Ask me the most meaningful part of my job around here in recent time and I’d hold up the Xandari films without a doubt. To call them films or videos is an acknowledgement of their formats and the creative process that goes into them. But to embrace all of them together with the words labour of love is simply the truth. (Watch them here).That we loved making them, loved dissecting the resorts to take a closer look at their DNA, their dreams. Above all, loved the Xandari family a little bit more. I’ll tell you why.
Do you believe in a literary cosmos? I do. In the seemingly innocuous collision of two pieces of writing SO removed from each other that they are all that similar. Two articles – one found last evening for work, one chanced upon during the routine Instagram surf on the way to work. One standing out in the mayhem of a news feed; the incredible story of an Israeli man and his wife moving to India in 2003 and buying 70 acres of barren land. To build, sustain a forest. Reafforestation, to be clear. The other titled The Builder’s High. Yes, I’m ‘building’ this up.
Walk. That’s my one-word gospel for all who will listen in on the best way to discover. Meander. Be curious, the good kind. Because stories wait around corners, discoveries often plonk themselves on one-way streets. And some are found in messy backrooms of squeaky clean shops lined with mannequins and smiles. Like this woven tale of the people, history, and fabric that go into the making of the Indian drape. There’s more than just five yards to the sari, trust me.
5 months and 11 days – that was the last time I felt a surge of patriotism, took a good look at what my country was and is. And what it will be. As the clock hands inched towards midnight and yet another Indian anniversary of independence, I wrote these lines. That day drew to a close. Sadly, the all-consuming, overwhelming love I felt for this land, too. Don’t get me wrong: I love my country. Every single day. All its idiosyncracies with all my heart and soul. But it takes the designated Independence Day or the more recent Republic Day (January 26) for this love to reign over my work-weary being. To remind of this freedom I am bestowed with. Yesterday, it did. And this love left paw prints all over my heart and I sorely missed a friend of mine in the uniform. Made me love my country more. Be thankful, too.
You must have heard the phrase in a nutshell. Well, this post is not exactly that. It’s going to border on being a story in a nutmeg. Yet another tale to add to Kerala’s legacy of having a heart of spices. The nutmeg, though not as glorious as its cousins pepper or cinnamon, is integral for its medicinal, herbal properties and its place in the kitchen.
For me, it’s the embrace that links spending holidays with a grandmother whose heart had nutmeg all over it and a design sensibility at Xandari Harbour. The wispy haired grand lady is long gone, but the wind rustles up her memories among the nutmeg trees. So does a certain corridor at work.
“Unstuck”. The quotation marks in this post below are all too familiar. They stemmed from well-worded conversations that traveled across the 16,894 kilometers between Kochi, India, and Costa Rica. Between me and Crist Inman. About “getting back in”. Going back and forth on happiness and redefining it. On dreaming. Together.
And, I remembered this bouncing, hugging ball of happiness that owned me by the beach at Xandari Pearl in Kerala. Little person, but home of good things.
Are you a traveler or a tourist? Yes, both mean different things. A traveler – unhurried, lacks the “need” to see/do things, explores beyond the ‘must’ eat, visit lists. A tourist – one for order, one who settles for a “simplified ABC version of the globe“. Highly subjective definitions, yes. Disputable, too. But it easily makes you and I a traveler every single day, at every other place. It makes me a traveler in my own land, in my own time. Friend to tourists and wayfarers, a commonplace storyteller, a forever traveler.
Kerala was once ruled by Mahabali, who was an asura (Demon). Now being a demon, evil and sinful practices were expected of him, but he was completely the opposite. Mahabali was a mighty king who worked for the prosperity of his people. During his reign, everybody was happy and prosperous. But the Devas (Gods) were jealous and felt that he may surpass them and so they urged Lord Vishnu to help them. Mahabali was about to perform a ritual and he had announced that he would fulfill everyone’s wishes. Vishnu decided to use this opportunity and disguised himself as a dwarf, poor Brahmin called Vamana and went to Mahabali. He asked Mahabali to give him a piece of land which he could measure with three footsteps. Generous Mahabali granted his wish. But everybody was in for a shock when the tiny Vamana grew into a giant. He then took his first step and covered all land, and in his second step he occupied the whole of the sky. He then asked Mahabali where should he keep the third step. Unable to find any more land, the noble king then asked Vamana to keep the third step on his head. Lord Vishnu was pleased with Mahabali’s dedication and so he granted him a wish. Mahabali, who unconditionally loved his people, asked for permission to visit his people once a year. And so Onam is celebrated in his honor and people believe their Mahabali visits them on the day.
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance… And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart…
I write this at the eleventh hour, before the hands of the clock officially rest on India’s 68th Independence Day. Oh wait, isn’t it a national holiday? I must admit the latter has me more thrilled. Also admit to not having read the country’s first Independence Day speech (excerpt above) in its entirety until now. I shall wallow in shame for a bit, until I cross over to gratitude. Grateful for this chance to dwell on what freedom meant then, means now, and will come to be.
The rains have ceased and clearer skies bless our days here in Kerala as the calendar turns a page to August. The words are only beginning to be murmured but sadya, kasavu, and Onam can put the life back in any Keralite’s soul. Food, clothing, and a festival – in translation – who could possibly ask for more! And one thing that binds them all together is how true to the land they stay. The sadya in particular, once you look beyond the fact that it’s an only-hands affair and is best had sitting cross-legged on the floor, is an example of food science, forms of energy, folk teachings, and more.
Monsoon rains in Kerala – the greatest drama I’ve ever watched. They tick everything on Aristotle’s checklist for a good play. A country dried by summer and hoping on a good ending makes for a decent plot. Meet the characters. A thick blanket of menacing grey, humid air hugging skin. Gusty winds that uproot trees and power lines, darkness that comes calling even before night. And the stellar spectacle of a finale – prayers, predictions, and calculations answered in silvery drops. Stunning, stinging, and relieving all at once.
Writing this while watching blue and grey jostle in the skies, the earth still smelling of the last rain (petrichor is the word), I am reminded of the book I’m reading now. One that is as old as me, one befitting the best season in India. Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon.
“As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India could still weave its spell, and the key to it all – the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle, mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectations, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat – well, that remained the monsoon.”
― Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoon
When you are a native of the land, you inevitably end up being a guide. From the fastest route to reach the airport, places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattanchery, and the lowdown on where to get the best seafood – it is assumed that you know it all. And, rightly so. For every textbook guide on India/ Kerala will tell you that you shouldn’t miss what’s left of the Chinese fishing nets, about taking a walk in Jew Town and catching a cultural performance or two. The Santa Cruz Basilica, too, will be on the must-do list. But only a native can tell you of the Italian Jesuit priest, who studied Michelangelo’s repertoire in Rome, and came to Cochin after he was commissioned to paint in churches. And that he died here, too.
It’s the peak of summer in Kerala now. Here, the fruiting seasons are celebrated with an expo to encourage cultivation and to introduce the urban populace to some good old food traditions.At a recent jackfruit expo (watch this space for more on a mango showcase), the city-bred me who’d otherwise encountered the fruit only in flavored sorbet and ice cream figured what it was all about. Then I did some reading and this month-old article in The Guardian had me hooked:
Late last year, after 18 years of litigation, a senior government official in Kerala, south-west India was given a prison sentence after being convicted of theft. The object he stole was government property, and it was so large he had to have it cut up to get it home. A piece of art, perhaps? A precious metal? Actually, it was a 40-year-old jackfruit tree, and, once you’ve tasted its fruit, you begin to understand why he did it.
Think Kerala, think backwaters. The world’s most fascinating water world, the network of canals, rivers and waterways runs along half of Kerala and is a tourists’ mecca. Imagine golden sunrises, lush green paddy fields, palm leaves dancing in the river breeze, long stretches of silence save for the ripples, pink kissed dusk and night company of stars. Beautiful, right? Probably why even President Barack Obama, the first US president to visit India twice, mentioned the backwaters in one of addresses on a recent visit. And then there are the houseboats – your floating home on the waters, with its windows opening to a moving tapestry of blue and green. Not to forget the backwater people – generations who depend on the water for all their needs, a people seemingly untouched by the ways of time.
“Airrrrr, waterrrrrr and laaaaaand” – my first grade Geography teacher chanted the three main modes of transport until we pony-tailed girls were sure to never forget them. While travel by land was a plain daily affair, air transport completed family vacations. It was the much-awaited – but timed – visits to the grandparents, their home on an island in the backwaters, that sparked my love for the ferry.
As with love of all kinds and sizes, it began with the unknown. “How much water is there in the river,” “Will we die if the boat breaks”, “How works the ferry” – curiosity trumped grammar in my little world. There were some answers but the fascination stayed because how could wooden planks and boards placed across two large canoes carry people and vehicles! So every time the car reached the water’s edge, out jumped a little girl with 5 rs ($0.08), stood on tiptoes to reach the greasy ticket counter and waited until the father maneuvered the car to climb onto a ladder placed between the ferry platform and the edge of the boat (craving to do justice to this bit but Physics is not my cup of my tea). If I promised to not go close to the railings, I was allowed to stand out in the open, letting the river breeze ruffle my curls and rouse up conversations I’d drown my grandparents in.
Yesterday, the ferry was about a little girl reaching her elders on an island where once there was no bridge. Today, two decades on, the ferry is the bridge that connects the old and the new, brings together kindred and the wayfarers, and tells her stories of the land and its people. Continue reading