Posted by: cochinblogger | July 10, 2009

The Blue-Veined Beauty

Hi, this is Cochin Blogger at your service. I’m based in a town called Cochin (officially, Kochi) in the state of Kerala, which is perched at the southern-most tip of India. It’s just a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka, and is famous for its unique natural beauty. Kerala is a slim, blue-veined beauty, with canals, backwaters, lagoons, rivers, lakes, ponds, and puddles galore, a thin strip of land caressed by the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Kerala’s trademark is tropical fecundity. It’s a paradise that is still largely unspoiled because of the low level of industrialization. Kerala first hit the international headlines when it voted the communists to power in 1957, this being only the second time communists anywhere in the world have formed a popularly elected government (the first time was in the tiny republic of San Marino).

Right, I’m signing off now. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. 🙂

Posted by: cochinblogger | June 29, 2018

Rangoon Creeper

I pass it frequently, as it grows in my neighborhood, sprawled over a residential wall. Bewitched, I take in the tri-colored flowers — white, pink, and crimson. The scent, especially at dusk, is heady (a common name for it is Drunken Sailor). I often find myself stopping at the wall, sniffing at the flowers.

This is the Rangoon Creeper, with the scientific name Quisqualis indica. The Latin words quis and qualis mean "who" and "what," respectively, reflecting the bewilderment of the botanist who "discovered" it. What art thou? The plant seemed to defy classification.

It starts life as a tiny creeper, then becomes bush-like, and finally shows its true colors as a liana vine that creeps upward toward the sun, clinging to any support it finds. The buds and flowers are initially white, turning into a light blushing pink before maturing into deep crimson. All three colors are sometimes seen on the same plant, which makes for a spectacular display, as can be seen in my photo.

Shot with love and respect in an alley off Shenoys Junction, Ernakulam.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | May 31, 2018

Exposed to the Elements

During a factory visit in Edinburgh, Prince Philip (notorious for his bluntness) said a fuse box in the premises was such a crude piece of work that it “looked as though it had been put in by an Indian.” Indian feathers were suitably ruffled. However, one can understand where the prince got this impression from. All it takes is a stroll down practically any street in India to see electrical junction boxes with wires sticking out of them haphazardly in all directions.

Here is a Swedish blogger’s take on this:

This Is India: You Know It’s Where You Call When You Have a Technical Problem with Your Computer

Yes, this is again calculated to raise Indian hackles, but in a way, we deserve it. We invite this kind of ridicule — with open arms. Nothing, it seem, can cure us of our contempt for public property. We, the Indian public, are OK with this; why else would we allow this state of affairs to persist? Blaming our officials is the easy way out, but we are willing accomplices.

Of course, the Swedish poster’s self-serving logic — that because Indians have such miserable infrastructure, they must be technologically incompetent — is fallacious. It is an argument that may sound plausible to Westerners ignorant about India, but anyone knowledgeable about India will be familiar with the country’s impressive scientific, industrial, and technological track record. Just one example: India’s successful indigenous 2008 Chandrayaan 1 mission, which made it just the fourth country (no, Sweden is not among them) to plant its national flag on the moon. The spacecraft, by the way, carried scientific payloads from other countries too, including from Sweden.

In a way, this is what makes the situation even more infuriating: the technical capacity to build and maintain public infrastructure is there. It is the will that is lacking. There is a fatal flaw in our national psyche that I’m unable to put my finger on.

It’s a multi-stranded problem, but I think I’ve been able to tease out one strand: an exaggerated and unhealthy respect for authority that is foisted on our kids in school — and in our homes. We need to inculcate the opposite: a critical attitude to authority. It’s true that East Asian countries are similar to us in this respect (pun unintended), and their public spaces are in general well maintained. However, they have one quality that we lack: discipline. If we had a basic sense of discipline, we would be horrified by the ugliness in our public spaces. And if we learned in school and in our homes to question authority figures, we would be able to stand up to our public officials, demand accountability, and shame them into action.

An outside perspective does help us gain insight into our weaknesses. They see clearly what we are blind to through sheer overexposure. A German friend who visits India fairly frequently once told me: “It’s not that you are unable to make trains run on time; it’s not important enough in your scheme of things for you to bother yourselves about it.” Let’s also revisit the Swedish blog post again. The comments below the post are interesting. A couple of Indians have tried to defend the indefensible; one even goes so far as to say that we Indians are geniuses because only we can manage our self-inflicted chaotic electrical wiring! How’s that for chutzpah! However, he is shown his place by the last commenter on the page: ”Interesting comment defending the mess. What it tells me, is that rather than consider the visual appeal of that particular neighborhood, the utilities simply “pull” another wire to replace or add to the current network. It has nothing to do with genius and everything to do with laziness and contempt for the environment, regardless of where that environment is.” Hard-hitting words, but true. “Laziness” and ”contempt for the environment” hit the nail on the head.

I took the above photo on Chittoor Road. Does it work? If it does, it’s a miracle, not genius. And if it doesn’t work, what is it doing there on the road?

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Posted by: cochinblogger | April 30, 2018

The Handmaiden Moth

The handmaiden moth (family Arctiinae) is primarily diurnal, which is unusual — most moths are nocturnal. They resemble wasps on account of the colored bands across their bodies, which deters some predators. This is an example of what is called Batesian mimicry. Their bright colors signal that they are unpalatable. They look two-winged, but they actually have hind wings that are much smaller than their forewings. They are found in India, China, and South Africa.

I found these moths on my garage wall, and lost no time in fetching my camera from the house. Needless to say, they were still there when I returned. I have seen these moths before around my yard, and they have always seemed rooted to the spot. Yes, these are navel gazers, alright.

Which is the male? Well, I'm not sure, but using the rule of thumb that in the insect world females are generally larger than males (contrary to what we see in mammals), I'd say the moth on the left is the female.

Lastly, to identify the moth, I had to use Google Image Search. You can upload your photo, and Google will show you similar images. I clicked on a similar image, which led me to a website that had the name of the moth.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | March 31, 2018

Music at the Krithi Book Festival

The Krithi International Book Fest held earlier this month was unusual in that it was as much an art festival as a book fair. Apart from literary events at a separate venue on Bolghatty Island that featured eminent writers (including some from overseas), there were music programs every evening. Below are pics I took when I attended three of those concerts.

I do not know anything about Carnatic music, but I know the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna through his writings. He is a prolific and sometimes controversial writer. The first piece of his that I read was an in-depth profile of the famous singer M.S. Subbulakshmi in Caravan magazine, which created a storm because the writer suggested that MS had to Brahminize herself to find acceptance in the rarefied world of classical Carnatic music, which is something of a Brahminical preserve. Anyway, I had to see him in the flesh. His singing was mesmerizing, and I was happy to have captured the photo below, which gives some idea of the intensity with which he sings, though conditions were far from ideal, especially the weather.

The next day there was a Dhrupad sarod concert by Debanjan Bhattacharjee, seen below. This was much too technical for me, despite the musician’s occasional explanations — but as a non-musician who listens to mostly rock, classical music was a pleasant change.

Debanjan was accompanied by Nishaant Singh (below), who has a magnificent stage presence, on the pakhawaj.

And on the last evening, there was a concert by the Carnatic progressive rock group, Agam. I’ve been a fan since I heard their debut album, The Inner Self Awakens, which is a masterpiece and a favorite of mine. I even got Harish, the lead vocalist, to autograph my copy of the album, which made my day.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | February 24, 2018

Early Morning outside Little Flower Church

Very early one morning last month, I was passing through Elamkulam in a taxi, when I was brought up short by this sight. I stopped the taxi, got out, crossed the road, and took a few shots.

And I’m glad I did.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | January 17, 2018

Caps of Tradition

Caps of tradition_cr_edited.jpg

Shot at Kacheripady.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | December 24, 2017

Perfectly at Ease

Perfectly at ease_cr.jpg

Shot at Shenoys, Ernakulam.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | November 30, 2017

Snake in the Kitchen

IMG_snake_in_kitchen.jpgKerala is snake country, as is only to be expected in a land filled with jungles, rivers, canals, lagoons, and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. The king of the snakes in Kerala is the king cobra, a snake that is more venomous than the cobra and whose diet is made up almost entirely of snakes. It is the longest venomous snake in the world, and when confronted will raise itself off the ground to its full height of six feet and give vent to a blood-curdling hiss. In fact, the unique low-pitched sound is more accurately described as a (demonic?) growl than a hiss, and is calculated to chill the spine. A king cobra’s bite can kill even an elephant, but thankfully, human encounters with king cobras are rare. The king cobra is a denizen of the deepest jungle and is therefore not often spotted. However, that is changing as the jungles shrink and plantations creep ever deeper what was once thick jungle. King cobras have been reported in villages bordering the jungle and have on occasion even been found inside houses in such areas.

In cities, however, snakes are scarce. Or it that they confine themselves to cloistered pockets where human eyes cannot penetrate? Any patch of untended greenery in the city (and there are several of these mini-jungles, thanks to absentee landlords) is certain to shelter snakes. Rats and frogs abound in the city, and can their predator, the snake, be far behind? I have seen snakes in Cochin only twice, in the same location, a patch of neglected, overgrown land behind the international stadium. One of these snakes was a female rat snake whose eggs had been smashed in a clearing operation. I saw the remnants of the eggs, and soon after the mother snake, looking for its brood. It was my first sight of a snake in the “wild,” and the memory still thrills me. My second sighting was unhappy and occurred in the same general area. A Russel’s viper was attacked and killed by a pair of dogs. However, the dogs were bitten by the snake and died painfully hours later despite a vet’s attention.

So, when the maid called out to me one day saying that there was a snake in the kitchen, I was alarmed. She had seen the snake — a small one — enter the kitchen from the passage. She pointed to the general area where it had disappeared. There was nothing to be seen there except a cooking gas cylinder beside the wall. Maybe it was behind the cylinder. I retreated to my den to ponder the situation, having asked the maid to close both kitchen doors to prevent the snake from escaping. The maid displayed admirable aplomb. She continued cooking in the kitchen, after taking the precaution of standing on a small wooden platform.

I called the police, who asked me to call the Corporation, who asked me to call Fire & Rescue, who asked me to call the Forest Department, who asked me to call their mobile wing. The mobile wing, however, asked me to call Fire & Rescue, thus closing the circle. I abandoned all thoughts of securing help from official sources. My next move was to visit a local “influencer” to find out what he thought. In his premises, I found a neighbor-lady who advised me to pray to St. George: the snake would surely run away for dear life. The “influencer” advised me to sprinkle onion syrup on the snake, whereupon it would run away. Snakes hate the pungent odor of onions. I was hoping he would volunteer to perform the eviction ceremony himself, but he showed no sign of getting up. Thanking him and the lady for their advice, I returned home.

I was down to the last ring of my circles of defense. I called the auto driver who ferries my boys to school and back. I was pleasantly surprised when he said he would come down immediately and take care of the snake. He was as good as his word. He arrived and began clearing the area in the kitchen where the maid had last seen the snake. The gas cylinder was moved. Nothing. A bunch of other odds and ends were removed from the surrounding area, and yet there was no sign of the snake. We were beginning to wonder if the snake was a figment of the maid’s imagination. I then noticed a pipe on the wall, close to the floor, and said the snake could be hiding under it. It was a thin pipe and did not afford much hiding space, so I was skeptical; but on poking around under the pipe with a stick, a snake emerged. It was small and slithered here and there frantically to escape. In vain.

The auto driver — whom I regarded as a savior now — examined the snake and said it was an anali, a saw-scaled viper; not the Russel’s viper, but a cousin. Though it was small (see the photo on top of this post), a juvenile, a bite from it would have been a serious matter indeed. My auto driver was familiar with snakes as his house was next to the backwaters, where snakes abound. And later I learned that my electrician was also a skilled snake catcher. The auto driver and electrician are not city dwellers; they live in the suburbs, one next to the backwaters (he can — and does — leap from the wall surrounding his house into the backwaters of Vaikkom) and the other next to plantations. In these environs, living with snakes is an essential survival skill.

I had the house searched, but no further snakes were found. It is still a mystery how the snake entered the house; I could find no entry points. The kitchen door may have been left ajar by the maid. I have since fixed a door closing spring to eliminate that possibility. If the maid had not happened to spot the snake, I dread to think of what may have ensued in the days to come.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | October 31, 2017

My Friend, the Sun


I was on my way to The Kerala Water Authority office to pay the water bill. The sprawling complex lies in an old residential part of the city, full of magnificent old mansions and quaint ancient houses built in the classical Kerala style. I always admire the old traditional houses when in this area, and there are so many of them.

As I was looking at one such house, a window of an adjacent house opened. A moment later, an old lady appeared in the window, but she evinced no interest in the activities outside. Instead, her eyes were on a book in her hands. She was a study in concentration. As she stood motionless reading the book, framed by the window, I took the picture that appears on top of this post. It was late evening, and I suppose she could’ve switched on the light in the room. Perhaps the frugality that is second nature to the elderly led her to open a window instead. Or perhaps she preferred natural light to electric light. As a young girl, she would have
grown up with sunlight and the light of the oil lamp.

The electric light is a wonderful invention, but for an elderly person with failing eyes, sometimes only the sun will do. I know this from the example of my father. He had advanced glaucoma, and a stage was reached when he could
read the newspaper only when seated in the balcony, the light of the mid-morning sun’s rays streaming directly onto the newsprint.

One day, his eyes deteriorated beyond the reach of even the assistance of the bright sunlight in the balcony.

But until then — the sun was his friend.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | September 30, 2017

Kochi-Muziris Bienale 2016-2017: A Visit

The Bienale, since the inaugural edition in 2012, has been a cultural hotspot in the city of Cochin. The current edition was about to come to a close, and I was yet to visit it. Reams and reams had been written about it in newspapers and magazines, and the tourists in the boat jetty India Coffee House seemed, from overheard snatches of conversation, to be either headed for the Bienale or returning from it. Finally, two days before the closing day, I put all work aside and headed out to Fort Kochi, the nerve center of the Bienale. Naturally, I took the boat, which is cheaper than the bus, takes just seven minutes versus forty minutes by bus, and is a pleasant joyride, something the bus ride will never be.


At the jetty, the notice at the head of the queue (see above) confused me. Where were males going to Fort Kochi supposed to line up?? Given the god-like arbitrariness with which rules are often framed in my beloved country, males heading for Fort Kochi could well be expected to line up at the counters at the back of the jetty. Indians have a well-developed tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty in their lives; it's a prerequisite for survival here. I asked someone in the queue; yes, the line for males bound for Fort Kochi or Mattancherry was right here. The queue behind me lengthened to serpentine proportions in minutes. A harried looking elderly man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if this was the line for males traveling to Fort Kochi. I said yes, and offered to get his ticket too. He was grateful, having been spared a long wait standing in the queue. We had to stay together on the boat as our tickets were issued on the same slip of paper. At the end of the boat rode, we decided to see the Bienale together.



We entered the main venue, Aspinwall House, which was crawling with visitors like ourselves. The Bienale has been a tremendous success by any yardstick, and I still marvel at the enthusiasm it generates among the largely cynical tribe of Malayalees. The first exhibit was startling. It consisted at first glance of photos of people dressed in stylish clothes, but there was something odd about the people I couldn't put my finger on. Each exhibit had a notice comprising a few explanatory lines put up on the wall, and it was from this that I learned that the people in the photos were dead. Yes, you read that right: dead. The artist is Arzamasova of Russian, her artwork is called Defile, and her motivations are explained in the following photo. I wonder how she got her subjects to volunteer. 🙂


Emerging, somewhat disturbed, from this macabre display of the dead attired in the height of fashion, our gaze wandered around the quadrangle, which was dominated by a giant pyramid in the center of the square. The exhibition space was in the buildings lining the sides of the quadrangle. The pyramid piqued our curiosity, so we went there next. Coming close on the heels of the encounter with the fashionable dead, the pyramid experience was unsettling. It was pitch dark inside, and I had to inch forward tentatively by feeling the walls of the narrow passage. Disembodied voices, muttering something I could not discern, added to the eeriness. The floor, made of earth, was uneven, with projecting ridges. My companion switched on his mobile, and aided by the feeble light from the screen, we stumbled forward. It felt as though we were trapped inside a gigantic, malevolent womb. The unearthly voices continued to mutter like evil spirits at a haunting. Had I provoked a mummy's curse? We were dazed when we finally emerged into daylight. Only then did we learn that the voices were of famous poets like Auden reciting their poetry. In the light of this knowledge, I was tempted to return, but time was limited and there was much to cover.


From this point onward, however, the shadows retreated, and what I as a layman understand to be art asserted itself. From my visit to the first Bienale of 2012 I knew that the concept of art has expanded far beyond framed pictures in galleries viewed at arm's length. Many works of art are now complex enough to be described as installations. Of course, framed pictures have their place.


The Mayor of Cochin, Soumini Jain, was also visiting the Bienale with a small entourage. I took this photograph along with the photographer who accompanied her. Indeed, the whos-whos of Kerala have visited the Bienale, from movie stars to politicians.


The next exhibit was a 12 meter scroll, Ye Tan Tu, by the Chinese artist Yang Hongwei. It had some explicit content. According to the blurb, the scroll "examines the way sexuality and society's problems have been shut out of a historical narrative in China."


In the spirit of art as a full-body sensory experience, Johansons, a Latvian artist, produced THIRST, which is a video recording of a stormy North Atlantic. We sat in a darkened room and gazed at a large screen on which foaming waves drew themselves up high and came down with a ear-splitting crash. If we were adrift on a small boat, alone, in such waters …

For me, the pick of the exhibits was Multiple Choice by the Austrian artist Martin Walde. You enter a dimly lit room, to behold a human figure reclining backward on small chair. A spotlight is trained on him. He doesn't look at ease; in fact, he seems to be in torment, in great pain. The exhibit blurb reveals that the figure is made of a single block of wax and the beam is an infrared ray whose intensity is increased by the movement of the spectators in the room. As the intensity of the beam increases, the heat generated by it also increases, causing the figure to melt. The beam is switched off only when the spectators leave the room. To me, the man slumped in the chair perfectly symbolizes the predicament of the human species today. Anything we do as a species only seems to accelerate our impending extinction on Earth. This creative use of technology to capture our existential dilemma in an interactive work of art will live with me for long.


Orijit Sen's Playces was where we spent the most time, in fact, much, much more time than we had budgeted for. The artwork was bright and sunny, like the panels in the Tintin comics I became addicted to as a schoolboy. The overarching theme was places, specifically, Punjab, Goa, and Hyderabad. We did not get beyond the Goa exhibit, which mesmerized us. At the entrance was an irresistible offer: Answer five questions based on the exhibit, and we could take home an Orijit Sen artwork (that explained the "play" in Playces, a portmanteau word that combined "play" and "places"). I picked up five slips of paper and got to work. Some of the questions could be answered easily, but others were more difficult. There were a handful of us playing this game, and we were rushing to and fro between the two rooms that housed the Goa exhibit. Team spirit was much in evidence, as we helped each other answer our respective questions. It was great fun — and time consuming. By the time I had won my prize — after which my companion insisted that he had to win his prize — there was little time left for the remaining exhibits. But who cared? We had an exhilarating time.






The most moving exhibit was by the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita. To read the poems, one has to walk through knee-high seawater. One reads the poems standing in seawater. The aim of the exhibit is highlight the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular, its most heart-rending frame, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on a beach. The Sea of Pain is dedicated to Alan's brother, Galip Kurdi: "I'm not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son."

I wondered if a similar concept could be applied to help us experience the horror of, for example, a suicide bombing. Imagine the visitor forced to step into a scene with mangled bodies on a devastated street, blood dripping on us from the high ceiling, with audio from real-life bombings playing in the background. That, I imagine, would disrupt our phlegmatic terrorism-as-newspaper-headlines mentality.


After this, it was time to head back home. I took leave of my friend (who told me he had retired from UC College, Aluva; afterward I deduced his identity, but that is neither here nor there), who wanted to visit another Bienale site, and went the delightful bar overlooking the backwaters, Seagull. There, over a beer, Kerala parotta, and Kerala beef roast, I reflected on what I had seen, heard, and touched. The Bienale has to be taken in small doses. It has to be consumed and digested slowly, as a python ingests a deer — else one would be overwhelmed.

For the next edition, I resolved to spread my visits over the duration of the event instead of trying to cram everything in one visit.

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