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Exploring Kochi, India

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

My first morning in India I woke up somewhere else. My wife, Amanda, and I were sleepily carving up a mango; it was just after dawn in the city of Kochi. Like much of the state of Kerala, Kochi (often still called Cochin) is a braid of canals and lagoons, and our breakfast table at the Taj Malabar hotel was beside a window that opened onto Vembanad Lake, a nominally fresh body of water that, somewhere within the city's aqueous terrain, merges with the Indian Ocean. Beyond the passing freighters lay islands thick with coconut palms; closer at hand, an old fisherman paddled up and stood in his dugout to coax a few grouper from the folds of his net into a red bucket. Then he spun like a discus thrower and flung the net back out. Its silver weights popped on the water like tiny firecrackers.

This scene of quiet clarity was not at all the India I remembered from my first trip, 15 years earlier. In that India, the Indian Airlines clerk at the Bombay airport took 25 minutes to cancel a ticket for the woman ahead of me in the long, long line, licking his pencil to fill out the 18 forms required, deaf to my anguish as my flight shut its doors and flew away. In that India, a man on a crowded Delhi street flicked cow dung onto my sneakers—and then, hoping to wangle a tip, made a great show of discovering it and cleaning it off with a canvas-destroying solvent. And the owner of the houseboat I stayed aboard on Dal Lake, in Kashmir, became incensed when I informed him that his cook was refilling the Bisleri water bottles by dipping them in the filthy lake. "Black shit!" he cried, not at the culprit but at me. "I will kick your bloody backside to Pakistan!"

Keralites delight in proclaiming their superiority to the barbarians up north. They pride themselves on their twice-daily baths, their cream-colored raiments, and on their use of ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system of herbal treatments, to tune their bodies like mechanics realigning a Porsche. Foreign visitors now flock to Kerala for "medical tours," the latest form of Western fascination with Indian gurus who claim to understand what we have long forgotten.

The phrase "medical tour" makes me ill, but I did have an inexplicable urge to try sirodhara, an ayurvedic treatment in which medicated oil is drizzled onto your forehead. It seemed like jumping naked into the deep end of India. The procedure is reputed not only to sharpen your wits and rejuvenate your memory, but also to cure both Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. In ayurveda, nature remedies all: cinnamon oil alleviates mumps and, when applied to the soles of your feet, "wintertime quakes"; king coconut oil restores "falling hair"; the powdered seeds of bastard teak, eaten daily with gooseberry juice, make the old young again. Ayurveda is the Sanskrit word for "knowledge for prolonging life." When weaker measures fail, practitioners encourage bulimia—here seen as a cure rather than an illness, and known as "therapeutic vomiting."

After our breakfast, Amanda and I went to the hotel spa, where the resident vaid, or ayurvedic doctor, informed us that we had to sign up for at least seven days of treatment to receive sirodhara. So I tried dinacharya, the "daily health-maintenance therapies." My attendant, Prakas, told me to remove my clothes and provided me with a loincloth the size of a Kleenex. Then he gave me a handful of areca-nut powder to clean my teeth with, using my finger as a brush. Once my gums were numb—areca nut is the ingredient that makes betel chewers drool unawares—he pried my eyelids wide and applied a few drops of tender coconut oil and rose water to clean them. It felt like being jabbed with a kebab skewer. Fifteen minutes later, he was still dabbing black sludge out of my blood-red eyes with a folded tissue; he said it was "dust," but I'm inclined to believe it was some sort of atavistic eye-defense juice, akin to a skunk's spray.

After stopping up my ears with camphorated drops and filling my nose with medicated-goat's-milk snuff—thereby disarming all my senses, save touch—Prakas had me stretch out on a long wooden table. The massage began. It consisted of body swoops that were actually rather soothing until he concluded each pass with a wrist snap that ground my ankles or elbows into the black wood. The table came from Strychnos nux-vomica, an Asian evergreen known as the poison nut tree because its seeds contain strychnine. So that was a comfort. Amanda, who also had a massage, said afterward, "I felt like a chicken sliding around on the cutting board." Then she asked, "Why are your eyes swollen?"

Kerala prides itself on much more than its ability to blind and cripple its visitors. It has the most newspapers of any Indian state, and its literacy rate, 96 percent, is the highest in the country—higher, indeed, than that of the United States. Even the working elephants, imported from Assam in the north, are bilingual: they respond to commands in Hindi as well as the local Malayalam. In 1957, Kerala became the world's first state to democratically elect a Communist government, and the locals still maintain that they were onto something. The novelist Anita Nair has written that "the average Malayali goes through life convinced that he is the liveliest, shrewdest, and most intelligent of all Indians. This despite the high rate of lunatics and suicides."

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