Saturday, 10 December 2011

In Kerala

I'm in Kerala. It's beautiful. The landscape is lush, full of coconut and banana trees, lovely coastline and the atmosphere is a notch or two turned down from the chaos of the rest of India. My approach to being a tourist here has got progressively lazier (it was never that energetic to begin with) so there's not been a massive amount of sightseeing and we've had a very slow-paced time here.

We started off in the capital,Trivandrum. We went there mainly went for the Hay Festival Kerala, which gave us a chance to ponce around with writer-types for a few days and was full of fascinating stuff. The sessions were mainly, though not exclusively, about Indian subjects - Dalit poetry, the role of the  media in 21st century India, an interesting project involving poets from Kerala and Wales translating each other's poems into their respective languages (that one was for you, Dad), plus loads more stuff. There's not a whole lot happening in Trivandrum, which, coupled with my laziness, meant that we didn't do a great deal aside from the festival.

Next up, was an absurdly flash beach resort called Bethsaida, in Pulinkudi near Kovalam, thanks to my sister Hannah contributing a sizeable chunk of the bill as a late birthday present. This gave us a chance to laze by the pool and pretend that we were rich for a few days. So far, so blissfully unbackpacker-y. Then we went to Varkala, a little, touristy town on the coast with a cliff, a nice beach and fierce waves, where we met up with Mike and Chrissy for a few days again. Varkala gave us a chance to drink beer, eat  massive tandoori fishes, lark around outside our nice hotel room with cigars and whiskey, lounge on the beach and read. AFter Varkala there was some fun on the backwaters, firstly in Kollam, where we took a little canoe tour through some narrow waterways, and then in Allepey, where we took a houseboat overnight on the lakes and rivers round there. Now we're in Fort Kochi, where we are seeing out our last days in India. It's lovely here - full of winding little streets, nice cafes and shops, and the sort of place which, when you get to, makes you go 'Aaah, this is nice'.

Kerala is known for it's high literacy rate (90 per cent compared with the national average of 68 percent). It's something that everyone tells you about and of which locals are, understandably, very proud. It's also known for having been largely ruled by a Communist government for the last 50-odd years. And it's known for being more relaxed than other parts of India - a bit less noisy, a bit calmer, a bit cleaner. These factors seem to have contrived to give it a reputation as somewhere a bit more progressive than the rest of India, which, in some areas, is probably true. But, based on bits and bobs I've read and some observations, there's definitely another side to all this.

First thing I read about Kerala was Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which I'd never read before. I really really liked this book, but it's not exactly a glowing portrait of Keralan society. It's a dark, tragic story, and it's really stayed with me throughout our trip here. There've been various points during our time in Kerala where parts of the book have come back to haunt me. Watching an hour's worth of Kathakali dancing in Fort Kochi the other night reminded me of the Kathakali dancers Roy describes in GOSM, who are depressed by the truncated versions of their art that they're forced to perform to disinterested tourists. And that posh resort we stayed in brought to mind the resort near Ayemenem in the book, which is described as a kind of dystopic gated community, which screws up the local ecosystem.

These examples are about the negative impacts of tourism on the region, both on the physical environment and the physce of the locals, and it's something I've been thinking about a lot as I've been going around - in bawdy, tacky Kao San Road, in the ever-developing and increasingly polluted Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, in Angkor Wat's satellite town Siem Reap and now in Kerala. It's probably possible to be a bit too self-hating about this stuff, but there's definitely a colonial element to a lot of the tourism in India (and other developing countries). You just can't get away from it. Our houseboat the other day was a brilliant experience and the staff on board were great - friendly, helpful, efficient. But afterwards Rory and I discussed our mild discomfort with being waited on for 24 hours by these 2 Indian men, who weren't allowed to sleep in the spare bedroom on board and instead had to bed down on the hard couches in the boat's sitting area .Call us self-hating Westerners, but there was an uncomfortable power dynamic here. I've also been reading, on and off, a collection of writings about Kerala called Where the rain is born. I've just finished reading an essay by Pankaj Mishtra, who describes the impact of tourism on the region and his experience of trying to get a room in a hotel at the beach resort Kovalam. He turns out that he can't because, shockingly, the hotel has a 'no Indians' policy. Other essays in the collection talk about the impact of the ever-growing houseboat industry on backwater wildlife. I suppose none of these examples are exclusive to Kerala itself, but being one of the most touristy areas of India now does, I guess, make it stand out a bit.

In his essay, Mishtra also discusses the position of women in Keralan society and another essay in the collection by Ammu Joseph devotes itself to this topic. Again, it's not great news (though some of the info here is slightly out of date and may have changed). Mishtra interviews Arundhati Roy's mother, a headteacher, who is famous in the area for her battle with the Syrian church to allow women a share of their father's property. She is also branded the mother of a hussy, after her daughter gains notoriety for 'living in sin' with her partner in Delhi. In her interview she rails against Keralan society's conservative attitudes to women and their sexuality, blaming the influence of Christianity in the area, as opposed to the more sexually liberated Hinduism (as she sees it).

Ammu Joseph talks about the ongoing restrictions imposed on young girls and women in Kerala and the constant supervision they're under from family members, compared with their brothers who are allowed to go where and see who they like. She also raises the issue of dowry, whereby a bride's family have to stump up a load of cash, gold and other expensive items on their daughter's marriage. The practice of dowry is now illegal in India, but it's still a massive problem and a source of huge stress and anxiety for many families - the high number of female foetuses aborted here is often blamed on it. We had a conversation with the guy who runs our homestay the other day. In many ways, he like to portray himself as more enlightened and westernised than other Indians, but not when it comes to his daughter. He told us at some (painful) length about how closely he watches his 18 year old daughter - standing over her as she checks her facebook, picking her up from university, not allowing her on the bus because she might meet boys on there. He then told us, in no uncertain terms, about how, when it comes to his daughter marrying, he will select someone suitable for her and then 'buy' him, with a nice car, gold and a large amount of money. It was fairly shocking stuff.

As I say, I know none of this is the preserve of Kerala. Obviously these things are issues across and beyond India. Just something to think about...













1 comment:

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