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.