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. 🙂

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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

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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.

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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.

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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. 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Posted by: cochinblogger | August 31, 2017

Despair and Hope in the Newspaper Classifieds

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I go through the newspapers thoroughly, scanning each line for something of interest, and sometimes I'm rewarded with pure gold for my pains. This photo in the classifieds, though, invited attention to itself. The words are plaintive, pleading, tearful. The boy in the photo is so young.

Srirama was apparently born on August 18, 1983. That would make him 34 years old today. "Twenty-fifth birthday without you" indicates that the parting occurred when the boy was just 9 years old, in 1992. What happened? Did the boy run away? Was he abducted? Did he go missing in a large crowd?

I then remembered that I had seen the same ad last year. Yes, it was there among my photographs of last year (see photo below). Every year without fail someone puts out this ad in the hope that the boy, now a young man (if he is alive), will see the ad and respond.

It's heartbreaking.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | July 31, 2017

Touchings

I was in a bar. Sitting opposite me was a regular with whom I had developed a casual acquaintanceship, amounting to nothing more than a few words exchanged each time we happened to bump into each other at our favorite watering hole. Bars used to get crowded in the evenings (no longer true with the semi-prohibition in force today), and one often had to share the table with strangers — which is how conversations began, sometimes producing a companionship of sorts.

The man opposite me was describing the virtues of the bar we were in, contrasting it with the bar we used to visit before the advent of the semi-prohibition, which restricted most bars to serving nothing stronger than beer. "The touchings here are great!" he exclaimed. I was puzzled. It wasn't a word I was familiar with. He must have read my face, because he elaborated by listing his favorite snacks served in this bar. It was then that I understood what "touchings" meant. Food. Subsequently, I heard others use the word and was able to home in on a more precise meaning: "Light snacks." The precise English equivalent, I suppose, is hors d'oeuvres. "Touchings" is the word below "CLOCK" on the signboard in the photo above.

One of the favorite English words used in Kerala in everyday conversation is "glamor." It is the word tossed teasingly — sometimes even mockingly — at someone who is dressed to kill for the evening. "Glamor" is a right-proper English word; "touchings" is not in the dictionary. I wondered about its etymology. Why "touchings"? Perhaps because they are typically small pieces picked up with the tips of the fingers and deposited in the mouth in one rapid movement; so quick is the passage from plate to mouth that the food is barely touched in the process.

Hence, touchings. If you have a better explanation, I'd like to hear it.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 26, 2017

Eid Mubarak 2017

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28 June Update:

It occurred to me after posting this that the photo tells a little story. The man looks away from the camera. He seems a little aggrieved. Moments earlier, camera in hand, I'd asked his permission to take a photo. A little aggressively, he asked: "Why?" I smiled to try and disarm him and said, "You all make such a nice picture." He then gave his grudging assent and nodded to his sons to look at the camera. But as is clear from the photo, it is an instruction he himself did not follow.

The boy at the extreme right is not looking at the camera either; he is looking at his father for guidance on what he should do. He knows that his father is not at ease. The youngest boy, in the center, is not sure what to make of this unexpected entrance of a stranger-cameraman in his life, but he gazes at the camera with the innate curiosity of the very young of all species. He is reassured by the firm grip of his father on his hand. The boy on the left is secure of his place in the universe — he welcomes this deviation from the routine with a warm smile.

Let me make it very clear that I am not annoyed bythe father's "civil disobedience" — I would be as suspicious if I were in his place. One cannot be too careful these days. I thank you, sir, for rising above your natural caution and allowing me to take this beautiful photo of a father and his three young sons, resplendent in their new clothes, on their way to a prayer or celebration on an Eid morning.

Eid mubarak!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 21, 2017

Relentless Search for the Perfect Adjective

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 16, 2017

The Reluctant Spidermen

Houses in Kerala have traditionally been built with sloping tiled roofs. Then the British came and built their bungalows the way they did back home, with flat roofs. The result was perhaps predictable: flat roofs became a status symbol. Locals began copying this new style, and houses with flat roofs proliferated throughout the state. However, it soon became evident that the flat roof was an unwise choice: rainwater accumulated on the roof, causing seepage and leakage problems. Our ancestors must have learned from bitter experience that in a wet state like Kerala, the sloping roof is a wise design choice.

Our house is old and has a flat roof, with the result that we had a serious leakage problem on our hands after we moved in. Water dripped onto the dining table, and walls became damp. We called experts, who came brandishing magic potions which they applied on the roof, but nothing worked. Water invariably found an invasion route. Bitumen sounded promising, but its application was a prohibitively messy affair. Finally, I took the easy way out: an aluminum super-roof was erected over the flat roof. This was a technique that was then becoming popular in the city as a reliable solution to the leakage problem in houses.

The man who fabricated and installed our aluminum roof, Joseph, did it single-handedly. Today, more than twenty years later, the roof is still going strong, and I have not had to repair it even once. I'm thankful to Joseph for his recommendation to use the more expensive aluminum rather than iron, on grounds of long life. A neighbor has had to replace several sheets of his iron roofing on account of rust; I thanked Joseph mentally as I saw this work in progress.

Joseph was a small-statured man, very nimble on his feet. He sprang and swung like a monkey around the roof as it came up. I remember the alarm I felt when I watched him once walk on a newly erected sheet to its very edge, lie down, and work on a truss below, more than half his body dangling over the edge, sometimes holding onto a post with one hand and sometimes wedging a foot behind it. He had no safety equipment. When I asked him about the risk, he just laughed. This is typical of the lackadaisical attitude to safety in India: we'd rather cut a few corners than do it the right way. Joseph, thanks to his years of experience, could get away with it, but the construction sector in Kerala today employs young migrant workers, many of whom have very little relevant work experience and are trained on the job instead. Sadly, tragic accidents happen regularly. A momentary lapse of concentration, a misstep, a sweaty palm — any of these can precipitate a deadly plunge from the heights. Joseph operated on my roof like the man in the photo below, who is doing the same job: erecting a metal rain shelter for the house.

The photo that tops this post shows a young worker at a dangerous height without safety equipment. This is not bravado; he has no choice, as he has a living to make. If he is a migrant, an outsider, he is at the mercy of the contractor and is even more helpless than a local. Today, migrants make up much of the labor pool in the state. With the current construction boom, all you need to do to spot a reluctant Spiderman when walking the streets is to look up.

And the rules on worker safety? Ha, ha, ha! They are not worth the paper they are written on; contractors flout them with impunity, and those charged with enforcing the rules must have been given good reasons to look the other way.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | June 13, 2017

A Conclave of Monsoon Clouds over Willingdon Island

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I shot this from Subhash Park. Yes, the monsoon is well and truly here!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | May 31, 2017

A Game of Chess on Marine Drive

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