Yes, there is an area in Cochin called “Jew Town”. It was once the center of a thriving Jewish community, although these days it would be better named “Kashmiri Town”, as this is the main ethnic group that inhabits the area and sells their wares (that are mostly Kashmiri in origin).
It was fascinating to visit the area though, especially the Pardesi Synagogue. Sitting inside, with almost no Jews left in cochin, one wonders what it must have been like, to live there for so long and then emigrate en masse to Israel, where their culture must have been so very different from those they found themselves among. There were in fact several waves of emigration by Jews to Kerela and Cochin in the first place, starting with traders BCE, including a large group after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, and followed by the European traders much later who built the synagogue I was in.
The city of Cochin (Kochin, Cochi, whatever) reminds me a lot of New Orleans. Mostly it is the hot and sticky weather, but also a bit the scale and architecture of the place. I have unfortunately come down with a flu or bad cold the last few days and it makes the slow moving here even moreso. Arnaud et al arrived from London yesterday morning, and we will be travelling together for the next 3 weeks in Kerela.
Our trip through the backwaters to Alappuza was amazing, and full of bliss. Check out the visuals for more:
The stay here at Amritapuri has been amazing, in large part because of the people I have met, most of whom are very open hearted and earnest. I am moving on with my new friends Andreas and Timothy. We decided to take a four hour boat ride through the lower backwaters up to Alleppey. We leave at about 1:30 pm today and will probably stay the night there and head back to Cochin the following day. I will try to post pics from Alleppey if I find a good connection.
I have been meeting a lot of devotees or believers here, yet I remained unconvinced. I have no doubt that this is a wonderful woman who has devoted her life to service. But I don’t feel the devotion to her that most of the others do. I have met some really nice people from all over though. Andreas from Denmark and Timothy from the BayArea in the US, to name but two.
I had a long talk with a nice guy from California this morning who goes (sometimes) by his Amma given name, “Shree Hari”, although in the States he goes by “Jess” . He told me all about his seven or so year journey to being a devotee, and his feelings of surrender and service that Amma inspires in him. It was interesting to hear him relate a few borderline supernatural visions that he has had in the presence of Amma. I have yet to experience any such vision either here or elsewhere. Perhaps I haven’t needed to yet. I remain hopeful and cheerful about it though.
I keep returning to and re-experiencing being put off by the type of idol worship and devotion I see. I keep returning to my abstract center, where all life is connected, but never concentrated in one being or idol or special place. Amma’s message of self sacrifice and service to others may be a good one, but a great many of her followers fetishize everything about her, seemingly avoiding the message in favor of the image.
That was what I was thinking yesterday. I was a little blue leaving Mumbai, so I hatched a plan to come to Amritapuri here in Kerela and see the famous “hugging mother”. I had heard a lot about her and thought it wouldn’t be so bad to feel a little unconditional love.
The journey here was a bit of an adventure, mostly because although there are trains from Ernakulum (the town over from Cochin), the line or station is aparently new enough that there is no record of it on the internet. But hey, blue or not I am a go with the flow kinda guy, so I went to the station, and as luck would have it, there was a train leaving in 5 minutes.
Once off the train, I made my way by autorickshaw to the edge of the backwaters and crossed a bridge to enter the modern concrete tower collection that is the ashram. As I got checked in at the international desk, the guy told me I should probably hurry if I wanted to take darshan today, and that Amma (the hugging mother) would be traveling starting tomorrow to Sri Lanka. This was definitely a last minute travel plan. Only a week earlier they had told me that she was in attendance for the forseeable future.
Figuring it was now or never if I wanted a hug, I scurried up to my room to drop off my stuff and ran to the darshan hall where the mother hugs. I ended up waiting in a long line and meeting an australian named Chris. We played all cynical while we approached the head of the line to be hugged. Then, as I was only 2 people behind Amma, I started thinking about why I was there. I had been told by many people before that you are supposed to think of something you would like to happen while hugging the mother. I scoured my brain but was unable to come up with much, so I settled on “being able to feel unconditional love for all” or something vaguely like that.
My turn was up, and it was all a somewhat scary blur. I was pushed to my knees, then shoved into the mother’s breast, which smelled like a thousand sprays of sandalwood and spices, and I noticed to my horror just before my face was shoved in that my head was being pushed to a spot on her shirt over her right breast where countless others had been pressed earlier that day. And it had a kind of wierd stain all over it, sort of bluish and spotted. I kinda got the icks a little and this was mostly what I was thinking about while my head and nose were pressed firmly against this stain. I got up (or was pulled up, I’m not sure) and then was pushed out the of the way for the next needy soul. I suppose I should have felt reborn or something, but all I had was a vague sense that something had happened. I was neither elated nor despairing. It could have been that I was transformed and about to feel love pour out of me at every turn. Or it could have been that I was worried about catching some modern form of bubonic plague. Or maybe it was both. And maybe (just maybe) the two are somehow completely related, Yin and Yang eternal and inseparable in all things.
Just took a Kingfisher airflight here to Cochin. The brand Kingfisher is a beer here, and I could be mistaken, but I think the owner recently started this airline. Wacky, but this is how business seems to go here in India. There are a number of firms that cross all kinds of sectors (Tata is one, Reliance another). This is very unlike the prevaling business wisdom in the US relating to “core competenies”. Here if one is sucessful in one business, there is no reason not to be in another (and use the same branding, no matter how dissimilar the busines).
This has happened before, and it is kinda sad. I had a rather tearful goodbye with Jaume this morning as he accompanied me via auto rickshaw to the airport. We wanted to kiss goodbye, but social mores being what they are here, it was too risky. It made the goodbye even sadder. Henceforth I will always refer to enforced self censoring goodbyes as Indian bye bye.
These were my lines yesterday during the commercial shoot. (The one word of Hindi is “toh” which means “so” or “therefore”. Videocon is a some sort of brand. Match on!, obviously means tha match is on). I ended up being a rowdy New Zealand cricket fan (which Nikhil assures me is eminently better than being an Aussie). It was a fascinating experience (I will post the pics later, and hopefully link to a video clip so you can watch me in all my, er, glory). Most of the foreigners knew each other as they are part of the foreign actor circuit here. They usually get their work through guys called “coordinators” which send them to screen tests and on shoots. As soon as I was done filming my bit in the morning, the vultures (coordinators) started circling. They asked to take my picture and was I available for more work and how long would I be in Mumbai, etc etc. I think I see a new career here (or at least a way to supplement my budget). In fact, I was at the airport awaiting my flight to Cochin this morning and got called for another gig, can you believe that?
Color me surprised. I just received a call about 10 minutes ago, and I actually got the part in the commercial! We shoot Monday. To recap, I am a rabid Australian cricket fan. But I have to ask, “What’s my motivation?”
So after all the hassle I went through yesterday trying to book train tickets (and learning that it was a holiday weekend, hence the difficulty) I had given up and decided to book a flight direct to Cochin on Tuesday. How lucky am I (since we shoot on Monday)? I’m beginning to think there is a reason for everything (except day-glo lycra, that is).