Today we took the short hop up to Fort Cochin. This colonial-era city sits at the pinnacle of the long land spit that Allapey straddled behind us, providing it with its unique position between sea and river. Fort Cochin – invariably known as just ‘Cochin’ – is divided between the noisy, bustling new city of the mainland and the quieter, old city that lies across the straits. A half-hourly boat chugs and splutters across the wide swathes of salt water that separate the two. Visitors step from the searing sunshine of the wide river and into the shady alleyways and yellow-fronted dwellings of a truly European-feeling town, devoid of all the standard pollution, noise and road vehicles the plagues any typical Indian city.
The scarcity of motor vehicles in this part of Cochin emphasises the lazy feel of the place. Local kids loiter up and down the narrow path that skirts the water’s edge, while other more industrious types sell ice-creams and small trinkets from stalls under the grand old trees that dot the plazas and courtyards of the town. These gnarled giants hold a ubiquitous presence here, spreading their enormous branches far and wide over the surrounding area, so that they provide almost total shade cover in some areas. From time to time, I would find myself peering upwards in confusion when my stroll along the cool padestrian avenues would be interrupted by a rare patch of hot yellow sunlight. It was sometimes unclear from which tree-trunk the branches that provided this cover actuallly originated from; to trace the long, spindly branches up to their point of origin often requires a twist of the neck right back until I would notice that the immense umbrella originated at some out-of-sight point over a far wall or across the street.
The shady trees and quiet alleyways all contribute to the Mediterranean influence that the Portuguese brought when they settled here. Feeling not far separated from Galle’s old town, the city is dotted with old colonial churches, whitewashed and iconic against the dirtier tones of the surrounding buildings. Christianity remains alive and kicking in India and, despite being numerically dwarfed by the number of practicing Hindus and Muslims, remains India’s third largest religion with almost 30 million followers. Indeed, it is believed to have been introduced as long ago as 50AD in Kerala by Thomas the Apostle and has since been reinforced by the various colonial settlers and preachers that have arrived here. The churches that their work has produced provide a cool, quiet sanctuary during the hot days as much as an insight into the cultural composition of South India.
However, the church in India – as with anywhere the world over – remains as eager to approach the man in the street as it is to attract worshippers through its doors. On one of our wanderings amongst the chaotic houses and towering trees, we came across one of the dusty recreation spaces that was hosting a rally of some sort; hundreds of plastic chairs were laid out before a raised platform and a PA system, upon which a line of men and women stood, calmly addressing their audience between bouts of cumbersome silence, punctuated only by the breathing of the speaker as papers are rustled, wired untangled and microphones passed along lines of people. The church was attempting to engage the man on the street. Unfortunately, there seemed little interest, with a mere scattering of audience members across the wide array of neatly laid out plastic chairs. The speaker was forced to compete in both volume and interest with the football match that was playing out to one side. The church appeared to command the attention of middle-aged males, while the beautiful game near by appeared to command the attention of everyone else.
Another characteristic feature of Old Cochin is the catapult-like wooden structures that jut out over the water that surrounds the peninsula. These rickety-looking objects are called spider nets and are based upon a Chinese design that was brought over with the first traders who arrived here. They appear, at first glance, to consist of a mounted splint of beams that stand erect at a sharp angle, stretching a set of taught ropes into the water in front of them whilst a group of fishermen peer at the dark water beneath their protruding wooden perches. Periodically, with a hearty cry, these men dash two abreast up the large protruding beams on the land-end of the structure, sending the entire groaning, creaking structure into flux. As the weight pivots over the centre axis- slowly at first, with some visible stress on the wood, and then in one smooth motion- the sea-end of the structure flies up from beneath the water to reveal a large net that teems with black, wriggling fish. The score of cries from the men and the groaning of the wood, is followed by a woosh of the net leaving the water and the soft slap-slapping of the day’s catch struggling and squirming. Heavy in the slanted angle of the wide, slack nets, the aquatic bounty that has just emerged from the Arabian Sea looks very much like it is caught in the depths of a large spider’s web.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of Cochin, in and amongst the enormous trees, saintly-white churches and bizarre arachnid fishing devices, are the abundance of Hammer-and-Sickle flags that fly from every telegraph pole. This startling addition to the visual identity of Cochin is one of Kerala’s most unique historical components: One year after the state of Kerala was created in 1956, it made history by being the first in the world to democratically elect a Communist government. Despite long-existing Socialist sympathies throughout the previous decades that were intimately linked with the Indian Nationalist movement that agitated against British colonial rule, Kerala remains the most prominent example of such experiments having been attempted within existing democratic frameworks. Although there now exists a greater political variety and economic proliferation since the early days of Communism in Kerala, the legacy from these years is a spectacular set of statistical advantages for Kerala’s inhabitants.
The simplest illustration of this legacy is Kerala’s Human Development Index, which is the highest in India. This measure incorporates such statistics as the Keralan literacy rate (approximately 95%), average number of children per family (approximately 1.5), life expectancy (approximately 73 years) and various other measures of any individual’s life chances. Altogether, the picture is one of a state enjoying remarkable standards relative to other Indian states, whose Human Development Index ranges from not far below Kerala’s 0.81 score down to Bihar’s 0.44. To give that range some perspective, Kerala enjoys the same Human Development Index score as the United Arab Emirates, Malta or Estonia, which are 31st, 32nd and 33rd in the world rankings respectively. If Kerala were to be awarded its own place in the world rankings, it would rank at number 34. Britain, with a 0.84 score, ranks just eight places above, at 26.
To translate these dry statistics into immediate human terms, however, is less easy. There was a distinct sense of poverty and squalor when we arrived in India from Sri Lanka. I remember having just arrived in Kanniyakumari (after encountering the enormous rotting dog) we walked through the littered, crowded back streets near the harbour on our search for our hotel, where I was struck by how much poorer and India seemed to be compared to Sri Lanka. Although Kanniyakumari was actually just inside the state of Tamil Nadu, Kerala still feels like that same India: there is still poverty, begging and disease. I remembered the mountains of litter next to half-built, abandoned construction projects in Trivandrum, as well as the man with elephantitis on the train. Even if I could hope to offer some kind of abstract comparison between the life chances of the Indian people around me then, the real gravity of Kerala’s achievements will have to wait until Alec and I encounter the full force of India’s squalor, wherever that may exist. Every city has felt different and there are many cities ahead of us. Where Tamil Nadu felt dry, dusty crowded and vibrant, Kerala has felt greener, more tranquil and altogether more beautiful, which must certainly play some role in the comparisons that arise.