We started the day off with a great idly/sambar at Muthoot Homez Akkulam, one of our haunts along the highway.
It’s a cool little place across from the big-ass mall construction site and it’s also one of those quintessential Kerala dining experiences, meaning it’s little more than a lean-to with a kitchen…and totally packed. The food is excellent and fresh and the clientele is always in a hurry. Just our kind of place.
The whole point was to get to the Lord’s Hospital queue early and get a number before the crowds showed up.
Not to worry, friends, we’ve both been wanting to see a dermatologist while we were here to get some things checked out and see if we could get some grooming surgery done. Once one is no longer young, the skin, it changes.
Dena had done some research and found this hospital, which was close to us and had a pretty good rep for that kind of thing.
Anyway, the dermatologist decided to take the day off so we rode away. Since a broken water main had washed out the road to the left, we went back the way we came, headed west. We came to a crossroads and I (James) barked ahead, “You want to go left to the beach?”
I (Dena) smiled and bolted around the auto-rickshaw/Bajaj delivery truck tangle that had held us up.
It doesn’t take much convincing to get either one us stoked for a beach adventure.
The breeze was nice, the Arabian Sea was calm and kind, and it was a work day so not many people about.
We rode north along the coastal route and dipped into a few different photogenic spots…
And ultimately ended up behind one of the christian monstrosities before shrugging and pointing our wheels back home.
As we were coming around the church a young lady waved us down. We stopped and exchanged greetings. She had an open and enthusiastic air to her and I (Dena) sincerely appreciate enthusiasm. She very nicely gave us a brief background. Her name was Lauren and she was from Canada visiting India as a musician.
When she asked her hosts in the North where they thought she should go to see some sights in India, they were quick to point her to Kerala! Lauren had been driven down from Hyderabad, where she had finished up her performance the day before, by someone who was getting a flight at the airport, so that’s where she touched God’s Own Country first.
Being the consummate adventurer, Lauren planned to figure it out when she got there. She saw a Tourist Village on the beach and started walking. She walked right past the combo playground-and-worksite and hoofed it all the way to a different stretch of beach…
…where we were standing all misty-eyed, gawking at our one great Ocean!
An anglo looking stranger had registered in the corner of our eyes (yes, in the eyes of each of us), but we do not tend to seek out congress with white folks, India being the place where white people go to avoid each other. An energetic flapping of her scarf seemed like, perhaps, an attempt to dry the sweat of a hot sunny tropical day.
When we turned and started riding off, she hoofed it down from the church steps and waved us down, as aforementioned.
She asked us if we knew of anything cool that she could do in the 24 hours that she had in TVM. Of course we froze and it took a moment to put our thoughts together.
We’ve been curating our lives and our travels for a very, very long time to give us maximum flexibility. Our entire boating life exists because I (Dena) once said to James that I wanted to move and travel without having to pack and unpack. In a larger sense, it’s about being able to have new astounding experiences and then retreat to something familiar, some place that is home and provides time and space for integrating the new.
So yeah. It took a minute. But we directed her to East Fort, where she could see the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple and cross the street to visit Chalai Market (which I blanked the name of in the moment).
Musician, or right, she’s a musician…
We planned to attend one of a set of ten concerts being given in that very area, at the Kuthiramalika Palace, part of a festival that had been going on since November and which was wrapping up this week.
Nearly 200 years ago, the Travancore Kingdom had a king who was into music. Reeeeally into it. Composed and arranged it. And did a good enough job that folks get together once a year for a 10 day festival of it.
His name was Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. He wrote lyrics in seven languages.
We recommended that she hit up the free concert that evening and said that we would be going. Only afterward did we wonder what kind of music she did and whether she’d be in to Carnatic music, basically the opera of India.
Hard telling, not knowing.
We went. Sri Saketharaman, on vocals, also seemed to be something like a band leader. He conducted, slapping his thigh to the beat of a one-two-three-and that was actually a 4/4. Sort of. The crowd sometimes clapped along, the three-and done with the back rather than the front of the hand in the palm of the other.
Sri Sampath on violin, wow!
Sri N.C. Bharadwaj on mridingam, fucking wow!
Sri Krishnakumar on ghatam, holy shit, fucking wow!
And a Tambura player that (sadly) got no credit in the literature and quickly disappeared after the show, again with the wow thing!
Dena and I (James) allowed ourselves to be taken by these incredible musicians to the fullest; we were entranced from the moment we set foot in the venue until the very end. They were virtuosos one and all and their love for the art form flowed through everyone in attendance.
About an hour into it I started getting texts from Lauren. It seemed she was pretty happy with hanging out at the home-stay she’d discovered after our meeting so I figured she was looking for a reason to blow the whole thing off.
Well, I wasn’t having any! I was in the middle of a musical experience that was inspiring me and I told her as much.
She showed up at the Temple about twenty minutes later.
She sat in front of us and off to the right so it wasn’t hard to watch her reactions to the whole thing and it was pretty cool. She is definitely a musician that is still inspired by greatness.
I believe Carnatic music covers the entire spectrum of the emotional state of music. Much like European Opera it tosses subtlety out the window musically so the listener can focus on the importance of the emotional message. If you allow yourself to be taken by it the journey can be truly profound.
I (Dena) think that practitioners of both musical arts would take issue with the idea that they throw subtlety out the window, but the point stands. This is not background music. It’s in your face and in your head and in your chest music. It’s unapologetically huge and I think you could really hurt someone with that shit if you weren’t careful.
I (James) totally agree but my experience with the Carnatic trance that night booted subtlety to the curb, replacing it with the boxing glove of white-boy emotion. Okay, enough with the metaphor; the jams were cool and I dug it.
After the show we all kind of fell into each other’s arm and started the talking-all-over-each-other thing that is either really disrespectful or the clue that you may be at home with other people.
Music is the thing that has that kind effect on humans. It’s beautiful in the moment and it’s sublime when the effect is mutually recognized.
We were all famished and it was the end of the nightly festivities at one of the most popular Hindu temples in India, so it took us a few tries to get in to a place.
We settled in at the downtown iteration of the chain restaurant Shree Sarabanabhavan for some curry, some parotta, a masala dosa, and a juice or two…or three…or four!
(Dena’s internal food critic would like to say that the parotta were sublime — fresh with a crispiness — but the curries were chain-boring.)
During the conversation we all learned some very important things about ourselves. The three of us learned that when you meet someone who feels like ‘chosen family’, you bring it up! We learned that, if you got a cool flat to offer up, offer that motherfucker up goddamnit!
When Lauren learned that American Author Dena Hankins wrote erotic fiction, she leaned back in her chair and said, “Really, tell me about that!”
And when Dena and James learned that Lauren sang opera, we leaned back in our seats and said, “Really!? And what do you think about busting out some opera right here, right now?”
The next thing that came out of Lauren’s mouth flattened the entire restaurant.
Lauren sang us only a short verse from Lauretta’s aria: O Mio Babbino Caro, by Puccini. But I bet everyone within a block of that little restaurant that night will remember that moment for the rest of their lives.
I know I will. That was the night Lauren Eberwein sang opera at Shree Sarabanabhavan after a concert at the temple.
And that is why you are in India. Or should I say that is why you are in this world?
You are exactly right!