I wasn’t sure we were friends, until she invited me to her neighbourhood festival.
She was working in the guesthouse, where I inhabited a stifling room with a view of a quiet street, to save money for her dowry. She had a year or two at the most to get married, before people would begin to think she was over the hill, unlucky, shameful. She’d just celebrated her twenty-first birthday.
Her home was in another part of the same city, Fort Kochi. Kochi is beautiful, idiosyncratic town in the Kerala backwaters in south India, inhabited in part by western hippies on their way to or from the nearby ashram. It isn’t as crass or exploitative as Goa, I should acknowledge; it’s unsegregated, there are local people with local trades, Indian families who walk with travellers on the beach every night and watch the sun set fast behind the ancient fishing nets.
I loved that evening ritual. I closed my laptop and went to my room half an hour before sunset each evening to wash and put on a clean cotton kurta and trousers, and walk amongst the families until the fleshy south Indian sun sank and the water changed from red to blue. Sometimes the local fishermen would, after checking for signs of drunkenness, let a visitor help them raise the nets by pulling against the weight of huge granite blocks. The nets and most of the boats used in the region had retained the same design for hundreds of years. Everyone, for a local or a foreign price, could by fresh fish from the side of the road and carry them home (locals) or to the cafes across the street (foreigners) to be cooked.
We took the bus after she finished work, past the temple, the church, the library and the synagogue. I was concerned about my clothes. She helped me rearrange my faded shawl, so I’d appear more modest in her suburb.
‘Hide your shape’, she said, draping the cotton across my breasts so the dip between and beneath vanished, and my waist was invisible. ‘Like this’. Compared with the local women I looked bland in cheap green and beige, but I had no pretty salwar kameez and no time to have anything made. I’d bought the earth-coloured wardrobe on the way to Kerala, while travelling through the dusty towns of Tamil Nadu. Fabric that attracted no stains and could be scrubbed in a bucket each night and pounded against rocks. A journey she found inexplicable.
After several weeks in Kochi, I chatted about everyday things (the price of rice, local schools, politics) with the women who worked in the town. I learned a few words of Malayalam; enough to converse with children and be polite to older people. People were aware I was doing some kind of work, indicated by my laptop and lack of obvious drug use. I carefully ate at least half my meals in local cafes, paying the foreign price but eating politely with one hand, sitting amongst families and not talking to young men. Being alone and a woman, I felt, didn’t carry the same stigma as in other towns I’d visited. I chose not to wear a fake wedding ring, as I had in more hostile territory. My inquiries at the bookshop were noted, as was my growing collection of reading material about Naxalite politics. I felt I’d passed a test rewarded by a mild tolerance, and that was the nearest I would come to being allowed inside this community.
Soon the bus was empty of foreigners, apart from me, dull and dusty, half-white instead of half-Indian, and stared at. After several months in rural India and Sri Lanka I was used to being scrutinized, especially on public transport, but she wasn’t; she laughed out loud at the strangeness of it.
‘Do you mind it?’, she asked.
I’d become used to it. On buses I was frequently the only foreigner. What I did mind was the sexual harassment, which I didn’t have to explain to her, and the assumption that I came from a colonizing nation. A racist assumption, and not quite accurate. I come from a colonizing nation and I also come from a twice-colonised nation, once colonized by my other nation. She’s one of the few people I’ve known who has understood this.
We talked easily, I felt. She’d chat with me on the porch if there were no men and I’d linger at her desk in the morning, if her boss wasn’t around and she wasn’t dealing with travellers just off the riverboat, still blinking from the blinding light on open water. In the backwaters not far from Kochi the sun filtered through huge trees that arched and stretched over narrow water lanes. The light that trickled through hit water weeds and coconut shells. It shivered through multicoloured lines of drying saris and school uniforms hanging outside small houses, where children played with toy boats. It was dark, even in the blinding heat of day. I, like several others I’d encountered, had partly come in search of the setting of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s novel set in the Kerala Backwaters. I succeeded in the sense that I found beauty and brutality everywhere. The Kathakali dancers and the sitar tabla hypnotized me while the daily unfairness humbled me. Eventually I would go back to my other life. Why I’d drawn the long straw, the liberty and cash to travel, I couldn’t explain. This, I felt, was the thing that locked me out, more than the notions of race or religion.
She texted someone just before we arrived. When we got off the bus, she embraced a very young, fire-eyed woman in blue kameez and a small, grinning, elderly woman in a pink sari. She introduced me; I nodded and smiled with the young woman and bent low to touch the ground near the older woman’s feet. The older woman laughed and pulled me back up, kissed me on the cheek. This was her aunt, who I soon realized was always laughing. The young woman was her sister-cousin. She and the sister-cousin took my hands and the four of us walked toward a courtyard full of people, where I could hear the thud of drums and see the dust shimmering in the evening light.
‘I’ve been working in this place for two years and I’ve never had a holiday’, she’d said a few days before. It was the first time she’d complained to me about her employer, though it was clear she was not well treated. She was paid half the salary of her male counterpart, she explained to me with carefully articulated fury, tossing the wild yellow end of her sun-bleached sari across her shoulders. Her fingers had the elegance and quickness I envy in Indian women, that I failed to inherit from my one Indian parent’s Maharashtrian family. I sometimes catch a hint of it when I sign the bill in a restaurant or snap open an umbrella, but then it vanishes.
In the courtyard, the sun was setting. Children in party clothes hurtled around. Little girls dressed in ostentatiously frothy party dresses, the crinoline and sequin explosions my Indian granny used to sew for me and which I hated to wear back then, but felt nostalgic for as an adult. Little boys in exact replicas of their fathers’ best outfits. Women draped in beautiful fabric and men in perfect cotton.
The temple drummers appeared, naked from the waist up and wearing matching red turbans. It wasn’t a temple, however, it was a church. In the middle of the courtyard was a blue-eyed Virgin Mary draped in flowers. Curls of incense smoke blurred her face and form. The drummers started slow and built up to a rhythm that was plainly sexual. Her sister-cousin nudged me, motioned toward the drummers shimmering backs and giggled into her hands. I laughed, and she laughed back, out loud this time, showing her teeth.
In our conversations at the guesthouse, she’d trusted me with details of her sex life. I guarded that knowledge like a savage. I was terrified and angry for her. I worried that people would gossip about her. I worried she’d think I wanted to turn her into a project, impose western feminism on her, when in reality I had come to this part of India to gain insight into Indian feminism, the high literacy rates in Kerala and the conflagration of communism and monotheistic religion in the state. She had a boyfriend who ended their relationship because they were both poor, his mother was sick and he’d decided to find and marry a rich foreign woman who could pay for medication. One of the European, North American or Israeli backpackers who came through the town. We both knew this wouldn’t work the way he planned. She told me with a firm, sad face. I squeezed her beautiful fingers between mine.
On the way home from the festival, we walked along a market street. People were still out, slowly making their way home, talking and dancing. On the roof of a house a man dressed like Santa Claus gyrated to Bollywood music coming from an ancient sound system. Aunty stopped to laugh and haggle with the stall holders. She was baffled to learn I was a vegetarian. She was under the impression all foreigners ate meat, and being from a Syrian Christian family, so did she. Aunty and the sister-cousin found the situation hilarious, as did the stall holder Aunty presented her dilemma to. They argued cheerfully over the price of rice and settled, the two of them, on something sensible she could cook for me.
In their home, I talked with Aunty about the family photos and religious icons on the walls, childrens’ toys and pictures of film stars. Until then I’d spent most of my life in countries with a minimalist aesthetic, and while I’d never understood the Indian aesthetic of more is more, I began to see the thing I’d often tried and failed to see. We were in a one-room house, crowded with the four of us and a brother-cousin who made a brief appearance, yet the objects, with their histories explained by Aunty (via the younger women; we had almost no language in common) seemed to expand the space rather than crowd us.
A family arrived; a couple and their three little girls, who I played with while talking to the noisy, friendly mother. She had travelled a bit in the past, and was interested in my trip, what I’d learned about Kerala, what I thought of the festival. They were extended family, and this was a family who laughed out loud together. My worries about not fitting in or making a hideous social faux pas were evaporating. We laughed, we talked. I nearly coerced Aunty into letting me wash the tea cups, but she cackled and shoved me out of her kitchen with incredible strength.
After the visitors went to visit the next family, I’d recovered from the incredibly spicy South Indian food and the brother-cousin went out with his friends, Aunty banished the three of us to the roof with a bottle of home-made wine. It tasted better than the home brew I’d tried in the villages; not so tooth-rottingly sweet. It slid down my throat easily. I wished I’d brought something nicer as a gift than store-bought mittai. They told me things I never could have learned at the bookshop, about the history of the place, family life, gender tensions, workplace and schoolyard politics, how love affairs are conducted, how the price of rice changes everything from week to week. They wanted to know the same about my home. I told them. The sister-cousin showed me a photo of her boyfriend, who was texting her from a roof nearby. She wouldn’t marry him, she told me, but it was fun for now. In the distance, over the flat roofs with the subtle clink of bottles and laughter, the drums were still audible in the direction of the festival. We could hear Aunty clattering pans in the kitchen and humming along to a music video on Zee-TV.
The four of us slept together, on a mat on the floor of the room where we’d had tea with the visitors, under one large blanket. The brother-cousin slept on the roof, which was his fate when a female guest was staying the night. The other three had the knack of sleeping completely covered, with the blanket above their heads, but I couldn’t do it. I had mosquito bites on my face in the morning, which Aunty found hilarious.
On the way to the bus stop the next morning we stopped at her parents’ house. They welcomed me graciously; her mother made me a cup of chai that has never been rivaled. Her parents, I knew, had a mixed marriage, her father a Hindu and her mother a Syrian Christian. An old religion and a colonial religion. I was conscious of sitting on the still-warm bed they’d just woken from. Despite having slept with three people the night before, it seemed unforgivably intimate.
Her childhood friends appeared in the windows, girls of twenty and twenty-one carrying infants and followed by a herd of toddlers. We went outside to talk with them. She was a bit embarrassed by their curiosity and apologized to me, and I did my best to be friendly and show comradeship. We were all women, after all, all humans, all involved in the business of love and loss and paying the rent. I was also conscious that, at twenty-eight, the age I was that year, these women would be the mothers of teenagers while I was just beginning to consider having a child. Everyone wanted to know my salary in Scotland and I refused to divulge it until I’d given an itemized description of the cost of living in Glasgow.
I bought one of her drawings before I left town; she was a self-taught artist who could have been (or might still be) great with a bit of instruction and time to practice. I had to insist, really insist on paying the same amount I’d paid a local, well-known, male artist for his work. She gave me two more sketches as a gift. I gave her a pink shawl, a gift for Aunty. I hoped it was appropriate. I’m still not sure, though I know it will have been graciously received. Added to the souvenirs in the sitting room, if not worn in public.
I miss the evening walk along the beach, the families nodding to one another, the sun setting behind the ancient fishing nets and stone weights. I miss those things terribly, but I missed her more as, a few days later, I got on the train to Delhi and felt the lurch and rattle of Kerala vanishing behind me. She let me be a part of her country, rather than just a traveller.
Miriam is a Stuttgart-based writer and teacher who freelances for publications in Scotland, Canada, England, India, Russia and the US. She comes from Atlantic Canada and lived in Glasgow long enough to be considered a local. She’s worked in the Scottish 3rd sector (specialising in abuse prevention legislation), and taught in Burma and Russia. She has travelled widely, lived next to the Babayevsky chocolate factory in Moscow, driven a rickshaw in Kerala and is known for having strange encounters with border guards. She blogs at http://miriam-littlebones.blogspot.com and tweets as @miriamvaswani
Fantastic detail and insight. I lived in Kerala for nearly three years but I learned quite a few things from this.
Beautifully written, you really went into the soul of Kerala.
Thank you for the kind comments. I think it would take a lifetime to sincerely understand Kerala, but in the short time I was there I gained a lot of respect and affection for the place. Largely because of the woman in the story.