In a race against the heat, I decided to take a flight to the southern tip of the subcontinent and work my way back up the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Kerala was my destination. Known for its palm-lined backwaters, cool mountain tea plantations & wildlife sanctuaries, the residents of this state at the southwest tip of India proudly reminded me that this land is called God’s own country.
My first point of arrival was Kochi (Cochin under British rule). Over the centuries it was a primary port on the spice route, trading with Romans, Chinese, Arabs, and eventually being colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch & British.
Compared with the ubiquitous poverty of Kolkata, Kochi seems a tourist paradise. Imagine: large indo-portugues-baroque homes painted in pastels, lazy back-alleys (my home-stay was at the end of a maze-like passage with no less than four turns), singing banana vendors, and orchids growing in abundance. It even holds its own art biennial. Whereas the British took their money with them when they left Kolkata (in disrepair), Kochi has always flourished with trade and among the highest literacy and education rates in the country. That said, it still feels thoroughly Indian: goats and cows meandering in the street, cricket-playing boys and heaps of trash lining the canals (a topic which deserves its own post).
What charmed me surprisingly was the written language: Malayalam. It has the most playful macaroni-looking alphabet (with twice as many characters as our own) and is one of the four existing Dravidian languages that escaped the constant churning of invading influence that shaped indo-aryan culture to the north. In essence, the language and culture exist much as they did millennia ago. So separated from the north Kerala seems that the national language Hindi just doesn’t really exist down here. I witnessed Indians from other regions resort to speaking English with the Malayalis as if they were visiting a different country.