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Malayalam Hymns

I am going to pause in my journey of scheduling posts and jump straight to the now. The clock has just passed 12 here and it is officially Christmas Day in Kerala. Merry Christmas! It is the first time that I have spent Christmas abroad and we could not have picked a more diverse place to celebrate it than here. If you are reading this from any Western country, then you will probably already have your plans laid out and your Christmas tree stacked. The only trees that exist here are of the palm variety and it is actually hot outside…it doesn’t feel like a traditional festive season at all.

Knowing that the day is about to come, let’s have a chat about Christmas Eve. I should say that as a family we do not celebrate Christmas in the form of gift-giving or eating a large meal that means you fall asleep at 4pm. However, we have been going to Midnight Mass since I was 6 and we always try to read a bit of the Bible or learn a bit more about Jesus – yes, we are weird enough to celebrate it as Christ’s birthday and try to open our minds a bit.

The picture of a church and hymns has been etched in my memory ever since I can remember. My Dad has always had respect for Christ and believes that the levels of his sacrifice transcends religion – it is something that we can all take something from. Therefore the agenda was to find somewhere where we could attend Mass. What transpired was finding a church in the town that we have just arrived in, Thekkady (I will get to how we got here later on), and working out when it was a good time to come to the Church.

It turns out that they don’t really do Midnight Mass here. It came as a surprise considering 50 percent of the population of Kerala is Christian, which is possibly the highest proportion of the faith across India. If we were going to celebrate Christmas, then it was probably going to be best to do it here. However, the service consisted of a number of plastic chairs in the courtyard of the church, with the service starting at 9:30 and finishing before midnight (I don’t understand why) and it consisted of a number of hymns completely in Malayalam with a homage to Santa Claus on a banner in the background. We lasted about 45 minutes before we realised that our seats were probably best left to those who actually understood what was going on.

Having said that, it was not a complete washout. The hotel/heaven we are staying in at the moment, Greenwoods, is a small village in the middle of the bustling town covered in greenery and blessed with tranquillity. It reminds me very much of the university in Mumbai. I will get back to the hotel situation in the post on Boxing Day, but for now let’s focus on this resort. For the festive season, they had put on a full Christmas dinner combined with a cultural show to highlight the fantastic talent that existed in Thekkady.

Everything was utterly marvellous. From a beautiful ensemble of classical South India music to the pounding passion of the local drum band and tribal dance, it was a real insight into the reality of Kerala. There was no commercialisation (other than a creepy Santa costume) and it was all outside in the open, surrounded by the beautiful ecosystem of trees and flowers that they had created for guests. It was nothing like we had every experienced before, but we felt comfortable in our skins and Christmas jumpers. It felt much more like a celebration than at home.

When you do the same thing every year, it is easy to lose the excitement. Hell, if I was sitting in my living room watching Shrek 3 for the seventeenth time after a big Christmas meal, then I imagine I wouldn’t feel inspired to open my laptop, let alone write anything down. But I guess that is a missed opportunity even if you don’t celebrate the festive period in the same way that everyone else does. Maybe doing something different might open your eyes to what else is out there.

I am not saying you can jump on a flight here tomorrow (or today – the timezones are still a mystery to me) but maybe there is something back home you can do to get in the Christmas spirit. Maybe it starts with Jesus, I don’t know.

However you are celebrating, all of us are wishing you a warm holiday season from South India! I only hope the weather where you are is as gorgeous as it is out here.


The Very Last Adventure

Mumbai is a completely different kettle of fish. It took us 12 hours (yes, 12 hours) to drive from Baroda to the busiest city in the world in our not-so-little campervan. I am starting to get a little tired of these long car journeys bouncing on the road, but there isn’t much more travelling to do. Along the way there was some beautiful natural landscapes that made the crucial few hours of the journey more than bearable.

You can hear Mumbai before it comes into view. The sound of horns and engines as the traffic signals the start of the city boundaries. The natural light of the sky gives way to headlamps and neon billboards that line the way like road signs. There isn’t a place in the world that could rival this, as well as being inundated with shacks selling some of the most delicious food you will ever eat, it sits near some of the biggest slums that this country has to offer. India is nothing if not a place of contrast.

Once you get past all of the advertisements and lights, you realise how well structured the city actually is. To house 21 million people is no mean feat, and regardless of the fact that the place is a huge traffic jam, it is fairly well spaced out. Compared to other places that we have seen, from a first glance, Mumbai seems to be a pleasant and welcome surprise.

This is the first time that we are staying in a lavish hotel as well. The Lalco Residency has floors of apartment style hotel rooms so that we can stay together as a family. It is the first time since we left that we have sat down on sofas together, as just the five of us, and talked about our day. I suppose we sometimes forget in all of the running around that this could be our very last family holiday. The last time that we sit around a coffee table and decide what the next day will bring.

It is not always easy to sit in a luxury apartment knowing how difficult it is outside this walls. I make no bones about the fact that we are living in a cocoon that we have built for ourselves. It has been really interesting to speak to and meet so many people already that have shown us that it is not the money that we have that brings them any more pleasure than our company. In fact, as much as many of you might think that having a few bucks is helpful here, what you get for free is far more valuable.

We are going to enjoy ourselves no question. This isn’t a hollow enterprise, neither is it a spiritual epiphany. It is a holiday. But we are always mindful and grateful for what we have. My parents have brought me up with the intention of sharing this wealth (whether materially or otherwise) with everyone that has the capacity to receive it. You cannot take it with you.

It is now 2am and I fear that any more writing, or thinking, will lead to rambling so I will stop here. If this appears to be the very last adventure, then we might as well go out with a bang.

Free Wifi

The lack of connectivity is starting to get to me. I am becoming more and more sceptical of these “Free Wifi” signs that I see outside hotels, because the connection that we have here is very slow. It is almost worse than having nothing at all, because you are tempted to use it and then are frustrated by the fact that you can’t do what you need to do. Part of the problem is that I was hoping to update this blog every single day and now writing more and more posts in retrospect, and then having to schedule them for the future, is quite demotivating.

I am so used to writing them down in a book, as I don’t ever carry my laptop with me, and so I never usually feel the need to press publish. This time it is different. I am making mental notes of everything as we move forward and trying to capture them as best as I can from mind to keyboard. Now Mum knows that I am writing the online journal, she is reminding me to write things down and telling me I need to remember this and that. She’s right of course, but I am trusting my brain to remember only the things that I want to matter when I look at these in a few years.

The accounts of my old visits to India still sit in camera reels and old diaries. I haven’t read back over them yet, more out of laziness than anything else – but a part of me wants the rawness of the first trip to stay with me. I was a frightened little boy deciding to take this mammoth country on my own – it seems impossible now that I even conceived I could do that. It wasn’t a heat of the moment decision, and everything was planned out, but it was still a huge challenge.

I never used to be good at things like that. My brother was always the one that took these leaps of faith – by the time I had set off to India, he had already conquered half the world on his own and much of it in a much more spontaneous and braver fashion than myself. He was and is a traveller in the true sense of the world, and some of it is starting to rub off on me.

I don’t mean it in a negative or cliché way. He chose not to travel with a backpack, whereas I found it extremely useful. We both volunteered first and then choosed to stay on – for me, I just needed an excuse to get out here and see this place on my own first. And then it just continued. Once I realised that I could survive on my own, the wanderlust decided to make a home in my head. And for the last few years, it has been amazing to find my place somewhere that never really meant anything to me before I became an adult.

However, the real truth is, it is nice to be looked after for once. I don’t really remember what it is like not to stress out about where my passport is, whether I have enough money to eat for the next few days and making sure that I have all of my valuables with me at all times. I don’t have to worry about bunk beds or budget meals or bugs. Everything is catered for and someone else is doing all of the worrying. I know it sounds selfish, but whilst exhilarating at the time, this sole responsibility is extremely tiring and it does burn you out.

The one thing I don’t take for granted on this trip is making decisions as a group and not having to worry about getting mugged. Don’t get me wrong, I have always made good friends when out on my own, but it is always a thought in the back of your head. You can never totally trust anyone when you are travelling – you have to be smart. However, being here with my family, and having that level of trust, means that I can have some real thinking time and not have to worry about anything at all.

When my mum said that this was going to be my 21st birthday present, I thought it was wildly expensive and over the top. However, I can see that true relaxation and peace is priceless. Whether or not the wifi is working, I think this is the first time that I have actually heard myself think in years. And connectivity, as well as all of the work that I need to do, is not going to get in the way of that.

A Dozen Or So Lanterns

There are many things about the British influence in India that I find abhorrent. The way that the old Maharaja were treated is one such circumstance that makes me feel sick. The loss of wealth, the pandering, the lack of respect, but most of all, the idea that everything should be made into a theme park. Suprisingly, the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, the venue dedicated for the reception did not live up to any of my preconceptions. It was still lived in (albeit as a hotel – you can’t win them all!), but it was understated, elegant and absolutely beautiful.

Four times the size of Buckingham Palace, it was unmistakably one of the biggest residences I had ever seen. Considering the temple yesterday had absolutely overwhelmed me, I was starting to realise why people choose to get married in India. You don’t need to hire any decorators because every venue is furnished as if it were welcoming royalty. We were dressed like kings and queens when we arrived in the early evening – everyone else seemed to have gone for smart casual – and we went for this-is-the-only-Indian-wedding-we-are-going-to-so-let’s-turn-up outfits. I was told that the suit I was wearing was supposed to be for a lagna; I smiled politely before quickly scurrying away and taking a seat. There is still plenty of time to arrange my marriage. Not today please.

It was the first time that I saw Pooja, the bride and my cousin, at ease. She was spending time with her new husband, walking through the grounds before everyone started to arrive, and it seems like she could finally relax and enjoy herself. The culmination of three weddings in one week had obviously taken their toll. When we bumped into each other during dinner, it was so bizarre to see her as a fully-fledged adult when only a year ago we were traipsing around Mumbai in the early hours, looking for a café that would serve us. She made one of the busiest cities in the world so manageable (and now writing this in retrospect in Mumbai, I am so grateful I got to spend that time with her).

The garden banquet took most of the crowd’s attention. When we were stood outside, there was everything from a live pasta station to a coffee bar being replenished constantly under the lights of a dozen or so lanterns. You can see a glimpse of how it looked in the picture above. My stomach was still recovering so it was a case of window shopping when it came to most of the food. Like the famous Goodness Gracious Me sketch, I ended up with the blandest thing on the menu and a free reign on the desserts. I wasn’t complaining.

As the night started to draw to a close, our Indian wedding seemed to be drawing to an end. I had missed half of the festivities due to illness, had made the most of the wedding and now stood in a groom’s suit at the reception – it was fair to say that it hadn’t been the conventional way to do things. Nevertheless, it was a wedding that I wouldn’t forget soon. It was probably going to be the last time I saw Pooja for a while as she was moving to Malaysia, probably the last Indian wedding I would attend in India, and most probably one of the last that we would attend as a family (that wasn’t hosted by us). A sobering experience in a state that has banned alcohol.

I thought back to the amount of weddings that must have taken place here. The lavish receptions and bountiful food. For over a hundred years, these walls and gardens were the boundaries of so much happiness and hope. I have noted before how assumable marriage is an institution of progression and prosperity – in fact, someone noted that on these occasions that big weddings are inevitably worth it.

Although, finally the confetti hits the floor and it is time to start the rest of your life. Pooja and Eldan will be walking around Paris now enjoying the first steps of theirs, as our own journey continues. The wedding, the reason for our coming, is now over – but this is the start of a new chapter.

This is the start of our holiday.

Reading The (Gujarati) Signs

I learnt Gujarati, my home language, religiously until the age of 11. I remember sitting in a women’s kitchen, with a makeshift whiteboard on the wall to my left, looking down at a tattered textbook that I imagine was probably used by teach her children, leaning on a table that was covered in a thin plastic sheet to prevent the ink from our pens ruining her mahogany table. As I look out the window of this campervan, and try to read the various signs of these shops that we keep passing syllable by syllable, I must admit that those lessons seem to have come in handy.

This will be the third time that I have visited India in the last two years, having never set foot in the country before my 18th birthday. It was more by luck than circumstance that I was able to come in the first place, but this trip is completely different. I can’t remember the last time that we went on a proper family holiday, as both my brother and I have taken the last 6-7 years consecutively to finish our university degrees; but that means that we haven’t been away together as an entire family for nearly a decade.

India seemed the natural choice. My mum, having not been back since Nikhil was a baby (some twenty years ago), has been itching to come back and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. My only cousin out here in Gujarat is finally getting married, which is the only real incentive that she needed to plan out her ideal trip. Only two days in now, and already on the way to our third location it seems like she is determined to make up for lost time. I am less apprehensive than I was before we arrived – having mostly been travelling on my own for the past four or so years – I now feel happier and less stressed knowing that the weight of all this running around is much less heavy and more luxurious than I could afford on my own. There seems to be a lot more luggage though.

After a really stressful couple of months, this feels like the perfect time to start writing again. I wasn’t planning on doing anything like this when I left, which is unusual as I carry a journal with me all the time, but I don’t remember the last time I wrote anything down for me. My diary is always full of appointments, my pads full of seminar notes and my head full of conversations. At some point in the last two years, I just stopped engaging with them all and decided that my responsibilities were more important than my personal development.

Today was the first day in a while that I looked out the window and felt that pang to write. Anyone who writes a blog probably understands the feeling. Reading those signs in Gujarati shot me back into that kitchen in my childhood, my connection with my grandmother (we will get onto this another time) and this big move forward for my family. India has always been about heritage and at this moment, all I want to do is write it down which is fantastically exciting.

This space for my writing has always remained a risk and a source of nervous tension. When I plan what I want to say, it changes at least eight times before the final version is ready. Ironically, I re-wrote that previous sentence a few times before I was happy with it. However, I am going to go back to how it was at the beginning of this journey and write fearlessly. The next month will be the most honest conversation that I have had with anyone who reads this since I started writing as a confused and scared teenager.

I can scarcely remember what it was like to be that 11 year old who sat in the kitchen. Let’s go and find him.