a place called home

I step out onto the clean and neat pavement, lined with pink blazing stars, a row of purple jacarandas and the smell of newly trimmed, symmetric green grass. A woman wearing a lulu lemon tee and black tracks is walking a chihuahua, chattering incessantly in a high pitched voice on her iPhone. The dog appears tired, after having finished his ablutions for the day, wants to retire and dream in dogworld. A bare chested man jogs along attempting to lose 200 excessive calories from the Shock Top Belgian he guzzled at the soccer match earlier today. An old Russian couple walk silently next to each other, she lost in her stolichnaya dolls and pirozhkis, and he taking in the surroundings like a sniff of vintage Kauffman. Long years of marriage puts these pauses and breaks, the kind where you are together and alone simultaneously. In the distance sat a homeless man, with his pieces of belongings, a tiny suitcase, a cardboard box, a pair of sneakers, a blanket. He hums Lennon, "All you need is love.." and eats a Ben and Jerry's ice cream. The Mexican who works at the restaurant next door, jumps off line 316 and runs to work while putting on his blazer. An ambulance whizzes by, followed by a cop car. An accident, maybe a head on collision, maybe just a dent. My phone rings, "Amma..".


I walk out onto the uneven kaccha road leading to Sitaphal Mandi. The road is brown, bumpy, crooked, and narrow. Some cows graze on along the side, they are troubled by crows and flies. A pack of dogs bask in the glorious June sun, while two other dogs are momentarily locked in a fight which soon becomes amorous. A huge line of two wheelers hurtle along the bumpy road. Couple of women dressed in cotton saris sit selling vegetables, the greeny, bittery kind with names sounding like Marvel characters. Women and children walk by, trying to get their kids to schoolrooms before the gong sounds. Babies cry, the heat is too much to bear. Men prance about wearing lungis, tucked up showing their (not so) bare legs. They stand gazing, taking in the surroundings very differently from the Russian man, sipping on a hot cup of Irani tea. Construction workers pile reddish-brown bricks plastered with grey cement. The cow dung fills the air with a manure like smell. The cackle from the women selling sabji intermingle with the sound of onions being fried in the Chinese fast food shop, the wafting smell of garlic spiraling into the vermillion sky. At the nearby station platform, there is a board, "Sabari Express is delayed by 5 hours..."


I step out into lush greenness, the foliage thick enough to cover an elephant. The rain has just drenched the brown earth of its sorrows. The smell of mud fills the ether. A praying mantis sits quietly meditating on a jasmine bush. The mosquitoes are composing their own fugues and canons. The blue gossamer winged butterflies fluttering their wings circle the mauve lilies in the pond, sure to cause another Katrina or a Sandy in some other part of the world. The Maami next door is reciting her prayers for the morning, while the Maama performs the rituals in the pooja room. The smell of sandalwood wafts through as the incense sticks continue burning. Ripe, yellow mangoes have fallen on the ground and a squirrel scampers to get a bite. A man hurries along to catch the bus to go pay the electricity bill before his life goes unto darkness. A thin boy heads to the local temple to ask for forgiveness and pray for plentiful. Someone is making a mug of strong filter coffee. At the corner stand people drinking lime soda, talking about elections, weather, and football. The different umbrellas passing by forms a rainbow in itself, some use Poppy, some Johns, and others plain, black ones. The sky is dark grey, overcast and rumbling. It will pour a lifetime's worth by the time the Sabari Express pulls into platform no: 1.


the sound, the anticipation, the humidity, the trepidation, the rumble, the overcastness, the growl, the darkness, the sepia, the lightning, the grey, the cumulus nimbus, the shapes, the contours, the horizon, the shadow, the breeze, the sway, the coconut trees, the umbrellas, the chai, the pakoda, the candles, the kerosene lamp, the gurgle, the first pitter patter, the drizzle, the droplets, the water, the flow, the smell, the earth, the mud, the dirt, the wetness, the numbness, the wind, the moisture, the puddle, the water sprayed by a car in a puddle, the wet school bags, dripping school uniforms, the wet buses, the drenched cyclists, the dosa, the naranja veLLam, the sarbat, the ice cream, the kaapi, the coconut water, the power cut, the movies, the books, the cold, the blanket, the sleep, the morning after, the damage, the leaves on the road, the overflowing canals, the sound, the anticipation, the humidity, the trepidation, the rumble, and the overcastness can still do no justice to how it actually feels to be in the Kerala Monsoons.


Kerala's Portuguese heritage

The World Cup fever is on and everyone is tuned into Brazil for the latest updates on the football matches. I am no fan of football. Yet, I grew up in a sports loving family. My father is an ardent sports freak, having played a couple of sports himself, he instilled in me a love for all kinds of sports pretty early in my life. Out of those that stayed include basketball, cricket, and tennis. Football didn't. This, however, didn't stop me from watching the football matches with him, it was a father-daughter bonding time for us. I grew up watching all the World Cup matches together and even today we call and discuss about the current World Cup matches, almost on a daily basis.

Tomorrow at 9 a.m (PST), Germany is playing against Portugal and I couldn't help but ponder about Kerala's (my home state in India) long and old connection with Portugal. During the mid 14th century, the Southern part of India was conducive to trade as the coastal towns had ports which were accessible to European missionaries and explorers. Records date back to BCE, and recently a lot of interest has been revived in establishing and unearthing the heritage of the Muziris, the ancient port where the mariners anchored. Even though the exact location of this port is still unknown, it is suspected to be around 30 miles away from Kochi, my home town. Muziris is the anglicized version of the Tamil Muciri. This port became known as Muciripattanam, an idyllic town on India's South-West coast. Large scale excavations under the auspices of the Kerala government have taken place in and around Kochi from 1980. Many treasures were found and the search still continues today with many NGOs and archaeological institutions participating in the Muziris revival project.

India was one of the crown jewels in the European age of discovery which began in the 15th century. South India boasted of its aromatic and rich spices. Kerala cultivated large quantities of black pepper, popularly called 'Tellicherry black' for its bold and pungent aroma and it had established itself as a pioneer trade center since 3000 BCE. The first powerful and prolific empire around the 15th century was the Portuguese empire, also the longest ruling European empire (till it handed back sovereignty to East Timor in 2002). Being a coastal country, Portuguese sailors set sail to discover the spice route that the Arabs were talking about. In May 1498, Vasco da Gama set foot at Kappad beach, Calicut in Kerala. The animosity between the then ruler of Calicut, the Zamorins or Samoothiris and the ruler of Cochin, King Unni Goda Varma Tirumulpadu resulted in the first European settlement in Cochin. Although the Portuguese era in Kerala lasted hardly a 100 years before they were ousted by Kunjali Marakker followed by the Dutch invasion, the Portuguese left a lasting impression on the native tongue, Malayalam.

Malayalam, a Dravidian language, is said to have developed from the Proto-Tamil lineage of the Proto-Dravidian family. Early writings date to 13th century. All languages undergo diachronic changes and Malayalam was no exception. Around the 14th-15th century, heavy borrowings from Sanskrit and Pali resulted in a form of the language called Manipravaalam. This hybrid language was still in an infancy stage when it encountered Portuguese through the first explorers who came to Kerala. Portuguese was a lingua-franca used in the trading community, often talked about as the base language of pidgins and creoles (basic and reduced forms of languages used between communities for communication purposes). During the age of discovery, a linguistic process called relexification resulted in a rampant increase of Portuguese words in pidgins and creoles found across the globe. Malayalam or Manipravaalam also borrowed heavily from Portuguese.

It is suspected nearly 150 words were loaned from Portuguese into Malayalam. The long list of words can be found here on Wikipedia. One of the linguistic changes that happened was the shift from /r/ --> /l/, preceding a nasal sound such as /m/. This can be seen in the word for cupboard, armoire --> alamara. Almost all voicing contrast was lost, i.e. if the Portuguese words has a /b/, /d/, or /g/ sound, this was most likely to be substituted with /p/, /t/, /k/ in Malayalam native phonology, as seen in the words for a type of fish, crowbar, vicar etc. Interesting loans include the words for cemetery, satan, and foreman. The Portuguese words are cemitério, satan, and mesthre. These words are borrowed without much linguistic change, only a few modifications are made to the pronunciation. Thus, in Malayalam, it becomes semithery, saataan, and mesthiri, hardly any phonetic changes, only the pronunciation has been adapted to the native phonology.

The borrowings from Portuguese include common household items such as table, cupboard, towel, hat. Food items which were introduced by the discoverers were borrowed into the language, such as pineapple, tea, cashew, funnel, guava, and onion, wine and vinegar. Many if not almost all of these terms are commonplace in any dialect of Malayalam today. Even though some of the words may have been replaced by a more common Proto-Dravidian term, for example, 'adukala' for kitchen, these Portuguese borrowings survive in the older generations who use them interchangeably.

So, back to the World Cup again. In the US, the matches don't stream for free. You either need a cable subscription which allows you to stream ESPN, or you can stream the matches online from a Spanish TV channel with Spanish commentary. I don't have cable and my only resort is to brush up my rusty and forgotten Spanish and reconstruct some of these Portuguese remnants in Malayalam back to Spanish, which turns out to be a lot of fun.

Let me leave you with a story, one which involves the etymology of 'cashew'. If you go back and look over the table of Portuguese loans, you will see that 'cashew' was borrowed from the Portuguese word 'caju' (which remained as Kaju in Hindi) and became kasuvandi in Malayalam. Breaking down this word, we get kasu + andi = cashew + seed 'cashew nut'. However, there is a more interesting story behind the origin of the word. The popular story goes that these nuts, introduced by the Portuguese to the native lands, were sold on the beaches of Kerala, 8 pieces for 1 anna. The word for currency in Malayalam is kaashu. So now, imagine this Mallu boy sitting on Kappad beach with a hatful of cashewnuts and going 'kaashin ettu, kaashin ettu, kaashin ettu'. What does that sound like to you if you say it out loud? Bingo, 'cashewnut'.

Well, the Malayali will never know the true origin of the word, but we have a lot to thank our Portuguese capitans for, especially cashewnut and tobacco. These 2 industries bring crores of revenue to the state today. Quilon in South Kerala is now heralded as the cashew city and well, I needn't mention where the tobacco ends up. This old video from 1952 is self illustrative.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YquV57qIqD0&w=420&h=315]

And yes, the author admits cigarette smoking is injurious to health. ting ting ti ding.

Oh, but I forgot to mention Kerala's German connection. The grandfather of Hermann Hesse, (psst Siddhartha, if you haven't read this book, go read) Dr. Hermann Gundert was one of the pioneers of Malayalam linguistics. He compiled dictionaries, wrote books on Kerala's history and as part of his missionary work, translated the Bible into Malayalam. Definitely not as colossal a contribution as the Portuguese, but the linguist in me is very happy with the German.

May the best team win tomorrow!


Maybe we did traverse similar roadsIn your infinite trips to Kochi as a child Maybe we did take walks around the town Play in the molten sand, got wet till our knees Prayed for a wish in the dark alleys of the quintessential church Maybe we did capture photographs In the cobwebs of our memories past Only to process them again, today As we walked talked in the streets of the quaint town Gazed at ships yonder and ate melting ice creams Or kneeled in front of the Lord Only to traverse through syncopated time



There are many footprints buried in the sand I have tried to trace in the last one month. They all lead to a single place I call home. It is here I learnt many things, I learnt to love, lose, rediscover, forget, fight, laugh, weep, and encounter death. on love.

it comes and goes,

takes away a part of me,

engulfs me, devours

every active living molecule

renders me lifeless.

on loss.

grave emptiness,

vast spaces, a little

alike to drowning.

on rediscovery.

the joy of finding

a lost letter,

a birthday gift

or just, a dry flower

in between old, rusty notebooks.

on forgetting.

eroded memories

satiates the pain and the illusion

dawns of revival

baggages left behind,

clothes are burned

happiness is sought

in moving on.

on fights.

heavy clamoring,

heated tempers

a few pillows strewn

coarse voices, angry faces

when it all dies down,

there is peace.

on laughing.

anecdotes from childhood,

memories woven in school

old friends, tales of blunders

good times live on as tales

encountered across generations

passed on to the timeless bounty

of happiness.

on weeping.

dark, grey rain clouds

clambering up the alley

heavy, lush rain

pouring down the sheets of sand

the grains trickle away,

the dirt, the grime, the pain.

on death.

the non-existence of being.

our journey commences

from the birthing time,

inexplicable, incorrigible

the ultimate reality

it appeases all emotions,

numbs loss, fights, tears

nulls rediscovery, love, laughter.

in the end,

it's all binary.