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A Land of Contrasts

 

Bharat/India/ Hindusthan

 

January 22-31 2024

 

The covid years kept me from visiting the land of my birth, child hood and youth. After this long gap, it took financial and property issues to warrant a short and rather expensive trip to Trivandrum, Kerala. Five years ago, my family and I had been there. It was a first and exciting trip for my “daughters in love’ and my grandchildren, then. I was grateful that they remained in good health and were able to immerse in the rich culture and genuine hospitality of the people. This time my younger son and I decided to concentrate on pressing matters and not consider this a vacation. My older son and wife were going to be there anyway on business matters. I saw that India had changed somewhat over the years of my long absence.

 

The Weather

 

Exiting the cold of the airplane and the airport we breathed in deep, the warm, humid, sort of natural air, though not as laden with oxygen from trees that I had experienced in Kauai. Many of the trees I saw here were also found in Kauai, especially the fragrant large plumerias. To our amazement we found that the temperature here, ranging from 75-85 degrees, along with the moisture in the air did much good to our body and thus to our minds too! No more itchy dry skin, no more joint stiffness and aches. So happy to shed the many layers of clothing that we had been subjecting our bodies due to winter conditions in the US. The very pores seem to say ‘thank you’ as we felt more alive. Accumulated toxicity was expelled naturally through our sweat. No need of a gym or jogging to do that. Hot showers were a real topping to this cleansing process.

Mumbai Airport and Vistara

 

Both my son and I marveled at how large and grand the International Airport is in Mumbai. There is so much to admire in the design and its facilities. The variety of stores and restaurants represented the culture of India in a very pleasing way. The Niranta transit hotel is truly luxurious and is quite the contrast to the jail like facilities of the Zurich transit hotel where we stayed enroute to India.

 

The flight we took with the new domestic airline Vistara was quite an experience. Economy seating was comfortable, the food was excellent and the service in flight and at the airport was great. Certainly way better than most US domestic airlines.

 

Transportation and Traffic

 

There were far too many vehicles plying the roads. Though relieved to notice that street lights were obeyed, the lack of individual lanes other than in a couple of main roads, called for extremely tense, defensive driving. Often the space between cars and buses was in inches. Pedestrians still do not have the right and therefore it was best to cross in groups at crosswalks. Mid traffic crossings meant laying down your life!

 

Within a day or so we began to use a variety of vehicles for getting to places. For short distances we took auto rickshaws. They charged a minimum of Rs 30 according to the meter. Unlike bygone days no longer did passengers have to engage in arguments about fares. No waiting needed as there were many available all the time. They came colored, yellow for diesel fueled, green for cng and blue for electric. Most of them had comfortable seating and often the insides were beautifully decorated. On longer distances we took to uber. Again, these were available in plenty and the drivers knew what routes to take to avoid heavy traffic during peak hours.

 

It was indeed a luxury to choose a variety of vehicles to go from place to place. This is so desperately lacking in the US. What is more, families often have a driver on standby, who can drive the household car when needed.

 

Hotel Accommodation and Services

 

We chose the Hilton Garden Inn after considerable net search. Surprisingly even though this was located mid-town, within the Palayam area, probably one of the most busiest part of the city, we found our rooms quiet, with beautiful views. Rooms were clean, comfortable with modern amenities.

 

Everyone who monitored the front desk were courteous and efficient. The first night we were surprised to get a handwritten and decorated personal welcome card with a flower. The lightning speed with which they responded to our needs surely would break hotel records if there were any! Tips were never expected. Room and laundry service was fast. Service with a genuine smile always.

 

The Hotel Restaurant

 

This was no vacation for my son and myself as half the time we were going to banks and government offices. We both concluded that our accommodation and most of all the food served in the restaurant were enjoyable enough to call this a vacation. The quality and variety of food served at the complimentary breakfast was something I had never experienced in the US, in Turkey, Greece and in Manchester, UK. The food was in sections, bakery, north Indian food, south Indian food and western food. Fresh dosas, rotis , parathes, omelettes galore, made on the spot, fresh juices, coffee and shakes adding to the list. Unlike what was available here in the US, the veggies and fruits tasted so good. Even the organic produce from farmers markets here in Sonoma County was no match. The servers were knowledgeable and courteous. Many who were from other states were interns. It was good to hear how all felt that Kerala was a very welcoming state. We also noticed that during lunch and dinner there were non- resident guests who came to partake of the gourmet fare that this hotel was reputed to serve.

 

Conversations

Whenever I travel out of my residence whether it be other parts of the US, or abroad such as Turkey,Greece or England, it is customary for me to engage in conversations with those who occupy the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Thus, ordinary folks such as the valet, store keepers, taxi or auto rickshaw drivers, waiters, stewards and even the hotel cleaning crew seem to satisfy my need for basic human connection. I am always interested in their background and lives. My penchant for languages and my strong foundation in the major religions of the world often come to play an important role in creating an atmosphere of comfort in mutual communication. Amazing how each time I come away with an admiration for the wisdom that these folks possess. Topics range from current politics, quality of life and challenges to its maintenance.

 

Government Offices and Banks

 

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this country is the manner, in which business is conducted by government offices and financial institutions. We were given the constant run around while interacting with them. Information is given out in bits and pieces and the forms to be filled were lengthy in details and often illogically composed. There is no motivation to seek solutions and there are absolutely no consequences to be borne by inefficiency. I am not even sure that job descriptions matter here when hiring. The customer is not first but rather a victim of an unwieldy bureaucracy. India is certainly not tech savvy as far as maintenance of daily life and most of all time does not seem to matter here.

 

A Field Trip to Kanya Kumari

 

We planned on getting out of town on Republic Day as all offices are closed. The drive to the southern tip of India was beautiful. Glancing at the distant hills, the verdant fields, the coconut groves and the occasional bodies of water brought back memories of the past. We noticed once we left the state of Kerala, the roadside became crowded with stores, huts and filth. We were informed that we were now in Tamilnadu! We stopped for breakfast at a wayside hotel. Here the play of gusty winds gave us a sense of adventure with mother nature.

 

My niece who came from Delhi and my sister- in- law hurried to join the que that led to the famous shrine to the virgin goddess Parvati, Kanya Kumari. My son and I decided not to join the push and shove but instead hung around the courtyard basking in the sunshine and watching acutely the behavior of the many devotees that came from all parts of India. The atmosphere was boisterous. I had an interesting discussion with a priest who sat in a chair, right at the entrance, giving out advice to those who needed to know more.

 

As we wielded our way past the shops to see if we can take the boat ride to Vivekananda Rock, the appearance of a dignitary created quite a stir. All had to make way for him. The heat, the crowd and the long winding que had us giving up the desire for the boat ride. The fresh tender coconut water taken straight from the split fruit, provided much relief to the intense heat that we were putting up with. Looking from a distance I saw the beautiful Vivekananda Rock Shrine that once stood majestically alone but was now marred by the presence of the large statue of Saint Tiruvalluvar. I guessed that when Kerala gave away Kanya Kumari to the neighboring state of Tamilnadu, the latter had to establish in a garish way their supremacy!

 

On our way back we ran into a procession where the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group based in Sri Lanka, were honoring their leader, the late Prabhakaran. Their flags had an awesome looking tiger motif. Before we got on the speedway, we stopped to partake of juicy ice apple palm fruits. The last time I had them were in the 50s. Once completed this speedway we were told by the driver that it would take only 45 minutes to travel from Trivandrum to Kanya Kumari, which normally takes 3 hours by car.

 

Daily Walks

 

Every morning, long before it would get hot, say between 6-7 am, we walked about 2 miles. The turning point was the beautiful Museum, which is situated in a botanical garden laden with many tropical trees. We were surprised to see folks of all ages, men and women, brisk walking and jogging here in large numbers. We chose a route with less traffic. On the way saw often, very fancy, sleek and expensive cars parked and wondered how they survived in Trivandrum’s congested traffic.

 

Repeated sights and persons held much interest for both of us. A tea stall in a corner not far from the hotel had many men gathered around chatting, drinking chai and partaking of vadais, appam and pazhampori. Seems that this was their daily routine, before they went to work. Then next to a huge hydraulic parking garage that was in construction, was a lady with large bags of litter that she had collected. I figured at some point she would be taking them where she would get paid. She greeted us always with a sweet smile for us. Right outside the ancient Palayam’s St. Joseph’s cathedral, close to the wall, was another woman who wore a base ball cap, sat facing away from the main road with a basket of incense packets for sale. She was always bent over looking at her cellphone, possibly watching movies. When asked, she said she stayed there from 7-6 every day. Tangentially across from the cathedral was the large and famous Palayam mosque, that was undergoing some remodeling. I found young Hindus on their way to school, stopping to pray at the Catholic church and Muslims praying in front of the Ganesh temple close to the hotel. “Matha sowhaardam”, meaning a unity of heart for all faiths was practiced here apparently by the young. We were surprised to notice the absence of homeless people in this big city wherever we travelled, only two crippled beggars on a Sunday outside the cathedral.

 

Our return path sometimes was along the Mahatma Gandhi road. One morning we were surprised to see all traffic blocked. A procession that went on for miles took over. Roller skaters, basketball, cricket and soccer players, gymnasts followed each other in groups. Banners proclaimed an International Sports Summit that was to be held at the Police Stadium in February. On another day we saw the inauguration of a newly constructed pillar with the Three Lions emblem on top. This was organized by the police. The marching along with the music of the band was an impressive display of sight and sound.

 

Incidentally the sidewalks and adjacent areas of M.G road were swept clean several times during the day. Side streets however were lined with trash, sidewalks often broken and the yards of public buildings were sadly ill maintained.

During the day even when the heat rose whenever we wished, my son and I walked to check the stores and make sundry purchases. Convenience stores were crowded with shelves loaded with stuff needed to maintain life. We had fun visiting small specialty stores selling readymade outfits, travel bags, nuts and dried fruits from allover the world, all within walking distance from our hotel. Oh, how I wish in the US I could find the following luxury. Small tailor shops that altered and mended your clothes on the spot!

 

A Land of Contrasts

 

I have completed 57 years in the US. In that time, I have been to the land of my birth several times. When going back my travels covered, the North, East, West and the Southern States. I have often been told by some non- Indian visitors to that land, that either you will fall in love with India or you will find it disgusting. I can see why for herein lies the source of the contrast I feel.

 

There is a depth to its culture, well, so too in Greece and Turkey, where I have been, as all three are old countries. This culture comes with much beauty. It comes with a humanity rarely seen in the younger West. However, over the years what has happened in India’s growth has been a form of warping. As the plane is about to land in Mumbai one can see shabby shanty dwellings yet, once inside the airport one is thrown back by modernity, grandeur as good as any airport in the world. India has a marvelous space program, from this land many a tech person has made another country his home, contributing to its knowledge and economy. Yet the method of education here is still counting on cramming. Children in schools are not taught any civic sense. Inside of homes of many an educated citizen is maintained very clean, yet outside its walls one can see piled up waste. Public hygiene at large is still unheard of. Beautiful beaches and natural reserves are ill maintained. Exclusive neighborhoods with mansions for homes are quite a sight and is evidence of the abundance of restricted wealth. Yet these very homes cannot have the luxury of getting prompt service from providers when they need them. To get anything done it is not through a regulated system but rather through connections. Temples, hospitals, financial institutions, big department stores coexist with filth and open sewers. Bribing is still a way of life and so is pushing and shoving to get ahead. The Indian flag says Satyam Eva Jayate, Truth alone triumphs. Then why is dishonesty and cheating so rampant?

 

This land is a great bargain for vacationing. The US dollar goes far in accessing good food and services. Most heritage tourist areas are well worth, visiting. Living here is another story altogether. Property ownership, buying and selling are often subjected to black trade to escape taxes. Pensioners have to wait in long lines at the bank to get their hard earned money. There are no tenant and owner rights worth the script. Many an Indian company has no shame in having their employees wait for months before they get their salary. The rich are richer but the poor are not so poor anymore !

 

Through all this one can still find a rare kind of hospitality offered by those who have very little. Concern for neighbors’ welfare is still evident as interdependency is not frowned upon. The variety of languages, cultures, sophistication in the arts and crafts create an atmosphere that is stimulating to the brain. There is a distinct personality, perhaps a subtle divine fragrance to each human being that I have never seen in the West. Perhaps this is so as they may be old souls!

2024-01-21 052.HEIC

Mumbai Airport

Gallery Photos Taken by Kishore Jayaswal

Government Ayurvedic Hospital for Women and Children, Poojapura, Trivandrum.

Previously the residential dance school “Shree Chitrodaya Nartakalalayam” run by my parents under the auspices of the Royal Family of Travancore. The site of my infancy.

enlarged amabahouse main strip
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