Christmas sanguage

A godown

Two and a half weeks in the heritage suburb of Fort Kochi, split either side of a Christmas filler of Indo-European beach life at Varkala cliffs, brings me to the next year.

The initial attraction of ‘Fort’ was being able to amble across a road with only occasional buzzing and beeping from vehicles. Green spaces, well slightly parched brown open spaces, full of football and cricket; a sea front promenade, collapsed partially by a recent cyclone; an urban beach that is best overlooked, literally, for the usual reasons, but one day who knows; some gloriously atmospheric buildings, dandling in the laps of narrow carless lanes, now hosting boutique hotels, restaurants and, well, boutiques. All this and a kitchen, a friendly host, as well as access to an amazing array of modestly priced physio and massage to tend malfunctioning knees, hips and backs. I could feel myself swayed by the pull of having what you want when you want it.


It was warm. It was humid. At times it felt as though we were failed colonisers in the land of the mosquito. But it’s compact, walkable, interesting to look at. Kochi is the name given to an urban connurbation that stretches across two or three islands, with lagoons, canals and all manner of estuarial tributaries straddled by ferries, bridges, spits of road and rail. The tide rises and falls about half a metre; water, once past the web of land facing the sea, moves sluggishly. The consequence in Fort Kochi, the ancient bastion built by the Portuguese, and until fifty years ago the trading hub in the southern part of peninsula India, is canals and drains that hold a pale grey tinged bog, liberally decorated with the usual detritus of consumer living – bottles, wrappers, bags. They almost look pretty sometimes, but the air around them is heavy with their sulfurous stink.

A raft of egrets
Exit through a derelict ferry
Our street



Our enclave, like many here, is a network of alleyways and footpaths, accessible only by foot and two wheeler. Walking here from the street, into the dense thicket of buildings, grand and decrepit, upcoming and falling down, modest, simple and gloriously overwrought, the temperature rises by three degrees. I’ve worked out that I need to slow my pace as I approach, or else when I step indoors I’ll hit a point of peak saturation and maximum thermal capacity – and I will become liquid. Houses here occupy as much of their plot as possible, no quarter is borne for proximity to a neighbour, and indeed houses veer closer together the higher they go. There are so many people living here, I wonder if the layout was parcelled up by a bus conductor with their marvellous skill for compacting human beings.

Carnival preparations

There are a bundle of cultural activities available: galleries with great art and fantastic juices, Keralan theatre, classical music, events and happenings, parades, fireworks, a carnival.  Of course, one delight is doing nothing when so much is going on. We saw a mesmeric performance in a great little theatre with a singer, violinist and two drummers, followed the next evening with a post colonial cultural nutribullet – four acts, seven performers, ranging from folk wailing through bowl ringing to fifties sci-fi soundtrack laptop generated 8 track looping. This latter event took place in a beautiful, tastefully tatty, old ‘godown’ facing the sea, four buildings surrounding a lovely green lawn and was the final leg in a tour of three Indian cities, produced by an excitable Glaswegian, and curated by a lovely Mancunian. I returned the next day for extra bowl ringing.

Work in progress

Local party youth club

Farmers cafe gallery

Another cultural highlight involved getting the ferry across to the urban hub of Ernakulum, tacking through a busy bazaar, buying cinema tickets and stepping out of the bright sunlight and thirty degree heat to don cheap 3D glasses and spend two and a half hours in refrigerated darkness watching Star Wars continue its conquest of planet Earth. Popcorn included.

Then we boarded a train for the resort of Varkala beach. Will we like it? Will the party be any good? The train ran later and later and later, and as we eventually stepped down onto the platform we were immediately lured by an auto driver. Ah, but we need two autos, there are five of us. Yes, yes. Come, come. Three minutes later, some impossible feat of magic had merged six bodies, eight bags, and all manner of attendant fears and excitement into the tiny space of a tuktuk. We careened down dark lanes, with Wilkie this time technically more out than in – that was brilliant – to our destination on the cliffs above the beach.


Evening crow fest

Our rooms looked great, but where can we eat? They smiled and waved their hands. Plenty plenty. Yes, but what did that mean? And what about beer? Well indeed, there were, within two hundred metres in either direction, probably twenty restaurants, serving a fantastic array of seafood and nearly everything else. However, it wasn’t until the next night that I decoded the strange language of Keralan alcohol laws: those people drinking from a mug, or some kitsch ceramic tankard, they’re drinking beer. There’s no alcohol mentioned on the menus, and when you get your bill there’ll be an amount charged for pop.

Not Goa, nor beer

Fish delivery

The midday heat is fierce, the feeling of being that much closer to an ultraviolet inferno is palpable, so opportunities for playing in the surf centre around the beginning and end of the day. Plans for an early morning swim remained plans, but a late afternoon bob in the swell just beyond the crushing break of the surf become a regular activity. The thrill was to ride the wave in the last few moments before it broke, as it lifted you off your feet, but not too late that it pulverized you in the mosh pit of sand and foam and roar. Lifeguards parped away on their whistles, gesticulating vigorously at those who strayed beyond their capabilities, the tug of the back wash as strong as the waves. It was exciting, and fun, and occasionally brilliantly crushing, but powerful enough to sometimes be very scary.

Behind the door…


The rules are strict: once the sun goes, everyone has to leave the water, no exceptions. The whistle blowing and signalling becomes more frantic, even small children toddling at the margins are given short shrift. It is in fact the law. Just like no beer in restaurants.

We enjoyed some fantastic fòod, none of it elaborate, but fresh and beautifully cooked. Christmas day’s proceedings were pleasingly simplified, and even though poor Wilkie fell ill and our plans for some immense feast were postponed, it didn’t matter (except to the poor lad). A return to Fort Kochi loomed, tempted as we had been by the tales of carnival and new year’s revelry. But would the party be any good?

Another late train, another noisy ride through the sticky sludge of rush hour India, another great view of a stooped back and we’re home in our over heated home. We cook and wander, I queue at the beer shop, we lay inert beneath ticking fans reading, planning for later in the day, for tomorrow, for next week, next month. We watch as Santas appear on corners and at junctions, some slumped like drowsing drunks, others mighty and as large as titans, all inviting donations; more of the pretty and garish lights go up; santa masks hang outside every shop; I hear Jingle Bells sung and sung and sung, Tash hears Bony M’s By the Rivers of Babylon; we see the giant Pappanji (Old Man) in the local park, massive but still toylike, patiently waiting for his punctual immolation on the stroke of midnight.

A castle in the Fort
Street art


The view across to Ernakulum
Beer and wine shop

When the time comes the crowds are huge, roars and cheers erupting as the past goes up in flames, his bright and sugary looking plastic shell bursting into gaseous light as a few well placed fireworks explode inside him. Within minutes his forty foot frame is a hollow form, no spectacular collapse, just a continuous evaporation of substance. We struggle through the crush to home.

The next day we lined the street and waited patiently along with thousands of others for the plodding magnificence of a tatty eared elephant as it led the procession through the town. Policemen forced back the crowds with their customary curt authority. Musicians and elaborately costumed dancers followed. A line of serious and intent looking hijra, finely made up and exquisitely dressed, with numbers pinned to their saris, readying themselves perhaps for a contest later on, made their stately way in the procession. A solitary character looking skeletal, and blue, with a goldfish bowl on his head, paraded by with a sign saying Save Our Planet. Various ghoulish figures cavorted in red and black, a tank made of cardboard edged past on top of a truck, followed by a lifesize inflatable whale. A pharoah and then a sphinx. The light had faded, the procession kept coming.

Thirty years ago, a menu in Malawi offered Omelet, Sanguage, Tea. By day two I’d established that if I asked for bread and butter,  it was Sanguage. By day three I understood I was having a sandwich. There’s so much to be said about the landscape of a traveller’s language, from the deserts of incomprehension,  through the bogs of misunderstanding, to the peaks of clarity and the seas beyond the verbal. I have made no progress here, except as Wilkie would say, in Caveman – a repetitive over-simplification. Opening gambits often convince me that everything will be clear, but then, well, then all meaning evaporates. What I see and what I describe are skewed by my limited ability to understand my locality in its own language. People live here, with incredible success. I am just passing through and I feel that more than ever.