OFF THE RAILS
After a string of ‘rather uninspired’ work written for the Times, my services have been placed on temporary hold, to ‘reinvigorate the senses,’ or (most likely) so I could quietly disappear. It’s terrible really, how often I find myself in these situations. Just last month I looked so proudly at my exploits: dodging bullets in Qatar, protesting in Venezuela, being nominated for countless awards courtesy some writing association dictating journalistic standards as if they could grasp excellence… I’m bitter. I sit sweltering in South Indian heat approaching 40 degrees celsius. The Chennai Express violently jerks in reaction to what looks like rusted rails and air. My mother sits beside me, gazing through barred windows as childhood ghosts streak the passing fields. We’re on our way to visit perhaps our fifth set of relatives1, custom dictates a meet with each one, ‘especially after so many years, this one saw you when you were just a baby!’ The trip was her idea. Watching me waste away through journalistic failure sparked her idea of a cure: The motherlands. Kerala, God’s Own Country2.
ROAD TO ADOOR3
We spew from train to train-platform through noise you’ve never seen. Coolies4 balancing massive suitcases on their heads, weaving through crowds towards taxis and rickshaws, Chaiwala’s5 cycling through, ringing their bells. Sizzling oil. Deep fried samosas. Dosas. Bright bangles. Patterned shawls. Peacock feathers. Crippled beggars. Caged livestock. Mangled insect screams.
We find our driver, Santosh, outside the station. He’s a stoutly built man about fifty dressed cleanly in an off-white dress-shirt and gold-lined lungi6. His grey hair seems doused with a lifetime supply of coconut oil. We awkwardly exchange greetings and I help him with the luggage. Santosh is the talkative type and begins chatting with my mother in Malayalam7 about their family histories. Apparently, my mother knows his wife’s second cousin’s dog’s best friend’s previous owner’s nephew. They bond on this. His car, a black Hindustan Ambassador Grand8, finally stutters to start and we pull away from the station. I am too tired to complain about the lack of air-conditioning.
Driving on these roads requires obscene levels of apathy and assertiveness. Every crack of space between the piled cars is quickly filled with scooters and motorcycles, some of which house entire families. Motor-horns are used constantly, not out of anger or frustration, but as a subtle warning before the driver bursts onto their desired route, forcibly merging. Stuck behind a truck going too slow, Santosh begins weaving behind it, taking note of oncoming traffic before quickly overtaking it and only slightly avoiding a collision. My mother’s high-blood pressure and hypochondria have got the best of her. She reproaches Santosh about his ‘crazy driving’; he is courteous enough to listen and agree (with a few wobbles of his head9), but the drive has remained more or less the same, and my mother has been forced into silence, into staring at anything but oncoming traffic: at billboards of fair-skinned beauties in glittering bridal wear and jewellery, at countless 4G wireless ads and vivid almost cartoon-like political posters. Scattered patches of shacks face the road with their storefronts, several of them have branches of baby-bananas hanging right above their entrances while others have commercial refrigerators with Coca-Cola signs seen easily from the road. Small clusters of population gather variably near the shacks, immersed in the inescapable vibrations of 1.3 billion souls packed in space less than one-third the size of Canada. I’ve seen the same man several times. He has an old and lean and veiny figure. His skin is sun-stained and dark and deeply wrinkled, especially around the eyes. He watches the passing noise with a blind and almost vulgar sort of distaste, his head slowly oscillating and his hands clasped behind his back and his eyebrows furrowed and his face prickly and unshaved. He watches. He is condemned to watch the noise with a blind and almost vulgar sort of distaste.
It’s different being in Kerala than anywhere else. Perhaps it’s because here I can’t be completely foreign, so my sense of identity starts to merge instead of reaffirm. Something stirs at these sights and sounds. I can’t place it. In the heavy heat, speed, sweat, the red dust spewing clouds through car tires. It emanates from Santosh and now my mother, something much bigger than them… I fall asleep to the sounds of cars honking.
We arrive at the house around dusk. It’s only a few hours til dinner so we exchange pleasantries with the family and then unpack. The house is noticeably old, cracks and other signs of decay line the pale-blue cement walls. There are also no hallways, the rooms link to one another like a mash of mismatched cubes. But I sense a unique warmness that comes with this old worldliness and desolation. The warm yellow light, the cricket quietness, the faded flower-patterned bed sheets, the smell of mosquito coils. All my desires, passions, restlessness—overwhelming back home, seem now only a distant dream.
Dinner is served. Rice, chicken curry, papadum10, and lemon pickle. We eat using our fingers: the practice is based on the premise that eating is a sensual activity, and touch is part of the experience along with taste, aroma of the food, and its presentation. The meal is delicious. We wash our hands and sit together in the living room and have a chai before bed.
I’ve been having trouble falling asleep. It’s very odd. I usually like rooms that aren’t my own, when the weight of my decisions aren’t draped around me… I’m a sailor out at sea. I’m a wreck without eight hours. Maybe it’s cause the bed’s next to this wall—messes with the feng-shui. Writing helps I guess. Thinking too. Pacing. Thinking. Thinking things. Mosquitos hovering. A tiny lizard just fell through the blurring fan blades, its tail detached—it’s still moving!—mind of its own, or nerves I think. Don’t look at the time it’ll make it worse. Exhausted. On the edge of sleep, excruciating. Morning already. Strange feeling, dawn when you haven’t slept… like the world moved on without you. How many days have I lived like this? Jet-lagged and weary, going through the motions, trying to get home. Home. So much to do today. Santosh awake and dressed. Mom awake and cheerful. Quiet breakfast. Car horns. Shopping, air conditioning (!). Carelessly crossing streets and hoping to make it. Faintly. Beginning to feel delirious. Crowds and heat. Pulse and breath just pounding through my core. I don’t like knowing there’s this many people in the world. In their own worlds. Made of voices and fears and dreams as real as mine. Home again. Finally. Sleeeeep.
DAY 4 – UNSCRAMBLING NIGHTMARES 2
Travel Diarrhea medication is a lie. It’s false confidence. Sure! I’ll try that, even though it looks like it’s still alive… I’ll try them all! Why not?—I’ve had nothing but bananas, plain yogurt, black tea, and rice for the last two days. I am drinking mom’s fifth concoction of Indian remedy—they’ve all had shifting ingredients except for some form of ginger and turmeric. She is presently out buying highly-recommended Ayurveda11 medicines for my ailment. I dream of bland cuisine. I never thought I’d miss fries and burgers this much.
I guess it’s a good time as any to address the toilet situation. Many say the ideal position for defecation is the squat: ‘in this way, the capacity of the abdominal cavity is greatly diminished and intra-abdominal pressure increased, thus encouraging expulsion of fecal mass.’ I can attest to the greatly increased force of expulsion. The act itself is oddly satisfying, but it’s the surroundings that throw me off. It’s a wooden outhouse located about ten frantic strides from the house. You hear birds chirping, leaves rustle, ‘nature’s call’ takes on a whole new meaning. I’m exaggerating the strangeness of course, although, in my current situation it’s a bit more peculiar. I must admit, ashamedly, that I forgot to bring enough tissue paper on one trip and was forced to use a page out of my notebook. That page—by my luck—was the exact page detailing the intricacies of my ailment along with its relation to the outhouse. I currently lack the inspiration needed to recreate what I believe was a partially divine homage to the experience. But fragments linger… something about sensations akin to a soul leaving one’s body. But I digress.
Sleep comes easy now, but I fear it as much as I crave it. I lie in bed and am almost instantly dragged through hot tunnels of subconscious thought. Puzzles with no purpose. I leech onto flickers of solution and ride them only to find that there is no end. That I might never escape. Condemned to face these unsolvable problems with the only constant of heat. Heat. Jesus Christ the heat. My body temperature rises to battle the virus but the heat of this land refuses to wane for even a moment. Impotent fan blades. I wake up drenched in sweat, chanting fragments of Elliot’s Wasteland12, partially relieved to have escaped my mind but mostly enraged at this land and its people. I sense a hostility from them. And I fear it’s not just my condition that makes me think so. It’s as if my weakness is an exaggeration of a first-world sort. They seem unwilling to understand the overwhelming alienation of my condition: in a foreign land, no connection to home (quite literally: I have no internet connection). And sick. I’ve been having depressing and excessively dramatic (allow me please) meditations on my existence. Am I more than a sack of bones? Will I ever make it back home? All those relationships I’ve made, where are they, do they still exist, do they mean anything? Seriously. Malnourished13. I’ve lost five pounds already. I haunt this house, wearing only a lungi so I can survive the heat. Jesus Christ the heat.
DAY 6 – TELEMACHUS
A stone’s throw (small stone—powerful throw) from the house is a church. It might be surprising to know that 18.3% of the Keralite population is Christian (this includes my family). Kerala also has the highest literacy rate of any state in India (93.91%, compared to India’s average literacy rate of 74.04%) and is very much appreciative of the arts; notable literary figures include Kamala Das, M.T. Nair, and O.V. Vijayan14.
I have been feeling a lot better, or perhaps more acclimated to my lack of energy and mental sharpness. I decide it’s finally (finally!) time to leave the house and take a walk to the church. It’s much further than I thought. Faint spells of dizziness and fatigue have built up enough to inhibit my stride. I take a small break atop a hill and gaze at the endless paddy fields and the small islands of coconut trees and the large sweeps of rubber trees. The wind is kind and the sun is forgiving, sitting above the plain and commanding just the right amount of attention. Picturesque. Kids too young to be driving scooters blur by me, missing me by an inch, I hear echoes of their laughter… children in school uniforms run by, boys with loosened ties and girls with ribboned hair. They all look at me eerily, like I don’t fit the puzzle. I walk by men roofing a house nearby and see the dust mire their glazed and calloused forms. They laugh and joke amongst themselves and nod towards me as I pass on. Men of the country. Men of the plains.
I am almost at the church. I can smell the incense. An old man walks towards me from the other side. He seems to be staring at me but I can’t really tell. His face is expressionless and his posture strikingly erect, as if death could even disappoint him. In his hand is a long black umbrella with a silver tip. Impaled leaves stack at the end and crack and drag with his stride. I notice I’m blocking the entrance and start to run back. “Young man.” Powerful, stern, absolute. Voice of a weathered teacher. “Who is your Father?”
DAY 7 - GETTING OUT OF TOWN
Been years since I drove stick. Ambassador Grand blowing through traffic on the expressway. Fifty to sixty miles an hour through dark streets. Surprisingly nimble. Santosh probably awake and in shock. Screw him, screw them all! I finally realized what that feeling was. It’s these people, this place… all living like the world doesn’t die when they do. Narrow roads. Full throttle. Ninety to a hundred miles an hour—anything—anything at all to keep the speed, to keep that pace from settling in my bones.
End. PDF DOWNLOAD
The format of “A Passage to Kerala” was influenced by Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal work of “gonzo” journalism in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
Truth be told I was terrified of writing this story. The idea of “back home” to the children of first-generation immigrants is always in flux. It’s part of us—but not us. And as life goes on and we work to achieve and maintain a certain status, “back home” starts to get lost; and I might be wrong, but I feel like that isn’t a good thing. If efforts aren’t made to know your story then someone else’s story starts to define you. So though it really may not seem like it at times, this is my love letter to Kerala, a place I have been lucky enough to know in small bursts.
- In Indian culture, a relative (Uncle, Aunty etc.) isn’t always blood related, they are often just people that your family has known for years.
- The extremely successful slogan was coined by Walter Mendez in 1989 upon request from the Kerala Tourism Department.
- A major municipal town in the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala State
- Unskilled native laborers (porters in this case). There are many who view the term coolie as derogatory and a relic of British colonial rule. Movements have been made to refer to the workers as “sahayaks” (“Helpers” in Hindi).
- One who prepares, sells and serves tea on streets or small roadside shops in India (e.g. Jamal’s job in the 2008 Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire)
- A linear sheet of cloth (measuring 115cm x 200cm) worn around the waist in India. Formal lungi’s are white or off-white with small accents of color lining the border, while informal lungi’s (worn around the house etc.) come in various patterns and colors. I have tried many times to wear one and enjoy its free-flowing benefits but cannot get over my need for pockets or walk more than five steps before it gets loose. Every boy that has grown up watching Malayalam films has imagined wearing a lungi and fighting gangs of thugs with punches and kicks that send them flying through the air in glorious sound effect. We didn’t have Superman. We had Mammootty and Mohanlal (film stars so beloved that they are known simply by their first names!)
- The official language of Kerala.
- Along with the auto-rickshaw, the Hindustan Ambassador is the most iconic and recognizable vehicle in India. It was once a status symbol and the sole preference of many politicians, but India seems to have moved on and more modern competitors like Suzuki, Toyota, and Honda have gained significant market share. The car was discontinued in 2014.
- Oh the great Indian head wobble. Depending on subtle variations of velocity, vigor, and amplitude, translations of the wobble can range from furious agreement or understanding to subtle agreement or understanding with sprinkles of confusion and/or indecision. The movement is extremely contagious and I found myself mimicking it when in conversation with someone that used it.
- a thin, crisp, disc-shaped food from the Indian subcontinent, typically based on a seasoned dough that is fried or cooked with dry heat. It somewhat resembles the taste and texture of a potato chip.
- A system of alternative medicine with historical roots in India (4th century BCE), usually composed of complex herbal compounds, minerals, and metal substances. The word itself is Sanskrit, meaning “life-knowledge.”
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter.
- I have fought very hard to not eat, wrestling plates back from aunties who consider it a failure of their maternal duties if I am not beyond stuffed (exemptions are not made in cases of stomach flu).
- My listing of these facts is due to my mother just happening to stumble upon my notes and finding them obnoxiously focused on myself.