When Mood Music
2006-06-29 14:58:00

EDITed to remove pomposity and implication that my blog and I are always perfect and factually correct: we’re not!

Having moaned in my last entry about the travel agent (and there’s more moaning to come), it’s pleasing to report two good things:

  • After escaping from the travel agent, I bought sheets of two different grades of sandpaper at a hardware/DIY store here in Kattappana. The shopkeepers apparently spoke no english but miming polishing the coconut-shell bowl I’m working on did the trick. I’m very grateful to the shopkeepers and slightly proud of my miming
  • I’m also very pleased to report the cheapest khardum chaya yet: Rs2.50 at a cafe in Kattappana’s bus station with very friendly and efficient service. That’s around 3 UK pence or 6 US cents. Starbucks has a lot to learn! (Also their masala dosa and a wada cost Rs13 and were yummy.)


The bus home on Tuesday was one of the most exhilarating times I’ve had here. The bus was crowded and so most of the time I only had half my right buttock on a seat* while I clung on to the railings for dear life, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. If you ever want an extreme roller-coaster ride, try the 7.30pm bus from Kattappana to Nedumkandam. I call it the ‘Kerala switchback’ and thoroughly recommend it.
*The rest of the time I had no contact with a seat at all thanks to the many bumps and pot-holes in the parts of the national highways that have yet to be resurfaced.

On the walk up to Ajeesh’s house, I met their neighbour Babu. I believe he’s a member of the local gram panchayat (village/town council) but can’t really have a conversation with him without a translator. He appeared to invite me to his house for a drink or two. I found out later that he was inviting me to have a drink with him in a bar in town. Apparently he has a wee tipple each evening. I thanked him for the invitation but I’m wary of mixing alcohol in local bars, communication difficulties and relative strangers: it seems a perfect recipe for disaster.

Yesterday (Wednesday 28th) I was introduced to Ajeesh’s uncle, who apparently also arranged Jaya’s wedding or at least introduced Rajesh as a potential husband. I was told he has a suitable match for me. I get rather tired of going through the reasons why I’m not interested and of having to appear grateful for this extremely unwanted favour.

I’ve often failed to charge my camera batteries sufficiently, leading to quite a few missed photo-opportunities. Yesterday I learned one possible cause: India’s domestic supply voltage is nominally 230 volts. However Ajeesh’s area receives 30 to 40 volts. Ajeesh’s family have a step-up transformer but it moans from time to time so is far from a perfect answer. To be honest, I’m amazed that electricity cables have been laid at all, considering the state of the roads to the house.

On Tuesday I spelled out the options to the travel agent:

  • flights from Calcutta to Singapore and back
  • flights from Calcutta to Singapore, then Singapore to Medan and back
  • flights from Calcutta to Singapore, then Singapore to Padang and back
  • flights from Calcutta to Singapore, then Singapore to Pekanbaru and back
  • direct flights from Calcutta to Medan and back
  • direct flights from Calcutta to Padang and back
  • direct flights from Calcutta to Pekanbaru and back.

He asked me which option I prefer: I said I would prefer the cheapest overall way to get to Sumatra but that I’d decide when I’d seen the prices of ALL these options so I wanted prices and availability for all of them. Yesterday he gave me a price for the Calcutta-Singapore-Calcutta option only because that was my preferred (i.e. the cheapest) option. Gaaaah!

I didn’t have time yesterday to do any research myself because I was in a hurry to get back to Nedumkandam and on to a ‘social work’ function.

Here’s why I respect Ajeesh, his family and friends so much: you already know about their situation. Yet they take time and trouble to support people who are even worse off than themselves. Yet again Kerala has reduced me to speechless tears.

Rural poverty here and in other parts of India can be roughly assessed by the number of debt-related suicides amongst farmers. It’s a topic that bubbles under the headlines and occasionally surfaces onto the front page. Local banks have been encouraged to write off loans but I have no idea if this is yet making any difference.

To make things even worse, corruption appears to be a big issue. As you may have read in earlier entries, Ajeesh needs to find Rs200,000 for Jaya’s dowry. He tells me that he can’t borrow this from a regular bank because they only give business loans so has to go to a private bank. (I think it’s the Idukki Co-operative Bank.) However, to get his loan application approved, he has to bribe certain officials with around Rs10,000. This 5% ‘rate’ is apparently half the usual rate.

The officials are, allegedly, gram(a) panchayat(h)* councillors who are also somehow in charge of the bank. No bribe was mentioned when Ajeesh saw the actual bank staff but the need for (and amount of) a bribe was made clear in a separate meeting.
*I’ve seen several variations of the spelling of this phrase.

I’ve offered to accompany Ajeesh to future meetings and record proceedings on my camera and/or mp3 player, then demonstrate these recordings and my NUJ membership to the bribe-takers. I’d hope either to get them to drop this request for a bribe or (preferably) expose them completely and get them out of office.

Ajeesh is doubtful about this: the request has already been made so why would a further meeting be needed? (Maybe I can record and photograph the hand-over and stop the process at this stage.) Also, he’s afraid that he’d just end up being ‘black-balled’ in this area and so have to move somewhere else where he doesn’t have his network of friends and relatives.

Personally, I’m furious that this state of affairs appears to be normal practice. My fury is exacerbated by hearing that the officials who have demanded the bribe are members of a communist party! Well it’s a sure way to annoy people enough that a second bolshevik revolution can’t be far away. In fact it’s already going on: google for ‘naxalites’ and see for yourself.

I may have mentioned that Ajeesh, Shaji and DS (and maybe others) plan to miss a meal each week and divert what they save towards social projects. I’m going to follow suit. You can help me in one or more of the following ways:

  • make sure I live up to what I’ve said and don’t cheat by eating loads at the meal after the one I’ve missed
  • do the same yourself and make a suitable donation to the charity of your choice or to one of the projects Ajeesh runs here, maybe via the Red Cross.
  • have fun the following way
    1. Obtain a coconut, a mango, some spices and some sandpaper.
    2. Split the coconut open equatorially.
    3. Make yourself some chatni and eat it with rice, iddlis or chapattis. If you’re adventurous, abandon cutlery and use your right hand to feed yourself. (You can use your left hand to manipulate serving spoons, etc.) Remember to wash your hands both before and after eating.
    4. Clean out and sand the closed end of the coconut shell until you have a smooth, dark-chocolate-brown mixing bowl.
    5. If you must, paint it Day-Glo.
    6. Flog it to a hippie.
    7. Repeat steps 1 to 6 as often as your RSI will allow.
    8. Distribute the proceeds accordingly.

After a fair amount of waiting for DS to arrive, Ajeesh, DS, Shaji, another journalist (Anish) and I pooled some money and collected further amounts from some other folk. (I saw one bloke hand over at least RS200.) They then went to buy food for a local orphanage. DS told me that they do this 3 or 4 times a year. Apparently they get most of what they need by leaning on wholesalers who they know have avoided inter-state import taxes. Shaji and Anish are journalists for a malayalam newspaper, Deepika and so can threaten to expose the wholesalers if they don’t cough up. I can’t say I totally approve of this system but I guess it works.

At the orphanage, they kids were fed vegetable rolls, bananas and milk. It didn’t seem a big meal but considering that the place is only half-built (gaps in the walls of the building that’s inhabited and another part under construction but still without a roof) I guess anything is better than nothing. Ajeesh and DS fed two children who were in an ‘infirmary’ bedroom: one has polio and the other severe cerebral palsy or similar. Then Ajeesh led a singing session: he has a good singing voice, IMHO, and the children appeared to enjoy it. I think there were about 16 children and four staff, led by sister Anna Rita Maria.

Afterwards we all returned to Shaji’s office. I have some (hopefully wonderful) video of the four of them singing in harmony. I can’t say how often how much I like the people in this corner of the world: despite some terrible problems, they are often laughing, joking and singing with each other and appear far happier than I do most of the time.

Ajeesh drove me halfway up the hill to his house: he stopped to visit a relative who is getting married today and I walked the rest of the way up the hill.

(With thanks to for helping to bring this topic to the front of my mind.)

Early yesterday morning, while dressed in his field-work clothes (a dirty lunghi and short-sleeved shirt), Ajeesh introduced me to an old lady who is a friend and neighbour. She wore a dirty, stained and frayed saree and underskirt. Ajeesh asked me if their clothing gave away their caste status. (They’re both brahmins but I think they’re in different sub-castes.) Of course their clothing said nothing at that moment. (Repeated meetings so I can assess their usual clothing might say more.)

I think the implied lessons are

  • brahmins are workers as much as any other caste, except that their duties include religious work on behalf of the other castes,
  • members of all castes can be poor farmers
  • that dhotis and nice shirts are only worn as office/white-collar dress. (In all the films I’ve seen here, the politicians wear pure white dhotis and shirts.)

Also, allegedly, one of Ajeesh’s relatives was surprised when Ajeesh told him that we had visited a tribal village and drunk the coffee they offered us. I’m told that this relative feared the tribals’ food and crockery would be unhygienic and unsafe and allegedly opined that the tribals are a bit less than human. Well it appears to have had no bad effects on either of us (and you know I’ve received doses of Mughal’s revenge from restaurants in tourist areas that should do much better). Also, as far as I could see the houses were clean, just terribly overcrowded and smoky because they didn’t have chimneys. (I don’t like to think about the respiratory diseases this might cause.)

Ajeesh implied that the tribal people are outwith the main priest/warrior/merchant/farmer caste system* and disparaged his relative’s opinion. He wholeheartedly agreed with my opinion that they’re humans, just like the rest of us, and as welcoming as any other Keralan I’ve met.
*He says that roman catholicism, orthodoxy and protestantism are ‘castes’ of christianity.

I’m back in Kattappana to blog (hey, they have the luxury of ISDN here!), research tickets and make contact with the outside world. It’s ages since I’ve seen an english-language newspaper or seen more than a snippet of english TV news so I have almost no idea what’s happening outside of this corner of Kerala.

I was on the bus by 9.15am: I can hear former colleagues gasping that I might be awake by this time. before this, Jaya served khardum chaya and banana- and jackfruit-chips. I hope I can bring home some jackfruit seeds and banana seedlings: I’ve never seen in the UK the 3-inch sweet and delicious bananas that are so common here. Nor have I seen the big red bananas that are made into bananas bhajis. I’m going to really miss these and Jaya’s jackfruit-seed curry. She tells me she’d like to come to the UK and start a restaurant there. I can be her accountant, she says.

A word or two about the local buses: they usually have two doors on the left side. Running from just above them are strings that lead to a bell near the driver. The conductors use this system to tell the driver to stop, start or that it’s safe to reverse. (There are two three-point turns on the Kattappana-Nedumkandam route.) Where the strings are absent, they slap on the inside walls of the bus or shout ‘va va va!’ (for ‘go, go, go!’).

The windows have no glass but have rubber-backed metal concertina-style shutters held out of the way by metal gates. Pressing up on the base of the shutter allows the gates to spring out of the way and the shtters to fall closed.

Tickets appear to be of two sorts:

  • either the conductor writes the cost on a ticket, with a carbon copy left in his or her* book or
  • he or she has a metal case with around ten groups of different-coloured tickets screwed into it. He or she will tear off tickets to the value of your fare. (Each colour also has its price printed on it and may have places for the conductor to clip the date the ticket was issued.) I’ve also seen both systems in Goa and occasionally had journeys where I received ticket at all.
    *I’ve only seen one female conductor.

In each town bigger than 20 or so buildings, I’ve seen at least one ‘digital studio’, usually offering photographic and/or videographic services and occasionally offering internet facilities. However, most cybercafes are stuck with Windows 98: it’s relative a treat to find Windows 2K or XP. I’ve not seen a hint of Apple stuff apart from a closed AppleStore in Pune. I miss my pismo so much it’s not funny!

I don’t think I have the budget to do all that I want and so I’m probably going to give Assam a miss. I’m told that it’s very similar to the tea-growing areas of Kerala and Tamil nadu and just now likely to be severely monsooned, making travel next to impossible. This morning Ajeesh again invited me to stay until I need to go to Calcutta to then go on to Sumatra.

Again, I’m very tempted but I don’t like free-loading. Ajeesh won’t accept any money for me staying there, even though it’s saving me at least Rs350 per day, because I’m a guest (and hence a god) and he feels like I’m his older brother. I pointed out that I can’t be both a god and his brother, and that if I’m a guest, I feel that I’ve overstayed already. I said that if I’m his brother, he must let me pull my weight domestically and/or in the fields.

If this happens then I’d be happy to stay a longer, learn (and, where possible, contribute) more and continue having a highly enjoyable time. I’d be very grateful for your thoughts: please, please comment.

His mother seemed delighted at the potential of gaining an extra son. They all want me to stay on for Jaya’s wedding (31st August, dowry issues permitting) but since my visa expires on 27th August and my flight home is already and irrevocably booked, I can’t.

OK, I think that’s enough for now. See you later, space-cats!


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