Dreaming in Colour in God’s Own Country – first impressions of Kerala, South India.
Everything we see is filtered through our own past experience. The three white butterflies that I am watching floating round the garden at Varikat Heritage homestay are not the same three white butterflies that you would see at the same time in the same place if you were here with me. I like it here in Thiruvananthapuram. Even the name of the city sounds like it is made up for me, made up to make it feel like it belongs in a magical kingdom from somewhere else. But the place feels strangely familiar. Maybe if you come from London every city feels strangely familiar, because there is a little bit of everywhere in our great metropolis. Or maybe it’s just the traffic noise, the same incessant growl and rumble, the streets groaning; the true, unacknowledged soundtrack to modern living.
We arrived here two days ago, on Christmas Day 2012. It says so on the stamps in our passports, a little detail that I rather enjoyed when the immigration official stamped the stamp in blue ink at the airport.
We arrived here two days ago but it is only now that I feel I can write something down about being here. It is only today that I feel like we have really arrived. The rest has been the proverbial blur, the assault on the senses that we have all read about. Noise, colour, smell, information overload.
When you are a foreigner in a strange land even the simplest action becomes an adventure. Going for a walk, crossing the road, are memorable experiences; taking a tuk tuk to the station is a fairground ride of an adventure.
Staying in Thiruvananthapuram is like waking up inside a J.G. Ballard novel. You know, the bit where nature runs riot in suburbia; where the creepers grow wild and strangle the tower blocks; where mould expands and fills cracks in the concrete; where flowers burst out of the windows of the Secretariat. It all happens here naturally thanks to the steaming heat and the rain and more steaming heat.
It’s not easy to know what to write or to photograph; every tiny detail seems worth recording; every scratch or mark on the walls; every sign or hanging; every leaf or flower; but isn’t it all already in the guide book that we bought in a book shop in Chelsea before we left?
I can tell you about the Indian Coffee House next to the station that is built like a reverse helter skelter. Red, socialist workers cooperative breeze blocks, bleached pink by the sun, spiraling up proudly; waiters in weird hats that look like those elaborately folded napkins you get in fancy restaurants heltering up and skeltering down the spiral with their trays of vegetable biryani and rose water. It’s not exactly worth traveling round the world to see but if you are ever here you really shouldn’t miss it.
I can tell you that Hayley really got into her stride after she bought some of those baggy, one size really does fit all, pants that you see part time yoga hippies wearing in Ibiza in the summer. Before that she looked too Western and half naked and just plain weird in clothes that two days earlier, while packing, in London, seemed perfect for the steamy climate.
I can tell you how we followed the music blasting from specially made speakers tied to lamp posts, down some side streets, and found ourselves, quite unexpectedly, invited into a Hindu dining room where people are fed before a festival, by some very friendly and very persuasive police men. How everyone was fascinated to see us trying to eat the rice and dal with our hands, as is the custom. How people smiled and laughed behind their hands as we drank the sweet rice based paste affectionately know and, it has to be said, looking rather like, sewerage.
But will it help you or me to understand this place any better? Will it make you want to visit any more or any less than you do already? And does it really matter if you do or don’t? Not really.
Each day we visit the Zoological Gardens, apparently containing a tiger that was the inspiration for the tiger in the novel Life of Pi. We go partly because there are not that many places to visit in Thiruvanantapuram, partly because it is beautiful, partly because, and here it is again, it feels strangely familiar. On our third visit, feeling slightly more coherent and less out of time, I work out why.
It is a formal Victorian park with long avenues flanked by benches, a bandstand, trees and flowers, and a fountain. It’s like home, but more. Like Battersea Park on growth hormones.
The detailed relief of the fountain has been painted red and green and orange and pink. The same with the bandstand which is also decorated with extra detail – exploding flowers, elephants. The museum at the centre of the park is similarly drenched in colour, patterned with detail; vertiginous roofs to cope with the monsoon’s deluge and elaborate carvings and cornices. Imagine if gothic was less gloomy and imposing and dark and, well, less gothic. Imagine happy gothic, full of craziness and contradiction. Victorian Britain viewed through a kaleidoscope, the muted greys and browns and blues of the British winter replaced by vivid hues – deep blood reds; shining azure; burnt orange; sparkling green; unreal, fresh, impossible green.
The light, the heat, the mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity, the smiling faces, all make for a fairytale feel to the place, like the Maharajah Rajah Ram Lieutenant Colonel has sprinkled magic dust over the park and turned it into somewhere else in the same place as it used to be. Like the cartoon photoshop goddess of goodness has turned up the colour and hue and saturation to maximum and pressed save so it stays like that forever.
Up on M.G. Road there is a very special crossroads. One that is remarkable for its very ordinariness. At this busy, bustly, noisy junction the tuk tuks and motorbikes and cars and packed to bursting busses hurtle past three distinctive, beautiful buildings – a church, a mosque and a hindu temple. All sit facing the bustle. The believers come to their varied places of worship, go about their devotions and leave again, all at peace, no culture dominating another. They may battle a little, the church covered in flashing lights for Christmas with its kitsch nativity featuring Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a giant Santa; the mosque with its call to prayer shouting loud over the traffic’s rumble; but it’s all good natured. And a great model that so many places in the world would do well to follow.
In the afternoon it rains like heaven is open. Like all the gods from the collection on the crossroads have decided to join forces for one almighty shower; a deluge worthy of mention in anybody’s holy book. Our shelter, our room at Varikat, with its teak or rosewood roof, feels like an upturned ark embarking on a dreaming journey on uncertain waters.