My absorption into the Kerala culture began with a line in the Lonely Planet guide. “Wearing Indian-style clothes is viewed favourably…wearing a salwar kameez will help you blend in”. Since suitable clothing was proving hard to locate in Wellington, I discussed the idea of buying Indian clothes with some Indian friends in New Zealand. Nobody told me I was crazy, so I decided then that I’d take the bare minimum from New Zealand and go shopping on my arrival in Thrissur.
I googled Indian clothing and enquired about the possibility of shopping in Thrissur with my colleagues in India. Yes, this would be a good idea, and some PhD students from the Kerala Forest Research Institute would be able to take me.
And so, the day after arrival, I found myself dazzled by every colour I could have possibly imagined, all together, all at once. After years of searching for bursts of brightness in Wellington’s black-stocked clothing shops, I had finally found a place equal to my colour sense. I didn’t know where to start.
I had one requirement – it must be cotton. Locals are acclimatised to wearing long-sleeved synthetic tops and trousers in a humid 33oC, but I am not. This narrowed my search to maybe half the shop, and still every imaginable colour combination. So I collected a random selection and began trying things.
Now my obliging colleagues began to show me how the clothing worked. With the churidar, the full skirt, the trousers are tight. I wanted the loose trousers – the salwar – for comfort, so that meant matching with a kurti – a straighter, long shirt. The scarf or dupatta must always match the trousers, and will often contrast with the kurti but will also connect in some way.
I left the first shop with a pink salwar and dupatta and two kurti, one bright green with pink trim, one a bold black and white botanical pattern with pink, orange and green trim. The second shop I left with a bright orange kurti, which had a woven pattern in blue, purple and jade. It matched with jade salwar and dupatta. I also had a more toned-down churidar with a black base, but lots of pattern in red, green and yellow. On a further shopping trip I acquired a an unbleached cotton kurti with a lime and dark-green botanical pattern, and matching lime salwar and dupatta. I was getting the hang of things.
I resisted the efforts of a sales assistant to sell me eye-liner, but found some lime and pink earrings to complete one of my outfits. In the collection of earrings I had brought from New Zealand, I found one pair in orange and jade, and one in lime and dark green. Perfect.
The clothing was just the start. I still had to cope with the food. For my first Kerala meal, I joined a number of colleagues in the hotel restaurant. I was feeling paranoid. Travel guides, the travel doctor and New Zealand friends had all shared alarming stories of the hazards of eating in India. I was warned that I would suffer for the first few days, just from the dietary adjustment, even if I didn’t catch any bugs. I couldn’t count the number of people who told me to pack Imodium. And I couldn’t lie in my hotel and suffer. I had to stand in front of a room of people and teach.
I peered at the hotel buffet with concern. There was hot rice, a reasonably safe bet. The vegetarian curries were also kept hot, and there was hot soup. Chapati – probably ok too. Salads – on my list of things to avoid. Tasty looking chutneys made fresh from raw coconut and other ingredients I couldn’t identify, probably not. Sweet hot milky desserts – not sure. So at that first meal I ate vegetarian curries and rice, and after finding the first few mouthfuls rather hot with chilli, I began to adjust. They tasted good anyway. I was offered some dessert and decided to eat that too.
As I ate, I realised I was eating with a fork while my local colleagues had put their forks down after a couple of mouthfuls. Of course, you don’t eat Indian food with forks or spoons. I put down my fork and began a rather clumsy effort at eating my lunch. I’ve had a bit of practice at eating with my fingers when I have chapati, but with just rice, I was struggling. I was assured I could use a fork if I wanted to. I assured them that I was fine, I just needed the practice.
That was the last time I touched a fork during my visit.
The promised discomfort and diarrhoea failed to materialise. After the next meal, where I also ate some meat, it equally failed to appear. After eating idli, sambar (a dal and vegetble curry) and dhosa for breakfast, I was fine. I tried some of the fresh coconut chutney – the restaurant seemed clean and I thought it was probably freshly made. No problem. I drank tea in tea shops and ate some random cake-like things. Fine.
Meal after delicious meal, I became slightly less concerned. In a stunning hotel in the mountains, I was served a number of cold dishes, with pineapple, coconut, curd, cut fruit and fruit juice. I decided to trust this place and ate everything in front of me. Delicious, and no problem. I began to worry about weight gain more than diarrhoea.
During the training course, the food was supplied by the Kerala Forest Research Institute. It was delicious, and I was assured they were very clean. I ate everything in front of me, including fresh fruit salad and icecream. My colleagues stopped offering cutlery and starting putting new dishes in front of me to try.
I thanked them using one of my few Malayalam phrases – nani.
I was still a foreign visitor and a visiting expert, but I found that people began to talk more with me, to become more comfortable. Partly it was the training – the interactive exercises made it difficult for people to stay silent. But maybe it was also because I was being gently absorbed into some aspects of the Keralan culture, and finding it a very comfortable place indeed.