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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 22 January 2011

January 22nd: Trichur in Kerala

On January 22nd 1973 I was in Trichur in Kerala in Southern India.

We had the address of Sam's office in the town.  He had been my cousin John Cameron's driver and now ran a trucking agency with three trucks, as he told us proudly.  He drove and we followed to the family house which was a mile or two out of town in a semi-rural setting, a two or three room house with a farm around which could not have been much more than an acre and was probably less.  His wife equally proudly showed us round the farm, half of which was paddy which two wiry bare-chested men were working, the rest crowded and fruitful, chickens and maybe other animals. She pointed out the pepper vines and coffee and so on.  The farm was entirely her business; Sam's work was with the trucks.

Their son, called Sonny (or Sunny) asked us to go with him to meet his girlfriend's family.  He drove off with us through the palm-trees down dusty tracks in his battered red Renault Dauphine, the sporty model which still had a certain following in Europe then.  Foreign cars were more common here in Kerala as spare parts could be found in Cochin as they could be in Goa and Bombay, where merchants had found ways round the foreign goods embargo.  We ended up on an almost empty beach where a tall man in a lunghi was working over a huge pit sunk in the sand, at least eight feet deep.  He was stirring different items into a  liquid which he pointed out to us swirling in the pit below. We were shown little bottles with a lurid label which the liquid would go into - it was a hair tonic.  A few weeks later we saw some of these bottles for sale in a shop in downtown Madras.  All the while another man with grey hair and dhoti and a Brahmin's string around his chest was following us, with a begging bowl in his hand making signs for us to put money into the bowl.  Sonny explained that this was his girlfriend's uncle, the brother of the man making the tonic.

Back at the house, supper was ready, a magnificent feast, as was usual on these occasions, much more than we could eat, meat and vegetables, but with a very different character from what we were accustomed to, a different sort of heat, grey-black colour rather than red-brown.  It was explained to us that they didn't use chillies, but that everything was spiced with black pepper along with other spices.  We were in the heart of the area which was the central object of the spice trade in the middle ages, before chillies came with the Portuguese from the Americas.

Sam had bought his trucks with his pension from the army.  His wife had inherited the farm, a perfect matrilineal arrangement, which was still practised in this area.  It seemed a very good set-up to me, both man and woman living independent lives.  I saw a little of the same system in Bukittinggi in Sumatra some years later, where the Minangkabau women certainly had independence, but I have read that the matrilineal tradition there is declining in response to more normal, Islamic, views spreading from Java and Aceh. 

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