The Cardinal's Brother
By train and boat to easy moving Kerala; leaving India
26th March, 2004
We floated lazily along, stretched out of the soft mattresses of our rooftop sundeck. Every so often, a canoe wandered past.
As we neared the quayside church, singing carried across the water, a village in full voice.
We disembarked, and strolled along the bank. The village was built on a dyke, there was only one direction to go. The shopkeepers smiled at us, and went on with their business. One turned from a converstion to look closely at me, then gestured at his barber's chair.
"Sir, you need a haircut."
The Floating World
I was the only untidy thing in the backwaters of Kerala.
Kerala is so different from Northern India it's hard to believe that you're in the same country.
It is green, lush, the people are relaxed and polite. The traffic is relatively calm and orderly, and the countryside is almost clear of garbage. But this is a different civilization. The langauge here is Malayam, a form of Dravidian. The Dravidian civilization once dominated
all of India before being overwhelmed by Aryan invaders from the north. The Aryan languages - Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and so on - are more
closely related to English than to Malayam.
A large percentage of the population are Christian - members of the Syrian Catholic Church that found its way here 1600 years ago. Until thirty years ago they still held services in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and the language of Syria prior to the Arab conquests of the 8th century.
Kim's best friend's uncle lived in Kochi. Anthony
spent four days arranging the best of Kochi for us. He knew everyone, and everyone was pleased to help him. We later found out that his brother was Cardinal of Kerala. Noone, therefore, was going to mess with the Cardinal's brother's niece's best friend's friends. We were with the Don.
Anthony took us everywhere in Kochi. Maybe, having seen my thicket of untidy, uncut hair, it was his Christian duty to protect us from a public stoning from an outraged mob of street cleaners.
The backwaters of Kerala are a series of lakes and canals separated from paddy fields by a system carefully tended dykess. Many people live here in houses and villages on top of the dams, shaded by rows of tall cocnut palms. Their transport
is the long canoe, whether a farmer taking his produce upstream to a port, or a crowd of shy, giggling schoolgirls crossing the canal on the way home.
We hired a house boat for a day and night, and slowly toured the canals. The houseboat was a floating palace, just for the four of us.
We floated far from the rest of India. The backwaters are calm, quiet, unhurried. There is no rubbish strewn here, none at all. Every house, village and dam is kept in immaculate condition. Perhaps it is because of the dykes that everything is kept so well: to stop the fields from flooding, all the inhabitents must cooperate to maintain the water defences. This communal responsibility must stretch to maintaining their land free from noxious piles of refuse.
Northern Indian towns were almost knee deep in animal refuse. The Christian Keralans, however, were free to eat up the pigs and cows before they reduced the whole village to rivers of dung. For the first time I realised how, as a meat eater, I was helping to save the environment. Now a good steak is going to taste... even better.
When I can find one.
You Want... What??
Nobody hassled us in Kochi. And that in itself was difficult, because hassle was what we were used to. It was our due.
Were we not important enough for these Keralans? Why were we not the centre of attantion. We were Rich Western Suckers! We
deserved to be cheated and importuned at every corner!
But the Keralans smiled shyly, and left us alone.
We caught a rickshaw. We knew the tariff should be 30Rp. So we expected to fight the driver down from 100 to maybe 40. We tensed ourselves, ready to fight...
"25 Rp please."
We gave him thirty, just for being him .
Fried Banana, Fried Banana-aa
The overnight train is the queen of the Indian transport system. The trains are clean, efficient and absurdly cheap. I travelled the
length of India for the price of three London cinema tickets. I reserved my bunks, clambered on board, and eight hours hours later woke up 500 miles away.
And everyone wanted feed me. Every few moments a train food-wallah came past offering snacks or a full meal in a sing-song voice:
chai chai chai chai-aa... chai chai chai chai-aa...
pani - water - pani - water - pani - water...
samosa samosa samosa...
Yes, everything, please.
Fellow passengers get on and off. They smile and are careful of your space. They tend to their children, read, and unwrap meals from banana leaves. At nine o'clock everyone helps lower the bunks and we all climb in.
The trains roll on into the night, gently rocking you to sleep.
Mumbai station again. 630am. My one night hotel was only a hundred yards away. I paused to check the map.
"Where are you going?"
"The City Palace. It's 100 yards that way. I don't need a taxi thanks.
"Why not go to this htoel instead? I could take you there!"
"No thanks. The City Palace is fine."
"I could take you on a city tour. See Mumbai!"
"No thanks. I've been here before."
"I will take you to this hotel sir. Much better than City Palace."
"I will take you to City Palace. You don't like, come to my hotel."
"I will take you to City Palace!"
"There's no need... look how much would you charge me for the 100 yards to the City Palace."
"You're my first customer! You decide how much to pay me!" (Rich Western Suckers normally pay way over tariff.)
"OK. I will pay you five Rupees."
"I'm not allowed to take a customer for 5 Rp! Minimum fare is 15!"
"Five is all it's worth to me. I can walk there in three minutes."
"OK. I take you for 15 Rp."
"Ok. I take you for 10 Rp."
"No. I really don't want a taxi at all. "
"Ok. I take you for five."
In the car.
"I will take you to this hotel first."
"Stop the car."
"OK. I take you to City Palace. I will wait, take you on a city tour later."
"OK. City Palace. I wait with your bags."
"No. Here's five Rupees. Goodbye."
So I flung myself back through the length of India, taking three overnight trains from Kochi to Delhi, where I could catch the Royal Nepalese flight to Kathmandu.
Back past paddy fields and orchards, cows and flocks of sheeps. Back past lorries loaded to bursting with workers, and tractors almost buried under their loads. Camel
carts and the latest four-by-four Toyotas. Placards advertising computer courses beside mud huts.
Brown mountains waiting for monsoon. Dusty towns and beggars sleeping on concrete platforms. Lepers gesturing at their mouths, distorted stumps where their hands used to be. Indians with good jobs stepping over Indians with no homes, collapsed on the ground.
Hot air, impatient for the rains. In seven weeks India had gone from cold to unbearable. I had to leave, flee to the mountains. The trains carried me back, back, through the desert, through the cities, past the Taj Mahal and Hanyuman's Tomb.
The sounds of India pursued me all the way.
Taxi sir? Taxi sir? Taxi sir?
Hello sir, where you want to go? Hello sir, where you want to go?
come again, remember my shop! come again, remember my shop!
chai chai chai-aa, chai chai chai-aa...
All the sights flowed around me. Saris and shawls, turbans and mobile phones. We passed concrete palaces and cardboard shanties. We passed children playing
in rivers of excrement, and children being driven to the finest schools. I was a speck, alone in an ocean of human civilization. I was bouyed up, surrounded by a billion friends.
You like pashmina? pashmina? pashmina?
come my shop! only looking no buying! only looking no buying!
one hundred - good price! one hundred - good price!
chai chai chai-aa, chai chai chai-aa
All the scents of India washed past in one last flourish. Spices mixed in an open sewer. Perfume and diesel exhaust.
you give! one pen! one pen! one pen!
ta-ta! ta-ta! ta-ta! ta-ta!
what your country what your name what your country what your name
chai chai chai-aa, chai chai chai-aa...
I looked at Delhi one last time from my rickshaw. Boulevards and dusty alleys. Temples and technology. So many struggling. So much calm. Once so threatening. Now like home.
Allah-u akbar... Allah-u akbar...
Ram Ram! Namaste! Namaskar!
meera chapati meera baby meera chapati
You come again, sir??! Remember me?? Remember me!!