In a small alley in Kochi, Kerala, I am sitting at a table, outside, and I’ve just ordered a tea from the café nearby looking for a taste of Kerala, India. The sun has just set on the backwaters and the small hidden cafe, in an exceptionally quiet residential area, is abuzz with an Indian pop music. On the other side of the street, several men from the same family chat and laugh. It’s the end of a hot and humid day. A man in his forties, who sports a mustache and serious look on his face, tries to teach English to his son. The kid is small, and everyone calls him “Baba”. He runs from his side of the street to mine, and asks incomprehensible questions in an imaginary language to some of the customers of the café, also sitting outside.
Taste of Kerala, India
I order a kingfish curry. Fresh, spicy, the dish is very fragrant. In a fish broth garnished with peppers, turmeric, curry leaves, allspice, piri-piri and coconut oil, floats a chunk of braised tuna. Although all these flavors are robust, they are all well represented and counterbalance each other, a taste of Kerala. The dish is served with rice – like all the dishes of every meal in India.
After only a few minutes, I’m done with my dinner, and I resume reading my book. It’s not long before Baba steals my spoon, causing his uncle to lecture him immediately – and all of a sudden, a breaker jumps and the whole block is left in the dark. Electricity’s gone. And it’s at that point in time that Southern India really moved me.
From my seat, I see the small family: Baba the hyperactive, which now pretends to drive his dad’s moped; one of his uncles looking after him; another uncle rushing inside to get candles. The grandfather pulls an old cell phone out of his pocket and plays an old Indian song. The small house only has a front door and a tin roof. Inside, an icon of Shiva presides over a multicolored blanket that serves as a separator between the two rooms. The icon and the blanket also sport the only colors of the house: outside and inside, the walls are white and dotted with timeless grime. On the other side, the decor of the café is rather nice: bamboo tables, wooden chairs and sofas.
Having looked right, then left, I look up, and from my seat, I see the stars. And the eternal Indian chaos died for a few minutes when the power went out. But Granddaddy and his old phone now spews a song sung by a woman with a particularly shrill voice; the speaker spits and Baba asks me if I’m tired, in proper English this time around.
An auto-rickshaw passes in the lane. Dad shouts, “Baba, car coming”; he playfully leans against the wall; the headlight of the vehicle blinds everyone; an employee steps out of the café to get my empty dishes. I ask another tea and the waiter nods, shaking his head sideways, as only South Asians do; then he turns back and points out that there is no hot water.
The aroma of garam masala, a taste of Kerala from a neighboring house takes over the faint stagnant smell of urine that occupied the alley since my arrival; mosquitoes out all of a sudden discover and attack my calves ferociously. Worried French tourists wonder out loud if the power will soon return; Baba’s father takes the empty chair in front of me and offers me a cigarette…
And the power comes back, the stereo of the café in Kochi, Kerala immediately cries out the latest Maroon 5 hit, my tea is coming, and in my mind, India’s imaginary face adds another wrinkle.