Wednesday, October 10, 2012

India # 15 Kerala, "God's Own Country, Part 1


Kerala and Human Development

I have been interested in the Indian state of Kerala for at least 15 years because of a single article describing this very poor place as having one of the highest literacy rates in the world, an abundance of newspapers and a unique, vigorous politics. Power shifts regularly between the Communist Party and the Congress Party, I learned, and the religions, including a large Christian population, get along famously.
Reading up on it now I learn that Kerala has the highest human development index in the world, after Norway and Australia.  Imagine!  Literacy is 95 percent and there are dozens of newspapers in nine languages.   Life expectancy is 75 for men and 78 for women, which are first world standards. In 2005 it was judged the most transparent and least corrupt of India’s states, the title currently held by Bihar.  Women’s status is also the highest in the country, although not without higher incidences of sexual harassment.

How did this happen?  Apparently after the British took power an 1854 commission recommended universal schooling and the princes ruling the principalities of Cochin and Travancore took this charge seriously for the next century.  Kerala has invested in its human capital like few other place on earth, then and since.

The poverty rate is below 10 percent, lower than the United States.   Average income is, still low, however, and poverty is relative.  People feel poor or not poor in relation to someone else.  In an earlier post I wrote about Father Gregory Boyle who talks about his gang members suffering from “the shame of being poor in America.”  I don’t get the impression there’s much shame in Kerala.  Its motto is “God’s Own Country,” which not only settles the existence of God and the church-state issue but comes with a big snoot full of pride.

Kerala is slightly larger than Idaho but has 22 times more people, 33 million.  National Geographic calls it one of the world’s ten paradises and one of the 50 must-see places of a lifetime.  But surely what they’re talking about are very small, unique portions of a densely populated place.    

I wanted to set foot in Kerala just to associate myself with its accomplishment, a much bigger deal than parading past the Taj Mahal.  But I also wanted to see those special places.  That’s why I was on an evening place from Bangalore last Friday and soon heading  toward a small inn near the Arabian Sea at Fort Cochin.

The first thing I noticed was Jesus on my driver’s cell phone.  The next was Che Guevara on the back of the taxi next to me.  This pattern would continue to appear:  Jesus welcomed me to both places I stayed, flanked by little electric votive lights, and Isaw scores of Catholic churches, two Marian festivals and a parade, alternating with the hammer and sickle or Senor Guevara appeared regularly on posters and flags.  Had I landed in Havana by mistake?

  Saturday morning I wake early and set out for a walk.  It feels like Bayou Country, with big trees, kids playing soccer and cricket on scruffy red dirt and a soft ocean air telling me to slow down.  It’s a beach town, really an island, but looks and feels like a real place, not one with its hand out-- although we’ll see about that shortly.  After a while, a rickshaw taxi man named Babu presents his sad face and pleads to be allowed to serve me for three hours for a mere 100 rupees, two dollars. His children are hungry.  I’m sure I can do better so brush him off and head back to breakfast. 

But while my dwelling is charming it is staffed by a young man whose smile is better than his English and no other guests appear bearing advice or companionship.  So after eggs and toast I call Babu and we’re off.  First stop is the beach where fish are so fresh from the sea some are still flopping about.  Pick out one and a street vendor will turn it into lunch.  We visit some giant fish nets on a large boom which is lowered and raised by men climbing up and down.  They can be seen in the background of the above picture.  We’re on a swift-moving inlet from the Arabian Sea so at one time there might have been enough fish swimming by for this to work.  But now it seems mostly for show because after the net comes up empty I’m expected to provide money, which I do but in a disappointing denomination.  (A misplaced picture of a fisherman can be found at the bottom of this post.)

Next we’re off to the Hindu Temple where I can buy a bag of salt for five rupees and burn it to insure my good fortune.  I pay the price but leave the salt for the next person and get instead a big smile from the vendor (above).  Next is the spice market, another enjoyable encounter but with the same purpose, I am to take home spices for a hefty price.  I leave with fresh ginger for digestion and lemon salt for salad.   And so it goes through two carpet stores and a dealer in rare local sculpture. 

Sometime down the road I’m going to write a post called “Trash Talk,” about garbage collection or lack thereof in Bangalore and introduces you to “rag pickers” who live on my block.  However in Kerala what is striking is just the opposite of the big city mess: it’s cleanup week and volunteers are out in force, having a good time recycling on Saturday morning.  From plastic bags to old doors, reuse is taken seriously here.

I don’t really mind Babu’s hustle although by lunch time his father has died the previous week and his mother, the widow, is entering the hospital the next day.  I am put on the phone with his kids and mom.  When I offer condolences to the widow Babu interrupts, saying her English is poor.  Ah, yes, but wasn’t it touching that mom sent me two little cakes on Sunday, the day of her confinement?

Babu, that was going a bit far.   

Babu and I pick out a fish for lunch and sit on a deck next to the water, a lovely, languid scene that might have been the Chesapeake, Okracoke Island or Key West except that on the other side of the inlet are several giant docks with containers ten high.

“Abu Dhabi,” says Babu.  Abu Dhabi built and operates the dock, a modern East India Company but on a scale the British could not have imagined. 

Babu, a Christian, also gives me a succinct summation of local politics.

“Marxists come in, gas prices down, food prices better.  Congress come in, prices go back up.  Marxists much better for people like me.”

 

 

After all of this I probably should have known better than to ask Babu “Where can I get a haircut?”  He knew the answer to that one.    What he did not know was where I could get a good haircut.  I come out looking like one of the Three Stooges.

Remember from an earlier post how clothes are washed and ironed in my neighborhood in a half dozen little stalls and covered tables?  In Fort Cochin the wash from all sources goes to one place and ends up air drying in a large and colorful field, the next place Babu takes me to. 

At another stop ginger root is being sorted and shoveled into bags in an ancient warehouse.  And this reminds me it is time to put where we are in its historic context.

The Spice Trade

               Cochin is at the heart of the Malabar Coast and thus was at the center of the spice trade beginning in the 15th century.  Spice had traveled overland to Europe in small quantities for centuries but became big business after Portugal learned how to sail around Africa.  Vasco de Gama died here.  Columbus was headed here when he ran into the Americas.  The spice trade opened southern India to Europe with colonies from Portugal, the Netherlands and then Britain, for better or worse.

               The subject of Salaman Rushtie’s “The Moor’s Last Sign” is a family—claiming the name da Gama as “wrong side of the blanket” descendants of the explorer--which has grown wealthy over many generations on the spice trade in Cochin and which is unraveling just before Independence.  Rushdie  writes, “Pepper is what brought Vasco da Gama’s tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon’s Tower of Belem to the Malabar Coast: first to Calicut and later, for its lagoon harbor, to Cochin….From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear…They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a slut.”

 Off to the Theatre
 

If Kerala has two images it holds out to tourists the first is houseboat on the backwaters of Alleppey (which we’ll visit tomorrow) and the other is the fierce face of an actor playing the role of God at the Kathakali Center.  For a few extra coins, I’m sitting in front of this very man at five o’clock during makeup time, watching as he transforms from man to god.

The performance that follows is one that a great woman of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich, would have appreciated.  The founder of a religious community, a writer and artist, she imagined God as someone sitting on in a park, relaxed and waiting for visitors.  In this play that is exactly what God is doing; however in this case along comes a temptress (at right in the picture above).  God is a bit smitten with her and it is not clear which way this is going to turn out.  It’s an all-male performance accompanied by music and I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that in the end, after a good time is had by all, God retains his virtue.

Dear Blog Buddies, your correspondent is thrilled to at last be bringing you images.  Not always in the right place.  The man above is a fisherman who was supposed to be up near his fishing net but, oh well, here he is and I'll figure out how to get him into his proper place later.

Tomorrow, we say goodbye to Babu, hop a bus south in time to be slathered in oil, then another trip to the beach and an early morning in the most famous landscape in Kerala, the lazy backwaters of Alleppey.

 

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