(February 7-8) Ah, India. I could it feel it the moment I stepped off the plane. Starting with that most direct and evocative of senses, smell. Certain people have signature smells, certain houses identify themselves olfactorally and certain places as well. India. 32 years since we last meant, and yet, yesterday.
Stepped out of baggage claim and there my daughter Talia was to meet me, fresh from two weeks of traveling alone in Thailand and Laos. Two more hours before my daughter Kerala and wife Karen were to land. In contrast to the upscale Kuala Lumpur airport where I had a three-hour layover, the Chennai (aka Madras) airport was on the funky side. Talia and I went to a little “Food Court” and caught up over a lassi and lime soda, interrupted by the blast of Indian TV showing one show after another with fighting, fighting and then, some more fighting. Like everywhere, their TV aimed low on the chakra scale to get your attention. And, of course, it works.
Off to meet Karen and Kerala and 45 minutes after the plane landed, getting nervous—where are they? Did they make the plane? If not, now what? We had a hotel reserved and plan B was to meet there, but they also had the ticket info. for our morning flight to Cochin. Went to passenger assistance at 1:00 in the morning (4 am Tokyo time) and found their names on the list. And the man laughed when he saw Kerala’s name—first sighting! And of course, just at that moment, they appeared. Travel the old-fashioned way, no cell phones. And of course, this was nothing compared to my grandfather who sent for my grandmother in Russia to join him in New York around the turn of the century. How did they arrange that meeting at Ellis Island?
So off to the Hotel Meera van for a 100 rupees (about $2.50) fee, short night’s sleep, down to breakfast and lifted up the domed silver tops expecting eggs and toast and much to our delight, found idli, sambar, chapatti, dosa and other familiar tastes from that time long ago. Down to the lobby past the sign, “Free Transport to Airport” Hmm. Our first mild rip-off.
Back to the airport and on the plane to Cochin, now Kochi in the movement to rename India. Of course, nostalgic for Bombay and Madras, but hey! the first sign of cultural health is the freedom of people to name and define themselves and if this is the price for the last vestige of colonialism’s yoke to drop, so be it. Short flight and as the plane descended toward the telltale coconut palms of Kerala, I could feel my blood stirring. Gave Kerala (daughter) a high-five at the moment of landing, out to the quite lovely airport, found a place to stay through the tourist booth and stepped out to the taxi. We had arrived.
Scenes from the taxi window: the cows roaming the streets, the goats eating garbage—but not the plastic bags that scarred the land, the crows picking away around them, women sweeping with their handmade brooms, the incessant horns and dance of the traffic, the white painted lines of lanes on the road a mere suggestion. 45 minutes to Fort Kochi, one of the five islands that make up the city old-fashioned style-(ie, no downtown highrises) and finally arriving at the neighborhood with all the homestays catering to the tourists that barely existed in 1979. Our chosen place, the Chak Homestay, a spacious white house with sculptured swans in the entryway, large high-ceiling rooms with cool large-tiled floors. Took the mid-day shower and lay under the ceiling fan and exhaled with a happy heart. Coconut palms and red-tiled roofs out the window, women hanging laundry, the call of the mosque (like smells, these soundscapes take you straight into the room of memory) and for one moment, both 59 and 27 years old at once.
After the mid-day nap, off for a stroll to the famous Chinese fishing nets on the water. Karen and Kerala bargain for a dress, I look at the books displayed and take a photo of FROM HEAD LICE TO DEAD LICE for our school Lower-School Head, Talia plays peek-a-boo with a little girl still fascinated by the white folks in spite of the daily flow of tourists. A group of uniformed schoolgirls wade in the water with giggles of delight and a welcome cool breeze comes off the Arabian Sea. Quite a change from all that time spent on the Tokyo subway line.
We go to an introduction to Kathakali show for tourists, that drama-dance-music art form unique to Kerala that was the centerpiece of our time here before and the reason we settled in Cheruthuruthy, home of the Kalamandalam School for Kathakali. I studied one of the two drums, the maddalam, every day for two months and we went to many all-night performances. This reduced version for tourists was excellent, with an introduction to the study of facial gestures, hand signs (mudras) and rhythmic footwork that was both entertaining and informative. Then a short 30 minutes story that brought it all back—subtle, dynamic, powerful. It all held up.
A lovely dinner, back to the homestay and call Raymond, one of the three people we hoped to re-unite with. I had e-mailed his sons (long story) and they had given me their father’s phone number (he didn’t have e-mail) and told him we’d be coming to visit. It took him a moment to recognize who I was and then a large laugh echoed over the phone lines with such joy and warmth. So tomorrow we head off to Cheruthuruthy to meet him, cross our fingers for a place to stay and see what this place has become. And feel who we have become in the intervening years. Then with 3 and 4 years of experience at The San Francisco School and about to be married and start a family, now with 36 and 37 years at the school traveling with our 30 and 26 year old daughters.
There was a billboard in the airport with a quote from Joseph Campbell: “Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.” (And then its cynical punchline— “Make this your sacred space—advertise here!) I believe Kerala offers me that possibility, a place that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I know enough to know that sacred space and God’s country has no border and passport stamp, that it is anywhere and everywhere at once where we live well. But still some places help us remember that more than others.