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From Delhi to Kerala

Mereseini Marau In India
Thursday, January 31, 2013

MANY people in Fiji are aware of what namaskaram means.

It's a salutation or spoken valediction originating in the Indian subcontinent. But ningalk sugamano is not that popular.

Not many know what it means unless they speak Malayalam, one of the many languages in India, it is spoken mainly in the state of Kerala.

In Malayalam ningalk sugamano means 'how are you'. So if you are fine, your response will be enik suga manu. Sorry, during my one-week stay in Kerala, I never bothered to learn what feeling otherwise is in Malayalam. That's because my holiday there for the first week of this new year had been so out of this world. It was amazing.

Flying from Indira Gandhi International Airport to Trivandrum International Airport was worth every rupee.

Trivandrum or Thiruvanthapuram is the capital of the state of Kerala. And I am indebted to a very good friend here in Delhi who helped me with my ticket. This was after I was on a waiting list on the Kerala Express train.

Even booking a taatkal ticket did not help. For those who are aware of how the Indian railways operate, they will know what a taatkal ticket is. It's the ticket that you book the day before you depart. With millions of people travelling in a day, there's no guarantee that you will secure a seat, even if you book weeks before your travel. So to get a confirmed seat in the train, you have to book months before your travel date.

In Fiji, I used to hear my brothers and sisters of Indian descent saying that they were either from the South or from Gujrat or Punjab. I didn't really know the difference back then. But now if you give me a map of India, I can, blindfolded, point out the different states of the subcontinent.

Kerala is one of the southern states of India. The other states are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where a scholar in her recent studies suggested Fijians originated from. It is India's most advanced state boasting a 100 per cent literacy rate.

When booking for my ticket, the travel agent told me I would not find any chottu there. Chottu is the name of all those children working in dhabas or roadside eateries or local stores.

What the agent meant was that I would not find any form of child labour in his state compared to all the chottu I see daily in the dhabas in my area and around Delhi.

Maybe I just spent a week there, but for now I agree with his claims.

When I landed at Trivandrum Airport, one thing that struck me was the weather. It was the total opposite from the brutal Delhi winter.

I had to strip off my warm clothes. I was sweating, something which has been evading me ever since winter started in November.

The taxidriver took me straight to my destination in the middle of the night. I was heading for the annual India Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) winter Camp 15 which started from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari, Allepey, Thekkady, Munnar and ended in Kochin.

Every year, ICCR offers summer and winter camps. Most students from Delhi opted for the Kerala camp to escape the cold.

I was the last camper to report in. When I arrived at the hotel, my roommates Bakti from Uzbekistan and Natela from Georgia were still up.

We were all from Delhi. And we had known each other from all the ICCR International Students Festival of Dance and Music for the past three years. So settling in with them was not a problem. We were going to be roommates for the next seven days.

I recalled one of the campers asking us later on in the week if we were best friends. And we all answered we were not only friends but sisters — though one from Uzbekistan, one from Georgia and one from Fiji. That was only possible with the efforts and the teachings from ICCR. We might be from different continents and countries, but we were all bonded through our cultures.

When I stepped outside the hotel the next day, I realised Kerala was just like Fiji.

If it was not for the Malaylam signages and billboards, I would have thought I was back home. This was because of the surroundings. There were seas of coconut trees, banana plantations and also cassava plants.

Coconut is an integral part of Kerala culture. That's why our government is working with the Kerala State government to help our coconut industry.

In Kerala, a coconut tree is known as a kalpa vriksham which means all parts of the coconut tree are useful in some way or other. In Fiji, there's a term vinaka vaka niu or as useful as a coconut. See the similarity?

According to our camp director Mr Karthikesan, who's from Kerala, Kerala means land of coconut trees. That's why most of our food were coconuty, whether it be dosa or curry.

The cuisine was very rich. It reminded me of the home prepared meals back in most Fiji villages, where everything is cooked in lolo or coconut milk.

Driving past Trivandrum en route to Kanaykumari in Tamil Nadu, I was just sitting in the bus trying to absorb all the things I saw.

It just reminded me of home. I thought I was in the bus from Labasa to Savusavu.

The geographical features from Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari, the tip end of the Indian subcontinent, were similar to back home. No wonder those who have returned from Kerala say it is just like Fiji. It was the magnified version of Fiji.

There was also something about this place that made me think it was home — every hundred metres or so there was a church.

Our tour guide, whom I called Uncle Ji, an elderly man in his 70s, said the state was popular for its churches.

Natela, my Georgian friend, told me to check out the architectural structures of the churches. They were just unique and awesome.

I've never seen so many churches in my life. It is believed Christianity reached the shores of Kerala when Saint Thomas, one of Jesus' 12 disciples, came there to preach the gospel.

St Thomas spent most of his days in Kerala and he was martyred in Chennai. No wonder there are so many Christians in Kerala, Christianity being the third most practised religion there.

And that must have explained why most nurses in hospitals around Delhi are from Kerala.

With the clear demarcation of caste system, it is safe to say that most of the Florence Nightingales of India are from Kerala.

It is widely known in India that Christianity in Kerala contributed a lot towards the nation's development in education, health care and social uplift.

That must have explained why most of our Montfort Brothers who came to teach in Catholic schools in Fiji like Xavier College were from Kerala. I remembered a former principal of Xavier -—Brother George Palakcal — who is from Kerala.

Brother George is from North Kerala. But he must have found no problem adapting to the Fijian lifestyle because it was similar to that back in his home.

When we were in Kochin, the international students director from ICCR head office in Delhi, Mr Geevarghese, originally from Kerala joined us. As soon as we met, he asked if I had eaten kappa, the Kerala name for tavioka or cassava.

Though it was a short notice, Mr Geevarghese told the hotel staff to make sure they also prepared some kappa for dinner that night.

That's another similarity.

I can go on writing about Kerala and fill a whole book.

You have to be there to know what I'm talking about. In most places, it just like a page from a story book.

No wonder it's popularly known as God's own country. God must have really favoured Kerala.

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