12 Years of Kochi/Kerala from the Eyes of a Non-Kochiite/Non-Keralite
My brother and I intently and clumsily pressed our faces to the thick glass window, figuring out how the place looked. Although it was already dark, we could only see flickers of orange light posts, tiny houses by the railway lines and the white and part moon overhead. Parents were unlocking luggage from the berths and instructed us to wear our good shoes as we were about to reach Kochi (A port-city in the southern state of Kerala). As our train crossed the near end of the platform, light flooded inside the compartment, and we could witness a swarm of people walking on the platform. The train halted after a few seconds while I continued to gaze outside.
I didn’t know how my family members perceived this massive change, but I was desolate as I had to leave my old school and friends behind. I quietly kept looking here and there, surveying the multitude of people, speaking a language (Malayalam) alien to my ears and comprehension capabilities. Perhaps I was trying to spot some fantastical element that would justify my father’s decision to move here. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t his decision; it was his job. This was back in April 2009, the first time we came to Kochi for a short period of three years. It is the year 2021, twelve years since our first arrival, and we are still here.
Much like our prolonged stay in Kochi, our lives were lined by some unanticipated and revelatory experiences. From learning the basic words of address (chechi and chetta) for survival to understanding the complexity and subtle nuances of the diverse set of cultures (I am still unaware of the majority), I came across many parallels and contrasts interestingly of my own culture. A plethora of communicative mechanisms and the lovely people involved — friendships, surface friendships, arguments, misunderstandings, and gestures, assisted in making sense of these revelations.
While the differences were numerous, critical, and explicit, like language and food, the similarities took some time in being explicit, although they were always there. And then, there were incidents and people which made me realise that sometimes it didn’t even matter how different we were.
A Spectrum: People
In my experience, if you’re a non-Keralite, then there are a few standard queries and behaviours that you might be occasionally and funnily subjected to throughout your stay. Initially, these questions assist Keralites in quenching their curiosity about your name, state, and the reason why you’re residing here. For example, some might enlarge the size of their pupils to show their amazement at the reception of information. In contrast, some others might pass a customary comment indicating that they understand why you’re here. It is not “news” for them. And when they’ve figured out why you’re living in Kochi, they might take an interest in your culture and background.
Some show a genuine interest, while others just want to tell you how lucky you are that you’re living in Kerala; a million times. Be it your first year or the twelfth. They considerably take an interest in decoding your names as well. If you’re a “Singh” and not a Punjabi, then good luck explaining to any new person you meet why having a “Singh” surname does not necessarily indicate that you hail from the land of five rivers. A good chunk of people has such misconception here. Also, a majority might offer to graciously teach their language so that you can navigate through life in Kochi, and a few others might rejoice when you mispronounce the tongue-twisting words which embellish the Malayalam language.
As per me, Kochi is not just a feeling (as popularly known) but a spectrum of feelings much like the spectrum of people that enliven this city. When there is a spectrum, variations and contradictions will abound. Fortunately, and unfortunately, an outsider will also face these variations in feelings, attitudes, and perceptions. There will be times where you feel you can blend in quickly because of the generous company, but there might also be instances where you’ll feel isolated, misunderstood and unheard.
Alas, I guess the variations is what makes the experience lively and exciting. The undesired events do not discount the effect of the memorable experiences — a walk with a friend on a serene beach lined by a crowd of swaying trees, collectively arranging flower petals for “pookalam” (decorative patterns of fresh flowers) on Onam (Major festival of Kerala) and eating “porotta” (a kind of flatbread) in every restaurant ignoring the richness of menu every time. Keralites might eat it with beef or chicken while I perpetually combined the North-Indian paneer with South-Indian porotta.
The Purported Enigma: Malayalam
Malayalis (Keralites) take pride in several characteristics of the state: the literacy rate, the greenery, the food, the politicians, the movies, the actors, the songs, and the language. I can narrate a story about each of these characteristics, but language stands out because the anecdotes related to it are just so many. So I won’t indeed describe each one of the stories but would definitely draw an outline.
As I have already mentioned, the people proactively offer to teach Malayalam and educate about the complexity of the language and pronunciation. While most offers are generous and helpful, some might also come with a tinge of challenge, as people staunchly believe Malayalam is the most complicated language to learn, speak, and write. In addition to the offers, there are comparisons and funny (for Keralites) incidents which mostly end up in embarrassing utterance of the ever so graceful Malayalam words from a non-Malayali tongue.
At first, the language seems far from comprehension and comfort. But as you get accustomed to listening to the words daily and attend unofficial and observatory classes from your friends, the unfamiliarity gradually ameliorates. Once the alienness is reduced, the similarity with other Indian languages is unveiled. This unexpected similarity brings back comfort and comprehension, although not as same as the comfort one gets with the mother tongue, but to some extent. To a tolerable extent. Although for me, pronunciation still occasionally mocks the capabilities of my tongue to twist in ways favourable to Malayalam words.
My favourite: Nature
This place was exceptionally beautiful in 2009, and it still is in 2021. In our first year, we were delighted by the amount of pouring that happened here. The oncoming of rains and winds and thunder and light, the mesmerising smell of wet mud, the constant shower, sounding as if a sack of rice is being emptied on the rooftop, the blocking and unblocking of views, the sneaky double rainbow, and the coolness that entails a mystic feeling of comfort and joy. The rains made living on earth a worthy pursuit. Something you can look forward to, something you can rely upon. Something that’ll brighten up your mood, much like it will accentuate the beauty of the tall coconut and mango trees and short shrubs.
As rewarding and enchanting as the rains are, the sun is as punishing here. The unbearable heat and the humidity are what makes one welcome the rainy season with a wide embrace. But if you’re a morning person, perhaps the striking intensity of sunlight penetrating through multiple branches of lined or scattered trees in various parts of Kerala would seem astounding. Yet, on an anticipated rainy day, the same sun struggles to strike past the obscure clouds.
Lastly, who can forget the beaches! Dragging my feet through sand and getting washed over by playful waves whilst watching the sun slowly and vertically traverse the peachy and orangey sky to meet the forlorn end of the ocean is one of the most gratifying and soulful encounters. The cool breeze swaying past people’s hairs and dresses only add to the abounded tranquillity.
These uplifting green and yellow and orange sceneries enliven one’s spirits and make every misty moment worth remembering and reliving.