Cochin

Home Outgrown

On our way to the airport, for what would be one of our shortest trips to Kerala, I told D that I didn’t see myself making this journey a decade from now. At least not framed in the way we do it these days – a trip home. I was wrong – it happened way sooner than a decade.

It wasn’t a comment made lightly – after all, to borrow a phrase, I was referring to a city which had all the places that made up a couple of decades of my life.

What does one go home for? The obvious answer is easy – to spend time with people who matter in one’s life. To note – even that changes during one’s lifetime. But if I have to dig a bit deeper, Rana Dasgupta’s words make sense – when one becomes homesick, it is not a place that one seeks, but oneself, back in time. And when one does that, the props matter. The places, the faces, all reminders of different phases. When they no longer exist, the place is no longer a cure for homesickness. More

Kindred @ Kottayam

The predictability of the biannual trips to Kerala has been on the wane the last couple of years. To the extent that this year we have made only one visit, and it does seem the count will stop there! This year, our more extensive plan, which involved a cousins’ get together, was reasonably wrecked by the announcement of a nationwide bandh on 2nd September. A few of us though, decided to have ourselves a hartal holiday, and thus D and I found ourselves in the world’s first solar powered airport on the first day of September. The pre-arranged cab would take us to Kottayam, with a pit stop to pick up a cousin and his wife.

As we veered off NH 47 on to HMT Road, I realised I hadn’t been on this road in this millennium! NH 47 is apparently called NH 544 now, but I refuse, citing old age as an excuse! HMT stopped ticking earlier this year, I wonder how long the road will be a reminder – probably until local or national pride finds what they deem a worthy recipient. Meanwhile, the only landmark I could remember was at the beginning of the road – Food Craft Institute, which my mother used to visit for baking classes in the 80s. I looked around for the Toshiba Anand factory, remembering the replica of a giant Toshiba battery on a tower that could be seen from afar. Seems I was seeking a world that had been erased more than a decade ago. My last memory of the place was a staff quarters (I can’t be sure if it was KSEB or HMT itself) – we had relatives there and a kid, slightly older than me, had the only clockwork railway I had ever seen. Yes, it was a big deal in the 80s! I glanced around excitedly and then wearily, hoping for a few more tokens of the past, but the place had changed much, I really couldn’t remember anything more, and it was a painful reminder of how fickle, and out of one’s control memory is. After all, to quote Julian Barnes, “memory is what we thought we’d forgotten.More

Habits and home

It’s been happening on enough recent Cochin trips to be given the status of a habit – visiting The Grand hotel for lunch. The food is predictably good, though they take liberties with what can be called ‘meals’. But there’s more to it. The Grand has been around for as long as I can remember, and in the otherwise rapidly changing landscape of my hometown, it offers a solidity and anchorage that is rare and appealing. This time, we had this guy seated right behind us. :)

Another habit, which is even older, is shopping from Malabar Chips – for friends, colleagues, and us. Some of the people working there have been around for decades, and I told D how I’d watched them change over the years. “..all the faces that made up my childhood“, as Rana Dasgupta phrases it in Solo. It made me think how we probably notice changes in others more than they themselves do. By the same token, we don’t notice ourselves change. More

The circle of nothingness

During a recent trip to Cochin, Dad pointed to a newly constructed building and asked me if I remembered what had been there before it, since he couldn’t. Neither could I, though I might have walked/cycled/ridden/driven past it many, many times. I get quite disappointed on such occasions, because when a memory is removed, it’s almost as though a slice of my life, thin though it may be, has been taken away forever. Strange though it may seem, I feel a sense of guilt, towards myself for not retaining a complete picture of my own life, and towards the object itself. A few days later, we passed a plot on 12th Main, Indiranagar, where a commercial building is being constructed. This place will ‘always’ remain in my memory as my uncle’s house, though they moved away quite a few years ago.

All of this reminded me of Schopenhauer’s “The world is my idea“, and a post I had written more than four years ago, the last paragraph in particular. From nothingness comes an idea, it then takes a tangible shape in a mind, and then probably manifests itself in words, deeds, objects and so on. Beyond its physical life, it exists in the minds of the people with whom it has been shared, maybe in forms massively different from its original, until the minds themselves are no more, and no connection exists between the current form and the original. “Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.” ~ Marcus Aurelius  More

A long way away from home

The Global Soul’ is not my favourite Pico Iyer book (though he is a favourite anyway) mostly because I couldn’t connect to three out of its six chapters. I picked up the book because, in addition to it being a Pico book, it was about a subject that has fascinated me for a while now – the concept of ‘home’. This, in a multicultural world whose corporate citizens are rapidly making sure that ‘Everywhere is made up of everywhere else..’ I remember writing about this almost three years ago, in the context of another travel book and my visit to what I still consider home – Cochin. It was evoked by the presence of the same brands that I might see in a mall in Bangalore, the disappearance of familiar landmarks, and the residents referring to new landmarks that I really didn’t know of. It is perhaps unfair to expect that even as I changed, the idea of home would remain a constant. Maybe I will get used to that in a while too.

I had wondered whether, in our pursuit of convenience and familiarity, we might end up creating a homogeneous world. Now I wonder if we might be one of the last generations to live in a truly heterogeneous world, as, in addition to the corporate imperialism, culture also becomes the most exported and imported product, courtesy technological advances – real and virtual. Home is, as the t-shirt goes, where the wifi connects automatically, and I’d be able to recreate it anywhere, with all the props made available to me.

Every year, around this time, there is usually a home visit, and I would be chronicling it, this year there isn’t. Our regular visit targets are missing in action, and going there doesn’t make sense. I wonder if this is how it begins, and a couple of decades later, when I’m traveling, a bout of homesickness would hit me, and I would realise that it wasn’t Cochin I was thinking of. I’ll probably feel sad then, and guilty. But for now, I am closing my eyes, and recreating Cochin in my mind, with no props. I am able to, I can sense the wistfulness as I walk through the streets (without Google) and they haven’t changed. It’s heartening to know that while I have left Cochin, it hasn’t left me.

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until next time, homegrown can be grown?

From the Kerala diary..

An overcast sky met us at the Alwaye railway station on June 1st. As I sat inside the bus to Kothamangalam, I wondered where the rains would meet us. I saw school kids waiting for their bus, but not as many as I had expected. It has been a tradition in Kerala – on June 1st, when the kids begin their academic year, the rains are the first to welcome them. I remembered umbrellas, raincoats, pants hitched up, new wet notebooks…. But it seemed that things weren’t so anymore. I wasn’t the only one surprised – the Gandhi in Perumbavoor stood open jawed.  We reached our destination, dry. I learned later that most schools were opening on Jun 4th and the rains were scheduled on Jun 5th. On the way back to Cochin that night, starting from a near empty bus stand, I was able to relive the window seat. But I realised that just as the seer had changed, so had the scene.

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There’s a wonderful quote that’s attributed to Bryan White – “We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.” So when one goes back to places which only hold childhood memories, maybe there’s a natural pull to rewind to a time without that learning, and just let loose. And just like in that age and time, many impulsive, harmless things then become capable of delivering an incredible amount of joy.

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For a long time now, Nedumbassery had been my exit point from Kerala. And so I sat, after a wedding feast, on a journey from there to Palghat and beyond, watching a series of places I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Familiar landmarks and new sights, and the Western Ghats that stood solidly in the background. Hello, Kuthiran. Dad was surprised I could remember the name of the towns. How many ever roads a man walks down, his first roads remain etched….

The occasion for which we had made the trip saw 3 generations – one that had been born and had spent all their childhood in that village, another (mine) in which the majority of the members had cities that they considered home but had spent many a wonderful vacation there, and a third which was probably making a few memories. There’s that favourite Garden State quote of mine – Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place. In this version, ‘imaginary place’ is not a place that no longer exists physically, but one that exists in a certain state in  the memories of many people. I wondered when a place would cease to exist at all – is it when it disappears physically, is it when all the people who have memories of the place cease to exist, or is it when the place changes so much that even memories cannot bring it back. You’ll see when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s just gone. And you can never get it back. When the seer and the scene let go of each other. And that was why this trip was special – memories had been added, and the disappearing had been delayed.

until next time, seen there, done that :)

Kochi Chronicles – Part 2

….continued from Part 1

Much as Willingdon Island has remained unchanged, Cochin itself has a completely different story to tell. As I’ve mentioned before, each time I visit, I am presented with a new landmark and a demise of an older one which belonged to an earlier era.

For lunch, we decided to go to a trusted old timer – Tandoor. At Chillies (1st Floor) they serve an excellent Andhra meal. It’d been a while since I tried the Chicken Biriyani, so I chose to have that while D and the other M hogged the meals. No meal in Tandoor is complete without their special Kadai Chicken, so we shared a half plate. Amazing as it has always been.

Chillies hasn’t changed a bit though Tandoor downstairs keeps changing the decor. A dimly lit ambiance that somehow manages to freeze time. Helped by the huge photos from a long gone era. (the owner is related to the Travancore Sisters, so you can find many like these featuring them and MGR/Sivaji Ganesan)

The plan for the afternoon was ‘Beautiful‘. A movie we missed in Bangalore. We watched it at Padma, one of the several ‘feminine’ theaters Cochin is famous for. Most of them have survived, though the multiplexes have begun their march. Beautiful lived up to its name, and I loved the way they have quietly, but wonderfully shot the city and Fort Kochi in the movie. The day before, the other M had asked us to note a house in Fort Kochi – the one that had been featured in the movie.

In the evening, I met a friend whom I knew from Bangalore. K suggested the Cocoa Tree on MG Road, a place that has consistently ticked me off whenever I have visited, but is still a fave hangout for many in Cochin. She had moved to Cochin only a while back and I quizzed her on her first impressions. A city in transition, we both agreed, and something that reminded her of Bangalore a couple of decades ago.

To me it was still a small ‘town’, where most people still knew most other people. I probably bored her, talking of old landmarks and routes to school, and how the skyline has changed since then. I told her that I’d never felt a Cochin culture, something I could sense strongly in Trivandrum, Kozhikode, Trichur etc. Cochin has always been Kerala’s big city, changing too fast to have crafted an identity beyond that. She showed me the photo of her house with an awesome balcony view. Once again, I began thinking of where my final home would be. Oh yes, it would be fun to walk the roads as an old man – to walk past the Public Library, where I have spent so many hours, the CISF grounds whose pitch has seen many of my ‘spin experiments’, the school and its surrounding areas which has seen me transition from walking to cycles to a motor vehicle, Foreshore Road, where a dimly lit university computer room hosted my first forays into the internet, and so many many others. But would they be the same? A thought that crossed my mind when I walked back home, seeing familiar faces that had grown older, same people, doing the same things, even as time passed by. A mirror of a different sort.

Dinner was at Kahawa, the owners were the other M’s friends. A coffee shop+ with a distinct character. Hand painted wall art, a book lending mechanism ( a tie up with another of their friends) and reasonably decent food. They also have a section upstairs which is opened on days that Manchester United has a match on. Also available are group discounts and discounts for the Mayor on Foursquare. :)

 

    

We tried the Mango Italian Soda, which could have done a better job with the fizz. The Choco Chiller was significantly better and so was the Mint Hot Chocolate.

 

In the main course, K had recommended the mashed potato and Meat Sauce, but the Roast Pork was too tempting. But sadly, it just about passed muster, as did the Chicken a la Kiev. The best dish was the Grilled Fish with Mornay Sauce. Once again D was the one who got lucky! There were a few options for dessert, but nothing that we really fancied.

Before we left for the airport, we stopped at Malabar Chips – banana chips for Bangalore. Familiar faces, though they didn’t recognise me. Except for one person. :) I wondered if this was the idea of home – a place that you can come back to after several years and still be  recognised, a place that thus gives you a sense of belonging.

As we passed the North Bridge, we saw the first signs of the Kochi Metro construction. There was a line that stayed with me long after ‘Beautiful’ – “Maturity is the loss of innocence” It probably is true of cities too, and I wondered if it was only incidental that there were huge hoardings of a TOI launch on Feb 1st.

We detoured through the University, and though the place shows small signs of transformation every time I visit, there are parts of it that refuse to change. Islands in time. Places where I could stand and travel back in time, because the settings were the same, all I had to do was remember. But I had a flight to catch, and a journey to end.

until next time, timed travel

Kochi chronicles – Part 1

It looks as though the cosmos reads my posts, well almost. The 2 hour bus ride to Cochin was spent near the window seat, close enough to see the night lights. Especially at the stadium where the Kerala Strikers were trouncing their Bollywood opponents in the CCL, and the collective star power was only eclipsed by the floodlights, which dominated the sky. Dinner was the must-have dish on every Cochin trip, from a restaurant which I used to frequent, but whose special dish I discovered much later thanks to a distant relative. The restaurant has shifted since, but thankfully, the dish survived the trip. :)

A trip to a hospital which has been witness to many childhood exploits was the first agenda of the next day. The backbone apparently had its own growth agenda, the tangential perks of a daily face to monitor relationship with the computer. Reminders of mortality too, but a trip I was looking forward to was scheduled for later in the day, and that dispelled the morbid thoughts.

Despite living in Cochin for more than two decades, Fort Kochi and Mattancheri had always been faraway places for me. My connection to them, for a long time, had been that they used to be the final destinations of the buses I used to travel in. Whenever I saw someone take a ticket to these places, I used to look at them curiously. A “where do you live, what happens there, what is it like – living there” look. Later, I had quite a few school friends who used to live there, and I knew the names of the localities they lived in and talked about – Cherlai, Kappalandimukku… :) I had a friend in college too, my regular travel companion, who lived in Pandikudy.

But it was only much later, when I started working in Cochin, that I actually visited these places. Despite frequent biriyani trips, I could never master the lane mazes there. An era before Google Maps. And despite the familiarity these trips created, these places, especially Fort Kochi, never lost the little bit of magic it held for me. The last time I visited the place was around 4 years back – part of an official trip, and as a ‘tourist’. :)

This time, the other M, my sister, a regular visitor, kept teasing D in front of shops with “Madam, you want Kerala sari?” We went by the synagogue, the Police History Museum, visited Jew Town, and watched the backwaters from a cafe + curios outlet which charged tourists for window shopping. At Fort Kochi, a walk along the Chinese fishing nets was mandatory, and on the wall nearby, someone had painted his expression of the Mullaperiyar controversy. A refreshing iced tea + chocolate cake at the Kashi Gallery+Cafe later, we were on our way back.

   

   

  

But there was one stop left before we got back home. One of my favourite areas in all of Cochin – Willingdon Island. Island, which has always remained the same. From Cochin’s old airport, which was returned to the Navy a long time ago, to the shipping container yards, the KV School grounds, the shipping offices, warehouses past their glory days and now in disrepair, and buildings which seem to tell us stories of another time.  The world has changed, and yet they remain, like a living snapshot of another era. These are the places where I learned to drive a car, where numerous hours were spent convincing people to buy broadband internet, where endless cups of tea were consumed dreaming about the future. Time on Island has always stood still for me. We stood by the sea, watching the Vallarpadam container terminal come up, the Rainbow Bridge, Bolgatty and so on, as ferries carried people home.

Cochin might be a big city in the making, but it sleeps early, for now. Even as we got out for dinner, at just after 8, most shops were closed/beginning to close, and traffic was minimal. We had dinner at 14 Avenue, which served some excellent pasta and cannelloni. The best way to end the day is with good chocolate cake, and that’s exactly what we did.

 
The thing with hometowns is that there are many streets and places which activate memories. It is as though they are always waiting for me, to share a common story, to ask me if I remember, to tell me what has happened since, and if I will pass by to see them the next time I visit. Though our paths have separated since, each road has shared a journey with me, and every time I step on them, I step out of myself and think of the younger me who walked these roads.

until next time, walk on

The window seat….

…at night. The sight of a person looking into infinity from within the confines of a moving vehicle. What sparked this memory was a single scene from a song in a movie (Malayalam) that I saw recently – Salt N’ Pepper. Not in this song, which is absolute foodpr0n, but in the other melodious song (2:50 – 3:05) You’ll probably not recognise Shwetha Menon. :)

In trains, it works differently for me. The lights are much further away, and flicker, as though desperately trying to get me to imagine their story. In buses, the lights seem much closer, and so are the people outside. Returning from work, knowing they have a night ahead to recoup before they face the daily grind the next day. On their way to meet friends, hoping they’ll have a good time. Rushing home, eager to see a loved one, whom they have missed all day. Stories of hope, stories with a face.

I don’t get to see this these days, but I remember when I was in engineering college and used to return home on weekends. My usual bus dropped me at home by 6, too early for this, but in case I got delayed, I’d be in a plodding bus, half empty, on a route and through a landscape that looked completely different when seen at night. Before I got the Kiney to Goa, the trip from Panjim to Ribandar at night felt just the same. The Mandovi just made it extra special. In my first job, there was a period during which I used to travel daily from Cochin to Paravur, about 20 km away. That was probably the last time I got the window seat in a bus, at night. Ironically, that was also the time I used to go back to an empty home. One of those times, when the spectator had his own story to tell. :)

There is something about the window-seat-at-night experience – romantic/ nostalgic/ wistful that makes it special. A feeling that I was not alone in the crowd. It used to give me a sense of peace, a feeling that everything would be alright.

until next time, the bus stops here.

Armchair travel plans

If I discount Pico Iyer, the travelogues of Pankaj Mishra, and Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, I hardly read travel books. But I picked up Rahul Jacob’s ‘Right of Passage’ on a whim (influenced by Pico Iyer’s comment on the jacket) and quite liked it, mostly because its really not just a travelogue. Shall publish a more detailed post on that later.

I was hooked on early enough thanks to the last lines of the preface

Still, there is this final paradox of travel: time and again, these memories come back unbidden with the clarity of something that happened yesterday, long after we have returned to the rhythm of our lives

Later in the book, he compares flight travels with train journeys – that he can remember his first flight journey but the rest are a blur. In contrast, however, he remembers most of his train journeys. Though I’m not really the most frequent of fliers, I can relate to that.

I wonder if its to do with memories of childhood, in which train journeys played a very important part (for me), and that affinity meant that later journeys would also be cataloged better by the brain. Or is it the entire set of experiences – from ‘uniform’ airports to passengers consciously avoiding each other even if it means staring resolutely at the seat in front compared to colorful railway stations that seem to be oozing character to seats facing each other and almost forcing conversations?

I juxtaposed this with cities and their culture too. Recently, when I went to Cochin, and dropped in at its most ‘happening’ mall, I wondered how much of homogeneity was being created by malls. The same brands, almost the same store experiences, familiar multiplex chains that somehow give you an air of familiarity even in an unknown town (not Cochin for me, but otherwise). How much of a city’s original hangouts and culture will survive this  onslaught? In fact, I even told D that I could already see landmarks of my days in Cochin  (local shops famous for some particular item) disappearing and the new ones (like a Nilgiris store) being unfamiliar to me. Would most people prefer familiarity over serendipity? Or would a middle ground be found – carefully packaged serendipity?

Going beyond the things to be seen in a place, every travel experience is also about the  discovery of the character of the place you visit. Will we end up creating a homogeneous world, in our constant quest for convenience, and change travel from the train journeys they should be (opinion) to controlled fancy flights?

Fortunately for this generation, this is perhaps not a reality we’ll live to see, and even in the sunset years we will have our memories and photographs and be thankful that not all journeys need travel.

until next time, planed travel