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3 days in Kochi makes him an India fan
Tad Friend, Travel + Leisure

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January 24, 2008

My first morning in India I woke up somewhere else. My wife, Amanda, and I were sleepily carving up a mango; it was just after dawn in the city of Kochi. Like much of the state of Kerala [Images], Kochi (often still called Cochin) is a braid of canals and lagoons, and our breakfast table at the Taj Malabar hotel was beside a window that opened onto Vembanad Lake, a nominally fresh body of water that, somewhere within the city's aqueous terrain, merges with the Indian Ocean. Beyond the passing freighters lay islands thick with coconut palms; closer at hand, an old fisherman paddled up and stood in his dugout to coax a few grouper from the folds of his net into a red bucket. Then he spun like a discus thrower and flung the net back out. Its silver weights popped on the water like tiny firecrackers.

This scene of quiet clarity was not at all the India I remembered from my first trip, 15 years earlier. In that India, the Indian Airlines clerk at the Bombay airport took 25 minutes to cancel a ticket for the woman ahead of me in the long, long line, licking his pencil to fill out the 18 forms required, deaf to my anguish as my flight shut its doors and flew away. In that India, a man on a crowded Delhi street flicked cow dung onto my sneakers -- and then, hoping to wangle a tip, made a great show of discovering it and cleaning it off with a canvas-destroying solvent. And the owner of the houseboat I stayed aboard on Dal Lake, in Kashmir, became incensed when I informed him that his cook was refilling the Bisleri water bottles by dipping them in the filthy lake. "Black shit!" he cried, not at the culprit but at me. "I will kick your bloody backside to Pakistan!"

Keralites delight in proclaiming their superiority to the barbarians up north. They pride themselves on their twice-daily baths, their cream-colored raiments, and on their use of ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system of herbal treatments, to tune their bodies like mechanics realigning a Porsche. Foreign visitors now flock to Kerala for "medical tours," the latest form of Western fascination with Indian gurus who claim to understand what we have long forgotten.

The phrase "medical tour" makes me ill, but I did have an inexplicable urge to try Shirodhara, an ayurvedic treatment in which medicated oil is drizzled onto your forehead. It seemed like jumping naked into the deep end of India. The procedure is reputed not only to sharpen your wits and rejuvenate your memory, but also to cure both Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. In ayurveda, nature remedies all: cinnamon oil alleviates mumps and, when applied to the soles of your feet, "wintertime quakes"; king coconut oil restores "falling hair"; the powdered seeds of bastard teak, eaten daily with gooseberry juice, make the old young again. Ayurveda is the Sanskrit word for "knowledge for prolonging life." When weaker measures fail, practitioners encourage bulimia -- here seen as a cure rather than an illness, and known as "therapeutic vomiting."

After our breakfast, Amanda and I went to the hotel spa, where the resident vaid, or ayurvedic doctor, informed us that we had to sign up for at least seven days of treatment to receive Shirodhara. So I tried dinacharya, the "daily health-maintenance therapies." My attendant, Prakas, told me to remove my clothes and provided me with a loincloth the size of a Kleenex. Then he gave me a handful of areca-nut powder to clean my teeth with, using my finger as a brush. Once my gums were numb -- areca nut is the ingredient that makes betel chewers drool unawares -- he pried my eyelids wide and applied a few drops of tender coconut oil and rose water to clean them. It felt like being jabbed with a kebab skewer. Fifteen minutes later, he was still dabbing black sludge out of my blood-red eyes with a folded tissue; he said it was "dust," but I'm inclined to believe it was some sort of atavistic eye-defense juice, akin to a skunk's spray.

After stopping up my ears with camphorated drops and filling my nose with medicated-goat's-milk snuff -- thereby disarming all my senses, save touch -- Prakas had me stretch out on a long wooden table. The massage began. It consisted of body swoops that were actually rather soothing until he concluded each pass with a wrist snap that ground my ankles or elbows into the black wood. The table came from Strychnos nux-vomica, an Asian evergreen known as the poison nut tree because its seeds contain strychnine. So that was a comfort. Amanda, who also had a massage, said afterward, "I felt like a chicken sliding around on the cutting board." Then she asked, "Why are your eyes swollen?"

Kerala prides itself on much more than its ability to blind and cripple its visitors. It has the most newspapers of any Indian state, and its literacy rate, 96 percent, is the highest in the country -- higher, indeed, than that of the United States. Even the working elephants, imported from Assam in the north, are bilingual: they respond to commands in Hindi as well as the local Malayalam. In 1957, Kerala became the world's first state to democratically elect a Communist government, and the locals still maintain that they were onto something. The novelist Anita Nair has written that "the average Malayali goes through life convinced that he is the liveliest, shrewdest, and most intelligent of all Indians. This despite the high rate of lunatics and suicides."

"The people have a special way of protesting everything that is not to their liking," a tourism operator named Madhu Kayarat told us. Kayarat's meesha, the full mustache that male Keralites cultivate as a badge of manliness, was perfectly groomed, and he pushed his glasses onto his forehead to glare about with fierce, nearsighted enthusiasm. He was explaining why there was so little traffic that day in Kochi, a city of 600,000 people: the Joint Action Council of Motor Vehicle Workers had called a one-day strike to protest the government's having raised the price of petrol. The streets are constantly being blocked or emptied by such "closures," "stirs," or "agitations." This was a "weak closure," meaning that cars venturing out weren't being stoned. "We are the only state to strike," Kayarat said proudly. "Because of the literacy rate, we know why the price has gone up. The other states are angry, but they don't know why."

One of Kerala's leading industries, bringing in some $90 million a year, is tourism; this sliver of land along the Lakshadweep Sea is branded as God's Own Country. What draws visitors is the pungent tang of Old India nostalgia: the Fort Cochin district has a lovely canopy of tamarind and rain trees that surround a bastion of the Portuguese fort (which, in a reminder of how very bygone the days of empire are, now serves as the sub�tax collector's residence). And the cozy, down-at-heels Dutch Palace in nearby Mattancheri has just the right number of paintings of wicked-looking rajahs. To be sure, Vasco da Gama's tomb at St Francis Church is a disappointment -- the explorer's body was returned to Portugal almost 500 years ago. Still, our guide, VX Joyce, told us reverently that we ought to take a moment to appreciate the ayurvedic qualities of the church's limestone walls. "Limestone is good for human dwellings," he said. "It has been filled with sun energy for thousands of years, so it absorbs all the radiated emotions of your upset."

Joyce is a warmhearted man who wears oxford-cloth shirts of a blinding white. He extolled the local way of life to us with a mixture of pity and anxiety -- pity that we had lived in ignorance for so long; anxiety that his jingoism might be unwarranted. (Kochi means "sea gate," and the city shares with other outlying coastal regions -- think of Baja, of Florida [Images], of Chile -- both a fierce chauvinism and a fear that it is missing out.) Though Joyce acknowledged that Keralan cuisine is awash in coconut oil, he insisted that "Keralites are less susceptible to it, because cholesterol in the veins breaks down under our hot sun." When we snacked on water buffalo at a street stall on Mahatma Gandhi [Images] Road, Joyce told us that women never eat at such places: "It would be indecent." A woman in a green sari promptly emerged from the neighboring stall. We looked at Joyce. "She is from north India," he explained.

In the afternoon heat the vendors at the Ernakulam market lay stretched out on gunnysacks piled beside or, often, atop their produce, a bedding of manioc and string beans and snake gourds, of jackfruit and orange cucumbers and pale-red pumpkins shaped like pattypan squash. "Mango, mango, mango" and "fifteen rupees for two kilos," the men murmured in their sleep. Amanda and I were trying to keep up with the panzer-like advance of Nimmy Paul, who has made a cottage industry of introducing visitors to Kochi's markets and food. Nimmy's husband, VJ Paul, known -- like most Syrian Christians here -- by his last name, brought up the rear. A mild man with a spaniel's eyes, Paul quit his job as a stockbroker to help Nimmy with her cooking classes. He usually does the shopping alone, because otherwise they quarrel. "He brought stinking fish onto the floor of the house," Nimmy explained as we walked. "There could be worms coming out of it!"

"What rubbish you are talking," Paul said, absently fingering a gooseberry.

"Worms! Rotten-fish worms!" She stopped to ask the price of potatoes, and, after looking us over, the vendor told her 25 rupees (about 50 cents).

"It's not for the sahib," she explained, "it's for me."

"Twenty-five rupees." She sniffed and barreled on.

Back at their spotlessly clean house in a leafy Ernakulam neighborhood, Paul held a whispered conference with his wife. "He's getting angry at me for making you remove your footwear," she announced, as Paul rolled his eyes. It became clear that they are one of those couples whose unity derives from bickering.

Beginning with how she ground a coconut on a flat stone in her backyard, Nimmy prepared our meal as if her husband had just killed a mastodon -- he was actually in the other room watching Wayne's World -- and she had just invented fire. Soon she was deftly stirring red rice and coconut oil in one of her uruli, bell-shaped metal dishes that resemble prehistoric hubcaps. "The body is very tender now, during the rainy season," she said, "so this is the best time to get an ayurvedic massage. When it gets hot like this, we boil the vetiver root and have a bath with it, to cool the system. And when it's cold, we drink coffee with jaggery" -- a sweetener made from molasses -- "and crushed ginger, pepper, and coriander seeds, which helps warm you and clear the respiration."

Nimmy was a patient and lucid teacher, but when she began explaining how she was wrapping a fish called a pearl spot in crushed cilantro and coconut paste before poaching it in a banana leaf, I put down my notebook. There was simply no way to replicate what she was doing back home. For one thing, you can't buy whole mace, or banana leaves the size of manta rays, at your local Piggly Wiggly. As Marco Polo said of Kerala: "Everything is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty."

Taste, too. The mutton biryani was not greasy, as it so often is in Indian restaurants, but light and minty and marvelous. And the pearl spot, clad in its green dinner jacket, was a joy. Nimmy whisked around the table, spooning up choice morsels. "My grandmother and mother would never sit with guests, but just serve food, and that's what I do," she said. She looked at her husband, who had cleaned his plate and was chewing a toothpick: "Mr Paul also needs to move his arms and legs a bit." He jerked upright and began to clear.

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