Tuesday 14 November 2017

A Postcard From India - 9 Cochin, people at work.

Cochin was the final stop on my recent tour of India. It had a different pace and feel to the huge cities further, less crowded and more relaxed. But there was at least one similarity and that was the warm hearted welcome of the people in the street, in the cafes and at their place of work.

In Cochin I met people from many different backgrounds. I met fishermen whose families have worked here for generations, people working in the Dhobi Khana in Fort Cochin, women working in weaving and pappadum co-operatives and merchants selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables in the bazaar at Ernakulam. And of course, there were chance encounters with people in the street. As elsewhere in India, people were happy to stop, talk, offer tea and to be photographed.

Husband and wife ironing team, Dhobi Khana
Washerman, Dhobi Khana
Mumbai's Dhobi Ghats (laundries) are well known and attract many visitors from around the world. Less well known, but just as interesting is Cochin's Dhobi Khana. This is where hotels, hospitals and private homes can send their laundry to be dealt with in the traditional way. The current site was established in 1976 by the Greater Cochin Development Authority but the laundry dates from the colonial period when the British brought Tamil villagers here to work as washermen.

The Khana has separate sections for washing, drying and ironing. Items are first soaked in water and a light detergent before being beaten on stones, rinsed, dried and ironed. There are 40 "pens" in which the washing takes place, each pen being allocated to a separate family. The washing is normally done by men whilst both men and women iron and women look after the drying. Some of the charcoal irons used were originally brought from Sri Lanka, several decades ago, their continued use a testament to their durability. Drying takes about five hours and the items are hung without the aid of pegs, instead they are tucked between the ropes so that the wind cannot carry them away. Rice water is used for items that require starching.

Despite the work being hard, several older people are still employed here. This may in part be because the younger generation are drifting away from this type of work and finding employment elsewhere. The laundry also competes with technology as more and more hotels, hostels and hospitals have their own automated facilities. The people I met were friendly and used to visitors coming to see their pace of work. When asked if they would mind being photographed, some of them assumed quite formal poses. There were of course exceptions - including the wife of the serious looking man in the blue shirt. She found it all amusing!

One of the most rewarding things about traveling are chance encounters with people in the street. After visiting St. George's Orthodox Church in Mattanchery, I noticed a single storey house painted in pastel colours, with a split "saloon style" door, what appeared to be a drop down counter and the remnant of two posters. I took a couple of pictures and a face appeared at the open upper part of the door. A young man waved, called hello and indicated that he would like to be photographed. I went across to him, managed to exchange a few words and then took the picture above. He told me his name is Babu. He was very pleased to be photographed. 

Similarly, when walking in Synagogue Lane, I noticed an elderly man dressed in a crisp white t-shirt and brightly coloured lungi. This was Hamid, aged 82 and still working as a cycle rickshaw driver. His rickshaw was parked outside one of the restaurants on the Lane whilst he sheltered from the afternoon heat and waited for his next customer. I learned that he has a family that take care of him but that he wants to continue working and to maintain some independence. He was clearly proud of his elegant and very well kept rickshaw.

It is not unusual to meet people who work into their old age in India. Many continue to work in family businesses whilst others work independently in order to maintain themselves. I saw several older women working in the streets selling lottery tickets including the lady dressed in purple pictured below.

Hamid, cycle rickshaw driver
Lottery ticket saleswoman
Many of the people I met earn a living from selling food in the street or in cafes and restaurants. The bazaar at Enrkulam is full of colour, aromas and noise. Here you can find brightly coloured spices, home made pickles, countless types of garlic and onions, every kind of fruit and vegetable you could think of and lots more. There are also different kinds of banana for sale . I spotted a store room door left open and was fascinated by the shapes of the bunches of green bananas pointing outwards and the contrast with the red walls of the shop. Whilst photographing this, the merchant asked me to wait a moment, retreated to the rear of the shop and then came back with a huge bunch of bananas that he proudly held up for another picture. The merchants here and at other markets in India were very proud of their fresh produce and several would hold up their best stock to show me and to pose for a picture.

Proud of the produce, Ernakulam bazaar
Weighing bananas, Ernakulam bazaar
Lime seller, Ernakulam bazaar
It was towards the end of the day when I arrived at the bazaar and some of the merchants were beginning to wind down and relax after a long day of selling. I noticed three men sitting in the shade, baskets of limes at their feet. The wall behind them was plastered with posters announcing a political conference, some of which featured pictures of Stalin who could also be seen in a framed painting at the top of the wall beside portraits of Lenin, Marx and other Communist luminaries. Private enterprise meets socialism in the market place. I especially wanted to photograph these men because of the backdrop, the way the light fell across their crisp white clothing and the gentle face of the man beneath the Stalin poster.

Under the posters, Ernakulam bazaar
The Sree Venkateshwara tea shop in Parur was one of my favourite places in Kerala. As well as tea, the shop sells tasty hot snacks and treats, all of them prepared on the premises using local produce. I visited on a Saturday morning and the shop was full with local people enjoying the tea, snacks and the chance to catch up on news with friends and family. One of the staff asked me where I was from and how I liked the tea before inviting me to look around behind the scenes where I saw chapatis being made, vegetables being peeled and curries being prepared for the hungry customers. I was also given free rein to take as many pictures as I liked. Some of the staff found this very amusing, especially when their friends were being photographed but all were interested in seeing themselves on the camera and I was able to arrange for them to receive copies of the pictures later on. Perhaps the star of the show was the man making the tea who pulled an impossibly long flow of liquid between the pot and a jug

Pouring the tea, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop Parur
In the kitchen, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Keeping an eye on things, Sree Venkateshwara tea shop, Parur
Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad
There are several co-operatives in Kerala, organisations where people work together for mutual social, economic and cultural benefit. The co-operatives are mutually owned and democratically organised. I visited two such organisations in Cochin, both of them run by and for women. Sree Mahila Thejas Pappad produces many different types of papad, also known as pappadums, the thin, disc shaped food usually made from black garam flour, fried or cooked with dry heat. Fans of Indian food will have enjoyed them with pickles whilst waiting for their man courses to come to the table.  This co-operative produces, packs and distributes thousands of papad every day, including deep red ones, filled with chilli and sweeter banana chips. I left the co-operative with several purchases to enjoy on my return to London.

I visited a second women's co-operative, one where many women are employed in weaving. The co-operative trains local women to use traditional hand-operated looms to produce garments and household goods in order to be able to make a living.

Weaving co-operative
Weaving co-operative
Chinese nets fishermen
Frying fish straight from the waterside
Kerala is famous for its cuisine which includes many dishes made from locally caught fresh fish. The Chinese fishing nets of Cochin are one of the area's special attractions. The nets are attached to fixed land installations set up on bamboo and teak poles held horizontally by large mechanisms that lower them into the sea. The nets are left in the water for a short time before being lifted out by the fishermen pulling on ropes. Legend has it that the nets were introduced to the area by an explorer, one Zheng He,  who came from the court of Kublai Khan. For a small fee, the fishermen will show tourists how the nets work as well as giving them the chance to help pull the ropes. There are also independent fishermen who work with less sophisticated but still traditional methods, standing in the sea and casting nets by hand.

Every evening, the fishermen come to a small jetty in Cochin where the daily catch is auctioned. A crowd quickly gathers and the sale proceeds apace. It is not unusual for the purchased fish to be taken directly to one of the street food stalls adjacent to the water and then cooked immediately. You can't get any fresher than that.

You might also like A Postcard from India - 6, Calcutta - the people in the street or A Postcard from India - 8, Jewish Kerala

You can see more pictures from India here.

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderfully written travel experience. The pictures are so full of life and the beauty of them is the fact that, they are the kind of people whom everybody walks by without noticing. Thank you for bringing them and their stories to life for us. The tea man's picture was awesome!
    B. Thomas