Dreaming In Colour part ii)

24th January 2013

Dreaming in Colour in God’s Own Country – first impressions of Kerala, South India

ii) Marari Beach, near Allepey

Travancore, Malabar, Varkala, Kollam, Ananthapuri, Kayamkulam, Harripad, Allapuzha. Today we take the train to Allapuzha, affectionately known as Appley, like sort of like an apple.

Today we are on the beach. It is searing heat, fierce, harsh. You don’t see the heat in the photograph, you don’t hear the heat in the recording, but here on the beach there is nothing but heat, it is the dominant element, it overpowers, consumes, it feels destructive, dangerous. And I am sitting in the shade thinking – this is the dream that we dream about in the north – being on a beach, by the sea, in this heat, on the edge of nothing, watching the waves. And the people here, subsisting, fishing, farming, do they dream of moving to a city in the north and making a life and making enough money to be able to afford to dream about being on a beach, by the sea, in this heat, on the edge of nothing?

I can tell you the way to the beach, I can tell you about the train ride, I can tell you about the dreams, the long night of the soul, the dreams of future past, the hope for times to come, the same dreams as the home dreams, the ones about time passing and nothing happening, the ones about time passing and everything staying the same, the ones about time passing. I can tell you about the way to the beach; past the hammocks; over the creek holding on to the too thin guide rope; treading carefully on the too round trunks of the coconut palms; past the vegetable patch protected from the sun scorch by saris; past the fishing boats, nets packed, flags fluttering; and you are there on the Malabar Coast in the old kingdom of Travancore where everything is as everything was. The boats go out, the boats come in, the women water the vegetables and the men shit on the beach. Everybody knows what the left hand and the right hand are for and generation after generation live here and work here and die here, same as it ever was, same as it ever was. The train pulls out of Trivandrum Central. You can feel the weight of all the carriages and all the people. It slowly gains momentum. We have window seats in a sleeper carriage. As we watch, the world flows by at increasing speed, like an art film. Through the bars where a window would be if we were still in the north, houses and people and tuk tuks and traffic; then palms and fields and houses and people; on and on. A girl walks along the track, baby held tight and wrapped in cloth, getting somewhere by the fastest route. Water buffalo graze in the mud, no doubt glad of its sticky coolness. Varkala, Kollam, Ananthapuri, coffee, chai, onion bhaji; the blind man might help you pick a ticket for the lottery. Seat three watches a movie on his laptop about shady deals in the big city; Kayamkulam; seat seven sits cross legged and sari wrapped, headphones plugged in to music for a long journey; a long journey that tells its own story, through filters, in fragments. Lady in green stretches out across seats three and four; the man in the film sips whisky and talks about his divorce; the coffee is sweet and milky and costs seven rupees; outside is a lake that eventually leads to the sea. Here, then its gone. Here then its gone, like a black butterfly with vivid red wings, like our loves and our lives and all things, like the wind and the waves and the sound of the train passing by on its way on a steamy December day. Rumble and flash, a small boy waves at the rumble and flash, the clatter and crash, and we’re gone.

I can tell you about the disco bus, the jesus bus, the little girl killed on the road, the 90 year, six month celebration for the church that we must put our faith in or all is surely lost. I can tell you about the sea eagles circling crows eating sardines laid out to dry in the sun on brown mats on the sandy yellow sand; the eyes of a girl on the bench seat, brown and dark and deep and scary, like she already knows the ending. I can tell you about fluttering plastic bunting over the road, piles of plastic bags and bottles on the road side, and two Santas on a motorbike with white plastic faces; about hot, sweet tea and ginger cake; about buffalo curry and mango chutney; about coconut for breakfast and shark for tea; about mosquito nets and long nights at blood temperature; about battling the swell for a dawn swim. I can tell you about all these things, these details, these moments. I can tell you how my real self arrived this morning, after following me round the world; changing planes; chasing me round Thiruvananthapuram; jumping the train at Alapuzha. How he followed me here and sneaked into our room at night to give me a message written on the back of an Indian Railways ticket and the message said – happy journey. But that was already printed by the railway company. His message said – you can’t run away from yourself. I already know that, but he felt that I needed reminding and maybe he was right. But that’s for later, that’s for another time, in another life, back home, in the cold, when I know which day is which day and time is told by clocks and computers, not by the movement of the sun across the sky. Because now the children are singing in the church over the bridge over the river and I need to listen, really listen, so I can tell you about it later. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, they sing, like a hymn, like an incantation, brightly wrapped and a little funny; sugar coated and filled with fun; like church is a party.

Dreaming In Colour part i)

22nd January 2013

Dreaming in Colour in God’s Own Country – first impressions of Kerala, South India.

i) Thiruvananthapuram

Everything we see is filtered through our own past experience. The three white butterflies that I am watching floating round the garden at Varikat Heritage homestay are not the same three white butterflies that you would see at the same time in the same place if you were here with me. I like it here in Thiruvananthapuram. Even the name of the city sounds like it is made up for me, made up to make it feel like it belongs in a magical kingdom from somewhere else. But the place feels strangely familiar. Maybe if you come from London every city feels strangely familiar, because there is a little bit of everywhere in our great metropolis. Or maybe it’s just the traffic noise, the same incessant growl and rumble, the streets groaning; the true, unacknowledged soundtrack to modern living. We arrived here two days ago, on Christmas Day 2012. It says so on the stamps in our passports, a little detail that I rather enjoyed when the immigration official stamped the stamp in blue ink at the airport. We arrived here two days ago but it is only now that I feel I can write something down about being here. It is only today that I feel like we have really arrived. The rest has been the proverbial blur, the assault on the senses that we have all read about. Noise, colour, smell, information overload. When you are a foreigner in a strange land even the simplest action becomes an adventure. Going for a walk, crossing the road, are memorable experiences; taking a tuk tuk to the station is a fairground ride of an adventure. Staying in Thiruvananthapuram is like waking up inside a J.G. Ballard novel. You know, the bit where nature runs riot in suburbia; where the creepers grow wild and strangle the tower blocks; where mould expands and fills cracks in the concrete; where flowers burst out of the windows of the Secretariat. It all happens here naturally thanks to the steaming heat and the rain and more steaming heat. It’s not easy to know what to write or to photograph; every tiny detail seems worth recording; every scratch or mark on the walls; every sign or hanging; every leaf or flower; but isn’t it all already in the guide book that we bought in a book shop in Chelsea before we left?

I can tell you about the Indian Coffee House next to the station that is built like a reverse helter skelter. Red, socialist workers cooperative breeze blocks, bleached pink by the sun, spiraling up proudly; waiters in weird hats that look like those elaborately folded napkins you get in fancy restaurants heltering up and skeltering down the spiral with their trays of vegetable biryani and rose water. It’s not exactly worth traveling round the world to see but if you are ever here you really shouldn’t miss it. I can tell you that Hayley really got into her stride after she bought some of those baggy, one size really does fit all, pants that you see part time yoga hippies wearing in Ibiza in the summer. Before that she looked too Western and half naked and just plain weird in clothes that two days earlier, while packing, in London, seemed perfect for the steamy climate. I can tell you how we followed the music blasting from specially made speakers tied to lamp posts, down some side streets, and found ourselves, quite unexpectedly, invited into a Hindu dining room where people are fed before a festival, by some very friendly and very persuasive police men. How everyone was fascinated to see us trying to eat the rice and dal with our hands, as is the custom. How people smiled and laughed behind their hands as we drank the sweet rice based paste affectionately know and, it has to be said, looking rather like, sewerage. But will it help you or me to understand this place any better? Will it make you want to visit any more or any less than you do already? And does it really matter if you do or don’t? Not really.

Each day we visit the Zoological Gardens, apparently containing a tiger that was the inspiration for the tiger in the novel Life of Pi. We go partly because there are not that many places to visit in Thiruvanantapuram, partly because it is beautiful, partly because, and here it is again, it feels strangely familiar. On our third visit, feeling slightly more coherent and less out of time, I work out why. It is a formal Victorian park with long avenues flanked by benches, a bandstand, trees and flowers, and a fountain. It’s like home, but more. Like Battersea Park on growth hormones. The detailed relief of the fountain has been painted red and green and orange and pink. The same with the bandstand which is also decorated with extra detail – exploding flowers, elephants. The museum at the centre of the park is similarly drenched in colour, patterned with detail; vertiginous roofs to cope with the monsoon’s deluge and elaborate carvings and cornices. Imagine if gothic was less gloomy and imposing and dark and, well, less gothic. Imagine happy gothic, full of craziness and contradiction. Victorian Britain viewed through a kaleidoscope, the muted greys and browns and blues of the British winter replaced by vivid hues – deep blood reds; shining azure; burnt orange; sparkling green; unreal, fresh, impossible green. The light, the heat, the mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity, the smiling faces, all make for a fairytale feel to the place, like the Maharajah Rajah Ram Lieutenant Colonel has sprinkled magic dust over the park and turned it into somewhere else in the same place as it used to be. Like the cartoon photoshop goddess of goodness has turned up the colour and hue and saturation to maximum and pressed save so it stays like that forever.

Up on M.G. Road there is a very special crossroads. One that is remarkable for its very ordinariness. At this busy, bustly, noisy junction the tuk tuks and motorbikes and cars and packed to bursting busses hurtle past three distinctive, beautiful buildings – a church, a mosque and a hindu temple. All sit facing the bustle. The believers come to their varied places of worship, go about their devotions and leave again, all at peace, no culture dominating another. They may battle a little, the church covered in flashing lights for Christmas with its kitsch nativity featuring Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a giant Santa; the mosque with its call to prayer shouting loud over the traffic’s rumble; but it’s all good natured. And a great model that so many places in the world would do well to follow.

In the afternoon it rains like heaven is open. Like all the gods from the collection on the crossroads have decided to join forces for one almighty shower; a deluge worthy of mention in anybody’s holy book. Our shelter, our room at Varikat, with its teak or rosewood roof, feels like an upturned ark embarking on a dreaming journey on uncertain waters.

Tapes and Tapes

19th December 2012

I love these old 1/4″ reel to reel tape box covers, a real physical, human feel to the masters rather than the current faceless digital file.

French Doors and other clich├ęs

18th December 2012

Deep frost, low light, lines steaming, fast track to Paris, for existential adventure. I am here to photograph French doors. Get some inspiration.

Outside Sacre Coeur there is frosty magic in the air. A man plays Hallelujah on the harp. The music turns the scene into poetry. I’m back, I’m away, I’m here. for now, everything is just fine.

Inside the cathedral there is the usual sense of peace to be found in these places. I am looking for that, some sense of peace, but peace that comes with NO RELIGION on my census entry. Something with no overbearing presence painted on arches and made flesh by bread and blood red wine.

Having said that, I like the architecture, I like some of the stories and images, bright stained glass and single solo flames, burning together on altars. Collected spirits waiting patiently for the next communion. Sure only that some time soon they will flicker and die.

I take a little tour of past glories: the fondue restaurant where we drank red wine from babies bottles; the corner cafe where we finished the evening off with a Kir Royale or three. The days of free drinking, I mean, thinking; the days of possibilities; the year of magic moments and too much money.

Then I remind myself or remember that the reason to be practical and organised is to allow ourselves time to dream and drift slightly out of focus like this, through a strangely familiar city on a sparkling, frosty-bright winters day. Because this is living. And this is all there is.

Winter in LDN City

3rd December 2012