Title: The Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 Years after Vasco da Gama
Author: Binoo K John
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 350/-
For me alone doth Vasco crave bright glory’s crown,
And sharing with brave Diaz his most dread exploits,
He boldly stems the threat’ning seas,
And ploughs the waves towards far distant lands,
This hand shall be to him the victor’s meed,
If Love but aid, Vasco will triumph yet.
My inmost soul doth tell me so!
— L’Africaine (The African Woman), is a grand opera and the last work of composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, dealing with fictitious events in the life of Vasco da Gama. It was first performed by Paris Opéra on 28 April 1865.
It’s well-known that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the shores of Calicut (presently, Kozhikode) on May 20, 1498, 519 years ago to this day. But what’s relatively unfamiliar is the St Francis Church in Fort Kochi where da Gama’s body – who died in 1524 – lay buried for 14 years before it was shifted to Portugal. The Church itself has interesting origins too. It was the first European church to be constructed in India, erected originally in wood but rebuilt later in stone and roofed with tiles.
These are among the many interesting anecdotes, mentioned by Binoo John, which makes the book contemporary even though he penned it a while ago to coincide with 500th year of Vasco da Gama’s landing in India. John’s introduction to ‘the Revised and Updated Edition’ is an insightful essay on current-day Kerala. “The State may be blessed with heart-tugging beauty and everything one could ask for, but Kerala’s brave children seem to have no deep abiding love for the State….Enthralled by the notion of flying off to faraway lands, Keralites bide their time, making frequent dry-runs to the airport until finally, the visa arrives….To fly away is the abiding passion,” John reveals. Migration is sad though inevitable. In this age of ‘give me more’, everyone wants to satisfy their aspirations, whatever it takes.
But, for John, what is disturbing is the creeping fundamentalism which could undo all the progress and modernism that Kerala has achieved. “It is dangerous to leave an educated populace with just aspiration and without any political and economic philosophy, a civic spirit,” he explains. “In the absence of a political vision for the State, various religious philosophers and freelancers have walking in, preached and established their retreat centres, mosques, quasi-political outfits, and some terror groups as well.”
The situation apparently was not so grim when John wrote the book. At that time, he rode in trains, buses and autos to embark on his Malabar journeys, chronicling the rich and diverse history, geography and economy of this region which has witnessed innumerable colonial power clashes and post-Independence political transformations. That said, the soul of Malabar is its delicious dishes, spicy curries and trademark culinary delicacies — egg-topped Alkapuri biryani, Chettinad prawn, Neymeen fish curry and the ‘touchingz’ with hard drinks – which all make “Malabar such a, well, yummy place.”
Anecdotes and asides intersperse this grand narrative. You have Rajani from Kochi, a single-mother of two grown-up sons, who earn living as a coconut-tree climber. Or Calicut’s SM Street, full of sweet meat shops, gradually transforming into Golden Lane as the multicoloured Calicut Halwais are giving way to jewellery marts. And, yet still, the Sea Queen hotel with circular beds. “While such round beds expand the scope and variety of what can be expansively called the male-female Congress, it also presents a perpetual problem. Where does one place one’s head?”
Such ‘congresses’ are not confined to circular beds or bedrooms; they are out in the open too. For instance, John meets a one-time university professor Govindvarma Raja EK and Malabar folk historian Raghavan Payyanad, whose current pursuit includes researching the origins and sexual metaphors of Kerala’s folk games! “Raja and Raghavan have been analysing the moves of nearly 100 folk games to bring out the sexual imagery involved and maybe change the whole concept of sporting pleasure,” wonders John.
Equally fascinating are the revelations about body hair. Malabari men take their moustaches seriously, and the macho Malayalees male tend to spend a long time in front of the mirror and in barber shops and hair-styling centres. However, according to the author, this fascination does not have its roots in the past. “In the Malabar of fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Nair, the warrior class, made it a point to shave off all excess hair on the body”, John informs us.
This seems to be a serious practice among women too. John cites F Fawcett and his 1901 anthropological study Nayars of Malabar which reveals that Nayar women religiously shaved off their pubic hair. ‘Nayar women of all classes shave the hair above vagina, They shave themselves, standing placing one foot on the bench or anything a couple of feet or so from the ground, thus raising the leg’. And so it goes on with minute details!
On a serious note, John meets the 96-year-old Zamorin, whose ancestors welcomed da Gama to Calicut; the tribals of Mananthawady district where the Naxalite movement took root in Kerala in the 1960s; traces the historic trail of Kerala’s spice trade that moved so many men to cross the seas from world over; explains State’s high suicide rate; and visits Beypore to see one of the oldest ship-building yards in the world.
At time, the book reads more as a socio-political commentary than a travelogue. And it’s this combination that makes it a witty and evocative read, even years after it was first written.