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Pots of rice and milk

March 9, 2009

The streets of Trivandrum are lined with hundreds of thousands of terracotta bowls. They are stacked over and against each other in undulating piles along the footpath so that pedestrians must walk in the streets. And deep among these clay termite mounds are the small sleeping bodies of women or men, who lie guarding their precious empty vessels until tomorrow. Women in beautiful special-occasion saris and jewellry walk up and down the highways, heads high and long-necked – they know well how beautiful they look. And the men know too, sly looking with sneaky peeks as the silks and embroidery shush-shush by, click-clacking on heeled slipper-sandals in a hot heady breeze of coconut-oiled black hair strung with jasmine flowers. All for tomorrow. Above, garlands of flowers and origami hangings made from plaited leaves criss-cross the street. Loudspeakers fight each other with differently distorted music over-crowding the air, competing with the car horns and city din of traders and trawlers. All for tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Pongala. It’s ‘ladies day’. A day for celebrating Shiva’s wife at the Devi temple. Women will come and buy these bowls, fill them with rice and milk and ghee, and cook them on three bricks in the street. “They will pray for a happy life,” our rickshaw driver told us. “Men are not allowed.”

We’ve left Maldives. It was a difficult parting – it’s so beautiful and so easy, and we met some really lovely people. Apparently, last year, a Russian couple staying at one of the resorts refused to leave when the time came. They threw their passports into the sea and ran into the forest. The police had to be called! I have some sympathy with that.

India is difficult. We went to visit Neyyar Dam, an hour from Trivandrum, to trek around the forest with a guide and look for tigers, and to visit the Asiatic lion sanctuary. I wish we hadn’t. The misleadingly named Information Centre, which I phoned five times before our visit to arrange a guide, told us when we arrived that there was “no guide and no trekking available and also no animals”. The lion safari turned out to be a horrible 10 minute trip in a bus during which the driver harassed the poor mangey lions by almost running over their tails, back and forth until one roared. It was shameful to have participated in the whole thing. It’s best if I don’t even describe the Steve Irwin Crocodile Sanctuary there.

But I like Trivandrum. I love it’s fantastic architecture, with art deco rubbing bricks against 1950s, next to glass and steel 90’s, next to 70s – it’s like a small California. There are open sewers and stinky drains, but it’s generally far cleaner than any other Indian city we’ve visited. The people are taller and healthier and there are far fewer beggars.

The sky is humid and headachey – I think it may rain soon. Perhaps it will pour on all the thousands of women in their best silk saris, splash mud on their gold-trim hems and darken the ochre pots to dull brown.

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