Singing and Drinking, Eating and Laughing in Calicut
By Caroline Osella
On a Sunday morning in Calicut’s Mother of God cathedral, English language mass draws a mixed crowd: Anglo-Indians; schoolteachers from the prestigious English medium convent school; aged anglophiles; visiting Africans who pass through Calicut for its famous football or for college; and the occasional European tourist or researcher. Week upon week, the music director worked his small (but intense) group of singers, guitarists and electric keyboard players, through rhythms and melodies which were new to me but felt like something I had heard on the radio back home in UK, perhaps on a golden oldies programme of 1950s crooners and rock and roll classics.
My voice, hesitant with the impossibly high notes and dragging tempo of the opening Victorian hymns, easily poured out from me and into the flow of youngsters’ sounds when we reached the high point of mass and the music director’s soulful sound took over. Week upon week, I chose to stand near the music group, where (m)any mistakes or bad notes of mine would be drowned by the amplified keyboard and powerful youthful voices, and where I could admire the skill and be drawn into the passion of the musicians. Sometimes during moments when my attention wandered, such as waiting for the queue to take communion to diminish, already in that space of altered consciousness which going to mass brings about, I would look at the music director in front of me, his communion wafer already dissolved and assimilated, and already preparing his group for the post-communion song, and I would see his neatly combed long black fringe morph into a pompadour quiff, his sober cream jacket into a golden tux.
After mass, I sometimes went back to the home of one of the elderly Anglo-Indian ladies, neat and tidy in their chintzy frocks, to buy a semi-secret semi-contraband bottle of ‘wine’: home-produced, strongly fruited and fortified, with the taste which triggered memories of my own grandmother’s home wine-making – there elderflower, blackberry, nettle; here in Calicut raisin, apple, plum. Once, at church in UK, I taught a friend to sing one of the yearning praise chants I had learned in Calicut. As we sang, it together while she broke bread and asked for blessings on the juice, I remembered the ‘rock n roll Mother of God musical director’ and felt the truth of the call to be part of a worldwide communion.
At Cochin bakery, the famed Calicut halva sits placidly in enormous slabs, gleaming with its slightly oily surface, content in the knowledge that is , indeed, the tastiest little mouthful you could allow to melt down your throat with a cup of burning and over-sweetened chai. If you turn around quickly, you might get a glimpse in a flash of the light of one of the jewels hidden inside this unctuous lump of gorgeousness: a cashew nut, icon at once of Kerala’s nadan agricultural wealth and also of its trade capacity and its histories of dhows, visiting Arabs, sweet-hungry Gujerati migrants, greedy 19th century sahippus and madammas, ganja-stoned tourists down from the hills with a severe case of the munchies. If you speak nicely to the staff, they might let you taste two or three flavours before you buy. The flavours and colours, like a juicy paintbox enlarged and illuminated on the glass countertops, tell stories of influences and connections, dreams of elsewhere. My favourite is always, always, the jaggery-rich deep brown halva which brings me the nostalgia of Travancore village meals and teas where jaggery was preferred over bland white sugar. But just for the amusement of novelty, and to please and support the innovative and creative impulses of the owner, I buy a little piece of pinkly-red strawberry flavour too. Strawberry flavour!
I first learnt my Kerala in a Travancore rural panchayat in the 1980s, where caste was all around and where food was a big, big deal: what you ate, who you ate it sitting down with, how you ate it, whether you shared it or not, how and by whom the plate was cleared away, what happened to the leftovers, even what kind of plate it was, its status – as temporary banana leaf, impervious metal, family china, a euphemistically ‘special’ visitors’ plate. Over 2 years, I learned to negotiate and play the nuances of a grammar of distance and intimacy, inflected through gestures such as offering to pick up your own plate and wash it, rather than expect somebody else to handle it; what a refusal of tea and an ‘I already drank, thank you’ really meant; when to press and force tea and when to hold back and respect a refusal; when to offer bakery goods and when such an offer would be presumptive; to know that rice could always be asked for, but never offered; how to dodge questions about what I had eaten in whose house (and why such questions were so insistent); to accept and eat as best I could the things which people graciously and in their hospitality offered up as suitable for amadamma (fried eggs, Maggi noodles, a famous nadan meal of costly prawns and green mango); to manage three Onam festival lunch saddhya meals so that nobody would be offended and so that my temporary bindings to three families would be sealed.
What a shock when I hit Calicut in 2002, and was invited to eat at Shahida’s home…Chicken fry and rice were put down, and I fussily picked off the best white meat and left the tougher parts and the gristly bits attached to the bones on my plate side. See how badly I have learnt my lessons! Forgive me for how weak has been my commitment to fit in! Know how spoilt and sanitised are the food habits of the UK, where meat is cut, cleaned, shrink-wrapped and disguised away from its origin, with much of the butcher’s work going towards the offcuts designated for pet-foods. Shahida did not comment on how spoilt and fussy I was, nor did she sigh over the waste. She looked at my plate, leaned across, and asked me: “Do you not want that bit?” I shamefacedly shook my head. She leaned in closer, smiled reassurance and said, “I love these bits! Do you mind?” Shahida chewed and sucked on those little tough bits of chicken (which my daughter assures me are, for real, the tastiest), and Shahida laughed both at and along with me naughtily while doing it, camping it up and making a show of the chew, the smack of the lips, the joy of the crunch, and encouraging me to camp it up with her, acting out my horror and refusal to munch those bits.
This kind of total hospitality – the lavish food, the open-hearted acceptance of another’s food foibles, the willingness to touch and eat what others would recoil from and name as juthu – hit me with a force I can hardly begin to name or reckon. This moment, laced with laughter, became one of those keystone moments of fieldwork, one in which you understand something about a place and a people, and one in which I also began to unravel and unlearn much of what I had so nit-pickingly trained myself into down the years in Kerala. I went on to theorise and write about that moment, as part of what I felt as a more generalised orientation in Calicut towards the outside world. This has something to do with being a coastal town linked since forever to the Arabian sea; something to do with being a longstanding bazaar town and market hub for goods and traders from many circuits; something to do with continuous migrations into and out of the city (of Keralites and a host of others, some becoming settlers); something to do with being situated specifically as part of an ex-colony under direct rule, with quite severe and intimate interpenetration of communities (unintended consequences galore). And in Shahida’s house, it also had something to do with adab and with being a kindly host and human.
Dr. Caroline Osella is Reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her website: https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff31568.php
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.