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Exploring Kochi, India

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

Taste, too. The mutton biryani was not greasy, as it so often is in Indian restaurants, but light and minty and marvelous. And the pearl spot, clad in its green dinner jacket, was a joy. Nimmy whisked around the table, spooning up choice morsels. "My grandmother and mother would never sit with guests, but just serve food, and that's what I do," she said. She looked at her husband, who had cleaned his plate and was chewing a toothpick: "Mr. Paul also needs to move his arms and legs a bit." He jerked upright and began to clear.

My quest for Sirodhara began to seem foredoomed. The ayurvedic centers all wanted me to check in for 21 days, during which time I would forego meat, alcohol, and sex. At Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala hospital, when I proposed a quick drizzle, a supervisor scowled and said, "It is not the patient who decides what he wants, it is the doctor who decides!"

At the Santhigiri Janakanthi Ayurveda Center, a manager named Sunil Sadanandan explained that the real problem was—not to put too fine a point on it—me. "Virtues deficient in the soul persist as ailments in the body," he said. Fortunately, however, his vaids could root out the moral failings that were presenting as rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. I said that I didn't have rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. "That is for the doctor to determine," he said, combing his mustache at me with sudden ferocity. "Do not be a shirker, for it is only the ignorance of true ayurveda that misleads the people to go to star hotels and tiny mushroom centers bloomed into pleasure treatments!"

Sadanandan sent us down the street to his center's treatment facility, where two men led us upstairs into a dim, shabby room with the now-familiar poison-nut table and a steam cabinet—one of those boxes only your head sticks out of—for sweating off the unguents afterward. "It's medicated steam," the younger man, Rajesh, said encouragingly. "Turmeric leaves, neem leaves, lemongrass, ginger—"

"Steam is small heat, sufferable temperatures!" his partner, Shreekumar, a white-haired man in a well-worn dhoti, interjected. When I dropped a hint about sirodhara, he frowned. "It must be prescribed by a doctor, or else there are chances of unconsciousness and cardiac arrest—"

"Paralysis," Rajesh put in.

"Chances of vomiting—"

"Emptiness of mind."

They shuddered and fell silent.

After a minute, Shreekumar suggested an alternative: "One tablespoon cow ghee every morning on empty stomach, you are becoming very healthy."

"Cow-dung lotion is very antiseptic," Rajesh added.

"Only from the pet cow!" Shreekumar insisted, not to be outdone. "The one that has been eating herbs, katuka grass, Brahmi grass, which gives more memory power—not basil leaves!"

As it became clear that we were not, in fact, going to check in, the men grew even more affable. When we put our sandals on downstairs, Shreekumar pointed out that even the coir rug underfoot was intended to stimulate the feet and thereby quicken the senses. "But don't take a beating on your feet soles, or you will go blind," Rajesh cautioned, moving closer, his eyes shining. Strangely, my senses did feel quickened. It may have been the coir, the tang of saffron in the air, the close, wet heat. Or just the enthusiasm of Shreekumar and Rajesh, who kept waving and waving as we drove away.

Religious and philosophic enthusiasm is everywhere here—you can't buy a banana chip without getting a lecture of some kind—but it never seems to cross the line into coercion. A go-along-to-get-along attitude prevails of necessity because Kerala is so diverse, its population divided into nearly equal fourths among Muslims, Christians, caste Hindus, and Dalits (formerly called untouchables). The once-populous Jews, on the other hand, are on their way out. Centuries ago, the local rajah anointed one Joseph Rabban the Prince of Anjuvannam and granted the Jews the right to fire three salutes at the break of day. Rabban was also given "the lamp of the day, cloth spread in front to walk on, a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga drum, a trumpet, a gateway, a garland, decoration with festoons, and so forth." But when Israel was born, so many of Kerala's Jews emigrated that Kochi now numbers only 25 "black" Jews—who live around Ernakulam's Jew Street and whose forebears were in the spice trade—and 14 "white," or Orthodox, Jews in the Mattancheri neighborhood known as Jew Town.

Even as we walked into Jew Town's 400-year-old Paradesi Synagogue, we could hear a muezzin's call to prayer. An air of supervention hangs over the crooked streets. Only seven local houses are still inhabited: the rest have become antiques stores. "In this house," Joyce told us softly, "we have Mrs. Cohen. She is doing a small business of embroidery." There in the doorway, stitching gold sequins onto a yarmulke, was Sarah Cohen, a white-haired lady who, except for her sari, looked as if she would be perfectly at home on a stoop in Brooklyn.

I asked her if she was sad that so few Jews remained. She didn't look up. "When I am sewing, I am interested only in this."

Amanda tried another tack: "Your work is very beautiful."

"Ah, ya ya ya," she said, waving us away.


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