And So It Ends

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

A year ago, almost to the day, at the final concert of the Ingleton Folk Weekend, I gave away a Martin J18 guitar. Many of you will remember the Kerala Prize Draw which, along with some wonderful fund-raising from some very good friends of mine, raised all the money needed to let me to embark on this project with Global Vision International. Without that generosity and support, much of it coming from complete strangers, I would not have been able to come to Kerala and experience some life changing events for India will, if you let her, cast a spell over you that will change your life and will change how you look at your fellow man.

Very early on I knew that I had to make some distance between GVI, who at times did not fully approve of my blog, and the work I had to do and the people I would work with and meet. Not every day was as full as I had hoped and at times I felt I had no real role or purpose. The ‘Arts Project’ I had signed up to, and had been led to believe was an on-going thing was, at best, poor and even though GVI tried to get me to work on other activities in the project it was for things I was either not qualified for or were of no interest. On days like these I had to dig into my own resources and tell myself that whatever I was doing, no matter for how long or with whom, that it was beneficial to those people or that person. My role was to share something with someone else for their benefit, not for the benefit of GVI or, indeed, me. Once that decision had been made the floodgates opened and I experienced some things that were totally mind-blowing. For the introduction to those places and people, at least, I thank GVI.

Having said all of that the high points were extraordinary. Far and above anything I could have imagined. Here are some of them.

Teaching Nishida, Cerin, Rejeesha, Hima, Rugma, Radna, Reeshma, Avasha and Sister Diana, my lovely student teachers The Glory of Love and watching as they changed from a group of shy uncertain women into an enthusiastic singing group was amazing. 

The day that Denzil sat beside me in The Settlement and sang a Hindi song for my guitar is something that I will carry with me always.

Having gathered around me a group of girls who had to stay in school during the holidays because they couldn’t go home and listening in amazement as they learned and sang Coulter’s Candy in the most wonderful Indian dialect. Priceless.

Getting to know local traders who would rush out of their shops as I passed and invite me in to sit and talk and have tea with them. These are friendships which cross all international boundaries.

Being invited by Javid to his house for dinner where I sat on the floor and ate the most amazing food I have ever tasted. Paneer, a cheese very similar to haloumi, served as a curry in a rich tomato, onion and garlic sauce is one of those dishes I know I will yearn for again and again.

Feeling a real part of the local community every time I went to Kashi Art Café where I was brought iced tea without even asking or being treated like an old friend each time I visited Fragrant Nature Hotel where one evening, when four of us went there for dinner, the chef cooked his special Pakora, trust me it is not like anything you have ever had in the UK and is not normally on the menu, but he did it simply because he knew I liked it.

These things, and many more besides, are memories which will live with me always. India is a troubled place at times. It is a poor place but it is a beautiful place. A very spiritual place and in Kerala all the major faiths happily co-exist in a way which is a lesson to us all. We in the West live in a society where secularism is more and prevalent and that is dangerous. I say that because secularism, when allowed to, will become disrespectful of religion. Most Indians do not have any of the benefits of our modern world and for those people, and indeed for millions like them all over the world, religion is still one of the most important factors in their lives. In the West we have prospered ephemerally but the cost has been the lack of religion and lack of respect for religion; it is far too heavy a price to pay.  It is quite wrong simply because we are disturbing the system of beliefs of those who have no other source of comfort.

 That has been my final day in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

It's Almost Andy Pandy Time

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

Suddenly and without any warning at all I was heading with my guitar for the last time to do a bit of singing. And this was going to be a bit different. This was really me doing what I like doing best, a concert.

The venue was an old people’s home on the outskirts of Kerala called The House of Good Hope which was run by an order of nuns called the Sisters of Fragrant Obligation. You have probably gathered by now that these orders don’t actually exist, well the orders exist I have just changed some of the names to protect the innocent as they say. The sisters had been contacted and asked if they would like someone to come and play and sing. At first they were a little hesitant, worrying that the audience might not look that enthusiastic, but when I explained that I had been playing to audiences like that on the UK folk scene for many years they jumped at the chance.

The house itself was set back in beautiful gardens just off a busy main road but once you passed through the gates it became very quiet and peaceful and you knew that those who were here, many because they had nowhere else to go, were content and cared for. I don’t know why I thought that there was just a very real sense of peace about the place. Some may call it faith or religion, I have no answers, I don’t even have the right questions and that, surely, is where the essence of real knowledge lies. It is not enough to know the answers to the questions; we must know which questions have to be answered. William Herbert Carruth, a nineteenth century American academic and poet, in his poem Each In His Own Tongue says it far better than I ever could.

A fire-mist and a planet,
A crystal and a cell,
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty
And a face turned from the clod -
Some call it Evolution,
And others call it God.

A haze on the far horizon,
The infinite, tender sky,
The ripe rich tint of the cornfields,
And the wild geese sailing high -
And all over upland and lowland
The charm of the golden-rod -
Some of us call it Autumn
And others call it God.

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
Come welling and surging in -
Come from the mystic ocean,
Whose rim no foot has trod, -
Some of us call it Longing,
And others call it God.

A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions who, humble and nameless,
The straight, hard pathway plod, -
Some call it Consecration,
And others call it God.

Whatever it was the House of Good Hope had an abundance of it.

The performance area I had been given was an L-shaped corridor and I was positioned in the bottom left corner of the L. I won’t say that it was an L of a spot to be in, I shall leave that up you, Gentle Reader. Actually it was a very good spot to play from. It was the only spot from which I could have played because the audience was entirely segregated, men to my left seated along the long upright and women to my right along the short foot. It was a bit strange at first but it was the perfect place; I could see them and they could see me and their varying respectabilities were honoured.

As I said this was something completely different. It was a gig in front of an audience who were just there to listen and be entertained. I just sat back and played some of my favourite songs and tunes. Autumn Leaves, St James Infirmary, Black Clothes all had an airing, I even managed to fit in Herring Girls and Wynken, Blinken and Nod; thankfully no one fell asleep. No set list of mine would be complete without a Burns song and My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose was a huge hit.  I loved it and I am pleased to report so did they. Once again here was proof, if proof were needed, that music crosses all barriers of language and status; it is the great leveler.

It seemed fitting in a strange way that later on that evening as I made my way to the Kashi Art Café for some iced tea and chocolate cake, just to support the local economy you understand, that I passed a wall on which was written this very well-known quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with dirty feet.” At times there seems to be armies of dirty feet tramping through our minds, the dirty feet of prejudice against old people, disability, poverty, homelessness or just someone who is different. What this trip has taught me that if you reach out to someone where they are, if you hold out your hand to them, they will not only take your hand but they will give you theirs.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

The Poor Will Be With You Always

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

In his book ‘No Full Stops in India’, Mark Tully says the question he is most often asked is ‘How do you cope with the poverty in India?’ His reply never varies. ‘I don’t have to,’ he says, ‘the poor do.’ For anyone coming to India for the first time the reality of that statement may come as a shock but it contains a truism that is beyond doubt. India’s poor seem to deal very well with their poverty while the, relatively-speaking, well-off tourist often finds it shocking. Nonetheless we check our change to make sure we haven’t paid more than the few rupees asked or we shake our head in disbelief if we are asked for 50 rupees for a Tuk-Tuk ride which we thought should only cost 40. We cope with the poverty by pretending it doesn’t exist.

It does exist though and its existence is often all too visible. The rickshaw driver who has just driven you to a restaurant will, if you ask him, still be there to take you back to your hotel for a round fare of about 60p.  This is a ridiculously low fare for a hire that may well have lasted two or three hours but we pat ourselves on the back, convinced we are helping the local economy and that things aren’t really that bad as we hand over a 100 rupee note and tell him to keep the change.

It has been said that the tears shed over India’s poor would flood the Ganges several times over. It is pointless, therefore, to add to that deluge. It is better by far to see what is right in front of you and admit that you are helpless to do anything about it and live with it. Millions of Indians live far below what world economists have defined as the poverty line. Millions more live in housing conditions which go far beyond unsanitary, if indeed they live in a house. That Tuk-Tuk driver you who has just dropped you back at your hotel may well spend his nights in his vehicle at the rickshaw stand. The lady to whom you pay a paltry sum to do your laundry at her local dhobi probably sleeps there as well. That level of poverty is scandalous but what makes it more so is that we in the West seem to have learned to live with it. As India slowly emerges as one of the new BRIC economies perhaps all of this will change, but I fear not. As I have said the poor of India are dealing with their own poverty and dealing with it very well.

There is, however, in the midst of all of this a very inventive kind of enterprise that gives hope to all. As the fish stocks in the backwaters of Kerala dwindle local fishermen in Kochi, who were utterly dependent on the catches made with their world-famous Chinese fishing nets, have taken to casting those nets ever wider to secure a different, more gullible harvest. In order to supplement their reduced incomes they invite tourists to come and help them land whatever fish they catch and experience the joy, or disappointment, and the sheer hard work involved in hauling up one of these leviathans. If you don’t fancy actually hauling up the nets you can just stand back and take some photos but if you do opt for a spot of net hauling and, if you are lucky, you can take your prize to a nearby eatery where they will cook it for you, and you have to admit that it doesn’t get much fresher than that. Of course all of this comes at a cost. Exactly what the cost is I don’t know because I didn’t partake in this particular tourist fantasy of being a Keralan fisherman. Think about it for a moment. You turn up at the nets and pay the local fishermen to help them haul up their nets and then, if you are so inclined, you can buy one of the fish you have just helped land . If all that hard work has left you feeling a bit peckish, you can take your fish across the road to a restaurateur, who is in on the deal, and he will gut and cook your fish and then sell it back to you. Believe it or not this is an enterprise which has them queuing up.

India may be poor to a degree that still astounds us but its people are amongst the proudest, most independently minded and generous I have ever met. A noted Indian academic once said that everything that was good about India was shaped by British rule, which is nonsense. Rulers do not shape the culture of their subjects, they destroy them. If it was correct then it must follow that there was nothing of note in India before the raj, a supposition which is preposterous in a country and a culture which has survived for so long.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Somewhere A Voice Is Calling

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

In a quiet residential part of Cochin, hidden away behind the more up-market homes and well-tended gardens there is a school, a very special school run by Mother “Braveheart” Magdalene and the Sisters of Relative Avoidance. I had been here once before so I sort of knew what to expect from my audience. I say sort of because what I experienced when I went in was quite amazing.

The hall where I played opens out onto a large patio area and as I walked across the garden towards the hall I could hear singing. They have started without me, I thought, nothing like having your audience warmed up before a gig. As I got closer I realised that not only were they singing, and singing very well, but they were singing the songs that I had taught them only a day or two before. One of the sisters was standing in front of the group and leading them through The Glory of Love, Woody Guthrie’s Car, Car and, unbelievably, Coulter’s Candy. Remember that this was a group of children and adults with serious learning difficulties yet here they were singing songs they had just learned, songs in a foreign language and dialect. As I walked into the hall the singing stopped and they all turned and waved and the hall rang with shouts of “Hello, Bill.” I had often heard it said that music knew no boundaries and here I was experiencing just that.  

It may sound sentimental but this was one of those heart-stopping moments that you know you will never experience again, nor ever forget. Thank you Mother “Braveheart” Magdalene and her Sisters of Relative Avoidance for allowing me the rarest of privileges to share my music at your wonderful school.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Stalked By A Tuk-Tuk

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

No-one walks anywhere in Cochin. The only people who walk any distance at all are tourists. Tuk-Tuks, or Taken-Takens as I prefer to call them, those small, two-seater, door-less rickshaws which are propelled by a three-wheel motorcycle and driven at heart-stopping speeds through the busy streets of Cochin, giving way to no one, are the preferred mode of transport.

To walk into town, passing as you do, the now familiar home of Mr Laliza T.Y., the Government Pleader for the High Court of Kerala, Italian Upstairs Restaurant, Cinderella Herbal Beauty Treatment Salon, Fusion Bay Seafood and Willie’s Shoppee, where you can buy everything from a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk to a new ink cartridge for your printer, you pass two Tuk-Tuk stands. One is the official union stand on KB Jacob Road, the other is on Bastion Road and these are the drivers who always tout for business, each one promising you the very best price for the best tour in all Kerala, each one offering his “Ferrari Tuk-Tuk with natural air conditioning”. They are actually made by Ferrari and as they are open on all sides indeed do have natural air conditioning.

Usually they can be waved away quite easily but yesterday I met one driver who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had just been to Jew Town and was making my way, so I thought, to Mattancherry.  As it turned out I was going completely in the opposite direction, but I wasn’t really aware of that at this stage of the narrative. The Tuk-Tuk stopped and I waved it away.

“No thank you,” I said, and kept on walking, confident that I hadn’t far to go.

“Maybe later,” he called.

Now usually at this juncture the driver will drive off in search of some other unsuspecting traveller, but not this guy. He drove past me and I, thinking nothing of it, carried on walking, but then I noticed he had stopped.

As I drew level he once again offered his services.

“No thanks,” I said.

“Maybe later,” he said.

“No thanks,” I replied.

I walked past his Tuk-Tuk and once again he overtook me, stopping about five yards in front of me.

“Very hot. You need Tuk-Tuk” he told me.

“No thanks,” I said, feeling slightly irritated for now it was getting personal.

This kind of thing went on for the best part of about a mile and every time he stopped he had some other words of wisdom on the subject of why I needed a Tu-Tuk and, more importantly, why I specifically needed his. Bear in mind that all this to-ing and fro-ing was all for a fare worth about 50 rupees, 50p, so it hardly seemed worth it, but over here that small amount can buy enough basics for a family meal. It’s one of those little episodes that stops you in your tracks and makes you think.

 I had by this time realised that I had come so far off my intended route that I actually did need a Tuk-Tuk, but not his. He had probably decided that the amount of petrol he had used now far outweighed any fare he might get but I am sure he got his own back. I have a feeling that he must have put out word to the Tuk-Tuk mafia because whereas five minutes before, while we were playing Tuk-Tuk cat and mouse, there were Tuk-Tuks a-plenty, now there was nary a one. I stood, in what had been a busy street, casting a weary eye all around me but to no avail. An answer to my call for a Tuk-Tuks came there none, and so I walked and walked and walked in baking heat and with every step I chastised myself for being so bloody minded. The poor guy was only trying to make a living, after all. Undeserved as you probably think it was I did eventually get a Tuk-Tuk which took me to a nice hotel where I ordered a pot of tea and suddenly all was right with the world and Tuk-Tuk drivers everywhere.

I had made one or two purchases from one of the many traders in Fort Kochi; you may remember this one, he of the delicious khwaa tea and promised three monkeys, a promise on which he actually did make good. On a recent visit to his shop he very generously invited me to his home for dinner and to meet his family. There was no way I could refuse a home cooked meal that contained lamb and chicken and so I accepted.

Monkeys.jpg

Javid’s house was in a part of Cochin to which I had never been. It was very basic. There was no furniture in the living room just rugs scattered across the floor. In the kitchen I could see another man who was busy cooking over a two ring gas hob which seems to be that kitchen standard. No five plate Aga’s with built in lamb warmer here.

I was invited to sit down and Javid brought me a large bottle of mineral water which he had bought especially for me. A large pot of rice was placed on the rugs followed by three equally large pots of food. Javid explained that this was all Kashmiri food, the food of his home. One pot contained a mutton dish in a thin, milky sauce which had lots of shallots and was incredibly spicy. The other meat dish was a chicken and potato curry in a rich tomato based sauce which, in some ways, looked like the kind of curry you would see in any High Street restaurant in the UK but it was so different. Spicy but not so hot that you couldn’t appreciate the full flavour of the sauce and taste the different herbs and spice. The last dish was a paneer curry. Paneer, if you don’t already know is cheese very similar to haloumi and this was a real treat. Covered in a thick tomato sauce, heavy with shallots, this had my taste buds exploding. I have never tasted anything quite like.

After dinner Javid took me on a walking tour if the back streets of Cochin where even though it was now almost ten o’clock the shops were all still open and you could have bought anything from an ice cream to a made to measure suit and the street food vendors were doing a roaring trade. A fascinating insight in the real India and a million miles away from anything I thought I would experience.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

 

 

Mostly About Jeremy

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

I don’t think I could ever drive through the gates of The Settlement and feel that it was a place I would feel good about. There is something about this place that fills me with dread even before I have arrived. I think it must be some kind of empathy with the people who live here brought on by the fact that, like them, there is very little for me to do. I play guitar and sing and that usually brings one or two people around. Sometimes they will share a song they know but mostly they listen and then drift off and carry on with their day in their own quiet ways, mostly on their own. At times like these is when I feel the weight of The Settlement most, an almost living thing bearing down on me and I feel lonely and useless as I share with those who surround me a communal contagious lethargy.

It could, with a little care and attention, be beautiful. If you stand in the middle of the tree clad square and look up you find yourself gazing up into a cloudless blue sky through the most amazing foliage and you could fool yourself into thinking that you were in an exotic holiday resort somewhere. Then your gaze returns to earth and reality sets in again.

Jeremy runs up to me excitedly. He has grown a beard since we last met and was looking handsome and confident. He was holding a small portfolio of his work which he clearly wanted to show me but he is also wary about handing it over to me.

“Be careful,” he says. “Keep it safe.”

I look through his work, a notebook really full of half-finished sketches and ideas. They are good. Some are intricate and complex and give, perhaps, an insight into the confusion in his mind which finds some kind of expression in his art.

 I ask Jeremy if I can take some photographs and he happily agrees.

“Will you show them to your friends?” he asks.

“I will. They will be very impressed with your work,” I tell him and he smiles broadly.

In a different world he would be living in a studio apartment in Montmartre or wandering the corridors of Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art in Glasgow with his fellows. As it is he lives at The Settlement getting whatever comfort and inspiration he can from those surroundings.

As I finish taking some photographs of Jeremy’s work a small truck pulls up outside the dining hall. Suddenly everyone is busy. Everyone runs to the door of the dining hall and Jeremy hurriedly gathers up his portfolio and joins them. It is lunch time and the speed with which everyone ran to the door reminded me of a scene often seen in the country, the one where a farmer driving a tractor arrives in a field with a load of feed for his sheep or cattle and they run across the field to be fed.

What follows is a selection of Jeremy’s work.

 

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

A Feast Or A Famine

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

There is a saying that it is either a feast or a famine meaning that there is either too much or too little of a good thing. Yesterday was a little like that with the emphasis being on feast.

There have been times on this trip when I have felt a little underemployed to the point when I thought that Parkinson’s Law was being enforced entirely for my benefit. Parkinson’s Law, you may remember, was first articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author, who in 1955 in a humorous article for The Economist, proposed the notion that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

My morning, I discovered, was to be taken up with a visit to a school I had been to before. The headmistress, a formidable lady of the type you normally associate with 1950’s stories and black and white films about girl’s schools, who cared for their charges with a stentorian voice, a heart of gold and a regime of cold showers and hockey, had asked if I could go back to the school. She wanted me to work, first of all, with a group of teachers and their class, teaching them some songs that involved movement and then to have another one to one session with a young seriously autistic boy I had worked with before. My voice and the guitar playing, it seemed, had a calming effect on him.

I really had to think about songs with movement that could be useful. The teachers ideally wanted something that would make the children move their arms and their legs and make them walk forward. I had nothing at all in my musical arsenal and then, from somewhere back in the dark recesses of my mind, I remembered a song I used to sing at Sunday School. The words weren’t that great but I was sure I could fix that and it did involve arms moving around and some marching, on the spot and going forward. Suddenly the old Sunday School chorus ‘I’m in the Lord’s Army’ with slightly modified words had a new lease of life.

I don’t want to march with the infantry,

Ride with the cavalry,

Sail with the navy.

I don’t want to zoom o’er the enemy,

I’m at the R***** School.

It seemed to work and pretty soon we had children marching and riding and zooming all over the place. Wonderful to watch.

New audiences are always intimidating, even ones that know you and you know are pleased to see you but that was not going to be the case when I visited a school for, and this is how the school describes itself, Differently Abled Children, on the outskirts of Cochin.

The school is run by the Sisters of Relative Avoidance, not the real name of the order, and is a really beautiful place set in immaculate grounds with a separate home for women and a physio centre for people involved in car accidents. As we drive into the yard I could see through open doors into a hall where about 50 children and young people aged from about 7 to early 20’s were sitting on the floor waiting. I went in and sat down and looked across the hall at all those happy, smiling faces expectantly waiting to be entertained.

For about the next hour I went through all the songs I had been using, Glory of Love, Coulter’s Candy, Car Car and The Zoo Song. I am still amazed at how quickly children learn a song they don’t know and is in a foreign language, but they do and they love it and with that kind of response you can’t help feeling that maybe you have done something that may help to improve their lives. One thing is sure that they certainly did something to improve mine.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

The Settlement Re-visited

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

I can’t say that I was looking forward to my return to The Settlement. Those of you who have been following my blog will know the effect my first visit had on me but, it is part of the programme and so we go. I have been assured that there are residents there who look forward to GVI coming there every Friday and, even though the place has for me a feeling of dark foreboding, I can believe it. I have to keep reminding myself that I am looking at something through soft, western eyes. This is India and the lovely people who live at the Settlement are the lucky ones. If they weren’t here then they would have nothing and be open to a life of abuse and neglect we can’t imagine.

Almost as soon as I sat down in the yard to play some music I saw a figure running towards me, waving. It was Jeremy, smiling and obviously delighted to have a visitor. “How are you, Bill?” he asked as we shook hands. “I am well, thanks, Jeremy,” I replied, pleased he remembered my name. “How are you today?” Suddenly the smile vanished, he let go of my hand and turned and ran away. I was totally confused and slightly afraid, not for myself but for Jeremy. What kind of things, I thought to myself, are going through that poor man’s head? What is it that makes him change in an instant from a smiling, excited man to someone who looks like a frightened child? What is he running from? I have no answers, I would have no idea even where to begin to look for answers, but I hope someone does.

This is Denzil and he is a singer. I was sitting in the square playing my guitar when he came and sat next to me.

“I sing,” he said.

“Will you sing for me?”

“I sing Hindi songs?”

And then he began to sing the most beautiful song, lyrical and with the gentlest melody. While he sang I saw that he was keeping a very complex rhythm with his hands using his left hand as a drum while he kept time with the fingers of his right hand. It was very percussive, fascinating to watch and was a performance all on its own. Then it struck me; Denzil was a tabla player.

For those who don’t know tabla is a pair of drums, a small, higher-pitched right hand drum called dayan, (dayan or daya means right) and a larger metal drum called bayan (bayan or baya means left). The music of tabla is very intricate and the sounds are produced by a complicated variety of different hand and finger strokes each stroke expressing the words and syllables of the piece being performed. Denzil was using his left hand as the bayan while he used the fingers of his right hand as he would have played the dayan. I asked what the song was about and he told me that it was a traditional Hindi song about music and that he was singing it for my guitar. Cue ‘Hold Back the Tears, Lump in Throat’ music. I got him to sing the same song three times and was left feeling very privileged and completely mesmerized.

I noticed a group of women sitting on their own outside when I presumed were their rooms. They weren’t doing anything, just sitting there amongst drying washing and piles of rubble. I asked a GVI staff member if they might like to hear some music and he told me, very enthusiastically, that they would so over we went.

“Why are these ladies sitting apart?” I asked.

“In the communities they all come from there is a very specific line of demarcation between men and women, they just don’t sit together, and so when they come here they maintain that tradition.”

I began to play and sing ‘The Glory of Love’. If I ever release anything in Kerala it will have to be this. It is just one of those songs that people seem to love wherever I sing it and these ladies were no exception. They tapped their feet and swayed a little and one woman really got into the groove and got up and danced. It looked as though she was performing some traditional Indian steps, all hand and foot gestures, but what do I know. What I do know is that it was great and I wanted to see more. What to play or not to play, that, indeed, was the question. A country song, maybe? Would a Burns song work here perhaps? Definitely not a ballad. In the end I turned for inspiration to Mick and Keef and soon The Settlement was rocking to ‘Honky Tonk Women’ with dance steps that even those guys, in whatever induced state they were in when they wrote it, could not have imagined.

This is Senga. That’s not her real name, obviously, but I think it suits her. If she lived in Glasgow she would definitely be a Senga. Like Vashti who we met last week no one is really sure how old she is. She has been here a long time. And she sings. Her voice now is brittle and cracks a bit on the high notes, and we all know that feeling, and perhaps not as strong as it once was but it is still melodic and sweet. She sang an old Islamic folk song in a dialect that no one knew or had even heard before. It was a love song, she told us, and then she laughed, a mischievous cackle really, and I thought that either it was because of some hidden naughty reference in the song or perhaps at one of her own memories of past love. I hope it was the latter. Would that we can all reach back and laugh.

If this all sounds that I have changed how I feel about The Settlement, I haven’t. It is still, in my opinion, a horrible place over which hangs an overbearing air of lethargy. What I can now say is that with the slightest encouragement the people who live there will respond in a very positive way and happily share their own experiences.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Almost Like Fair Friday

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

As I have previously mentioned in these short epistles, this week is the Keralan festival of Onam, a wonderful, colourful spectacle where the main household/community decoration is the floor carpet. This is essentially a temporary carpet made entirely of flowers, well flower petals, to be exact, thousands of flowers producing millions of petals. It is called a floor carpet but it is not only for floors. You see them on roadways and in the foyers of hotels. You come across them in restaurants and cafes and public buildings, everyone producing their own design and choice of colours although orange and yellow seems to be the favoured choice.

The largest in Cochin is this magnificent specimen. Funded by the local tourist board and created and maintained by local volunteers, it is about 100 feet square and made mostly with yellow and orange chrysanthemums. The red areas, however, are the most gorgeous heads of red roses, thousands of them. We had to have one, of course, and so on earlier today all the staff and volunteers got busy and created a pretty good floor carpet showing the GVI logo in the traditional colours.

We had been invited to a local café for the traditional Onam Sadhya, a vegetarian banquet which is a bit like Christmas dinner but served on banana leafs and with much less turkey and stuffing and hardly any roast potatoes or cranberry sauce. Well actually no roast potatoes or cranberry at all but you probably guessed that; lots of rice and chutney, though, and delicious banana chips. By far the most unusual items were the payasam, pudding to you and me. One was like a thin rice pudding with cashew nuts and raisins, more a drink than a desert but delicious. The other takes a small effort of will to try, but it is worth it. Lentil payasam is one of the must have desserts for any Onam Sadhya. Made with lentils, obviously or it probably wouldn’t be called lentil payasam, coconut milk, cashews, raisins and pieces of coconut fried in ghee, it looks like a thick lentil soup with nuts but it is sweet and the perfect sauce for banana.

No major public holiday should be without a downpour of rain and so it was today in Cochin. As we were just setting out on foot for the café it started to rain. No, Gentle Reader, I mean IT STARTED TO RAIN! Fortunately we hadn’t far to go and after days of very intense heat the rain, if not exactly welcome was certainly very refreshing. Our table was at the front of the café, almost al fresco but covered, an interesting place to sit and look along a very empty, almost totally deserted K B Jacob Road and compare it to the usual happy traffic chaos and symphony of car horns to which I had become accustomed. I was told this was partly to do with today being the main Onam holiday but also it had something to do with the bad weather. It was almost like being in the UK on an August Bank Holiday or Glasgow Fair Friday.

The rain did stop after lunch which was good as it meant it would be dry for the parade. This is a massive parade with groups of men in differing costumes dancing and performing various rites which were beyond any comprehension but which, I suppose, made senseto someone, even if it was only the choreographer but believe me this was definitely not Strictly Come Dancing. Most of the groups had some kind of musical accompaniment which largely took the form of lots of drummers, all playing different beats and rhythms. One group of dancers, for that is what they were, had the aforesaid drum section but it also had a horn section thrown in. I say horn section, the instrument was more like a bugle which had been stretched out and bent to form a rough C shape. The ‘band’ seemed to know only one tune which they played over and over again. It was a bit like an Orange Order March really; a colourful spectacle, a lot of noise, and not that much point to it unless you were involved in marching or banging a drum.

One very colourful group were the tiger men. This was a group of about 25 very overweight men who had they whole bodies painted like tigers. Well tigers of various colours, traditional orange and black, pink and black, blue and black, purple and black and one man, who seemed to be the leader, who was entirely painted black and whose main function seemed to be to smash fluorescent lights with his head and then eat them after which he set his hair on fire. Actually it was a lot like an Orange Order March but without the bowler hats.

Unfortunately I can’t show any photographs of this strangely entertaining parade because the battery in my camera gave up the ghost just as it was starting. I did, however, get some photographs of one very important member of the whole thing, the star of the show, in my opinion, the elephant. I say star of the show but to be honest I am in two minds whether or not I approved. He didn’t look that happy, his feet were chained, albeit thinly disguised, and his handler did use a stick and a metal prod to keep him under control and I noticed that he kept moving from one foot to the other in quite an agitated way, the elephant, that is, not the handler. He did look very grand in his parade attire but I would much rather have seen him without either it or the chains and wandering around in a natural state instead of being held captive and in a very distressed state.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Doesn't Coulter's Candy Travel Well

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

In a busy suburb of Cochin there is a wonderful boarding school for girls aged between 5 and 18 run by an order of nuns called, in the best Catholic tradition, The Sisters of Everlasting Dependability. Actually they aren’t called that I just thought it sounded good.

The name of the school if translated means “Christening the Girls.” Many of the girls who attend and live here come from broken homes. Some have no homes at all and the school has been a god-send, literally, for thousands of girls from all over India and from as far away as Thailand. Here, under the guidance of the worthy Sisters, girls are educated, uplifted, and most importantly, shown love. Some of girls have been found wandering the streets or living in railway stations, while other have been rescued from persecution. Some have come as refugees from other countries. The aim of the school is simple; to bring up girls who are healthy, mentally as well as physically, girls who are educated and skilled, and girls who will eventually go into the world as  strong, independent women, happy and adjusted, and able to stand strong as a respectable and contributing member of society. Not a bad set of goals is it?

It is Onam in Kerala just now and that means a week long holiday. For many of the girls at the school it means a trip home to be with family but for about 25 girls it means just another week at school. Either they have no homes to go to or their families are too poor to take them home so here they stay. This week GVI in conjunction with the Sisters of Everlasting Dependability have organised a week of various activities for the girls. Some art, some fashion design, some crafts and, of course, music. At the end of the week we plan to hold a concert/fashion show/art exhibition for the girls and for anyone else who fancies coming along.

I began working with a group of 8 girls, aged between 13 and 18. I thought that rather than tell them what song I would teach them, it might be a good idea to sing a few and let them choose their favourite. The winner, by a mile, in fact nothing else stood a chance was that perennial favourite The Glory of Love. They loved it. As we worked on the song I noticed that, quite naturally, some of the girls were adding actions to match the words. What a great idea, I thought, and from there, like Topsy, it grew. Pretty soon we had worked out actions for the whole song and they had it nailed in next to no time.

I really wanted to work with all of the girls so we split them into four groups and as three of the groups were busy on another part of the project I took the others for singing. I had been asked by the Sisters if I could teach them a welcome song and a thank you song and I managed to come up with a couple of very easy songs for them to learn but the real star of the show was when I decided to try and teach them Coulter’s Candy, with some very slight alterations to the words:

 

 

 

Aly, bally, aly bally bee,

Sitting on your ama’s knee.

Crying for one rupee

To buy some chocolate candy.

 

There was something quite magical about mixing the purity of those girls’ voices with their Indian dialects and the singing of a traditional Scots folk song. It was pretty wonderful when the girls sang in their own small groups but when I brought them all together to form an impromptu choir the result was amazing.  Glass eyes and tears spring to mind. Unfortunately photography or videos aren’t allowed but I hope that before the week is over I will be able to make an audio recording.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up

MacDonalds, No More

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

After my usual breakfast of an omlette, two slices of toast, some small, sweet bananas and tea, the same every morning, I have never asked for it to be changed so why would it be changed, on the roof top terrace of the White Rose, a little nod there to my love of Yorkshire, I take a walk into town accompanied for part of the way by a herd of goats.

My route seldom varies now. I walk past the Sunshine Inn Homestay, and past the home of Mr Laliza T.Y., the Government Pleader for the High Court of Kerala and into K. B. Jacob Road where the Tuk-Tuks are lined up waiting for an early morning fare. These drivers all wear the light brown shirt of their Union. No one here is offering cheap tours at 100 rupees an hour. These men want lots of short trips with quick, regular fares then back to take their place once more at the stand.

I turn into Bastion Road and looking up I can see the Italian Upstairs Restaurant next door to the Cinderella Herbal Beauty Treatment salon and Fusion Bay Seafood. All three are closed. It’s either too early or perhaps it’s because it’s Sunday. Something is happening today at the Santa Cruz Basilica and I can see that a large marquee has been erected in the grounds. I want to go in and find out what is going on but I think I might look out of place and so I pass by. The Desert Mist Ice Cream parlour in open and doing good business; The Very Best Chocolate Fudge Sundae in India for only 90 rupees, so says the advert outside the shop and I believe them.

On Bastion Street I pass Cochin Curios, a shop I have visited before. Waseem, the owner comes out to greet me and invites me in for tea promising that he won’t try to sell me anything. I know that he will but I go in anyway and play the game. He does actually have a small bronze of the three wise monkeys which I like very much but I don’t think he knows this. We enjoy some good natured banter, playing our parts well, he is the poor shopkeeper and I am the poor musician, and drink some khwaa (ka-wa), a delicious sweet fusion of saffron, cardamom and cinnamon. He knows why I am in Cochin and he is familiar with the work of GVI. He asks me to bring some of the other volunteers to his shop. I tell him I will. “If they come and give me good business,” he says, “I will make you a gift of the three wise monkeys.” He wags his finger at me as if to say I know everything. We laugh and I leave his shop with nothing but a full heart at such open friendliness.

Further down the road I unintentionally walk past Shalom Tailoring. Fazil, the owner, sees me and runs out after me. “Have I done something to upset you?” he asks. “Why do you walk past my shop and not come and say hello to my brother and me? Please come back and take tea with us. No business, just tea.” And I go back with him because something in his voice tells you he means every word. In his shop the three of us sit and drink sweet, milky masala tea and we talk about work and family and no mention of business.

There is no sense of urgency in Cochin, even though the Tuk-Tuks are driven at a speed which would frighten the French, as they used to say. Everything can be done over tea. If you have to plan something then why not plan it over a cup of chai. If you have to meet to discuss business then why not meet in a café where you can drink some masala tea. Even if you are shopping for souvenirs then what better way to do it than with a cup of kwhaa. Nothing is urgent and once you know that the word for yesterday is the same as the word for tomorrow and today you are well on your way to understanding that time is a fairly abstract thing.

Maybe it is because time is so fluid that the one thing you don’t see is fast food places. I mean fast food such as we know in the west. In Cochin there is no MacDonald’s. There is no KFC and Pizza Hut just doesn’t exist. Of course these places do exist across the water in Ernakulam or in the bigger cities and here in Cochin there are no shortage of kerbside vendors selling all sorts of delectable foodstuffs, and some I am sure that are not so delectable, but none of the big high street names we are so used to have made it onto the streets of Cochin, and no bad thing that is either.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

 

 

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like.....But You Can Never Leave

It was a very traumatic morning at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered.

The Settlement is a horrible place. This is not its real name but it will do. It is dirty and it smells and it breaks every possible health and safety rule you could imagine. Forget that. It doesn’t break any rules because those kinds of rules are clearly forgotten once you get behind the gates.

Founded in 1941as “a centre for the destitute, a place to hold beggars, the mentally subnormal and abnormal wandering individuals.” It was also a home for the elderly who had nowhere else to go and a place where the police would bring homeless wanderers to be housed and fed where “many of its long-term inmates were reasonably normal.” It is now run by the Corporation of Cochin under what is termed the Cochin Vagrancy Act. There are currently about 200 residents being cared for by 5 full time staff. I say cared for but I didn’t see much evidence of care while I was there. What I did see were men and women aged between 18 and old walking around or sitting around or sleeping, most of whom were so drugged that they couldn’t have done anything.

GVI comes here once a week, every Friday for two hours and that short time must be like a breath of fresh air to some of those who live here and who can enjoy basic crafts, some sport which is basically kicking a ball around the yard or throwing a Frisbee and at times some music, which is why I was here.

You enter The Setlement, sorry if I keep repeating the name but I want you to remember it, I want it to be as familiar to you as your own address, through high metal gates, which are always closed. Perhaps to keep the people who live here in or perhaps to make sure no one can actually see the squalor these poor people are living in. 

Even the name has a dark, foreboding ring to it. The Settlement conjured up t me the very worst images of Nazi Labour Camps. It isn’t anywhere near as bad as that, of course, there are no jack-booted guards, there are no gas chambers, there is no forced labour. Nowhere could ever be as bad as those dreadful places but it may as well be for the people who live here are forgotten people whose only common link is that they are all forgotten. Forgotten and ignored here at The Settlement.

This is Sarah. That is not her real name but it is as close as I can get. She is ill. She is very ill with a serious, on-going bronchial complaint. Quite possibly she is dying from something which could be cured with the proper care and medication. She will receive neither.Why do I think this? I was sitting in the main square playing my guitar when Sarah came and sat beside me. Between us was a 500 ml bottle of water I had brought with me. Sarah pointed, first at the water then at herself. “Do you want some water?” I asked her. Once again she pointed at the water and then at herself. I handed her the half full bottle which she took gratefully and left looking as though she had just been handed a fortune. That is why I think that. if Sarah doesn’t even have adequate drinking water and if that is the case then what chance has she of getting the most basic medical care and attention.

 

This is Vashti. No one knows how old she is or exactly how long she has been here. She is so small and thin she looks as though the slightest breeze would blow here away. She is always smiling and she loves to sing. While I played and sang she came and stood beside me and listened. One of the other volunteers handed her a shaker and as I played and sang she kept perfect time. When I had finished she started to sing, clap her hands and dance slightly to her own music. I stood beside her playing along with her and as she sang she laughed and when she laughed her face became alive and beautiful. Ten minutes of joy in an otherwise empty week.

This is Jeremy. One of the kindest people I have ever met. He is an artist and took great pleasure in showing me some of his art work in and around The Settlement. Why is George here? Well, he has nowhere else to go. He is very gentle, very quietly spoken, very artistic and very confused and uncertain about making new friends. I suspect he has been at the receiving end of some kind of abuse, either physical or mental or verbal or most likely all three. He has no family, or at least no family who want to know him for reasons that you may have worked out. India is not a country where anything other than traditional family values are welcomed and where certain subjects are still taboo. Any kind of relationship between men is punishable with long prison sentences. I suppose in a paradoxical way here at least he is safe but he is still a prisoner and will never be able or allowed to be true to himself or to express his talent.

I also heard about one lady who had been fighting with some of the other women. It was made clear that she had quite a serious personality disorder but the best treatment that she could receive was to be locked away in solitary confinement. I tried to find out how long she had been locked away but no one would tell me. The Settlement obviously has its secrets.

There is in the middle of the yard an old bus. It is covered in bird-shit and overgrown with weeds. Inside the seats and torn and the floor is covered with all kinds of rubbish, some identifiable, some I don’t even want to try and identify. What is the old bus used for? It’s where some of the men go to sit and talk or to sleep. There is a lot of sleeping goes on at The Settlement.

In a corner there is a huge building with strong wire mesh on all sides. It’s a cage really. It’s the kind of building in which you might expect to find some kind of wild animal at the zoo. It is actually the dining room. Inside men were either watching a very small television at one end or they were lying on the tables sleeping or they were wandering around aimlessly. There is a lot of aimless wandering goes on at The Settlement.

These are some of the other men and women I saw in The Settlement. I don’t know their stories or why they are here. I don’t even know their names but they all have names and they all have stories and they all have a right to have some kind of dignity in their lives.

Am I trying to shock you, Gentle Reader? I’m not trying to do anything other than writing a short piece about a place I visited which shocked and horrified me. If you have the slightest spark of humanity in you then you will be shocked and horrified anyway that such places still exist in the 21st century. Well they do still exist and one such place is The Settlement so next time you complain because your internet connection is slow or you are bored with constant repeats and reality shows on television or you fancy having a go at someone because of the state of the NHS just remember the people who live at The Settlement.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is sometimes shocking and some people are still ignored.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Every Picture Tells A Story

Well that was an interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered.

It’s the season of Onam in Kerala and as I have previously stated this is a very big deal. As big as, if not bigger than Christmas, and trust me, Christmas in Kerala is massive.

Onam tells the story of King Mahabali who was banished to the underworld by Vishnu but then allowed to return to visit Kerala once a year and this is his festival. Apparently he was banished because he was such a good and generous king and then, as he was elevated to an almost god-like status by Vishnu, and because he was such a good and generous kind of guy he was allowed this one boon of a once a year return to his people. Confused? It’s India, just go with it, it is all worth it.

Every picture tells a story, so they say, and that is very true of today. I was invited to attend the annual Onam festival celebrations at a local school where the children and staff were putting on a show to celebrate the festival. It was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that my words would never do justice to the performances, so sit back and let the pictures do the talking.

Some of the amazing dancers. The saris are white with gold borders, the traditional colours for a sari in Kerala.

Some of the amazing dancers. The saris are white with gold borders, the traditional colours for a sari in Kerala.

The Tiger Hunt.

The Tiger Hunt.

Three of my lovely girls, Radna, Sister Diana and Avasha (not about to sing the Glory of Love).

Three of my lovely girls, Radna, Sister Diana and Avasha (not about to sing the Glory of Love).

My lovely girls doing Bollywood. They can dance as well as sing.

My lovely girls doing Bollywood. They can dance as well as sing.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

That's The Glory of Love

It has been a very busy day as very busy days go at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered.

Today was a good day to be alive. From the moment you walk into Raksha School you know you are somewhere very special. Raksha is a school for children and young people with cerebral palsy and provides services such as physiotherapy and special education as well as vocational training.  The teachers in the carpentry section proudly tell you that the lemon squeezers made by the children are now being regularly exported to Italy and Spain. Key stands, pen holders, coasters and visiting card holders are just some of what they make. It is here that they use old newspapers to make paper bags of various sizes.  In the tailoring unit I saw a young man called John who made beautiful bed quilts out of discarded cloth pieces. John can make a full size double quilt in about 3 or 4 days.

First today I worked with some severely handicapped children who sat around me clutching whatever piece of percussion they preferred. Drums, maracas, shaky eggs were all put to good use as the children provided a noisy background beat to my singing and the whole session was brought to a wonderful end with the staff singing, the children providing the rhythm and me providing the music for Old MacDonald Had a Farm in Malayalam. Of course I understood it all. Well E-I-E-I-O is the same in any language.

Before my next session I had some tea. Now tea in Kerala is quite different to any tea I have ever had. The questions about taking milk or one lump or two just don’t exist. The tea, plus milk, I have heard that sometimes condensed milk is used, plus sugar, goodness knows how much sugar, are all basically ‘cooked’ in a large saucepan and then poured. If you think of it as tea you will be lost. If you think of it as a very sweet, not unpleasant drink which has nothing to do with tea, then there is a fair chance you will enjoy it. Or at least finish it so as not to insult your host.

After my tea I had an hour or so with nine diploma students who were studying at the school to become teachers. They were all singers and I had a wonderful time teaching them some songs and listening to them joining in. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would one day be sitting in an Indian classroom teaching a group of ladies in saris ‘The Glory of Love’. Not content with just one song they wanted to try a Scottish folk sing and so ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ was explained. They really enjoyed finding their way around the Scottish words and pronunciation but they so enjoyed it that I thought they could handle that perennial favourite ‘Coulter’s Candy’. For this one we changed some of the words. Not the ally-bally bits, obviously, but poor wee Jeanie in the song was now ‘sitting on her ama’s knee, greetin’ for a wee rupee, to buy some chocolate candy’.  They had a ball learning the words and singing along and I hope to go back soon and make a recording.

After lunch my final stop was a quick visit to a unit which teaches basic life skills to students with cerebral palsy and it was here I met Mary Jiya, a beautiful young woman with the most amazing voice. To my delight she put aside her studies and sang me the loveliest song in Tamil called Enne Thalattum Sangeetham, a love song from a young girl to her sweetheart. To say that heart strings were being tugged is a huge understatement. Whatever else I may forget about this trip I shall never forget the lovely people I met in Raksha School, their humour, their smiles and the beautiful music. Today was a good day to be alive.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

School Dinners Were Never Like This

It has been a fairly quiet day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered. Next week begins Onam which celebrates the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala and schools all over the state are getting ready for this major festival. And believe me, it is major. This is bigger than Christmas.

Onam tells how after being pushed into the nether world by Vishnu, King Mahabali asked for permission to visit Kerala once a year. Every year elaborate preparations are made to welcome back the king.  It is the only major Indian festival that is celebrated equally by people of all faiths and castes. It is simply an occasion for joy, compassion, gift-giving and solidarity, and embodies Kerala's cultural unity and pluralism.

Today I visited Thamaraparambu Government School in Cochin to do play some music for the children and enjoy a special Onam lunch served in the typical Keralan way, on a banana leaf.

There are only about 20 children at the school and they are amazing although some of the very young were a bit wary of this stranger coming into their classroom with a guitar and disturbing what should have been their nap time.

Outside in the yard the older children were much more interested in music and in particular in trying to get a sound from the guitar. I fingered the chord shapes while various children strummed a basic rhythm. At times it got a little crowded as they all wanted to try to make my guitar work.

Lunch was served in the dining hall by teachers and parents and I have learned that with this type of thali meal, seven different types of curry plus rice, you eat slowly otherwise your host will keep piling food onto your plate, or in this case banana leaf.

There is no cutlery; this is definitely a hands-on situation. My problem with thali is that I am never sure which curry goes best with which accompaniment. Does this vegetable dall go well with this red pickle? Should I mix the yoghurt with the sweet curry? I suppose it's a bit like watching someone eating haggis for the first time. I really have no idea so today I just sat back and watched the children and took my lead from them, they do this every day, after all. I had to smile though at the idea that I was being taught how to eat by eight year olds.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

 Kerala in Black and White

The Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel For The Mildly Bewildered

Having spent a night or two in the luxury of a recommended tourist hotel, getting used to the Keralan heat and the sounds and smells that surround you every day, it was time to leave that luxury and move to the GVI project house on the other side of town and for that I needed a Tuk-Tuk.

I had already struck up a friendship with a driver called Nazeer. It seemed that every time I stepped outside, Nazeer was there, waiting. If I went for a walk and happened to go into a café or shop, when I came out, there was Nazeer, like the old batteries he was ever ready to take me anywhere I wanted to go as long as we could stop en route to visit his ‘friends’ shop for the very best deals in all Kerala.

We loaded all my stuff, a large bag, a rucksack, a guitar and me, into his Tuk-Tuk and we set off for the GVI base in Fort Nagar, or as I have come to know it The Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel For The Mildly Bewildered.

This was a different type of journey. This was the reason I was here. On this journey I had to lose my tourist eyes and prepare myself to see things in a completely different way. With tourist eyes you miss so much. You pass by the invisible people without a glance in their direction. The beggars, the poor, the beautiful ragged children are the ones we must notice and to do that we must look again with different eyes and be prepared to have our senses and consciousness attacked.

I sit quietly as Nazeer drives me through the city, chattering away. I reflect on the change I am about to go through. I feel as though I am hiding a secret identity. I am billionaire Adam West protecting my identity as Batman. I am mild-mannered Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet hiding Superman. I am a folk-singer shielding a host of fears and inadequacies.

We drive along unfamiliar streets and I say to myself the new names of Bastion Street, Burgar Street, K.B. Jacob Road, Fosse Road, Quiero’s Street. We pass by The Tribal Arts Spice Market, Fusion Bay Seafood Restaurant, Cinderella Herbal Beauty Care, Loafers Corner Café, Handmade Musical Instruments (Rent-a-Bike and currency exchange also available), Willie’s Shoppe, before finally arriving at the building which will be home for the next five weeks, situated in a quiet residential street in Fort Nagar between Sunshine Inn Homestay and the home of Laliza T.Y., Government Pleader for the High Court of Kerala.

My mind is still teeming with the sights and sounds of my journey as I am shown to my room, a monastic cell with noisy air conditioning and a cold water shower. Suddenly I want to run away very, very fast. Back to my tourist hotel and the grandmotherly welcome of hot water and fine cotton sheets. Back to the motherly scent that is found in warm towels and soft soap. I remind myself that I am here to give something away, to give of myself and the conditions I now have are still far superior to many of those I am here to help.

That’s been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Kerala in Black and White

Mostly About Food

Kerala Thali. 

Kerala Thali. 

One of the pleasures of any foreign trip I make is to sample the local cuisine. I am afraid that any eatery with a sign proclaiming All Day British Breakfasts Served Here will never get my attention. I had been reliably informed that food had to be a major highlight for any trip to Kerala and even in these early days it has proved to be the case. If, however, you are expecting something like those heavy, over-spiced dishes served up in Indian restaurants in the UK, and I suppose elsewhere, then you will be disappointed. The cuisine of south India is a revelation and it is in Kerala that you will find some of the richest and varied food in all India.

Already rich in its own natural resources from the land and sea, centuries of trade have provided cooks in Kerala with a huge variety of ingredients form which to choose. There is no such thing as a single style of cooking here. The region’s many castes, religions and traders have used and adapted the wealth of produce available to create their owntruly unique culinary tradition whilst retaining certain traits, notably the use of certain spices grown in the area, cumin, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves and curry leaves in delicious combinations with coconut and chilli. This is not the place to come if you are on a diet.

Whatever you may believe, or have heard to the contrary, India still has a very special place in its very large heart for the British and it is for that reason, I am sure, that allowances are made for all the various mistakes Westerners make whilst eating.

We are all familiar, I am sure, with the ‘only ever eat with your right hand’ rule but this is really only something to which you would adhere if you were invited to someone’s home and that was the practice there. Interestingly the right hand is also used exclusively for other purposes such as shaking hands and either giving or receiving something. You can hold a cup or a utensil in your left hand but you should never use it to pass food or wipe your mouth.  All eateries, even the most basic, will provide cutlery and due to the huge increase in tourism over the years no one is really surprised or offended by its use. One other unusual rule is that your lips should never touch another person’s food. I am not sure how that would happen anyway; I am not in the habit of sticking my face into the plate of a fellow diner but it is something you are warned about. 

And what of the food itself? As I have already said it is completely different to what you would order in your favourite Indian restaurant. Pakora for example is not the little dumpling type things we are so used to. The component parts are pretty much the same, onion, potato, cauliflower, but it would probably be described on Master Chef as deconstructed. In other words all the separate ingredients are dipped in batter and lightly deep friend then served with either mint chutney or tamarind chutney. Likewise nan bread tend to be quite small and very thin, almost crisp and served usually with a thali, a typical Keralan meal named after the plate on which it is served. This would usually include rice and a number of different side dishes going from spicy to sweet just like in the photo. Believe me it was delicious and all for what you would pay for a latte in a typical UK high street coffee shop, not to mention any names.

Isn’t it funny though how, wherever we are, we very soon identify a favourite haunt, watering hole, safe haven, call it what you will but we all eventually find one, and so it was with me very soon after I arrived in Kerala.

I had heard about the Kashi Art Café, the place where ‘coffee meets art’ situated in Burgher Street, Fort Cochin. The chocolate cake here is legendary and with good reason as is their fiery, thirst quenching ginger tea. For those who want a substantial Keralan dish the Masala Braised Kingfish with Organic Rice is, as they say, to die for or for those in need of something a bit more familiar the café does an incredible New York Steak Sandwich, best taken I found with their signature iced tea with lime and sugar syrup. It’s like getting money from home. I had such a meal tonight and a NYSS with iced tea followed by chocolate cake and a proper espresso cost me 540 rupees, about £5.50. 

New York Steak Sandwich with Iced Tea, Kashi Art Cafe

New York Steak Sandwich with Iced Tea, Kashi Art Cafe

That’s been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

 Today in Kerala

Two quite disturbing statistics have been made the news today. The National Crime Records Bureau report that Kochi had the highest number of drug related crimes in the country outside of Mumbai in 2015. 654 cases in Kochi, mostly related to the use and possession of ganja. Mumbai had a staggering 18,628, which I suppose given the difference in population is hardly surprising.

On an even more serious note it seems that the number of honour killings has risen dramatically from 28 in 2014 to 192 last year. What is even more disturbing is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the increase and has completely baffled social activists.

Kerala in Black and White

It's All About Goats

According to mythology the state of Kerala was created when the warrior Parusurama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, was given by the sea god Varuna, as a reward for his penance, all the land equal to the distance he could throw his axe. When Parusurama’s throw landed in Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, the seas receded and exposed a strip of land that is Kerala. As his act was one of repentance for all those he had killed in battle, for many Kerala was created as a land of peace and harmony.

Modern Kerala came into being in 1956 when the Malayalam speaking areas of Cochin, Malabar and Travancore united to become the new state of Kerala. Malayalam is still the official language of Kerala and has the distinction, so I believe, as being the only palindromically named mother tongue in the world. In 1957 the new state had its first elections and history was made when the legendary Elamkulam Manackal ShankaranNamboodiripad, affectionately known as EMS, became the first leader of a democratically elected communist government in the world. Politics in Kerala are dominated by two parties: the Communist Party of India(Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). These have been alternately voted to power since 1982.

Wherever you go in Cochin there are three things you will see in abundance; goats, spice markets and Tuk-Tuks. I have to say right away that there is no connection whatsoever between the three. At least I don’t think there is. Goats wander around completely heedless of the fact that they are sharing the road with other users. There are so many of them that at times it is difficult to say if the goats are sharing the road with the traffic or if the traffic is there simply under the sufferance of the goats. Whatever the situation, everyone seems to mosey along quite nicely thank you. 

To say that the spice trade has been vital to Kerala is the understatement to end all understatements. For centuries, ever since Vasco da Gama first set foot here, initially to secure sea routes with the Ottoman empire, the spices of the region have lured travellers from all corners of the globe. No matter where you go in Fort Kochi or Mattancherry, hanging in the air is the smell of spice. Basil, chilli, pepper (Kerala produces 98% of India’s pepper), tamarind (a word of caution - don’t ever eat raw tamarind, it is the most bitter thing I have ever tasted), turmeric, ginger, cardamom, vanilla, they are all here in abundance and going for the shortest walk makes you hungry. 

And then there are the Tuk-Tuks, or as I have come to call them, Taken-Takens. They are everywhere, almost as many as there are goats, and the friendly drivers are ready to take you anywhere you ask, and also to tell you that the place you want to go is not really where you want to go or the best place for what you want. They always have a friend who can either offer you much better prices or has a restaurant which has much better food. At first I was a bit surprised at this but then I gradually understood. The places they want to take you are not owned by a friend, they are either Government shops or they are Government sponsored and every time a Tuk-Tuk driver drops a potential customer at one of these outlets he is given a voucher for petrol and rice. That really is how the other half live.

That’s been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Today in Kerala

It has been announced by the State Forest Department that a new elephant rehabilitation centre is to be established which will function as a natural home for aged, injured and abandoned captive elephants. Kerala has almost 600 hundred elephants in captivity and the reported cases of torture by both mahouts and owners have been on the increase. The new centre will take care of these wonderful, gentle animals without the use of chains or sticks in about 100 acres of land. Their very own 100 acre wood. This has to be good news for all elephant lovers and even better news for the elephants. 

Kerala in Black and White

On The Backwaters

There is something undeniably appealing about anything to do with water and sailing to us British. We are an island nation after all. It should come as no surprise then that a visit to Kerala’s so-called ‘backwaters’, a vast network of lagoons, rivers and canals, was high on my to-do list on this trip. A fragile ecosystem until recently untouched by tourism, the backwaters support traditional fishing and farming in the most basic conditions.

The backwaters are a bit like Swallows and Amazons meets The Jungle Book, and it would have come as no surprise to me to have been passed by John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker in ‘The Swallow’ and Nancy and Peggy Blackett in their ‘Amazon’. As you push deeper into the backwaters the channels get narrower and more overgrown and you could easily imagine that your every move was being watched by Mowgli and his two best buddies Baghera and Baloo.

The boats used for these tours, or kettu vallam to give them their proper name, hold about ten people and are old rice barges made of oiled jackwood, with a canopy of plaited palm thatch and coir (rope made from coconut fibre), and are propelled through the water by two ferrymen, one at each end, using long bamboo poles.  I really have no idea how these men do what they do. They are working for hours in incredible heat using heavy bamboo poles which are about twenty feet long. They have my total respect.

What I liked immediately about the boat was the complete disregard for anything to do with any health and safety nonsense about life jackets or buoyancy aids. Exactly what you were supposed to do it anything happened and you suddenly found yourself up the creek without a paddle, or to be more precise a boat, I have no idea but once on board you just sit back and let the world drift past in complete silence. The effect is at once soporific and exciting as you try to spot the many types of birds along the banks. Kingfishers, parakeets, cormorants and kites can be seen hiding amongst the lush vegetation. And you get a traditional Keralan lunch served on a banana leaf. Quite delicious.

The trip was not entirely on water. I was asked if I would like to visit the Mahadeva Temple in Vaikom. The temple here is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is one of the most venerated of all Hindu temples in South India. Non-Hindus are often not allowed into even the outer courtyard but on this occasion, with my Hindu guide, I was allowed to enter both the outer courtyard after removing my shoes and also into the inner temple where all men have to remove their shirts before entering. Once inside your senses are assaulted by the smell of incense and the sound of bells and drums and you just have to let yourself be carried along by the hundreds of worshippers paying homage to their chosen deity.

Back in the courtyard I came across a woman seated at an outdoor shrine. She was playing a fiddle type instrument and singing. I asked if I could take her photograph and gave her 10 rupees. Through my guide she asked my name and star sign and she then played and sang a song especially for me. Well that’s what I was told so just let me believe it. I suppose you could say that she is constantly playing sell-out concerts, albeit sell-out concerts of to an audience of one. I have had played gigs like that myself. It seemed a fitting end to the day that I spotted another kingfisher. This one was very tame and perched for some time on my table.

That’s been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Today in Kerala

Almost every day there is a feature in the local paper which carries the heading Canine Horror. There is, apparently, a pack of stray, possibly rabid dogs, roaming the streets and attacking bystanders. The latest report concerns a Tuk-Tuk driver who was injured when he had to swerve to avoid the pack in front of his vehicle. He was thrown from the three-wheeler and in an effort to stop it falling on top of a one year old girl who was travelling with her mother he held the rickshaw upright so that it wouldn’t topple over. The child and her mother were saved but the driver was attacked by the dogs and subsequently lost a kidney.

Kerala in Black and White

Strictly Come Kathakali

“The evening sun slowly vanishes on the western horizon as a Divine forms step out of the Arabian Sea. They float, they roar, they love, they fight in an art form that is more refined and more colourful than any other performing art in the world.” Welcome to KATHAKALI.

So begins one introduction to the world of Kathakali, the stately dance drama of Kerala which is believed to have been performed since the 2nd century, although the modern equivalent is a mere youngster dating only from the 1600’s.

Literally meaning ‘story play’, a full performance of Kathakali can last anything up to 12 hours, often running all through the night. There is no script as such, but a vocalisation by a singer who also beats out the rhythms on a sudda mandalam, a long, barrel-shaped drum. The rhythm and the style of the vocals suggest the style and temperament of the characters and create the mood of the piece being performed. In a full performance the initial drumming introduction can itself take up to two hours. And I thought some of Ginger Baker’s solos were long. The actors follow the vocals and drum rhythms and tell the story, not with words but through intricate and highly expressive facial gestures (mukhabhinaya) and hand gestures (mudra).

Traditionally this was an all-male domain, with men playing both male and female roles, and it was restricted to those of a higher caste, but changes are slowly being made in order to try and stop the decline of the art form, and women and lower castes are now performing. The audience is invited to come early to witness the lengthy and highly disciplined make-up preparation which shows the gradual change of mortals into immortal deities and demons. The green facial paint signifies the hero.

Click on an image to see the make up process.

The performance I attended consisted of just one scene, telling the story of Jayantha, the son of the King of Heaven. While he is sitting is his garden he is approached by a beautiful woman. She is clearly in something of an amorous mood and as they look at each other Jayantha asks her if she is from heaven. She tells him she is and asks him to marry her. He is not altogether averse to her suggestion, but first he must get his father’s permission, at which point she becomes anxious and clearly doesn’t want this to happen. She becomes even more amorous and forceful. This make Jayantha suspicious, well it would, wouldn’t it, and he doubts her identity and she confirms that she is not, after all, from heaven (and probably not a natural blonde either). He now spurns her offer and tells her to leave him but she is distraught and tries to grab him and force him to embrace her. She fails but now Jayantha knows she is in fact a demoness in the disguise of a beautiful lady. Suddenly she changes back to her true form as a demoness and has enough strength to carry Jayantha off and have her wicked way with him. He is disgusted and quite possibly frightened out of his wits, but he lashes out with his sword and disfigures her horribly, cutting off her nose and breast before sending her away. The moral, apparently, is that evil must be punished.

You will understand that I am paraphrasing slightly, but it gives you some idea of Kathakali. I don’t know the name of the woman/demoness in the performance I saw but I am sure I went out with her sister once.

That’s been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.

Today in Kerala

Keralan police were outwitted by some street traders during a VIP visit. As a security measure the police had erected bamboo barriers to keep the crowds back but they had obviously underestimated the determination and inventiveness of the vendors who decided that the barricades were the perfect place to display their wares. Only in India.

Kerala in Black and White

The Dhubikhan Laundry, Fort Kochi 

The Dhubikhan Laundry, Fort Kochi