centuries.

In the afternoon I ate at Ambiswamy’s Vegetarian Fast Food restaurant. This was fast food Indian style. I ate a masala dosa that was very good and crisp. The fare offered included paper dosas, ghee (clarified butter) dosas, onion uttappas, idlis, vadas, chapattis and parotas, all delivered with amazing efficiency and speed. It seemed to me that there should be more such joints around India. Indian cuisines were catching up with the “fastness” of western food, and what an amazing range was on offer. I left the restaurant wondering at the wide variety of cuisines Kerala has to offer.

Orange seller. Now this is something totally out of place, but I must, must write this. I met this orange seller on my perambulation around Cochin. He was a tall strapping man with a cloth bag full of oranges hung around his neck. Orange is one of my favorite fruit. So, assuming my best jocular bargaining style I asked the price.

“Four for Rupees Ten,” was the reply.

“Will you give me five for Rupees Ten?” I asked, again politeness all over.

“Yes, I will give.” I assumed he had succumbed to my fine-honed bargaining skills. But, um, hold on.

“Tell that to the ones at home. They may give for a better price.”

What an insulting reply! I guess politeness is not a virtue in Kerala. I am thankful that Malayalam is such a difficult language to understand. Else, there would have been virtual Mahabharat wars fought over the thousands of subtle insults a Malayali can reel off readily from his tongue.

For a moment I didn’t know whether to laugh or to take umbrage. I knew only a Malayali is capable of saying something so bitter, so cynical, and so insulting. But years of tolerating the “in your face” attitude of my community members had inured me to such comments. He must be one hell of a frustrated man, I am sure. Again I am generalizing when I say that cynicism is somehow very deeply ingrained in the Malayali psyche.

And, yes, before I forget, the mall culture is invading Cochin, Calicut and other cities of Kerala too. I consider myself a mall creature. The more malls I visit, the more I am drawn towards them. I visited a mall that seemed to specialize in women’s and children’s clothing. The only men’s shop in it was named “Yahoo Men’s Club.” I couldn’t consider me as a “yahoo” by any stretch of my usually fecund imagination. Therefore I avoided going in.

I don’t know if India is ready for malls, yet. I remembered the man exhorting his children in Gujarathi in centre One in New Bombay, “Nathi levano, sirf joyiye,” and the mother vehemently telling her child, “Venda, venda, venda, no, no, no,” in the earlier part of my journey. The man was saying don’t buy, only see the displays, the mother was against even seeing, I guess. Such a negative attitude meant only that the majority had some reservations about what is termed “mall culture.”

Mall culture, or whatever that means, could mean modernization, more cars, quicker turnover of technology, and more consumerism for some, but not all. Most people have a feeling they would be duped if they bought from a mall. The credit culture is already here and banks are aggressively pushing loans. I receive a few calls a day with offers of money. If I borrow and fail to repay the same sweet voices could turn abusive. I had read that most Americans live on debt.

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