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Home / Brunch / Travel: Colours of Kochi

Travel: Colours of Kochi

Finding the extraordinary amid the ordinary

brunch Updated: Mar 01, 2020 00:26 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times
Every evening, many places in Kochi stage Kathakali shows in theatres
Every evening, many places in Kochi stage Kathakali shows in theatres (Saubhadra Chatterji)

A few days after Diwali, I venture on a morning walk in Kochi, something I dare not in Delhi!

The sun is yet to disturb the quietude of this early morning. A pale blue hue – remnant of a starry night – blends the sky with the shimmering backwaters of the Arabian Sea near the horizon where the outlines of sleeping ships are as hazy as childhood memories.

Colourful houses in Kochi look as if from a Malayalam movie set
Colourful houses in Kochi look as if from a Malayalam movie set ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Two men and a few regrets patiently wait to catch fish when a steamer carrying the first passengers appears through the mist near the jetty in Fort Kochi.

To be sure, no one is wearing an anti-dust mask or grumbling about the weather.

God’s own country: Really

People have gathered around the tea stalls at the River Road. Since I am not the biggest fan of idli for breakfast, I happily steer towards Princess Street, the more colourful part of Kochi. Behind me, the over-hyped Chinese fishing nets that swing like the Sensex throughout the day, are basking under the first rays of the sun.Brightly-coloured quaint houses replace the leafy face of the city and look like a big Malayalam movie set. Many street sign-boards proudly proclaim, quite unnecessarily, that this is “God’s own country.”

Colourful graffiti on Kochi walls depict images from Van Gogh paintings to Che Guevara
Colourful graffiti on Kochi walls depict images from Van Gogh paintings to Che Guevara ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

In this gold-standard of cityscape, Burgher Street is a gem. The paved, narrow lane is so pretty that there’s actually a banner warning people against taking photographs and disturbing residents.

The sheer beauty of this narrow lane must have attracted so many curious intruders (not the CAA ones) to click selfies that irritated locals had to take this rare step.

Rare, because one of the reasons to travel to Kerala is to enjoy the welcoming nature of Malayalis. At least the Malayalis I know are helpful, humorous and hospitable. Thomas Dominic makes a good Fort Kochi plan for two days before connecting me to his brother, who in turn puts me in touch with Xavier Raju. Raju is a local journalist but also passionately helps people who wants to visit this idyllic part of the bustling city.

Serenity engulfs an early morning in Kochi while people are busy catching fish
Serenity engulfs an early morning in Kochi while people are busy catching fish ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Raju, with his relatives packed in a brand-new SUV, picks me up for a quick tour of the city. The first stop is St. Francis Church, famous for the first resting place of Vasco da Gama after his death. The Portuguese authorities eventually shifted the grave of their global ambassador to Lisbon. Those keen to say hello to him can visit his tomb at the Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem neighbourhood of Lisbon.

The best way to explore Fort Kochi and Mattancherri is by walking
The best way to explore Fort Kochi and Mattancherri is by walking ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Raju and co. drop me near the jetty after a whirlwind tour of a few churches, a former Danish tavern and a cemetery. That’s enough to fall in love with Kochi. The whiff of fresh air, the lush green landscape, a bright day and the salted raw mango strips are added bonuses.

Score one for Maradona

My hungry stomach reminds me that lunch is due. Since I don’t want to take any chances with food, I enquire with a few bystanders about the availability of any good home-style fish and rice nearby.“Come, sir. I will show you,” says a young lad on a motorbike, “You get both fried fish and meen curry.”

When you get tipsy after sipping beer near the backwaters, you’ll know it’s the effect of Cochin – a city that’s gorgeous even on an ordinary day

After five minutes, he stops in front of Hotel Lucky Star. It looks like an eatery in Buenos Aires. For not only is it painted in blue-and- white stripes, it also has half a dozen pictures of Diego Maradona strategically pasted on the wall above the delivery counter. Some of its waiters are even wearing blue t-shirts (to keep their boss happy, I presume).

Finally a senior waiter wearing an Argentina jersey arrives. He even turns around like a model on a ramp to proudly show the number 10 written on the back while taking my order of fish, chicken and rice.  

If you’re inspired to eat here, I must add that the entire focus was on the decor and posters and not on the food.

I hire an autorickshaw to go to an area called Mattancherry. It has the famous Jewish synagogue, a vibrant masala market and some trendy art cafés. The driver studied at a Kendriya Vidyalaya and speaks fluent Hindi.

No meal in Kerala can be complete without prawns
No meal in Kerala can be complete without prawns ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

He requests me to stop at a sari shop on the way and spend at least 10 minutes. I tell him that my wife has never appreciated any gift I bought for her and more importantly, she already has a wardrobe full of saris.“Sir, if you spend 10 minutes there, I will get a fuel coupon from the shop,” he says.

We reach a particularly fancy shop. The driver stops his vehicle and turns around, “Sir, tell them you have come from Maldives. These shopkeepers like rich tourists from Male.”

The Mattancherry area has the famous Jewish synagogue, a vibrant masala market and some trendy art cafes

In my entire life, I have never accompanied any woman to buy saris. Now I am the lone customer and two sales girls try to teach me about different types of saris available in the shop. This is like a student of ancient history appearing for a test in econometrics. After fooling around for 10 minutes, I call Ruchira to ask if I can indeed buy her something. She sounds suspicious: “You know very well that I rarely wear a sari. Then what are you doing there?”

I am unable to explain my position as I am not sure how many Maldivians speak Bengali.

Dance of life

Such woes of life can only be forgotten in a Kathakali theatre. Raju calls me to say that he has already reserved a seat for me for the evening show at the Kerala Kathakali Centre. “But please be there an hour before the dance actually begins,” he advises.

Before the dance performance begins, there’s an hour-long make-up session for the audience to see
Before the dance performance begins, there’s an hour-long make-up session for the audience to see ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

I reach the Kathakali Centre in time to see two men in mundus (Kerala’s version of dhoti) sitting on the stage and applying make-up meticulously. Over an hour, the two of them transform into mythical characters in flawless make-up and costumes.

Burgher Street is a gem. The paved, narrow lane is so pretty that there’s actually a banner warning people against taking photographs and disturbing residents!

Another man appears on the stage to explain the different mudras of the dance before he churns out the perfect notes of the background music. The performance begins and slowly the wooden stage turns into a mystic, astounding world of dance and music, leaving the crowd – mostly foreigners – to marvel at this excellent display of Kerala’s iconic dance form.

By the time I come out of the theatre, the streets are near-empty. A few eateries are buzzing with guests. The shops are about to close. The long road empties into a darkness where the waters of the Arabian sea flow silently.

The historic Jewish quarters is one of the top attractions
The historic Jewish quarters is one of the top attractions ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Next morning, I will see fishermen biking their way to the market. Egrets waiting to catch fish and a few ships on the horizon blowing their sirens of life. I will see a picture-perfect cityscape full of beautiful houses and a lush green environment. I will see more pedestrians and fewer cars.

The spot where Vasco da Gama was buried in St. Francis church
The spot where Vasco da Gama was buried in St. Francis church ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

And I will sit near the backwaters and sip a beer. And when I get tipsy, I will know for sure, it’s not the beer but the effect of Cochin – a city that’s gorgeous even on an ordinary day.

Author bio: Saubhadra Chatterji is a senior editor with the political bureau of Hindustan Times who loves rasgullas and Ronaldo in equal parts!

From HT Brunch, March1 , 2020

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