Dreaming In Colour – First Impressions of Kerala, south India
iv) North Kumbalangi Island, just a short Tuk Tuk ride from Fort Kochi
Next time you happen to be in Fort Kochi, turn left on Princess Road, towards the church and the post office. Perhaps stop off at Tea Pot for a pot of tea on the way but definitely follow your nose to the essential oil shops and the women’s cooperative selling spices, remembering to hold said nose when you go over the lime green, slime green, snake green river that snakes around the town carrying all sorts of unidentified effluent very slowly from nowhere in particular to somewhere else not that far from where it started.
Inside the oil shop ask the friendly assistant about dark oily black musk; fresh, clear white gardenia; complex, overflowing Kerala flower. Let essential oils drip like olfactory poetry onto your arms. Frangipani makes me sneeze. I love the word more than the fragrance – fran-gi-pa-ni, exotic, full of promise and expectation. Bitter amber to make you thoughtful; zesty lime to give you a new lease of life; coffee to clear your thoughts; green orchid for that special, sensual moment.
The spice shop is run by seven women. The one husband present, all moustache and belly and folded arms, raises an eyebrow to me in the simple, international language of men, saying, simply – women, eh? – as we pile up spices, ready for purchase. Saffron, vanilla, chilli flakes, star anise, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, all go into the plastic tray. I step outside and husband follows. He tells me that he drives an Ashok Leyland bus, just come off shift, on the chaotic city streets, and wonders if there are any opportunities for such drivers in London. Wonders if the wages are good. Wonders if I can sponsor him and help him to get there. What can I say? The wages are good. He could earn in a week what he earns here in a month. But the prices are high. You can’t really make the comparison. Most of the money would go on rent and heating and lighting and a coat and boots and eating and surviving. That’s what most people do in the UK, with a little drinking and watching TV and shopping on the side. It’s just like here really, but without the goats wandering down the street and the heat and the tuk tuks; and the spices and the power cuts; and the colour and the craziness; and the smiles and the sunshine; and the creeks and the Chinese fishing nets.
The Chinese fishing nets dangle over the backwaters; wooden cantilevered constructions that look spider-like, ancient, alien, strange. At night the nets are lowered into the two metre deep, brackish, bath-warm water. A light is turned on above the nets. The prawns and small fish are attracted to the lights. The nets are pulled up. The fisherman have prawns to sell and eat. The poor allegorical prawns and gullible fish believe that when their friends and family ‘go to the the light’, as they like to call it, and never return, they are ascending to a better place, up above in the sky outside the water, somewhere high above in the place called air, where there is nothing to breathe, they believe they are going to some kind of prawny, fishy heaven.
We follow the signs to Jew Town. Synagogue 0.3m it says, and underneath – God’s Own Country. The arrow is, naturally, pointing up.
The synagogue, built in the 16th century, is a new addition to our collection of religious establishments. It is a little understated compared to the really rather over the top, brightly painted Hindu temples that are in direct competition with the sparkly icing sugar white churches. There is a bunting war going in the streets around them and a sound clash at festival time. Hindu or Christian, these elongated religious services are about the only thing that you could call night life round here. Once the sun sets, around 6:30, the rush is on for home and supper, something involving prawns and spices most probably, and bed, unless there is a do at the church or the temple or the synagogue or the mosque of course.