The backwaters of Kerala

Yes, amazing as it may seem, I took the kingfisher picture myself. Writing up my blog will have to wait a while though because the heat doesn’t seem to be doing my joint pain much good and I’m really not very well. Grahame has been amazing and. thanks to him, I have been able to see a great deal of the treasures of Southern India. Home the day after tomorrow.

(Completed later)

Our final stop in Tamil Nadu was the lovely little rock shrine of Vivekananda at Kanyakumari, Southernmost tip of India. Here, on a small island accessed by a continuous shuttle of visitor-bearing boats, stands the fifty meter statue of Tamil philosopher/poet Thiruvalluvar. So pushy and cavalier in their use of the lifejackets were these particular visitors that I’m afraid I mistook them for pilgrims and this for another religious site.

No; it turns out that the author of the Tirukural lived sometime between the 3rd and the 1st century BC at about the same time as the ancient Greeks were writing about the pearl fisheries of Cape Comorin, as it was then called. He bequeathed a substantial collection of writings on such subjects as nobility, social obligations, pleasure and self-control to be studied by scholars from across the known world ever since. Interestingly, it appears to have been translated into Latin before the British got hold of it and bares a number of resemblances to the works of Confucius.

Down here where the great oceans meet we visited both quiet churches and noisy temples (where Grahame got his shirt off at last) but missed the tsunami monument before heading out West towards the state border. Just before leaving I disappeared from a chai stop into a nearby “Woman Only Police Station”. Grahame was a little bit annoyed to find himself left holding the tea cups but it was just too good a chance to miss. India is often in the news (both nationally and internationally) for crimes against women but in a country of this size it would be possible to find hundreds of examples of just about any crime you care to name so any opportunity to find out something first hand would be really special.

Despite my sudden and unheralded appearance, I was admitted to see the Inspector in charge. Her staff were indeed all female, one heavily pregnant under her uniform sari, and the “clients” were women and girls of various ages who looked up at me from the benches with surprise but no apparent hostility. Unfortunately my photo does not show the badge in sufficient focus to recall her name but the O.I.C. was happy to tell me a little of her work. There are over a hundred other such stations in the state and they were set up to provide a safe environment for women to come to talk about such subjects as dowry harassment, sexual offences and domestic violence. And come they do; a steady stream of much the same type of complaint as would be experienced in any other democratic country (with perhaps more emphasis on manipulation of finances).

Of course, it can always be argued that the most oppressed women and trafficked girls are unable to access such a service but at least here it is, advertised in plain sight for all to see. I didn’t want to take up too much of my host’s valuable time but, as well as commiserating over the difficulties of combining motherhood with a police career, we did touch on the subjects of religion and caste. I wasn’t at all surprised (after all, I’ve done this sort of work too) to discover that women presenting with this type of problem are pretty much evenly distributed across the spectra and that often in real life a woman’s cultural background is the least of her worries.

Leaving Tamil Nadu was an important event in that it was marked by the disappearance of the ubiquitous posters of Amma or the mother, the toad-like Jayalalithaa Jayaram, former starlet and survivor of multiple corruption scandals to become Chief Minister of State for twenty years (and counting). The leftist leanings of the South appear to have fused with an almost religious fervour to render this grinning, multi-chinned millionairess immune from any attempts to unseat her.

Grahame has visited Kerala before and I have a longstanding appointment to visit at some later stage with my friend Sunil so it wasn’t really supposed to be on our itinerary for this trip. But it was either leave from Trivandrum or head all the way back to Chennai for an international flight; hence our brief visit to the backwaters, elephant ride and fabulous kingfisher photographs. This is actually the capital of Kerala so I’m afraid, tired as we were, some city sightseeing was going to be obligatory.

The deities of the South must have heard my prayers though, because Padmanabhaswamy temple was closed to non-Hindus and we reached the centre of town just in time for the last admission of the day to the Kuthira Malika or Mansion of the Horses. This beautiful 19th century building was conceived as the royal palace of the Maharajas of Travancore and sumptuously constructed and decorated in a slightly Europeanised version of the local style. Much as I loved the multi-terraced roofs with their hundreds of supporting carved horses and as gorgeous as the chandeliers and elephant tusk throne were to see, it was the annexed museum of family history which most captured my imagination.

After three hundred years in power, this princely family now has only a titular authority in this fiercely left-wing state but claim ancestry back through the previous dynasties to the Kingdom of Ay, contemporaries of the Pallava. Unsurprisingly, given these aristocratic credentials they certainly flourished under the British. Attempting to out-glitter the rulers of Rajasthan for conspicuous consumption, the old photographs show processions of horse-drawn carriages, gilded ballrooms, visiting dignitaries and sleepy faced debutants but also recall the far-sighted modernisation that laid the foundation for one of the most prosperous states in India.

And, of course, I do hope to return.

Postscript June 2015: It appears I have done Mama J someting of an injustice. It was she who pioneered the opening of All-Woman Police Stations thirty years ago and Tamil Nadu has led the field where others have sometimes been reluctant to follow. Believe it or not Delhi has been one of the slowest regions to introduce the service. (It doesn’t mean she hasn’t lined her pockets with millions though)  

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