Friends who work together and live together often forget to hang out with each other. So Takloo and I just left. We left the city in the midst of chaos. The chaos of finishing work in its last two weeks, the chaos of packing up the house we are so emotionally attached to, the chaos of our emotions. We left the madness of this noisy city to hang out with each other in Kochi.
Totally unprepared. Without an itinerary. So unprepared that I kept wanting to go to a cyber cafe to at least find the right places to eat.
The paranoia of missing out on good food.
Our modus operandi in this dire state was to just grab each and every tourist brochure that came our way and quickly screen through it to remember some, if not all, of the recommended places to visit (to eat) We felt so rushed. So much to do in four days. Not knowing where to start. Stop.
Kochi at first was a little disappointing. The spice market we went to, the beach we saw was nothing like the pictures we had in mind. Mental pictures are often photoshopped. But we are hopeful travelers. It started to grow on us, slowly, as we spent more time with it, as the sun signaled to set, as the evening breeze floated on water and the magic of the night took over. Its like we got over our photoshopped expectations and something started to happen!
Fort Cochi was our first stop. It is not a fort. Its an island of sorts connected to Ernakulam by a 10 rupee ferry ride, known for its huge Chinese nets meant for small fish fishing. Made in the 1840s, these nets are a major tourist attraction. Lots of people come here to watch the sunset. But the trick is to come here after the sun sets, evading the shadiness of the night, to hear the water and watch the light ripple from afar. The trick is to trip on your trip.
The trick is to walk down the Princess Street just when the night has taken over, when gorgeous stars hang from small arched doors, from old archaic dutch balconies, with the lights and shadows of closed antique shop windows - the trick is to walk and explore - and once tired to sit at the Loafers' corners - cafe on the first floor which allows you to watch the entire street (through old dying windows) and watch the purposeless tourists move about - and the trick is to do this while sipping a good cup of coffee or while stealing Takloo's well ordered banana milk shake!
Yes the trick is to discover a walk. And in the walk discover quaint shops (we found one selling stationary made from elephant poop), and buy a filter less Charminar and smell the streets perfumed with Kerala oils. The trick is to walk through a spice market and for once really know what a walk in a spice market feels like (in your nose, in all your senses) as described in one of those novels. The trick is to enter the Dutch museum and find the prettiest ever wall paintings in natural dyes, to notice the greens of the hands and feet and find a pattern, and to slowly move away to find another pattern.
The most important thing to do is to do the backwaters. Tak and I were picked up from a folk and theatre museum in a yellow minibus which took us 45 min outside the city to Viacom. And this is where we found some magic. A small row boat took us through small canals and riverlets by small villages. We met the trees, the birds, the weeds, the ducks, the fishermen and found the palms hiding the sky from us. Suddenly someone made some noises and a young man wearing his mundu came to give us two bottles full of toddy. Then we floated on toddy, streamed under small water bridges and saw some green and some brown and more green and more brown!
Then we moved to the glamour of a big house boat and sailed on Vembanadu to find a boat man sing to us from afar, and to find a man bathing fearlessly in the deep and have a fisherman's wife cook hot baby mussels with coconut. The backwaters are not like the photoshopped photographs. They are far more magnificent and deep and serene and hued and calming than we can imagine.
Since food is important. One last thing I'll tell you about is the Ceylon Bake house. I actually found the best place to eat in the city. They served us karimeen masala, roasted prawns, fried fish, parontha and idliappam. Absolutely brilliant! And arguably cheaper than any of the fancy places in Fort Kochi or Mattancherry. This place is beautifully modest and sincere. Nothing fancy shwancy except for the food. The ambience is simple, shockingly plain, the mood is nothing extraordinary. You come, you eat, you love it and you leave. Full and satisfied. Maybe the reason I liked it so much is because its glamour and fame has not gone to its head.
We did so much and saw so much and ate so much! So overwhelming in such a short trip. The art of not doing anything while doing some things. The art of finding an itinerary which flowed so beautifully. So effortlessly. We are all such artists!
And it ended with a perfect train journey. With a long train journey up the west coast. So long that it threatened to get tedious. But stopped just when we had soaked it all in.
Now I'm back to the madness, to a city I'm going to leave. Wish me luck!
Amma and Sona work part time in our house. While Sona came late, Amma has been around for as long as we can remember.We often conjecture how old she is. She doesn't know. Her grandchildren who work in other houses of the colony think she's about 90 years old. But this we have been hearing for four years now. We don't ask why she continues to work -clean, wash, mop etc. at this age. It became clear to us long back. It keeps her active. It keeps her going - perhaps a way to make sure she is not made to feel redundant at home.
Amma is so old that she doesn't register my visits from Bombay. There is an ordinary expression on her face when she sees me, even after months. I always go hug her hoping to hear her say 'ay bibi aa gayi tu!' She just mummers things I don't understand. As I write this, I wonder, if she knows that I live elsewhere? I wouldn't be shocked if she doesn't. Or maybe she knows and just doesn't remember. Or forgets to remember.
Amma is a petite old woman who has shrunk and hunched over the years. I always picture her wearing her white sari with a shirt and a pallu loosely hanging over her head. Her hands and face are beautifully wrinkled, her green veins bulge against the softened skin and eyes are kuncha green. But these eyes are not lost. Not like my grandfather's eyes in the last one year. Her eyes are in control. She is perfectly in control.
Amma has aged so beautifully.
Sona is half Amma's age. 45 years perhaps. A Bangladeshi, she wears her thin hair in a tight bun at the back. Her leftover curls twirl prettily along her forehead and her mouth is forever red. Pan Red. She has a strong working body always draped in a practical sari. She, I think, loves me. She cries every time I leave for Bombay. And cries every time I return jaundiced or malariad. I often find her scolding my mum for sending me away to another city.
Amma and Sona don't quarrel. Perhaps they don't understand each other's language. My mum and Sona periodically fight even though they don't understand each other's language. I love-hate their love-hate relationship. Sona often threatens to walk out. My mum throws attitude. Sona leaves. My mother waits for her for two days before asking the neighbours. On the third day Sona is willingly found in the kitchen scolding my mother for something new.
This time when I came back, my mum told me about Sona's decision to leave our house. She's moving away to Tuglaqabad cause she can't afford a house in Chirag Dilli any more and prefers to be closer to her daughter. A round bus trip from Tuglaqabad to my house costs about 30 rupees by the swanky green government buses. They are threatening to become costlier. This means if Sona were to continue working with us, she'd have to spend 1500 rupees per month plus a twenty minute walk to the bus stop plus unreliable amount of waiting in this frozen winter.
Sona hugged me before leaving and cried. I looked to Amma and noticed how much older she was from my mental image of her. I will return to Bombay in three days not very happy I think.
Our period is obsessed by the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered; that it is tired of itself, sick of itself; that it wants to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory. -- Milan Kundera