Spices and souls

E.P. UNNY uses his words to add punch to his statements in the political, social and even cultural context. In his latest work, Spices and Souls, he takes both a critical and humorous look at Kerala and its inhabitants. Exclusive extracts.


SOMEONE up there must surely have mixed feelings about this place. He gave Kerala a great geography and carpet-bombed it with history. From times difficult to date, the region has seen a steady stream of men engaged in every conceivable pursuit from business to pleasure. Explorers, invaders, proselytisers, traders, travellers, town planners, tourists and sundry seekers of well being and nirvana. Now, I join this formidable array with my sketchbook. But then, I belong to that special breed of non- resident Keralites. Kerala educates (or so we would like our employers to believe) and exports manpower. And we keep coming back whenever we can.

For us, the expats, Kerala is no destination; it is an addiction. Come to think of it, it has been so for many others too. Even Vasco da Gama, the most prominent visitor to drop by, could not leave these shores for good. The hardy sailor found his way to this footnote of a land on the south-western Indian coast looking for preservative spices and Christian soul mates. He managed neither with any grace. The trading and the ruling classes here were far more complex and the local Christians far less Christian than he had bargained for. To top it all, this argonaut did not time his historic touchdown well. He ought to have known better than to drop anchor as the Southwest monsoon was just breaking over the Malabar Coast ...

* * *

Kochi cannot keep its landscape to itself. Given its historic global links, anyone from any part of the world can claim a right over it. No wonder there is so much of overseas presence here. Foreign tourists arrive round the year. Serially colonised by every European nation that rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Kochi does not hold it against them. The tourist operator will tell you it has gained more than it has lost. He has at any rate. And a lapse here or a misdemeanour there can surely be forgiven in God's own country. This is the tireless cliche in the tourist lexicon for Kerala. God, in fact, seems to be all over the place. Such omnipresence is singular, even by divine standards.

Did Keralites have more reasons to turn to Him than people elsewhere? Almost every religion has its places of worship here. There are temples between churches and churches between mosques, not to speak of a Jewish synagogue almost nudging a Hindu temple in Mattancherry. Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram has a mosque and a temple sharing a wall and across the road is a church. Jesus, Allah and the numerous gods of the pre-Hindu and the Hindu pantheon cuddle into this narrow land-strip, much as the laity itself, making tolerant coexistence the easier option ...

* * *

There are far too many Keralites in Kerala - some 750 crowd into a square kilometre. With increasing pressure on land, towns and cities are beginning to get inevitably vertical. Situated suitably, high-rise can be high value for the realtor and the hotelier who sells you an eyeful. Of more sky and more water than you will see if you were on a sailing ship. Such locations by the waterfront are not hard to find. There are 44 rivers criss- crossing the State and several lakes, not to mention the 576 km long coastline. With so much of water around, Kerala has enough reason to worry and hope. Futurists, a famously undependable lot, foresee the next world war over water. In which case the place has had it. If, on the other hand, it is just a trade war the State will roll in hydro-dollars. With which every family will do one up on the neighbour's palace.

Kerala's romance with the real estate has impacted, of all things, the media - both electronic and print. Television came when joint families had more or less split into nuclear units, which were discovering the home, sweet home. Mom, dad and the kids were for the first time enjoying private space. Around the TV set came up a new sanctum sanctorum - the living room. A paralytic stroke could not have made the Keralite more homebound. Till the other day, he would build his house and promptly step out for a chat. More often than not, to the neighbourhood teashop.

Adrian C. Mayer, a social anthropologist who researched Malabar in the 1950s, says that the teashop played a significant role in subverting inter-dining caste taboos. More recently, through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, students sipped endless cups of tea and chatted their way into Marx, Mao and Marquez. Social reformist and left political movements that needed to mass-mobilise found this congregational urge particularly useful.

The urge became more pronounced by sundown. Most men progressed from teashops to outlets that dispensed headier stuff. Women clustered in temples and churches. The more insular Muslim ladies too found an excuse to step out. They visited relatives, ailing or hypochondriac, in the variety of nursing homes every Kerala town has. There was no Kerala evening without a human figure trying to shape it. Hitting the football, lifting the volleyball, rowing the little canoe, diving into the village pond or merely leaning against a lamppost, gesticulating most animatedly and talking, talking, talking, ...

It just took the idiot box to reverse all this. Now there is a near-total withdrawal from public spaces. TV could not have chosen a better time to come in. The broadly progressive politics that for long drove culture and entertainment has lost its pull. The left radical has painted himself into a cynical corner and the social democrat has run out of doles to distribute. Neither has the vocabulary to address an aspiring society. An uncertain brand of politics is waiting to be played out in the living rooms...

* * *

Not all can take the long years of kalari's rigour. An easier way to handle ageing is ayurveda. You just slip onto a wooden cot, updated lately to fibreglass, and let the masseurs do the rest. You soak in oils treated with medicinal plants and come out smelling of a herbarium. This is one of the standard ayurvedic cures - sukha chikitsa, rejuvenation therapy. This homegrown healthcare system can reverse or arrest certain conditions modern medicine cannot do much about like rheumatoid arthritis and stroke-induced debilities. And it does have palliative possibilities for terminal situations. A factor acknowledged by the team of allopathic doctors that runs a centre in Kozhikode for pain and palliative care, the country's first ...

Ayurveda is getting into the fast track. At a pace, the skeptic says, isn't quite ayurvedic. Wonder cures are being freely advertised for modern day maladies from hypertension to high cholesterol and HIV to hepatitis. Marketing guys are mouthing more R and D jargon than physicians. New pharma units are coming up by the dozen. But there is a twist in this hi-tech tale. Computerised, humidity controlled, temperature regulated, particle free, factory floors have not yet got rid of cauldrons filled with medicinal concoctions. The druid has still to stir up the magic potion. The past invariably catches up. Not just in ayurveda ...

* * *

Unlike the Gaulish Asterix, the Malayali Asterix extends endless courtship. But no marriage. This is how he approached everything that came his way from clothes to culture. Even as early as 20 years ago, half of Kerala wore unstitched cloth. Most men wrapped a white or off-white mundu around the waist and many women wore a two-part variant of it. Some men went about topless and so did the odd woman. Shirts, trousers, blouses and the pan-Indian sari were all there but were not uniformly accepted. The Sunday painter's limited colour palette was good enough to capture Kerala. If he was not too fussy and arty, he could do with marine blue, sky blue, brown tints, plenty of green and even more of red for the flags that fluttered from every factory gate.

Since then red has faded but overall the scene has become more colourful. White and off-white have given way to a variety of printed and dyed shades. Women seem to have waged a sartorial war against the male gaze. Salwar and kameez has replaced the sari as a more functional workaday wear. If cleverly tailored, this two- part apparel conceals even better than the sari. More and more Muslim women are disappearing more and more into the cassock-like purdah, colourful ones though. Back home, almost every woman slips into what is called the nightie. This short sleeved, loose hanging cloak that comes down to the ankles is not strictly homebound. It freely floats into the near and the not-so-near neighbourhood.

The men are not lucky enough to find a cover-all fashion wear. The older they get, the trendier they dress. Many in that desperate state of middle age try out the latest branded shirt, T-shirt, jeans that cling and trousers that bag hoping to somehow distract your gaze from their waistline. The place is a good hunting ground for the garment dealer.

But all this does not mean the good old unstitched cloth has finally gone away. On the numerous occasions that set the Malayali social life from baptism to birthday and weddings to festivals, it surfaces. Men wear the mundu but with a waist belt to hold it in place and the professional beautician helps the younger women with their mundu set or sari.

If every relic has a place in the Malayali's wardrobe, his mind cannot be any different. See how he cocked a snook at the law of social development. In the middle of patriarchal succession came up matriarchalism, an essentially tribal practice that thrived here mostly among the Nair community for a good thousand years. Right into the far from tribal times of private property, English education and foreign travel ...

* * *

Kerala is unique in that it is a favoured destination of its own people. A good many men and women from here work outside the State and spend annual or biannual holidays back home. Often carting along sundry gadgetry from the world markets. They have been the unpaid salesmen for a range of global products and brands. The State's countryside got exposed to fancy wristwatches, blaring music systems and the yet-to-be tropicalised washing machines much before most cities and towns in the rest of the country. Thanks to this determination effect, the Malayali is quite impressionable to sales talk and Kerala is a test marketing ground for any new product or service...

* * *

What You Hear Cacofonix

TRY calling on elders and you will be most unwelcome. Amidst the steady din from the TV set, you will not get any eye contact. Kerala has a considerable graying, hair-dyeing and TV-viewing population. So remote-savvy that it switches from one Malayalam channel during the commercial break to catch glimpses of the soap or the films that go on in the other three. You are left to cope with a multiple sound track that builds up in the living room.

Indoors and outdoors the Malayali cannot seem to function without ambient noise. If this macro-noise is not enough, there is micro- noise too. After television, the gadget that Kerala has taken to with matching passion is the mobile phone. Not without reason...

* * *

However, against all odds, music does survive in certain pockets - like underground movements. There is one right in the middle of the State's capital. Adjacent to the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple, a little chamber that is part of a palace belonging to Travancore's erstwhile ruling family becomes a venue for a unique musical experience. For a mere nine evenings in a year - during the navaratri festival - handpicked Carnatic musicians sing or play on the veena compositions of Maharajah Swati Tirunal, the legendary artistic prince who ruled Travancore in the 19th Century.

There is a loudspeaker kept outside for the benefit of those who are not committed enough to get in and squat on the floor through two and a half hours of concert music. But, for the 200 odd listeners who manage to squeeze in and sit within handshaking distance of the musicians, it is raw, mike-less music undistorted by the amplifier. You are free from the musical electrocution that goes on in the regular South Indian concert halls with their indifferent acoustics and screeching sound systems. Worse still, these are like transit lounges for listeners to freely stroll in and out as the performance is in progress and make even more noise than the musicians. Nothing of the kind is permitted here, not even the customary applauding ...

* * *

Beyond what you see and hear

The Druid

FEUDAL land holding is a thing of the past but what has stayed intact is the family's magical legacy. The band of chathans is still loyal to the Kattumadam household... The young Brahmin made up for his erratic schooling by reading his way into the heady eclectic progressive mindset that went by the name of Marxism in the then Kerala. In the bargain, he must have transited feudal decline quite painlessly. Eventually he seems to have lived down his left-wing past too without the typical withdrawal symptoms of the ranting former Communist. Above all, he spares you the overzealous afterthoughts of the born-again believer...

* * *

... While such focussed commercial activity on the extra-sensory is confined to certain pockets, Kerala as a whole has been traditionally home to magical beings of all sizes and shapes. Theories abound on why. Sample the following:

The Malayali gets easily bored with the real and looks around for a high. Which in the potable form is pretty easy to find in this land of "kera", the coconut (and hence "Keralam"). Palm liquor fermented or distilled is the basic magic potion that has long depressed native inhibitions. Spirit of one kind complements another. Even the gods do not abstain. The colourfully masked tribal deities in Parassinikadavu have made a morning ritual of imbibing in grand style amidst thunderous drumming and drunken dancing. Keralites however do not need any divine persuasion to tipple. Today they constitute the hardest drinking community in the country.

Yet another view is that people here have always had too much leisure on their hands. Even those who were no more than slaves. Given the severe caste norms that proscribed the upper caste master from coming within telescopic distance of the outcaste and the lower caste toiler, the farm hands could have found ways to skulk, shirk and daydream. The proverbially idling mind can surely think up a thing or two. Conversely, from the high caste end, the suntanned serfs might well have been seen as a distant blur on the horizon. This is the kind of lordly gaze that creates the likes of chathans the potentially defiant serfs whose defiance is transposed to a magical world over which the master retains ultimate control.

You can reel off more theories but cannot explain away Kerala's considerable ageless ghostly population. Which has survived a much-hyped spell of atheistic Marxism. Non-believers have turned into closet-believers. Popular writers, those unerring weathercocks, are on an overdrive to conjure up scary characters. Black magic and exorcism have for a while been part of best- selling pulp fiction. The latest to be haunted is the television set. When prime-time ghosts are having a ball in the living room, one can only assume that Kerala's family audiences are a blissfully uninhibited lot ....

E. P. Unny, a cartoonist, began his career with The Hindu in 1977 and went on to serve in the Sunday Mail and The Economic Times. He is now Chief Political Cartoonist with the Indian Express.

Spices and Souls, A Doodler's Journey Through Kerala, written and sketched by E. P. Unny, designed by Anoop Kamath, published by DC Books, Kottayam, Rs. 595.