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Exploring Kochi, India

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

"The people have a special way of protesting everything that is not to their liking," a tourism operator named Madhu Kayarat told us. Kayarat's meesha, the full mustache that male Keralites cultivate as a badge of manliness, was perfectly groomed, and he pushed his glasses onto his forehead to glare about with fierce, nearsighted enthusiasm. He was explaining why there was so little traffic that day in Kochi, a city of 600,000 people: the Joint Action Council of Motor Vehicle Workers had called a one-day strike to protest the government's having raised the price of petrol. The streets are constantly being blocked or emptied by such "closures," "stirs," or "agitations." This was a "weak closure," meaning that cars venturing out weren't being stoned. "We are the only state to strike," Kayarat said proudly. "Because of the literacy rate, we know why the price has gone up. The other states are angry, but they don't know why."

One of Kerala's leading industries, bringing in some $90 million a year, is tourism; this sliver of land along the Lakshadweep Sea is branded as God's Own Country. What draws visitors is the pungent tang of Old India nostalgia: the Fort Cochin district has a lovely canopy of tamarind and rain trees that surround a bastion of the Portuguese fort (which, in a reminder of how very bygone the days of empire are, now serves as the sub–tax collector's residence). And the cozy, down-at-heels Dutch Palace in nearby Mattancheri has just the right number of paintings of wicked-looking rajahs. To be sure, Vasco da Gama's tomb at St. Francis Church is a disappointment—the explorer's body was returned to Portugal almost 500 years ago. Still, our guide, V. X. Joyce, told us reverently that we ought to take a moment to appreciate the ayurvedic qualities of the church's limestone walls. "Limestone is good for human dwellings," he said. "It has been filled with sun energy for thousands of years, so it absorbs all the radiated emotions of your upset."

Joyce is a warmhearted man who wears oxford-cloth shirts of a blinding white. He extolled the local way of life to us with a mixture of pity and anxiety—pity that we had lived in ignorance for so long; anxiety that his jingoism might be unwarranted. (Kochi means "sea gate," and the city shares with other outlying coastal regions—think of Baja, of Florida, of Chile—both a fierce chauvinism and a fear that it is missing out.) Though Joyce acknowledged that Keralan cuisine is awash in coconut oil, he insisted that "Keralites are less susceptible to it, because cholesterol in the veins breaks down under our hot sun." When we snacked on water buffalo at a street stall on Mahatma Gandhi Road, Joyce told us that women never eat at such places: "It would be indecent." A woman in a green sari promptly emerged from the neighboring stall. We looked at Joyce. "She is from nortH INDIA," he explained.

In the afternoon heat the vendors at the Ernakulam market lay stretched out on gunnysacks piled beside or, often, atop their produce, a bedding of manioc and string beans and snake gourds, of jackfruit and orange cucumbers and pale-red pumpkins shaped like pattypan squash. "Mango, mango, mango" and "fifteen rupees for two kilos," the men murmured in their sleep. Amanda and I were trying to keep up with the panzer-like advance of Nimmy Paul, who has made a cottage industry of introducing visitors to Kochi's markets and food. Nimmy's husband, V. J. Paul, known—like most Syrian Christians here—by his last name, brought up the rear. A mild man with a spaniel's eyes, Paul quit his job as a stockbroker to help Nimmy with her cooking classes. He usually does the shopping alone, because otherwise they quarrel. "He brought stinking fish onto the floor of the house," Nimmy explained as we walked. "There could be worms coming out of it!"

"What rubbish you are talking," Paul said, absently fingering a gooseberry.

"Worms! Rotten-fish worms!" She stopped to ask the price of potatoes, and, after looking us over, the vendor told her 25 rupees (about 50 cents).

"It's not for the sahib," she explained, "it's for me."

"Twenty-five rupees." She sniffed and barreled on.

Back at their spotlessly clean house in a leafy Ernakulam neighborhood, Paul held a whispered conference with his wife. "He's getting angry at me for making you remove your footwear," she announced, as Paul rolled his eyes. It became clear that they are one of those couples whose unity derives from bickering.

Beginning with how she ground a coconut on a flat stone in her backyard, Nimmy prepared our meal as if her husband had just killed a mastodon—he was actually in the other room watching Wayne's World—and she had just invented fire. Soon she was deftly stirring red rice and coconut oil in one of her uruli, bell-shaped metal dishes that resemble prehistoric hubcaps. "The body is very tender now, during the rainy season," she said, "so this is the best time to get an ayurvedic massage. When it gets hot like this, we boil the vetiver root and have a bath with it, to cool the system. And when it's cold, we drink coffee with jaggery"—a sweetener made from molasses—"and crushed ginger, pepper, and coriander seeds, which helps warm you and clear the respiration."

Nimmy was a patient and lucid teacher, but when she began explaining how she was wrapping a fish called a pearl spot in crushed cilantro and coconut paste before poaching it in a banana leaf, I put down my notebook. There was simply no way to replicate what she was doing back home. For one thing, you can't buy whole mace, or banana leaves the size of manta rays, at your local Piggly Wiggly. As Marco Polo said of Kerala: "Everything is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty."

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