With the help of a Keralan friend, I had arranged a taxi that would take us around Kerala and drop us back to Kochi on the final day. The taxi arrived promptly at the appointed time. Since we were staying near the airport, travelling into the city would take at least an hour, if not more. Hungry for the first glimpses of Kerala, we set off. Throughout our drive, the greenery of Kochi was very much in evidence. We passed coconut trees, banana plantations, chiku trees, mango trees pregnant with the heavy fruit and the luminously green Periyar river.
The Folklore museum in Kochi was our first stop. This is a non-profit organisation that showcases Kerala’s heritage. The magnificent entrance to the museum has been created from a 16th century temple in Tamil Nadu. The museum consists of three floors with each floor displaying the architectural styles of Malabar, Travancore and Cochin. The lady dressed in traditional attire at the entrance informed us that the museum was largely due to the determination of one individual and had been inaugurated only in 2009. We were anointed with the traditional sandalwood paste on our foreheads (bring it on, let me savour the Indianness) and were then left free to explore on our own.
Each floor was filled with beautiful curios. Not everyone is fascinated by these objects but I was content to wander around amongst these beautiful, old artefacts that are a part of our Indian heritage. The room that I found most fascinating was the theatre on the top floor, with simple traditional Indian décor, where they conduct Kathakali performances. One end of the room was full of the traditional masks depicting the various dance forms of Kerala. Watching a Kathakali performance was very much on my wish list. We just somehow had to squeeze it in between the various things that we planned to see or do.
Having heard of antiques being displayed in the Jew market, we decided to head there next. The Jew market has a smaller market displaying touristic knick knacks and a larger market displaying antiques, the prices of which I did not dare ask. It is a fascinating place for a wander and I came across some beautiful, ancient clunky locks and keys, which still worked. I decided not to buy them, which was a big mistake as I came across similar locks and keys at a flea market in Edinburgh being sold for all of 14 GBP. I still remember those old locks – they would have made a great piece of wall décor.
The synagogue was unfortunately closed for the afternoon and since the heat was getting to us, we decided to move on. I had wanted to purchase an intricate Kathakali mask but could not find one to my specifications. Spices, banana crisps, tea, fish masala, sambhar masala, rasam masala and the like were plenty and I replenished my dwindling stock of the masalas. Buying a lungi was also on the cards for me. After all, what is a lungi but a wraparound skirt? I could not find any of the casual variety but could only see the formal white ones with gold border – mundus, I think they are called.
Being the election season, I was trying to discern the trend in Kochi. All I could see was miles and miles of Congress flags and posters. Until our taxi driver, whose name was Hari (and who was an AR Rehman look-alike), informed us that prime minister Manmohan Singh was due to visit that day. I would have loved to meet Dr Manmohan himself (who irrespective of all the bad press that he gets, I admire a lot) but there was more exploring to do. During my entire travels through Kerala, I could only see a single BJP poster and just a few ‘Aam Aadmi’ party posters. Not surprising that BJP was unpopular as the party is not best known for its love of minorities and Kerala has a sizeable population of Christians and Muslims. Furthermore BJP’s ally Shiv Sena had actively campaigned to drive away the South Indians from Mumbai.
Passing the green backwaters, I came upon a scene that would have definitely won the ‘National Geographic – Picture of the Day’ award. A group of giggling half-naked children bathing and splashing each other in the backwaters. Where is the camera when you need it?
We had lunch in a tiny open air restaurant in Fort Kochi and the food was the most delicious that I have had in quite some time. Fish curry prepared the Kerala way with raw mangoes and a hint of spices. Just the right meal for a hot day. My daughter, who is no fan of restaurant Indian food could not resist it either.
Throughout our road trip we did not see a single slum in Kerala. The state has been dedicated in its efforts to eradicate the slums as is evident from this article. According to this article in the Hindu, at 1.6% Kerala has the least number of slums. We were marvelling at how clean Kochi was with not a single garbage dump visible. The backwaters, canals and rivers are super clean. A massive cleanliness drive was started a few years ago and the clean, green waters of the Periyar river glistened in the sunshine as if in testimony to the fact.
After seeing lone foreign women tourists almost clawed by the Mumbai hawkers it was gratifying to see the local men leaving the foreign women tourists well alone. Nobody approached them with offers or questions and nobody pestered them to buy their wares. They were given the freedom to walk through a busy touristy market, unharrassed, which in India is really an achievement. The roads in England seem to have more potholes than the roads in Kerala. How has such a small state managed to tick all the boxes? It follows that if one state can do it why can’t the rest of India? As an Indian you know what to expect from India but in this case, so far, Kerala had exceeded all expectations.