The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

December’s foggy freeze

You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.

Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.

Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.

Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.

Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?

Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.

Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.

Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, and with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.

Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.

Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We’d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport in Duesseldorf The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.

Streetside chocolate

We’d met these chocolate shops in Munnar: small enterprises who make their own flavours. They are called home-made, but the quantities are too large for that. The word of hour is artisanal, but I don’t think the people here would like some of the assumptions behind that description. I will go with “home-made” with the scare quotes. Walking about Jew Town in Kochi, we saw this cart of “home made” chocolate. So what if it was much sweeter than what we normally eat? We were on holiday. We got a small quantity of dark chocolate with almonds and cashews, and ate them for the rest of the week as we walked about Fort Kochi. When traveling, eat local. Except that this local depends on a centuries old supply chain which spans the globe. Change that to eat traditional.

Art cafes of Kochi

Kochi turned out to be a wonderful place to have a relaxed holiday. The few square kilometers contains an unending supply of cafes to hang out in, art to admire, and sometimes the two together. Unlike many of our recent breaks, we decided to go with the flow: just two or three must-dos for tourists. The featured photo comes from one of our favourite relaxed places: an old bungalow turned into a cafe. Instead of asking for the espresso, we went with pots of tea as we sat and let any cares drain away. The fans kept a breeze flowing through the hall, and the lovely space compensated for the beautiful but not-so-comfortable chairs we sat in.

There are several famous art cafes in Kochi, but we found them too crowded to relax in. You can find any number of them; most have a good espresso, and many have good food. The squid was fresh in the first cafe we visited. The one you see in these photos was remarkable because of the number of masks on the wall.

I sent a couple of photos to a cousin who is quite a mask-collector, and we decided to take a trip together to this Mecca of masks. I think she’s still trying to identify the places where each of them comes from.

Another cafe had this remarkable Kerala mural version of the last supper. I don’t quite remember what we ate in this place, but I did spend some time admiring all the art on the wall.

The one time we went to one of the better known art cafes was just after lunch one afternoon, looking only for a coffee. Strange, isn’t it, to walk into a cafe for nothing but a coffee? Fortunately, it was a slack hour, and they didn’t mind us taking up a whole table for a while. I liked this space, although I could see that it would be standing room only in a while.

While on the subject of art for sale, how can one not end with the most iconic visual symbol of capitalism on the planet? We live under a shadow.

The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

Paradesi Synagogue

Many years ago at the other end of the world, I met an Indian expatriate preparing a shabbat meal in a house that I’d been invited to. As the long evening began to draw to an end, just before she left for her own family shabbat, we exchanged a few words. She was a Cochin Jew. The northern lights in the sky that night that evening were no more exotic to me than my first meeting with a piece of India’s past. There is a tradition that Judaism arrived in Malabar after the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Judaic temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the 1st century CE. The first European Jewish travelers visited India in the 12th centuries and were surprised by the pre-existing Judaic tradition. After the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century, some came and settled in Kerala, and became known as the Paradesi Yehudi (foreign Jews). When their first temple in Kochi was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, they were given protection by the king of Kochi, and land next to the palace to build what is known today as the Paradesi Synagogue.

One morning we joined a stream of tourists walking down a narrow lane to visit this synagogue. After most of the local Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, this remains the only synagogue in the region which is in regular use. The clock tower that you see in this photo stands at the end of the lane and dates from the 18th century. I would guess that the clock is more recent, perhaps only a hundred years old. We bought entry tickets at a window next to the entrance. I did not realize that the lady who sold us our tickets was one of the last people in this community. It is strange to realize that old customs are coming to an end in front of our eyes, and we are often oblivious to them.

Opposite the entrance to the synagogue was this old gate embellished with stars of David and symbols of the menorah. Perhaps the garden behind the gate also belongs to the synagogue. In any case, it was out of bounds for tourists. At the entrance lobby we were directed to first see a little gallery which gave the history of the destruction of the first synagogue and the establishment of this one under the protection of the king of Kochi. Only after we’d seen this display were we allowed to take off our shoes and proceed to the main synagogue.

Meanwhile The Family had found a famous plaque (featured photo) from the first synagogue to be built in Kochi. Oral traditions say that this was founded three years after the ancient port of Muziris was swept away in a massive flood of the Periyar river. Interestingly, during the colonial period a clear distinction was made between European Jews and others. Cochin Jews were allowed to worship at this synagogue, but not allowed to be members. Descendants of black slaves brought by the Europeans were allowed to sit outside the synagogue during prayers. It was only in the 20th century that these barriers were finally removed.

No photography is allowed inside the synagogue. The floor was tiled with blue and white Chinese hand painted tiles, and a pulpit with brass railings dominated the center. A very large number of chandeliers were suspended from the wood paneled ceiling. A steep staricase, almost a ladder, led up to a wooden upper gallery at the eastern end of the room. The way up was barred. Polished wooden slabs, dark with age, provided benches at the windows. We were glad to sit for a while. The sky was overcast and the air was extremely humid, so the little breeze from the window was welcome. Back outside I took a couple of photos of the simple white-washed building.

Instagram food

We had some memorable meals in Kochi: Malabar biryani, a Dutch bread, and wonderful sea food. On our last night in Kochi we could go back to the place which we’d liked most till then, or explore a new place. We opted to explore something new which had good ratings. The reviews on various restaurant sites were good, and the photos of the dishes also looked good. It was only when our order came to the table that we realized that the chef spends all his energy on making the food instagrammable. The seared octopus that you see in the featured photo looked wonderful, and I took a photo before digging in. There was no seasoning at all. The dark grains were carbon. The crisp black and white wafer was sago granules in carbon. Talk of food turning to ashes in your mouth! The rest of dinner proceeded along the same line.

To the adage “Never judge a book by its cover” we must add “Never judge food by its photo”.

Where the first anti-colonial revolt happened

We had our first sight of this interesting Syrian Christian church when we walked into Kayees for a biryani for our first lunch in Kochi. We passed the St. George church of Mattancherry several times during the next few days. Finally, one morning The Family stopped at this place and led me in. Even then, we did not realize how important this site is in the history of anti-European protests in the world. It is a lovely modern structure, open to the air like so many of the traditional churches of Kerala. It was only later, when I started reading about it, that I realized that this place should be in every guidebook.

Bear with me for a moment while I paint in a background history which is not part of anyone’s textbooks. Christianity took root in the Deccan in the 1st century CE, the tradition being that it was brought by St. Thomas, who was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. The church of India was represented at the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first gathering of Christian churches across the then-known world. Jesuit priests arrived in India with the Portuguese and began to Latinize the Malabar church, starting with the foundation of a diocese in Kochi in 1558. The revolt called the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Sathyam), refers to a public oath taken by the Malabar Christian community in 1653 that they would resist the Latinization of the church, and would not recognize the authority of the Pope.

While I was still fussing about the coconut trees and the framing of the featured photo, The Family had discovered a cross at one side of the forecourt which seemed to be special. In retrospect I wonder whether this was the famous cross which was the famous leaning cross in front of which about 200,000 Christians took the oath of revolt against the Portuguese priest. I had discovered a dedication in another part of the forecourt which said that the foundation stone of the new structure was laid on 29th October 2005, and the church was consecrated on 3rd January 2006, to commemorate the 353rd anniversary of the oath.

I walked into a chapel with a large cross at its center, presumably the historic Coonan cross. A medallion at the center of the glass window behind it held a representation of the Turkish-Roman soldier who is today called St. George. This church holds some relics of the saint, and therefore could be considered to be among the most important churches dedicated to him. It is interesting that the stories of St. George had wide currency in the east, and even entered into Islamic theology as a prophet, but was carried to western Europe only after the crusades. This church overturned many of my assumptions about Indian, and the wider Asian, culture and history. I do wish that more people stop by here to see this site of the first Indian rebellion against European colonialism.

Vasco was here

On Christmas Eve we reached Kochi’s St. Francis church a little late. The church is a historic monument, being the oldest church built by Europeans in India. and not in use, and it was closed by the time we reached. The Portuguese style facade looked interesting, and we wondered whether it would be open the next day.

The church was not only open when we went back in the morning of Christmas day, but it was crowded. As we walked in through the open gate I realized that this was a pretty international crowd from the old world. Europeans on holiday spoke languages from the east, west, north and south of the continent, and there were Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Chinese tourists too. I hadn’t expected that Kochi would be such a widely appreciated destination.

The door was wider than it was high, not something I’ve seen before. Even if you include the height of the arch above it into the opening, it was still an unusually wide doorway. The current facade is certainly not older than 1506 CE, when the Portuguese were allowed to convert the wooden St. Bartolomew’s church, which had been built here in 1503, into a masonry and stone structure with a tiled roof. The facade and doorway probably dates from that rebuilding by the Franciscans in 1516, although the door looked modern.

The clock in the facade did not look very old either; I guessed early 20th century. It turns out to have been installed in 1923 in memory of a former managing director of the 56 year old Aspinwall and Company, which by then had begun to dominate trade in the Malabar region. The church, by then Anglican, was declared a heritage structure later the same year.

But this story is running ahead of itself. The Family had walked into the church while I was still gazing at the door. I followed her and noticed the worn flagstones just inside. Benches were helpfully placed here so that you could sit while you removed your shoes. If I’d seen the wood paneling of ceiling in Portugal I would certainly have said that this was in the Mudejar style. Here it was difficult to guess when this paneling was installed. The plain pillars which supported the ceiling gave an impression of great simplicity.

I moved into the main church and looked up at the upper story beyond the lobby area. This large balcony would probably have seated dignitaries in the days when the church still attracted them. The church was pretty bare inside. Was it always so bare, or had the Dutch occupation after 1663 responsible for its current looks? It seems that an altar and a gilded screen was removed after the Dutch occupation. A plaque at the entrance commemorates a renovation by the Dutch in 1779. The church was handed over to Anglican in 1804, and renamed St. Francis’ church.

The church, and the Dutch cemetery behind, is an epigraphist’s delight. I’m not one but I walked along the walls peering at the commemoration stones behind which various then-famous people are buried. A lot of them are from the late 17th century CE, and hence likely to be Dutch. Vasco da Gama was buried in this church exactly 495 years, to the day, before we visited. His body remained there for 14 years, until, in 1538, it was moved to Lisbon. His body is now in the Geronimos monastery outside Lisbon. A small railing surrounding a bare stone flag on the floor marks the spot where he was first buried.

In spite of the crowds, tourists here had been so orderly that I’d managed to take all the photos I wanted without having unwanted body parts in the frame. Now, as I left, I noticed the tiles on the floor and took a photos. These tiles were definitely installed by the Anglicans, because I found them elsewhere in Anglican buildings in Kochi. For the first time I noticed that a disembodied toe had entered the frame. Good, I thought, one way to tell that the place wasn’t empty.

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