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I do not buy the Indian miracle—there are just too many Indians, and most of them are writing novels. As with everyone else, their virtues are also their faults, their tending to be backward-looking, caste-mad, attached to the past and to weird pieties about purity. And half the country—surely they cannot all be novelists and computer geniuses?—seems to be bunking down on the sidewalk or squatting by the railway line. Never mind, India is still one of the best destinations on earth.
In the wintertime, when Delhi can be cold and even Bombay chilly, and there might be frost in Rajasthan, Kerala is perfect—the low eighties with a sea breeze and the dazzle of marine sunshine, a wilderness of spices and coconut trees, and all sorts of fish curry. The Malabar Coast is that long narrow fillet on the lower left flank of Mother India. I had never been there before, which was the main reason I went this past February.
This is tourism, travel for pleasure. Yes, I do it sometimes. A long, difficult trip is almost the assurance of a good, solid book, full of self-discovery; but after the happiest trips, there isn’t much to write about or snipe at. The two weeks I spent in Kerala, a relative picnic, amount to one page of mostly mindless praise and reassurance. Kerala is small-town, house-proud India, the part of it that became a stop on the Middle East and European trade routes 2,000 years ago, which is when the first Jews arrived in Kochi (Cochin), and perhaps Saint Thomas, too, in 52 A.D.—thus the synagogue in Fort Cochin and the Syrian Christians all over the place. TO JEW TOWN, reads a sign in Mattancherry, where you find the sixteenth-century synagogue and Santa Cruz Basilica.
Low-lying, swampy, and sea-splashed, this is the India of the actual backwaters, miles of estuaries, a water world of lakes and canals, fishing villages and shrimp farms and coconut plantations. You hire a boatman for a few dollars, and he is your gondolier for the day, poling you up and down the narrow waterways, stopping wherever you like. The suburbs and islands around Kochi are linked by ferries that cost just a few cents to ride.
Remember communists? Bless their hearts, they are still sticking their workers-of-the-world posters showing clenched fists all over Kerala! Trots and Maoists run the state, though you’d hardly know it except for the unambiguous agitprop-and-strike ethic. “We have no beggars here,” people in Kerala say. It might even be true. It is a workers’ state—hustling coconut products as well as manufacturing.
Thanks to a chance meeting with a locally well-known chef, Nimmy Paul of Ernakulam, I tried five distinct types of fish curry. The best were meen molee (fish cooked in a light spice mixture with coconut milk) and meen palucurry (fish and sometimes prawns cooked in a more spicy mixture, with coconut milk and raw mango). My favorite was meen pollichathu, a deep-red curry of fish cooked in a spicy mixture thick with onions, garlic, ginger, and chili powder. Some of these are served with rice, others with the Kerala speciality, appam bread.
You could go to eat, to tour the gorgeous temples of South India, or to embark on a radical health cure at one of the many Ayurvedic spas. I tried that, too—a massage, then hot oil drizzled over me, and finally a sauna. For a country that does not relish cooking meat, this is highly expert, bordering on the preparation of shashlik. Some visitors head for Kerala purely to get healthy. Urban India is nasty, provincial India is a treat. Now and then, the car I was in had to detour around elephants working in the road. The Kerala Paul Bowles wrote about 50 years ago, and published later in Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, can still be found.
The Travancore Heritage Resort near Trivandrum offers Ayurvedic treatments (thetravancoreheritage.com; three-night relaxation programs from $425, room and meals included). Nimmy Paul offers family meals (from $15 per person ) and cooking lessons (from $20 per person). Make reservations at nimmypaul.com. The Taj Malabar Restaurant (91-484-266-6811) serves local seafood specialties and nightly barbecues.