Something fishy in the synagogue

As promised, below you will find today’s edition of that splendid old subcontinental newspaper, The New Gabrielinindian Express. Meanwhile, my latest glissando of photos can be found here.

HISTORY—Kerala and her Jews: kippah and dhoti IN!

About 30km beyond the city of Cochin lies a village called Chennamangalam. And in the dark dark village there’s a dark dark shul, which lies at the end of endless narrow twists and turns, most of which contained patches of scrubby grass proudly marked out as belonging to the Kerala Forest Department. The synagogue is 800 years old, and is attached to a Jewish cemetery containing India’s oldest tombstone.

We roused the Custodian from his tea-break, but it’s not clear what he was taking a break from, since the interior didn’t look as if it had seen either a cleaner or a visitor for years. Dusty boxes and miscellaneous planes of wood were strewn everywhere, but there was also a very visible ark and a series of exhibition panels.

Once we’d finished there, we walked along to the cemetery. The route took us down a narrow path between a prayer-calling mosque and its madrassah (a local layabout who’d attached himself to us helpfully explained, “This is Muslim synagogue,”) from which we acquired quite a following of the area’s children, including three giggling, veiled schoolgirls who provided the perfect atmosphere for visiting an ancient Jewish graveyard! Our self-appointed guide indicated one particularly ornate plot and solemnly informed us, “King of the Jews lives here.” Mum tried to ‘pay’ him 10 Rupees to buzz off, but he wanted more, preferably enough to buy a cup of tea. So chutzpah clearly lives on in the neighbourhood.

The next day, we visited Cochin’s Jew Town, full of hard-selling shopkeepers with intriguingly irritating phrases such as, “Please, I only want the pleasure of your eyes,” and, “Ah, you want see my paradise?” Several people had so little sense of irony as to stop us in the street and try to shepherd us towards shops labelled, “Hassle free.”

The ticket-seller at the Pardesi Synaogue, Yaheh, is a very sour (but very Jewish-looking) woman, apparently the last local Jew of child-bearing age; she refuses to marry her cousin and “spends her days refusing requests to have her picture taken.” You can see her in my photo to the right! Inside the ornate shul was an completely false exhibition attempting to prove that the White Jews of Kerala arrived before the Black Jews, and that the synagogue is the oldest in the Commonwealth despite being over 30 years younger than that in Chennamangalam. An official-looking man (uniquely?) attired in a kippah and a dhoti strode to the centre of the room, called out, “OK, listen,” and then commenced a highly informative spiel with the words, “This place is called Cochin Synagogue.”

Our next stop was another abandoned synagogue in a different part of town: actually, not quite abandoned; a local Jew ran an aquarium and gardening business from the premises. The shop’s back room had angling supplies stacked along one wall, and a magnificent 13th-century ark standing against another!

POLITICS—Fat and Communist: an inhuman interest story

Kerala is perhaps the only place in the world to be governed by democratically-elected Communists. The Left Democratic Front is now contesting local elections, rather noisily as it happens, with Jeeps blaring out revolutionary slogans around town, canvassing barges in the backwaters, even a few floating posters. All their candidates seem to be very podgy, though, in a distinctly un-Communist way.

One time, we sat down for a drink in a nice cafe, and our tranquility was shattered by a passing Communist Party canvassing expedition: two rickshaws laden with speakers and red flags rolled past, spouting political ditties in Malayalam, followed by a Popemobile-like red vehicle on which reposed the chubby, waving figure of the Communist candidate. One vegetable market in town seemed to be extremely unionised, and displayed pleasant painted portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and other savoury characters.

We also went to explore a shopping mall built in 2006, with glittering exterior, but utterly empty of shops! Called the Revenue Tower, it had been opened by a local politician with the splendid name of Dominic Presentation (his election poster is pictured to the right). My dad wondered how he came across this title, and a little Internet research soon provided an answer: he was born to Felix and Rosemary Presentation!

SPORT—Cricket World Cup: now it’s all overs

The semi-final between India and Pakistan was very much viewed as “the real final” by locals, who intended to destroy Kashmiri shops and Indian cricket-players’ houses in the event that they were humiliated. As it happens, they weren’t, and the Pakistani team must be kicking themselves, deprived of the 25 acres of land their government had promised each of them in the event of a victory! Throughout the game, Bennett the Driver was constantly answering telephone queries from driver buddies who were staying in accommodation without television! He spent the evening watching the match through the window of a TV shop; the owner really wanted to close up, but was afraid of being smashed into if he so irritated the fifty spectators gathered on the street outside!

The actual final was a little more low-key while it went on, though the subsequent media coverage was huge. The Indian players received magnificent rewards. They now all own a Honda car and a lifetime free 1st-class-air-conditioned rail ticket. Most of their home states awarded them around 140,000 quid of taxpayers’ money, though one meanie state government decided to merely “felicitate” the players. Children all over the place, meanwhile, were playing cricket on every spare scrap of land. On an old parade ground in front of India’s oldest church, in Cochin, three simultaneous games were going on, with the fielders generally covering all of them! (I don’t really know what this means, but my dad said it so it must be true.)

CULTURE—Kathakali dance leaves one feeling green

One evening we went to watch a performance of traditional Keralan Kathakali dance, a form of ballet with much play made of facial expression and hand-gestures. The story was quite vague, but involved a god’s son slashing the breasts of a demoness; most of the amusement came from watching the intensive make-up process for the production. One of the two dancers did his own face; another lay down asleep for around forty minutes while a minion applied green paint to him.

BUSINESS—Sales talk: how to make customers jeer at you

Rickshaw drivers touting for business are always quite irritating. If one wants a rickshaw, there’s never a shortage. It doesn’t need to be advertised. However, one guy had the particularly interesting tactic of simply calling out, “50 Rupees!” without the slightest idea where we wanted to go. I was all in favour of insisting he drive us to Delhi for that price, but in the end we only went to the local boat-jetty.

One time, mum was desperate for the toilet, but we failed to find any loos or cafes by simply walking the streets. Eventually we entered a modern-looking business. The man behind the counter claimed that there were no toilets. We pointed out that it was a hotel and cunningly saw through his tissue of convincing lies. He called his manager over, and they conversed, then refused us access to a toilet outright. They claimed it was against the rules, and even refused bribe money. Mum asked where she could find a loo; they vaguely suggested that she try the High Court building. Very helpful people.

Later, we got into another rickshaw, the driver of which asked if we would do him a “favour” and allow ourselves to be led into a shop where he has an arrangement which involves them giving him one litre of petrol for every gullible tourist he drags in off the streets.

We also visited the lobby of the Koder Hotel, an old converted Jewish house. A party of Russian tourists was just arriving (if only it had been a Party of Russians the local Commies would have been so pleased!) One old man carelessly strode straight into the indoor swimming pool, fully dressed and carrying his luggage. Didn’t think that sort of thing happened in real life!

We also stopped in one cafe which had a glowing review from some cricket player pinned on the wall. This included the splendid phrase, “I came here with my daughter and two son in law who are both geeks,” the last word having been corrected by hand with the insertion of a letter ‘r’!

LIFESTYLE—Houseboats are the new Northern Line

So yes, OK, we had a luxury houseboat for a night. And yes, OK, it included two bedrooms, air-conditioning, two sun-decks, a dining-room, a TV and DVD player, several pirated Superman movies, showers, a captain, an engineer and a chef named Radish. Fine. But most entertaining were the comments other guests had left in the log-book. One person managed to fit about nine complaints into the tiny space, one of which was, “There should be more English music available on-board.” Now that’s what I call tolerance!

One antique shop we came across had the unusual distinction of tempting us in, partly because not one person stood on the street bawling at us, but mainly because of the ludicrous size of its wares. It sported a 106ft longboat designed to be rowed by over 65 people, plus full-size temple statues of gods and a wooden temple chariot in full working condition. Most of these were only available to Indians because exporting such valuable monstrosities is banned.

In Cochin, which is a fairly old-fashioned, colonial-type place, we were strolling one night when we came upon a Jeep labelled Mad Dogs Trust, a gathering of perfectly sane-looking dogs, a basket of tidbits and a grey-haired Englishwoman, wearing wellingtons, holding a lamp in one hand and a stick in the other, who gravely wished us good evening. How very 1940s!

TRAVEL—Which came first: tree or bathroom?

One of our hotels (or ‘homestays’ as they prefer to be known, still less unbearably twee than the chain of “non-hotel hotels” I’ve had the misfortune to catch sight of) was owned by a professional Indian photographer in absence, and managed by a Finnish woman who retired to the place along with her English husband. Not only did our room include its own private swimming pool, and for that matter we were the only people staying in the establishment, but our bathroom was completely unique in my experience in that it had a tree growing through it.

COMMENT—Honour killings: a moral conundrum

I was somewhat surprised to read in the ‘New Indian Express’ that the national parliament is “considering” a bill which would “bring honour killing onto a par with murder.” The problem is that one particular state opposes the measure, although the others all “support stern measures against honour killing.” Lovely. Meanwhile, I was completely bemused to read a passage in another article detailing how young women were being “eveteased by goons,” and no less astonished to discover that a convicted murder was appealing against his sentence of life imprisonment plus a fine of 1000 Rupees (about 15 quid). So harsh!

Apparently, police also confiscated millions of Rupees from a man who had withdrawn them from his own bank account, on the pretext that he “could not explain the reason.” In fact, he did explain that it was for his daughter’s wedding party, and showed them a copy of an invitation, but for some reason which wasn’t quite clear they still refused to believe this. For some reason which is even less clear, they also seized his car.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom in the pages of India’s print media. The Lonely Hearts column is an opportunity for a few laughs. The adverts are categorised by race, and most list the qualifications and salary of their subject. A few also indicate bizarrely specific requirements, such as, “Only lady doctors need reply.”

EDITORIAL—Tour of duty nearly over

All newspapers hate to report bad news, but it’s my sad duty to reveal that this time next week, I shall be sitting in Surbiton, outraged that taxi-drivers refuse to haggle and peeved (a word I picked up from my favourite local rag!) that a good meal costs more than 90p. Before that, however, I’ll have to detail the story of my exciting foray onto historic Indian railways, and also recount a particularly entertaining Fawlty Towers moment at a Taj hotel. Tata for now!

One Response to Something fishy in the synagogue

  1. Lester Wagman says:

    Was “Tata for Now” an intentional automotive pun?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: