Part Two: “Land of Coconuts”

15 Apr 2014

***Chapter Four***

They’d only just entered their hotel room when someone knocked at their door. No doubt a “welcome back” call from PP, Clive thought. Turned out to be their laundry —- consisting of only a few items, as they had little chance to dirty anything before heading out for the island. Both were nevertheless excited at the prospect of examining their clean clothes. Their travel books had described the wondrous world of the dhobi-wallahs: “You know, Maria, the book said that our clothes must have been routed through all sorts of channels, and now they bear secret identifying marks known only to the dhobis.” The clothes came back in perhaps the best shape they’d ever seen them. Clive’s tee-shirt, for example, had been painstakingly ironed, folded around a cardboard insert, and placed in a thin plastic baggie (as had another shirt and some jeans).

“Well, it cant be too secret of a marking method,” Maria said, “because someone’s written our room number on my shirt’s tag.”

With little or no dalliance, Clive and Maria decided to hit the town. Perhaps the island had instilled some confidence in them after all. Maria had studied the travel guides much more than had Clive. She decided that some exposure to traditional Kerala dancing would provide the best introduction to Kerala culture. Tonight’s destination: Director Devan’s Kathakali.

Mr. Devan’s home (just as most of the other nearby homes) occupied largely the entire space of perhaps a half-acre inside of a six-or-so-foot tall brick wall. Nearly all of the homes in this part of the world were, for varying reasons, walled in on three and three-quarters sides—with the remainder reserved for a gate. Gates varied in style and grandeur from basic sliding sheets of metal to hinged iron-bar types (with the iron-bar types, however, being the most grand).

When they arrived, the taxi driver offered to wait—for the entire hour and a half show—for them. In declining this offer (and to the disappointment of the cabbie), they effectively severed their Indian umbilical cords. Sometimes in life, therefore, even leaving a taxi is a rebirth.

At this moment, the evening began with the night sky flaring into a deep-bright orange, the birds seemed a bit more variated and tropical—scissoring through the shadows and branches of the neighborhood. Sari-clad women greeted the couple, accepted the admission charges, and escorted them up three stories through the home onto a rooftop patio. Clive and Maria applied Deet once again.

Several other tourists soon arrived, and each seemed to follow the same ritualistic application of repellent. Cumulatively, the group managed to drive any biting pests away for the duration of the evening-making for a rather pleasant rooftop experience. At that height, one sat only slightly over the palm canopy of the city, allowing one to question whether the old homes rested under, between, or was it perhaps among the trees. Whatever the perfect description, the architecture harmonized well with the landscape, almost as if the structures magically found house-sized lots in which to spring up snugly between existing trees. Of course, it could be that palms grow quickly.

A slightly raised stage backed by a silk curtain made up approximately one half of rooftop. Soon, one thin and one stocky man emerged from behind the curtain, assumed the lotus position on the stage floor, and began applying various colors to their faces. They used large leaves for palattes and thin wooden sticks for applicators. Each held a pocket-sized mirror as he worked, and neither seemed to take much notice of the dozen or so audience members.

When Devan finally came out, the two seemed to have applied many of the basic colors (one’s face was predominantly green, the other’s red and black) and the thin green man reclined to lay on his back. The red and balck man traced the curve of the green man’s jaw-lines on pieces of paper, then cut out two large fan-like shapes and glued one edge of each onto the green man’s face so that, facing the green man, his face appeared to widen dramatically into powerful jowls.

Devan spoke as the two men finished. A serene-looking man, dressed in white, he explained that Kathakali, meaning literally story play, celebrates the larger-than-life activities of the Gods. The wide jaws were simply an exaggeration of size, as was every aspect of the Kathakali costume. The wigs: black, matted, extra thick and long; the skirts: vivid, tassled. On each finger of one hand, each actor wore pointy metal extensions—not for weapons, but to exaggerate the intricate hand gestures required of the dance. “The black paint around their eyes,” he began, “is made from burned coconut oil.”

As Devan spoke, Clive considered how much more beautifully pronounced the word coconut was in this country. No one ever seemed to rush the word out as Americans do. Kerala seemed, after all, a relatively patient atmosphere: that is, its residents demonstrated great patience in tolerating the heat, in coping with poverty, in accommodating its tourists, etc. They seemed, as a whole, disciplined. Schools abounded in the territory, espousing auervedic techniques of medicine, massage, and yoga—all stressing patience in one way or another. But the Kerala natives seemed to relax as they said coconut, pronouncing each full “k” sound before each full long- “o” sound, as if in appreciation, reverence, even worship of the crop of their livlihood.

“The oil we can cook with . . . the fruit we can eat . . . we can drink its milk . . . the husks we can dry and make into coir . . . the leaves we weave into baskets . . . we do not waste the shell or even the wood . . . The name Kerala comes from two words: one la, meaning land. The other kera, meaning coconut. So we have Kera la: Land of coconut.” He continued to explain basic Hindu philosophy, and narrateed a short sequence using one of the dancers to demonstrate the importance Kathakali places on eye movements.

The dancer, for each demonstration, held his eyebrows as high as he could and forced his eyes wide as humanly posible. Upon mentioning one emotion, the dancer’s eyes traced wide rapid circles, upon another, the dancer’s eyes darted to extreme lefts and rights, still another emotion set the dancer’s eyes rolling into his head, finally resembling fast upward-spinning slot machine reels. Before the dance-proper began, Devan told the now-captive audience of the painstaking training involved in producing a Kathakali dancer. Several years of dance, eye and face muscle training, and massage were required. Finally, he mentioned the holy book: “I see all of you are clutching your bibles. That’s good.” He refered to the Lonely Planet travel guide, which at least one person from every group indeed had.

Looking back, both Clive and Maria agreed that Devan’s explanation of interpreting the dance and its stories fell into the the category of “perfectly acceptable and clear . . . at the time.” Further, both succinctly remembered experiencing a moment of bona fide understanding and, though short-lived in itself, the memory of having experienced it was permanent. Director Devan seemed driven, as though on a holy mission to educate. Perhaps the most intense part of understanding, when understanding concepts of a true character in life—that is, of someone driven—requires the presence of that person. After separating oneself from that person, one approximates, but never fully grasps, the point. In this case, the newly acquired knowledge of Hinduism, of dance, of Kerala, Clive and Maria later considered secondary; they considered the dance itself of primary importance—how, when it began in the high evening air, large birds swooped in and out of view, the gentle Arabian Sea breezes cooled them, and almost on cue, as the dance began accompanied by drum and cymbals, other nearby companies commenced their evening’s performances—and the night sky of Kerala, the land of coconuts, filled with the drums and bells of Kathakali.

“Of course,” Clive thought outloud as the two walked down the alley after the performance, “there is the theory that, in third-world nations like India with sizeable tourism industries, maybe such art is as much business as it is art —- a way for the people to tap into the foreign cash. With exchange rates and all, we seem to be walking around with a fortune in our pockets. Why not tap into some of that, eh?” He began moving his eyes around wildly at Maria. “You really think it’s for real —- or am I doing it right?”

As she walked, Maria leafed through a hand-out she’d picked up at Devan’s. One side bore a listing of quotes, from various tourists, in praise of the performance. The list included Gunter Grass (although spelled “G-u-n-t-h-e-r”), who summed up his comments with “I liked it very much.” Clive asked, “Didn’t he write a book called The Rat?”

“Well, if he flew to Bombay first, he probably did!”

Many taxis and auto-rickshaws scurried about the residential labyrinthe by this time—presumably because most of the local Kathakali dance performances had finished. Maria flagged down an auto-rickshaw (the couple’s first experience with one), inquired and enthusiastically approved of the rates, and the two hopped in and were swept away. Auto-rickshaws bring the traveler so much closer to the people and places, the couple thought: the air engulfs you, and you seem to brush only inches by people on the roadsides, gesturing to them, etc. Both concluded that, while loads of fun (and cheap), the auto-rickshaws must be responsible for much of the air pollution in the country. Emmissions standards seemed non-existent country-wide, mufflers weren’t to be found, and even the more remote areas contained a certain burnt smell.

The hotel staff welcomed the couple back and mentioned a free Kathakali performance happening near the pool. The performance had almost finished as Clive and Maria arrived. While the characters appeared more elaborate than those seen earlier in the evening (the wicked character seemed much wickeder) the westernized pool-side atmosphere detracted a bit from the authenticity. When the actors finished, the troup leader—a wealthy-looking old Indian man complete with a banana-colored collared shirt and, according to a tourist, “the largest pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever seen”—who had chanted and played the bells, brought his palms together and bowed in thanks to the applause.

That evening, a violent electrical storm blew over. Clive and Maria discussed the function of the storm for the international traveler: it seems to force one into at least slowing down, catching one’s breath. But sometimes, it forces one further into contemplation: Does this lightning seem different or something, foreign, perhaps? In any case, some perhaps ineffible quality of the storm intrigued both of them as they reclined onto their wicker cot. They’d had a taste of the local culture, which perhaps influenced their perceptions of the storm, and they joked about the onset of the monsoon season (still a couple months away). Maria found herself especially enjoying this, opening her eyes wide and loudly repeating, “Monsoon! Monsoon!”

The following morning, after the obligatory uttapam, toast, freshly made pineapple and orange juices, and a quick swim, Clive and Maria decided to arrange a tour of the Cochin area. The hotel’s sentry, a cheerful man in olive drab, combat boots, a black beret, and bright white gloves signaled for a taxi, and as luck would have it, they got George. George spkoe just enough English so that when Clive asked him where he lived, he replied, “Kerala is mostly Hindu.”

Just the same, George knew well the word “tour,” and so headed in the direction of St. Francis Church. The sheer numbers of seemingly stray animals amazed the couple. One notices stray dogs in the states, Clive thought, because the sight is relatively rare. Here, they’re everywhere—amid stray goats and of course, cows. Clive had sent a few cow postcards back to the states reading “Holy Cow!” His theory of the cow’s psychological effect on American tourists in India stemmed all the way back to [year]-the year in which Charlton Heston played Moses parting the Red Sea, delivering his peoples to the desert where rampant idolatry ultimately produced a golden statue of a calf.

However, in addition to a notable lack of frenzied cow worshippers, a sort of reverse irony overcame the two when George announced the first tour stop as St. Francis Church. The church purports to be the first European Church built in India—erected by a group of Franciscan friars who accompanied a Portugese expedition of 1500 A.D.

A devout crossword puzzler, Clive’s face brightened up considerably upon seeing a familiar name on the information plaque: that oft-used four-letter word which concludes “Vasco da _____.” “. . . Vasco da Gama . . . was laid to rest in 1524 A.D. until his remains were removed and taken to Portugul in 1538 A.D.”

The sign also, by the way, bore some amusing English usage (a quality of Indian signage Clive had already come to appreciate). Toward the bottom, it read, “Some of the Heraldic designs and armorial bearings on the tomb stones are of fine workmanship.”

The church itself was a testament to Kerala’s oven-like hot season. Clive pointed upward, saying, “Christians do need to be cooled.” A complex fanning system hung in mid-air above the pews, whose scaffold-like structure approximated a half dozen over-sized trapeze swings welded and knotted together, from which hung several long, thick straps to act as fan-blades. No one knew exactly when they had implemented the system, but one could do worse than guess around the turn of the 20th century. Operating it had required several laborers outside the building to pull ropes through small holes in the walls (thus gently rocking the entire system). The museum personnel did not mention by what mechanism the laborers were cooled.

The free tour culminated in an invitiation to make several donations. Maria put 100 rupees in the “For the Poor” box, and Clive contributed 50 rupees to the church maintenance fund. Back in the Taxi, Clive joked, “You don’t meet a lot of Vascos these days, do you?”

“Can’t say I’ve met any lately. George, where to now?”

“Dutch cemetery.”

A sign at the entrance read, “Dutch Cemetery, Built on 1724.” The absence of palm trees here struck Clive as odd. For the first time since landing in India, no coconut trees occupied his field of vision. Perhaps the Dutch had relandscaped a few hundred years ago, removing them. The trees lining the cemetery’s perimeter stretched tall, with thick, bare limbs, spreading out what greenery they had at their tops. They resembled certain shorter African trees, in which one might chance upon a family of Serengeti cheetas [check fact, and spelling] lounging about.

The walled-in cemetery housed perhaps 75 or 100 gravesights; large, above ground stone coffers, many half-sunk, their cement tops and sides blackened with age. Various foliage nearly camoflaged the entire place. No where did any entire grave escape the persistent vines and orchids; but there was a definite beauty to the place, where the general unkempt feeling reminded one of a forgotten patch of sea-bottom off some remote island. The grave tops domed like treasure chests, especially those of the children’s graves, whose more square than oblong appearance conjured images of pirates and gems. Other sights, presumably group-sites, emerged from underground with their dark openings, perhaps once doorways. Clive and Maria each stood close enough to some of these to see inside for perhaps a few feet, but even in the superlative brightness of the subcontinent, the grave openings seemed like organized containers for darkness: circles of blackness in an otherwise vivid environment.

A few locals wandered in through the main gate. They made small talk and explained-while laughing-that the cemetery was maintained by the Kerela government. Both wore pink button-down dress shirts and white shorts. “Where are you coming from?” they asked the couple.

“America,” Maria replied, but the two men showed no sign of recognition.

“United States . . .” Clive tried, still with little success-but then remembered the trick: “U-S-A!” he announced.

Both in unison: “Ahh, U-S-A!” (Language had its tricks. No one, for instance, knew what air conditioning was, but all recognized “A-C”; the general response to a thank you was simply “Welcome”; et cetera.)

All, including George, strolled out through the gates and down a gravel road which lead to a shore. The water spanned an area approximately as wide as a good-sized river, with another land-mass opposite. Clive had become quite disoriented as to any sense of direction. The sun—which always seemed to pound directly down—proved of little help here, and neither (arguably, not even George) could say whether the shore faced out to sea or not. But they weren’t far from open sea-that was to be sure. Except, the large crows replaced seagulls here. Years of washed-up driftwood lined the banks. All crows perching here seemed to face seaward, and Clive wondered if they’d taken to hunting fish.

Makeshift wooden docks supported several of the giant Chinese fishing nets (which Clive and Maria had read about in a hotel brochure). From a distance, they resemble lop-sided skeletons of massive tents. Closer in, one begins to formulate theories as to their operation: The giant arced X which holds the net is lowered into the water, and the long pole, supplying great leverage, raises the net once again. Something like that, Clive thought. However abandoned they appeared, closer inspection proved their upkeep. All ends of the nets remained securely fastened in place, and faded flags, seeming to signify ownership, hung from a few of the docks.

A row of open-market carts outlined a nearby area—mostly fruit wagons and soda stands, all beneath makeshift tarp tents. None of the perhaps two dozen people around stood directly in the sunlight, except to walk into the shade of another stall. The trees here, as in the cemetery, were noticeably not palms. “Those Dutch must have figured you get more shade from one of these than a palm tree.”

When the five of them stopped at a soda stand near the shore, Clive mentioned the crows once again, explaining his admiration, and the differences from common American pidgeons.

“In America,” Clive began, slyly wiping the rim of the Thums Up cola bottle, “there’s a woman I’ve seen who sat all day in the park feeding the pidgeons because she was sad. Suddenly, she came up with a new idea to improve her business, and that idea was so successful that she now feels she should thank the birds. So she feeds them 50 pounds of birdseed every day.”

The locals showed only mild surprise, mentioning the hindu philisophy on things of this nature: “This feeding of the birds . . .” one explained, looking around at everyone, “ . . . this is . . . what? . . .” Others around him searched for the precise English word. Finally, he offered his own solution to his fellow locals: “very good?” They all nodded, and he repeated the newfound philosophy to Clive and Maria: “This is very good.” Pleased with this philosophical assessment, he nodded and added, “That is what we would say to this.”

At that point, George mentioned it was time to resume the tour. Clive and Maria said goodbye to the strangers and left. Before reaching the taxi, the couple stopped at a man’s merchandise cart to survey his offerings. The man’s toothless grin evoked several feelings in Clive ranging from a certain sympathy to a realization of the man’s over-pricing, but also that the man did know Clive probably had, relatively, a lot of money handy, and what’s a few rupees anyway?—or so Clive thought, and finally decided to purchase something small.

In the taxi, Maria insisted 50 rupees was too much for a sketch of an elephant. George agreed, although not showing so much of an agreement as to possibly lower any frivolous gratuity which Clive might offer upon the tour’s completion.

Maria spotted an extremely large church, and asked George to stop. The soot-covered facade filled their entire view even from 50 or 60 yards back. As Maria approached, the church’s size seemed to engulf her, and she soon disappeared into one of the openings. From a distance, it seemed, like many other features of the town, abandoned; but closer inspection revealed dozens of people. Clive walked, as Maria had, through the dark vestibule, and into the main hall, into which the sun shone from the opposite site through windows set apart at the top of the church like God’s eyes. Every inch of the place was decorated. Dingy yellow and blue tiles lined every arch, cherubs hovered over each doorway. Vivid silk station-of-the-cross tapestries were nailed to the ceiling. Painted statues of the saints, sky-blue mosaics of omega symbols, red velvet curtains, crucifixes, all topped off with the last supper.


[Ed note: Snipping out a bunch of stuff from the end of this chapter, as it's mostly notes and fragments ... a synagogue, Montecherry palace, murals, cobras, elephants, open sewers, huge roaches, giant bats, lepers, buying pineapple juice in a restaurant....]

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