Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bringing Kerala to Kerala


I’m noticing something distinct about the Blog format. Usually, reading a book means starting at the top and proceeding down the page and through time, the last page the most recent event in the chronology. In a Blog, it’s reversed. The most recent thing happens first and you go backwards through the days. If a reader is faithful and checks in every day, it kind of works. Otherwise, it’s a bit confusing, especially if you refer to something from a few days back that the in-and-out reader may never have read. So here’s the punchline: because I haven’t been able to post for a week, the next entries will be in forward order, with the dates they actually happened with each. If I can catch up to myself, I’ll return to the other format.

Meanwhile, I need to start with a short background to the whole India trip that will help the reader make sense of it all. Here goes:

In 1978-79, my soon-to-be wife and I got a leave of absence from our work at The San Francisco School and took a one-year trip around the world. Five months of that was in India, three months of that in the state of Kerala. I knew I wanted to study some music and the only lead I had was a school for the Kathakali Dance Drama in the small village of Cheruthuruthy. We landed in Bombay late November, worked our way down to the village and got a room at the Government Guest House. The next day, a man was sitting on the veranda and he started talking to us in English. Enter Raymond into our lives. He became our constant companion and guide, negotiating us through the details of life in Cheruthuruthy. Beginning with introducing us to Mohammed, the Guest House manager, whose wife, Sainaba, agreed to cook for us in her home.

I went to the Kalamandalam School to see about studying music. They asked me what I wanted to study and I said, “What do you have?” They gave me a quick tour and showed me two drums, neither of which I had ever seen or heard. One was played with sticks (chenda) and one by hand (maddalam). I pointed to the latter and said, “I’ll try that.” The next day, they told me that I couldn’t study there without a student visa, but that one of their graduates was interested in teaching me in his home. So off I went to Nelluvai, two bus rides and an hour away, to meet Narayanan Nair, who immediately accepted me as his student. Thus began over two months of daily two-hour lessons, me with no Maliyalam language skills, he with no English.

And so our time was framed with these three people—a Catholic Raymond, a Muslim Sainaba and a Hindu Narayanan. After three remarkable months, we left each with a tearful farewell. I imagined that others would come to take our places and that we would only be a vague distant memory. I was wrong.

When we left Kerala in March of 1979, we traveled to Northern India and Nepal for two more months, then Bangkok to Singapore to Solo, Java to settle for another few months, a short trip to Bali and then finish in Japan before returning to San Francisco. We resumed work at The San Francisco School, got married and one year later, our first daughter was born. We named her Kerala.

Fast-forward to her 30th birthday last September and my determination that now was the time to bring Kerala to Kerala. After intense family negotiations and airline arrangements, the stage was set. Our hope was to see our old home and the three people who helped make it so special, none of whom we had had contact with over the last three decades. What happened? Read on. 

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