Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Palace intrigue

This is a blog entry was written in 2003 on my first of many visits to Kerala.

As a guest of the wife of Prince Thirunal of Travancore, the dynasty that ruled Kerala state for much of its history, I was invited for dinner and a stay at Kowdiar Palace. His wife, Gopika, is one of my dance teachers in Chennai; teaching the traditional feminine Kerala dance Mohini Attam.

Her mother in law, the Maharani, was a young princess when Independence broke up the royal lands and changed her world forever. Their culture has a matrilineal system and the women are very strong and relatively independent. They are direct descendants of Raja Ravi Varma, the famous indian painter (we sat in the dining room surrounded by some of his originals) and Swathi Thirunal, one of the 4 most famous south Indian (Carnatic)composers who wrote hundreds of compositions that are still popular.

This occasion necessitated my running out and buying a Kerala style sari (hand loom white cotton with gold border) and having the blouse made, in one hour - nearly impossible! - Total cost: about $14.00.

I stayed 3 nights in the guest house within the large palace grounds, where the servants instructed me not to leave my shoes outside the door,
as is the usual custom, because of the local wildlife. They are leather yes? The jackals surely will take them. You have jackals?, I asked, thinking he might just mean stray dogs. No, jackals. Cobra also. Careful Madam.

Jackals and cobras on the palace grounds; sleeping sweaty under a lace mosquito net; being served tea on the royal crest china, waking to the call of the whooping Koel bird, the snow shower of white blossoms beneath the plumeria tree heady with tropical perfume - I suddenly felt like a character in a Rudyard Kipling story. Some killjoy will probably have to write in accusing me of having "Orientalist fantasies."

The following day the Princess said, "Caroline, everyone is quite impressed with you" - because I had managed to get a blouse stitched in one hour. The ladies of the royal family all wanted to know what tailor I had found and how much I paid!

Strangest of all, the other Prince - the unmarried one - is a Carnatic classical singer who has performed in Nashville, and has sent me a flurry of emails since that evening. So maybe I will have royal email buddy.

more later, the nightly power cut is about to take place....

Related Reading: 
Drāvida and Kerala in the art of Travancore (Artibus Asiae)Political evolution in Kerala: Travancore, 1859-1938 

A Survey of Kerala History - 


Friday, February 05, 2010

Calcutta: the Great Unwashed

Hi, everyone. I'm too freaked out by all the blank space and white bread to write much now that I'm back in the States. So I am resorting to re-runs.

This blog originally appeared as a Lonely Planet "Don't Forget to Write" entry in December, 2003.
It was one of several entries I wrote about Calcutta, so don't flip on me if I left something out.

India has a genius for complicating things, and I'm not exactly straightforward and clutter-free myself to begin with.

Your faithful correspondent came North to Calcutta see the Kali Pujas (Oct 25-28, 2003), decided to stay a few days to volunteer at Mother Theresa's homes, and, as though in reward for this altruistic decision, promptly got deathly ill - a very nasty 6-day bout with diarrhea, cramps, indigestion, nausea, etc., and had to resort to a short round of antibiotics.

To further complicate things, when I became well enough to stagger past the ever-present gauntlet of Calcutta's professional beggars down to the local net joint, I found there was a SNAFU with my usually trusty email account.

Mother Teresa's home for mentally handicapped kids (Shishu Bhavan) was pretty amazing and unexpectedly fun, if you can ignore the smell of antiseptic floor wash (barely masking that of urine and feces). You should see the way these kids, many of whom are autistic or worse, light up when you just strum a few chords on a beat up old guitar and sing "Old MacDonald."

Calcutta - (India's second largest city, which in terms of sheer numbers, is quite a statement) is simultaneously the most medieval and most modern place I've yet visited here. Where else in the world can you take a foot rickshaw (yes, with huge wooden spoke wheels and a snowy-bearded barefoot man trundling you along the street) - a foot rickshaw, past limbless beggars and snarling street dogs, to the gleaming, punctual, immaculate, safe, uncrowded, *air-conditioned*(!) Metro station?!

In the Indian tradition of religious assimilation, Mother Teresa has been added to the local pantheon of saints and deities. The ferocious Kali Ma stares you down from nearly every street-corner shrine, alternating with Durga, who smiles benignly while spearing a demon. Amidst what must have seemed pagan idolatry to her, Therese's wrinkled walnut of a face has earned an enduring place of honour.

The city has been awash with activity honoring her recent beatification; everything from a Mother Teresa film festival (mostly documentaries and one docudrama starring Geraldine Chaplin), a ceremony for the first official veneration of her relics (including a few drops of blood - don't even want to know how they acquired that), and various cultural ceremonies, mostly featuring acoustic guitar renditions of "Amazing Grace" sung in Bengali.

Park Street - the hip, happening yuppie street with all the bars, trendy shops and nightclubs - has officially, and not quite appropriately, been dubbed Mother Therese Avenue. Calcutta municipal corporation seems to have a real sense of humour in this area; in the midst of a somewhat perverse PC renaming orgy, they also rechristened Calcutta's most commercial thoroughfare "Lenin Street." The US and British consulates both reside on what's now called "Ho Chi Minh Avenue." (I'm not sure what significance, if any, to read into the fact that these names appear only on maps and signs, but never in the local parlance.)

The post-colonial purport behind this nomme-nouveau frenzy (which seems to have primarily benefited the sign-painters and map printers) strangely didn't stop several streets from being renamed with, of all things, British names. Thus the former Theatre Road, rather than being named after a worthy Bengali playwright, of which there are many, became "Shakespeare Sarani." Another street, albeit a small one, swapped the decidedly British "Middleton Row" for the equally Limey "Sir William Jones Sarani." And one can only wonder what nationalist purpose was served by giving the name "James Hickey Sarani" to the former Dacres Lane.

I've found it surprisingly difficult to leave Calcutta, described by...well, some old writer whose name escapes me as being composed of "new mud, old mud and more mud." Repetitive, but accurate. Weather here, which was monsoon marsh and dripping humidity upon my arrival, has greatly improved, as has my health.

Give Calcutta a chance to first entrap you with its bewildering network of former cowpaths impersonating actual streets, or prevent your plane from departing due to poor visibility, and you'll find it eventually ensnares you with its unique charm - a sort of "creme de la grime." It ranks with Rome as an eternal, infernal city.

Recommended in Calcutta:
Kolkata Film Festival
Victoria Memorial including the Calcutta History Museum
Dakshineswar Kali Temple
Park Street British Cemetery
Howrah Bridge at dusk
Asiatic Society Museum
(no admission for foreigners without passport)
Indian Museum on Chowringhee (Nehru) Street