Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 23, Nov. 10 - 23, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Asterix in Kerala


Spices & Souls: A Doodler's Journey Through Kerala by Unny; DC Books, Kottayam, July 2001; pages 130, Rs. 595.

TO the discerning, tongue-in-cheek observer, Kerala is like the Gaulish village of that delightful comic-book hero, Asterix. The State is littered with shrewd, cunning little fellows who love to fight, invaders who fail to conquer, druids with magic potions, bards with questionable gifts, natives who tease and refuse to change, and leaders who fear that "the sky may fall on their heads tomorrow". (But as always in the comic book, "tomorrow never comes".) Every episode that shaped the shoe-string piece of land that is Kerala and its society could have also begun with a footnote, typical of all Asterix adventures: "The year is such and such B.C. The land is entirely occupied. Well, not entirely... One small region of indomitable people still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the invading legionnaires..."

Kerala teased its invaders and never let them conquer it. It did not even allow them to stay on its shores long enough to make any lasting, soul-changing impact. It was too busy welcoming other visitors. After the Portuguese came the Dutch, then the Jews, the French and the English. If the smell of its spices had conquered some invaders, its heady taste for alien cultures and religions ensured them a warm welcome. Kerala stooped only to welcome, and then tried to gain whatever it could from these interactions. It gave little away and imbibed anything required to create its own brand of co-existence, and yet it retained a singular native streak of fiercely-possessed independence. Some of Kerala's own landmarks lie buried under the weight of such a chequered history and are testimony to a unique, grandiose assimilation. Often its contradictions are sold to tourists under the brandname, 'God's Own Country'.

The proclivities of its citizens are funny and well-defined enough to merit classification as counterfeit versions of Asterix's characters. 'Asterix', 'Getafix', 'Cacofonix', 'Melodrama' and 'Unhygienix' are replaced by the truly-Malayali adventurers, 'Intellectualix', 'Neigh-neighindustrialist', 'Corruptro- nix', 'Semiautomatix' and 'Totall(i)literate' in Kerala's own 'Duplicate Town', Kunnamkulam in Thrissur district.

Such mind-tickling, true storylines had been waiting all along, in Kerala, for an author and an illustrator to discover them. In Spices & Souls cartoonist E.P. Unny does precisely that and takes an amusing journey into the heart and soul of Kerala, displaying the kind of wit and wisdom that only an addicted Malayali is capable of and an eye for detail that only a diffident native can illustrate. What his illustrations lack in red, blue or purple vis-a-vis an Asterix adventure, he makes up in his choice observations and comments about his fellow Malayalis.

Spices & Souls is all about the true, colourful images that create unpainted Kerala and is rejuvenating therapy for both the native and the visitor alike. The ill-equipped, would-have-been conqueror Vasco da Gama's tryst with Pepperland; the once-thriving sea port of Muziris, now out of business and out of sight; the incongruity of a Namboodiri wearing a shirt in a supposedly A.D. 52 wall painting; the oldest surviving Christian and Muslim shrines on Indian soil; fast-track Ayurvedis bridled by the need to stir up magic potions; the Malayali penchant for embracing concrete, steel and glass; the dexterity of Kerala's martial arts exponents; the Dutch window that transports visitors to 17th century Amsterdam; the 51 hats that grace the teak-panelled walls of the High Range Club in Munnar; foreigner tourists practising pranayama inside a Jewish synagogue; a Kathakali maestro who sleeps only to wake up as a character; the healer-by-prayer Hydrose Koya Thangal; the weavers of Payyannur, the beedi-makers of Kalyassery; a Gandhian priest from Belgium; the last of the masters of Koodiyattam, the 200-year-old Sanskrit theatre; the Zamorin's palace that has thankfully disappeared and nd spirits with occult powers, not necessarily evil - all contribute to the book.

TRAVEL through Kerala with Unny and meet a variety of characters: Adi Sankara, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, (scholar) Kunjikkuttan Tampuran, (Kalari master) Vasudeva Gurukkal and (President) K.R. Narayanan, to name a few. Spices & Souls is a treat, thankfully not of cliched photographs but sketches covering every nook and corner of Kerala; from the rundown church originally built by the Portuguese to the low-cost houses of Laurie Baker, through Kunnamkulam and Kodungalloor to Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram. There is not much about politics in the book, except cryptic, pointed barbs about the losing grip of the 'traditional' and the emergence of the 'uncertain'.

The spice has always been present in writings on Kerala. But Unny now gives it meaning as he takes the reader beneath the veneer, along "narrow, winding Kerala" and its "God-be-with-you roads". In the process, he raises uncomfortable questions: Why are the Malayalis more homebound today? Why do they produce newspapers much the same way as they build houses? Why do they feel more comfortable talking to a faraway listener? Why do they get bored so easily and look up to 'ghosts, 'demons' and magical beings of all sizes and shapes? Why are they the hardest drinking community in India today?

The seemingly unkindest cut of all is perhaps his declaration that Kerala does not seem to have a particularly musical ear. He should know, being a regular witness to the unique - perhaps low-profile - musical experiences that the State has to offer. But where are the listeners, he asks.

BUT Unny does not mean to cause hurt. He is being typical. The Malayali, especially the non-resident, homesick variety, is always quick to the thrust when he pokes fun at his fellowmen's foibles. Such deprecation is, more often than not, a mixed-up show of affection. What comes through is a certain intimacy with Kerala. The stuff that makes good judges. He says: "Inside the Malayali, there seems to be a micro-Asterix. A subtle, subversive variation of the comic hero. But quite unlike the little Gaulish village conceived of by Goscinni and Uderzo, Kerala resists nothing consciously. In anything, it is only too eager to yield. If there were Romans surrounding it from all sides, it would have readily given in. The Romans would have rushed in and regretted it in ways far too complex for a comic book to delineate..."

Like all Asterix adventures, Spices & Souls could have just as well ended with the note: "But all such complicated problems melt away under the stars, like snow melting in the Sun, and for the XXVth time, the Malayalis celebrate the victory of their heroes over their enemies, thanks to magic, the protection of the gods and low cunning (sic!) and the re-establishment of their friendship..."

As the tormented Romans would have said, "By Jove, it's a good read!"

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