Welcome to Kochi - a city of remedies
Kochi - the Queen of the Arabian Sea. The commercial capital of God's Own Country*. A booming city. A city bustling with activity, bursting with people. A city that breathes history and yet boasts of reasonable modernity. A city of colour and cultures.
And a city of jams.
Jams - not of the sweet, bottled kind, but of a frustrating, tempers-flaring kind; the kind where you are stuck on the road, in the middle of a maddening flurry of cars, honking buses, auto-rickshaws, amidst exhaust smoke, the noise of horns and angry voices, stuck in a bus or a car, running late for an appointment.
You have not been in a traffic jam unless you've experienced one in Kochi.
Now Bangaloreans may be rightfully upset with that statement, and I may yet be convinced, but at least for now, for me, Kochi takes the cake. The latest construction of the Metro through the very heart of Kochi has thankfully ensured that the jams do not show a preference for any particular time of the day - jams are always on; anytime is jam time. They have become a part of the Kochi lifestyle.
But the last time we were in Kochi, we experienced a traffic jam of a different kind - it was not related to the Metro construction at all. This one was much more interesting and hence I would like to describe it in some detail.
This was when we were in Kochi last December. December is when Kochi is at its best - cool and comfortable, not too hot and not too wet; we usually make it a point to be in Kochi during December, if we can.
We had a school alumni meet to attend and we thought it would be a good idea to take the kids along too, giving them a chance to meet some of our school friends and their children. The meeting was scheduled to start at 5:30 in the evening, and the venue was probably about 10 km away from our home. Going by normal driving times in Kochi, that should have probably meant a 30 minute drive, but knowing Kochi traffic, we decided to give it a full hour extra - we left home at 4pm, leaving us a luxurious 90 minute window to reach the place.
And we seemed to be making very good progress; we were only about 3 km away from the venue and it was not yet 4:30, with more than an hour to go! I remember mentioning to Preethi that we will probably look like idiots arriving at a function in Kerala almost an hour before the start, when the accepted practice is to arrive at least one hour late! So we thought we would roam around a bit before making our way to the actual venue. Such were the options that we were discussing, as we exited the side road that we were travelling on and turned into a major road, with less than 3 km to reach the venue.
In a matter of seconds, I realized the wisdom behind that old adage, warning of the danger of counting the chicken before they are hatched. For, beginning from the turn that we had just taken, all the way till the eye could see (and that was almost the whole length of the road!), it was a massive jam. It was a two-lane road, but I could easily count at least three or four lanes of interweaving traffic!
And as I strained my neck to see if there had been an accident or something up-front causing this jam, I realized that the reason was not that complicated. The jam was caused by four or five elephants on the road, and a procession of people with huge, decorated kaavadis^, dancing on the road behind the elephants. It was a procession from a nearby temple.
Being the quick man of reflexes that I pride myself to be, I immediately looked back to see if there was a way to go back to the side road from which we had just exited. My heart sank when I saw a huge bus and an even bigger truck cutting off that escape route; in fact threatening to run me down if I even dared to think of such a silly idea.
We were in - we were stuck and there was no escaping.
I was mad, fuming, almost yelling inside the car - and for folks who know me really well, they missed a golden opportunity to see the "angry young man" in me, peeping his unruly head out! Anyway, I distinctly remember being angry; anger turning into frustration; frustration quickly turning to anxiety, then to helplessness.
All the while, my analyst mind and that of my son's, was trying to find a way out of the situation. Surely there had to be an alternate way. But we realized to our dismay that the next exit out of the road that we were stuck on, was not for at least a further two kilometres ahead. So other than air lifting us out of this place, there was absolutely no way out. No turning left, right or back - just keep moving forward as fast, rather as slow as we could.
And over the next five minutes, the frustration grew even worse. Until it hit all of us almost at the same time that there was absolutely nothing anyone of us could do. We had to sit and wait till they decided to end this slow game of "follow the elephants".
And the moment we realized that, the mood in the car turned completely. Soon we began to see sights along the road that were there a second earlier, but we had not really taken note of. There was the policeman standing beside the road, also with an air of complete indifference, talking away on his mobile phone. He who was supposed to control the crowd and the traffic had absolutely no clue as to what was happening. People going by not did not seem to care about this inconvenience at all, they seemed to accommodate it fully - it was a part of life as they knew it. We rolled down the windows and let the beat of the drums from far ahead stream in. I started to beat to that rhythm on the steering wheel. And then someone spotted a huge pile of elephant dung on the road just beside the car; it was not every-day that a couple of kids from Singapore got to see so much dung at such close quarters. They examined the texture of the dung and observed the yellow golden fibres that held it all together. Almost a full National Geographic show right there. Most people in the buses caught in the jam had got down and were walking, faster than the buses! Empty buses moving along slowly in that crowd of humanity seemed almost surreal. The kids caught on the idea and got down from the car too and walked along for a while, comfortably beating the car.
There was no more frustration; no more anxiety. We were in fact laughing, we were smiling and waving at people on the street. I even rolled down the window and had a chat with one of the policemen, who seemed to be enjoying the ambience immensely. And why not?
And what had led to this dramatic change in mood? It was just a change in attitude - accepting some of the realities of life, surrendering to the moment and the situation, opening our minds to enable us to enjoy the moment. It was not a defeatist attitude - we had tried options to get out - and now there was not much we could do. But we ended up enjoying that trip, which lasted a full two hours more, as we had probably not enjoyed a trip in a long time. And even though we reached the venue only at 7 pm (the event had not started yet, true Indian Stretchable Time!), we were in a great mood. A journey that could have become a disaster, ended up being a memorable one.
And that's exactly the point of this note - no matter how frustrating a situation is, how difficult it may seem, with a slight shift in perspective, a slight tweak in attitude, we can make the most out of the most depressing situations. We can always find a pile of dung or a policeman on the road - we just have to look, we just need to be willing to look.
And so I would like to give Kochi a new tag, Kochi - a city of remedies. If there's any one among you struggling with a problem of anger management, please visit Kochi. Allow yourself to get stuck in one of its jams. Your anger will melt away very soon. If there's someone impatient, please visit Kochi. A jam will teach you lessons in patience that you may not learn in a lifetime. Do you worry that you are sometimes proud and arrogant? Please visit Kochi and allow yourself to be on the road for a while. All that heady feeling of pride, arrogance and the sense that you are in control, will be gone in a matter of seconds.
And you will soon begin to appreciate the beauty of dung on the road.
Welcome to Kochi - a city of remedies.
PS : As far as I know the phrase "City of Remedies" is original and Google tells me that it has not been trademarked yet - so I will probably apply for a trademark and pass it on to the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation!
* There are quite a few articles on God's Own Country on Wikipedia (source: Wikipedia -> God's Own Country). I am not sure how many of the citations are factually accurate. According to the wikipedia page, the phrase seems to have been used to refer to several places such as Australia, the United States, Kerala (India) and Yorkshire, and also mentions that it has been used for more than 100 years by New Zealanders to describe their homeland. But as most Keralites will attest to, in recent years the phrase has been adopted as a slogan by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation.
^ A kaavadi consists of two semi-circular pieces of wood or steel which are bent and attached to a cross structure that can be balanced on the shoulders of the devotee. It is often decorated with flowers and peacock feathers among other things. Some of the kaavadis can weigh up to 30 kg. (source: Wikipedia -> kavadi)