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Travel
January 10, 2019

Experience Kerala Like A Local

Illustrations by Dhruv Tyagi

Journalist Manju Sara Rajan’s insider guide to Kerala…

I am a Malayalee with a very Malayalee backstory. I grew up in the Middle East in the ’80s and ’90s; a Gulf kid whose only memories of Kerala were of vacations spent trawling her grandparents’ home for food and attention. A couple of times a week my parents would take us on a walk through the grounds of Thiruvananthapuram’s Napier Museum, looking at the art collection and lounging on the grounds of the idiosyncratic Indo-Saracenic building. Languorous and stymied, Kerala was the perfect nostalgic time-capsule before the holiday ended and we got back to city-life.

My childhood self could never have imagined that I would one day be living in Kerala. But at 37, after spending my life in other places, including a decade in Mumbai, I decided to move here. My decision followed a series of beautifully inconvenient moments that coincided: I’d launched a new magazine and become a mother to twins. Coming together, it was exhausting. Guilt kept me up with the kids every night, before I took my bunioned feet over to the office in the morning. Our work lives extended into evening dinners and events, and so on and on in a loop-de-loop, as my kids would say. On a weekend trip to our then-holiday home in Kerala, it struck me that perhaps I should change my lifestyle entirely. And so, in the summer of 2015 my children and I left Mumbai for Aymanam, a village probably familiar to readers of Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things. Her ancestral house still stands moodily off the main T-junction of the village. The house my husband and I built is further inland, on parcels of land strung along the Meenachil river. Not so long ago, before bridges connected these parts, residents could only get to the mainland on wooden boats. In August this year, when Kerala drowned under the worst rainfall in a century, it left us marooned for more than a week.

Every two years, when the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is slated to open (this year from 12th December 2018 till 29th March 2019), Kerala enters hotlists and must-visit editorials around the world. I could stand at the centre of Fort Kochi’s Jew Town and meet friends from Taipei and Mumbai to Delhi and Barcelona. This is one of the few neighbourhoods in the country you can walk through, taking in contemporary art with a dash of history, from pizza at David Hall Gallery and Cafe some quiet at the melancholic Jewish Synagogue and mocktails at the Cochin Club’s Drawing Room restaurant, where the mood is so energetic you’d think our drinks were spiked. Most restaurants and hotels do not sell alcohol, which is highly taxed.

Since foreign alcohol is impossible to buy locally, you’ve got to fly it in when you can. Which means we entertain at home and cook a lot. Even my seven-year-old boys now make a fairly steady poached egg, with a splash of yuzu sauce and flakes of Maldon. The eggs come from the neighbourhood store twice a week; everything else arrives via the holy grail of online shopping ­— Amazon. The best cuisine in Kerala is the local fare, which is delicious, but sometimes you just want a good bowl of carbonara and you’ll never be able to scratch that itch if you don’t make it yourself. When we eat out, I stick to what Malayalees love best: seafood. It is either at The Rice Boat restaurant inside the Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Kochi or at Cheenavala in Ernakulam, which serves seafood specialties from around the state. For offerings from the land, I prefer a branch of the Paragon restaurants spread around the state, which have a fantastic version of the classic north Kerala-style biryani, made with a short-grain rice called jeerakashala, as well as Keralan-Chinese (it involves curry leaves).

I miss the pleasure of eating a plate of pasta as much as I miss wearing my urban high heels. The oppressive heat, humidity and time spent outdoors has rendered my Mumbai wardrobe and shoe collection utterly useless. The traditional Keralite aesthetic is minimal and climate-friendly, but I find most contemporary wear here impractical…and generally women wear clothes that are one size too large. Home-grown fashion may have been utterly hopeless if not for a small but reliable crop of designers who understand the peculiarities of our common surroundings.

My dear friend Joe Ikareth — whose eponymous store resides in the heart of Mattancherry in Fort Kochi — creates beautifully light clothes from traditional cotton weaves. He recently launched a special collection called Move Ability, clothing for the differently-abled, continuing two decades of work based on the principle of empathy. There’s Studio Rouka, the Ernakulam outpost of designer Sreejith Jeevan, who incorporates Keralan symbolism into his work. After the August floods decimated Chendamangalam, a GI-tagged weaving town on the outskirts of Kochi, Jeevan was part of a small group of designers who spearheaded the rescue and renovation of the area’s weaving clusters.

These days, when I go to Thiru-vananthapuram, I drop in at Studio Rahél, a concept store created by designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal offering a curator’s selection of contemporary Keralite textiles, fashion and accessories. My parents now live close to the old Napier Museum, and it is still a part of our itinerary. A reminder that some things are best left the same.

Napier Museum
Thiruvananthapuram, LMS Vellayambalam Road, Near Museum Junction, Palayam, Kanaka Nagar, Nanthancodu, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala 695033
Ph: +91 471 2318294

Kochi-Muziris Biennale
http://kochimuzirisbiennale.org/

David Hall gallery and cafe
Opposite Parade Ground, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala 682001
Phone: 0484 221 8298

The Rice Boat, Taj Malabar Resort & Spa
Willingdon Island, Cochin, Kerala 682009
+91 484 6643000

Cheenavala
41/148-B, Pushpamangalam Towers, Service Road, Edappally, Kochi, Kerala 682024
Phone: +91 484 280 3456

Joe Ikareth
K.V.A. Bros Building, Mattancherry Bazar Road, Fort Kochi, Kerala 682001
Tel: +91 484 2229416

Studio Rouka, by Sreejith Jeevan
Opposite State Bank of India, Ravipuram Road, Valanjambalam, Kochi, Kerala 682016
Ph: 0484 2358783

Studio Rahél
MBC-27, Museum Bains Compound, Nanthencode, Thiruvananthapuram 03
Phone +91 7994466610

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