Wednesday 24 January 2007


The city
I'm very relieved that everybody uses this shortened version, as Thiruvananthapuram would be another impossible mouthful.

Although this is the capital of Kerala, it is a bit out on a limb at the bottom of the state, and my first impressions were that it was quieter and more orderly than its Tamil Nadu counterparts. Actually it was just too early int he morning for complete lunacy to have set in.

Palace of Padmanabhapuram
Today's project was a visit to the former residence of the local rajas, the Palace of Padmanabhapuram. I'd never make a linguist: writing that was more difficult than remembering a telephone number. I made my way (longer than I estimated) down the hill to the bus station, to take a bus to the palace, some 60 km away. Bad idea. The trip took over two hours and I was squashed up against the window bars, on a seat meant for three skinny women, not three large ones. It is much hotter than in Tamil Nadu, so I was in a bit of a daze when I staggered out of the bus, and made my second wrong decision: to walk the "ten or 15 minutes" (Rough Guide) to the palace.

It was worth the trip, even if my account is shorter than the original one (two computer shutdowns and one screen-freeze ago). Built in the 16th to 18th centuries, it is apparently one of the best preserved examples of Keralan architecture. The distinguishing features were the steeply sloping roofs, which I now spot elsewhere here, with a distinctive shape of tiles, and the magnificent carved wood of the doors, windows, columns and walls of the shady galleries that surrounded the royal rooms. I was told this was jackwood which is harder than teak. It had a lovely hew and gave the whole palace a warm, albeit extremely dark, ambience. I'm glad I saw it, even if I cant think of anything more interesting to tell you.

Curiously there seemed to be a few English here - almost the first I have come across. I suspect from their age and manner they had come from some distinctly upmarket establishment... Back at the bus station, the other foreigners were the usual Germans, a couple and two girls inappropriately dressed.

Nightmarish bus journeys
I had hoped that the return journey would have been easier, as this was supposed to be an express bus. Instead, l'inferne.

The German couple and I struggled through the pushing crowd, and I just managed to get onto the bottom step as the bus moved off. Somehow I was squeezed in and the door was shut. The first few miles I clung onto the step rail, as the bus jerked its way forward. When you are standing like this you become more aware of how often buses have to jolt to a sudden halt as some other vehicle swerves across their bows. No sooner had I edged up off the steps than a group of men with huge drums climbed on board, so for the next few miles I had a drum rolling on my left foot. Then magic, a young girl offered me her seat, which I accepted with more gratitude than guilt.

It was not to be. Suddenly the bus stopped. We all had to climb out and wait for the next bus. When it arrived, it was already full, and the crowd did its usual surging forward. Somehow the Germans got on, though the man was still clinging to the bottom step when the bus left. I decided to be more assertyive when the next bus arrived, but there were women behind me who were even more aggressive. I only just made it, helped by the conductor of the original bus, who shoved me forward. Once again, a nasty time standingm and this time I only got a seat for the last few kilometres into Trivandrum.

At the time I occupied myself thinking, this is like being at the dentists - it will eventually stop. Looking back on it, I suppose I feel quite proud that I survived - Ive not done a trip like that for 40 years. And it is true, that journeys give a lot of time for people watching, even if much of it is watching their elbows. Incidentally I noticed that the women on the first bus were all at the front, with the men at the back, but the second half of the journey, such divisions were impossibleL the sardines remained where they were squashed, with no movement up or down the bus.

English on its way out?
The other thing I noticed was that yet again, nobody spoke English (Keralans speak Malayayam, rather than the more ancient Tamil). Just as I had been struck by the absence of French in Pondicherry, so I get the feeling that English might be disappearing in former British colonies. Good to lose the colonial trappings? Well, yes. But what does it doo for a nation where most people speak Hindi, but where significant parts of the country speak other languages, such as Tamil, Malayam and Gujeratyi? I wonder whether the lack of a common language serves to further separate states and cultures. It's not unlike the situation in Nigeria when we lived there, where English was indeed the language of the oppressors, but it was the only neutral common one.

Back in Trivandrum I first called in on what Rough Guide described as the main English language bookshop. In a city with at least one university I had expected something a little better than the curious, random collection I found up a dark, steep staircase. Authors like Bertrand Russell, Doris Lessing, A S Barratt, shared shelves with Harry Potter, Jeffrey ARcher, and there were books by someone called Danielle Steel - by the yard. What they didnt have in stock was the book I had come in for, a novel by a famous Keralan writer, Arundhati Roy.

The second abortive bit of shopping was to find somewhere that sells top-up cards for my sim card, bought in Chennai. I have been trying unsuccessfully for days and now I am told that I should buy another sim card (less than 100 rupees_ but it will only work while Im in Kerala. It's crazy, the whole mobile phone market appears to be run on state lines.

So I gave up on that, and tried, again without success, to find a shop that burnt DVDs rather than CDS. I have been gaily snapping away, have filled the cards for my camera, and had hoped not to have to carry a library of CDs around with me.

And the final irritation has been to swelter away in a cyber cafe noted as the best in town, only to lose much of what I had written as the computer flickered and died on me. Ive moved to another computer and am now saving every few minutes!

Anyhow, I must stop now, as tomorrow I move on from Trivandrum, for the beachside bit of my trip. I have decided against Kovalam, despite various friends saying how lovely it was, as the guide books all say that the past couple of years has seen a dramatic increase in hotel building and charter flight bookings. One referred to it as 'Kovalam del sol'. I fear I have missed the boat in experiencing an idyllic solitary beach hideawayL Kerala is following in Goa's footsteps. We will see when I get to a smaller place, Varkala, tomorrow.

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