The Curry Coast review: Discover a very different Kerala with Binoo K John's witty, at times poignant book

It is no secret now that Kerala is one of India’s most popular tourist destinations. It is blessed with calming backwaters, a tradition of ayurvedic massages, lush greenery and fantastic food. All of this makes it a great vacation spot for family, bonhomie and romance alike.

Travel magazines regularly feature stories on the popular-with-tourist Kochi fort area, laidback backwaters of Kollam and cool environs of Munnar. Travel writers rack up new ways to bring alive the uniquely sporty Snake Boat race, the heady Spice Route or wild excursions through Periyar spotting elephants.

 The Curry Coast review: Discover a very different Kerala with Binoo K Johns witty, at times poignant book

The Curry Coast by Binoo K John. Image courtesy: Speaking Tiger Books

Just before the turn of the century when Kerala started to tempt the intrepid Indian traveller and began to emerge on India’s tourist map, now senior journalist Binoo K John decided to travel through the region of Malabar, 500 years after Vasco da Gama first landed on the shores of Calicut. The Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 years after Vasco da Gama is a “beautifully written, informative and witty” narrative as the late Khushwant Singh remarked back then in his hugely popular, long-running column ‘With Malice towards One and All’.

The book is an account of journeys John made through Malabar in trains, buses and autos, observing its everyday life. At a time now when travel writers take pride in bringing forth the unexplored, John’s motive was to try and gauge the pulse of the region he travels. He tries to link the sometimes violent but always intriguing history to the aspirations of the present. A rookie journalist back in the 1990’s, John takes refuge under one of modern times successful writers, Jonathan Raban’s observations: ‘I think it is wise to begin journeys, like marriages, in a state of misguided innocence. You’d never do it if you knew beforehand what it really entailed,’ as his tool of putting this book together.

Although John’s writing seems to have matured from the time he wrote the book, as is evident from the difference between his introduction to the revised edition and the chapters of the book, it is still a simple and well-written narrative.

John straight-away takes the reader into the aromatic heart of Malabar with nose-tickling smells of different foods. From fishy smells that only oceanic fish like mackerel and seer can exude to fiery notes of pepper and cardamon, food forms a constant mouth-watering character in the book. For John, food sometimes is a way of keeping hunger at bay while at others an opportunity to explore the soul of Malabar through its food. If in the beginning, John seems to mock at the frequent munchings on either side of multi-curried lunch a Malabari has, he also dishes out a dollop of history on Vasco da Gama’s treat to a meal of rice and fish curry, the staple diet of the Malayalee. John shares what a chronicler aboard Gama’s ship has noted: ‘A palanquin was provided for the captain-major (Gama) such as is used by men of distinction in that country (India), as also some of the merchants who pay something to the king for this privilege. The captain-major entered the palanquin which was carried by six men in turn. Attended by all these people we took the road of Qualecut and came to another town called Capua (Kappad). The captain-major was there deposited at the house of man of rank whilst we others were provided with food, consisting of rice with much butter (precursor of the present day ghee rice or the Malabari neychoru) and excellent boiled fish.' John occasionally eats badly but mostly satisfies his appetite at the ubiquitous ‘Meals Ready’ joints. And never needs a second invitation to guzzle some cold beer. The foodie in John comes to fore when he digs into the Kozhikodan biryani in Calicut. It is one of his early destinations where he explores its belly through its SM street, SM standing for Sweet Meat.

File image of Binoo John

File image of Binoo John

Throughout the book, John is easily able to make social observations and political comments. This attribute of a roving eye able to absorb like a sponge and relay the information in simple words is one of the strengths of John’s writing. He remarks how sweet shops in Calicut have been making way to jewellery shops stocking that highly coveted, shimmering commodity that rules the psyche of any self-respecting Malayalee. He makes quirky quips when in Sea Queen hotel he finds a circular bed. John thinks evidently the hotel is coveted by honeymooning couples but finds himself to be able to to sleep peacefully alone. He dwells on the reasons for Kerala’s suicide rate being one of the highest in the country.

John also traces the exact landing spot of Vasco da Gama and his initial few days on the beach of Calicut from writings by historians like Sanjay Subrahmanyam. He also drudges astonishing facts from anthropological studies like Nayars of Malabar by F Fawcett who noted back in the 18th century how Nayar women shaved pubic hair above their vaginas as a matter of hygiene. Throughout his journeys, John seeks out local journalists, publishers and writers who feed him a nuanced perspective of Kerala. Like in Dharmadom, John meets Murkot Ramunny who has tireless documented Malabari life. Ramunny, a former bureaucrat is credited with one of definitive books on Nagaland, The World of Nagas. John also finds Ramunny a treasure house on Malabari history. They spend an afternoon going through the Mappilla revolt of 1921.

From those early welcomings bestowed on Vasco da Gama, lot has changed in Kerala. Marking the 500th year of da Gama’s arrival in 1498, John finds a wave of anti-colonialism sweeping through the state. In today’s time, Kerala has come a long way indeed. Although it is yet to drop its Marxist leanings completely, it is racing towards modernisation. This vigour is reflected in its people too. With three international airports, every third Keralite flies off to Gulf to satisfy his new found zeal. It is no surprise Kerala’s economy is driven by remittances from abroad, opening up migration routes within themselves for labourers from some of India’s backward states like Assam, Bihar and Bengal.

Read this book in the train on while on the pot. It is a quick witty and at times poignant read to grasp some history and social changes one of India’s complex states has undergone. At the end of it, you’d discover a very different world away from the usual relaxing and slumberous narratives that have come to define Kerala.

The Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 years after Vasco da Gama is re-published by Speaking Tiger.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 10:54:26 IST