art conaghan photography | More tales from Kerala and Tamil Nadu Part 1
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More tales from Kerala and Tamil Nadu Part 1

August 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It's difficult to describe India, but boy can you feel it. It is home to well over a billion people and projected to overtake China by 2028 in population terms as the most populous state on the planet.

It is a nation state, but not a country. It is an enormous patchwork quilt of differing cultures, traditions and peoples. It is more a continent than anything else and after all it has well over 1000 different languages spoken on a daily basis. 

A pilgrim in Kanyakarmari

So there I am, 1,241 billion people and little old me with my cameras.  The first thing that you notice is the cordiality and friendliness of Indian people. Well, actually, it is the second. The first thing that hits any traveller to India is the preposterous levels of bureaucracy and senseless queues and checks. The Indian state took British bureaucracy and the propensity of queuing to an altogether different level. It is painful, but once you manage to pass through customs and border control, India comes alive. Mainly through the nostrils at first, then as an ocular overload. Although I have been to India before, this was the first time I visited Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Kerala was one of those states that was on my teenage bucket list of places to visit. Even though it was, and is one of the poorest states in India, it has some of the highest literacy rates in the country and now produces some of the best computer technicians and programmers in the world. One thing that I did notice quickly in Kerala was the lack of beggars on the streets compared with other states.

Unlike most other states in India, Kerala gives its poorest a small regular stipend to survive on and the local police take a hard view on those to attempt to beg, especially with those from outside the state. It is true to say that I have seen more beggars in places like Dublin and Manchester than Trivandrum, the state's capital city.

When attempting to describe India, it's difficult to strike a balance, as it is an easy and well worn path to look and describe its poverty. There is poverty and lots of it, but to concentrate on this alone misses everything. This country is alive with some of the most hard working, industrious and entrepreneurial people in the world. It innovates, invents, solves in the most creative fashion. Life goes on and evolves in surprising ways  We have lots to learn from them. The canvas of Kerala is a kaleidoscopic smash of old and new. Keralan politician and author Shashi Tharoor puts it better.

"India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay."

Most mornings, after my wife went off to yoga, I normally made the journey on foot into the small coastal town of Kovalam and make my way religiously to the famous German Bakery for breakfast. Every morning I had to pass the fishermen who had come in from a night of fishing and were well on their way to mending and resetting their nets.

The German Bakery has the best position on the seafront of Lighthouse Beach and by far has the best array and quality of food. Perched on their first floor balcony I ate their egg masalas and watched the market traders and tourists below, then delving into another, (not so Italian standard) cup of coffee, before retreating back up to the villa in a tuk tuk. This was my daily little luxury.

Tuk-tuks are funny little machines and certainly were never designed for my 1.90m frame. But there are cheap and they do the job. On our first evening coming out of Kovalam, our troop of friends, sardined into two tuk-tuks ended up in a race out of town. It felt like an 80 miles an hour race, but I would be surprised if we had ever succeeded 25mph.

One of the icons of India has to be the Hindustan Ambassador car, based on the old Morris Oxford car. This was the first car to be made in India and is the staple choice of taxi drivers. It was first produced in 1958 and sadly production ended in 2014. During its 56 years in service the Hindustan Ambassador saw relatively few improvements making it a very special vehicle indeed. After all, in 2002 Top Gear declared it the best taxi in the world and I couldn’t agree more. As you see from the photo below, it is also the car of choice for those stray dogs that need some mid afternoon shade.

And the transport theme of India would not be complete with talking about the humble bicycle. With the exception of China, India is the second largest producer and exporter of the bicycle. Although in recent years with the growth of mopeds and motorcycles as the vehicle of choice of India's youth, there are still plenty of bicycles roaming around. The photo below shows an old boy selling his ice cream to the daily throng of Indian families who came to our beach every day for a stroll and some family time. This one reminded me of my grandfathers old bike in the 1970's.


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