Thursday, March 13, 2008

O Hanry!

A first-time American visitor comes to terms with the traffic, the hartal and the mesmeric performance of Tripunithura Radhakrishnan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“In Kerala, for the first time in my life, I was attacked by mosquitoes,” says American journalist Ashley Hanry, 26. “I was asleep one night and when I awoke, one side of my body was dotted with mosquito bites.” Then Ashley smiles and says, “The mosquitoes must have been surprised. It is so used to Indian blood and suddenly, it was feasting on American blood.”

Ashley was in town as part of a five-member group study exchange programme tour sponsored by the Rotary Club. She began the tour of India at Coimbatore, went to Pollachi, Annamalai, Erode, Tirupur, Coonoor, Ooty and from there to Calicut, Kochi and onwards to Thrissur.

A journalist with a small community newspaper, The Citizen, in Auburn, New York, Ashley was astonished when she saw empty streets and shuttered shops during the February 19 hartal called by the United Democratic Front. “I have never seen something like this before,” she says. “In America, neither will the government or the opposition call for a strike that will affect the livelihood of the common man.”

But the very next day, Ashley got a shock: in complete contrast, the roads were so crowded that she landed smack in a traffic jam, while traveling from Vytilla to Kakkanad. “There are jams in the US also, but the big difference here is that there is so much of honking,” she says. “When I first arrived, it took me some time to realise that people honk just to let you know they are there, and not because they are angry, as it is in the USA.”

But despite this ‘honking’ behaviour on the roads, Ashley liked the people. “Everyone has been nice,” she says. “The women in Kerala are beautiful. They have beautiful skin and attractive faces.” She liked the colourful clothes that they wore, with so many different patterns. In America, she says, the women wore either black or hard colours. “I like the salwar kameez a lot,” she says. “The saree is difficult to wear but it made me feel feminine and graceful.” Even though jeans and trousers are comfortable, she says, it does not make one feel feminine.

She also found the blend of cultures remarkable. She went to the Portuguese-built St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi, saw the Chinese fishing boats and then wandered into the Jewish synagogue. “Each culture is as distinct from the others and yet, at the same time, there is a beautiful harmony,” she says. The difference with America is stark, she says.

Says Ranjini Menon, 36, the secretary of the Tripunithara Rotary Club: “In American cities, other nationalities and cultures are not prominent. In places like New York, the American city culture dominates above all.”

This can cause a sense of disorientation. Another recent American visitor, Susan Slates says that Indian women, when they settle in the US, do not wear the saree or the salwar kameez to work. “They wear trousers or dresses and it is a loss of Indian culture for the women,” she says.

Meanwhile, for a first-time visitor like Ashley, what were her apprehensions before she set out to encounter a different culture? “I was concerned about the quality of the water,” she says. “I was told the roads would be overcrowded and bad.” The traffic did match her expectations but she was surprised there were so many people on the roads. “In America, the sidewalks are usually deserted, as people travel mostly by cars. But the people on the roads in India made the place lively.”

She says that despite the presence of cows, goats, vehicles and people, everybody managed to get along. However, the disregard for traffic rules was a revelation. “I was surprised when I saw people riding motorbikes without helmets,” she says. “When I got into the car and put on my seat belt, people said, ‘It is not necessary, we are not travelling at 100 km an hour.’”

Fair-skinned, soft-spoken, with black hair and an easy smile, she could easily be mistaken for an Indian. And she confirms this. “Lots of people in Kerala thought I was from North India.”

So, what was the highlight of her tour? She plumbs for the lecture demonstration by Tripunithura Radhakrishnan on the mridangam and ghatam. “It was simply awesome,” she says. “I have never listened to these instruments before. Radhakrishnan played African and Western beats on the ghatam and his fingers moved so fast, I could not see it.”

Ranjini says that exposure to different cultures is one of the primary aims of the Group Study Exchange (GSE) programme. “When you go to a new country, you encounter a different type of people, lifestyle, perspectives and attitudes,” she says. “You get to know them better. Rotary believes in sharing and fellowship and the GSE propagates the concept that the world is one family.”

Ashley already feels at home. She told Ranjini that when she marries her South Korean fiancĂ©, Hee-Rak, she wants to come to Kerala for her honeymoon. “I want to go on a boat cruise that lasts forever,” she says, with a beaming smile.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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