Salt and Pepper
February 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the dusk light a brilliant white cone draws my attention; five feet of crystal salt heaped on a round pedestal, overflowing its base into multiple subsidiary conical piles around the perimeter. Between the salt mound and the temple entrance, mounted on a bronze turtle is an oily, six-tiered, fire blackened column, each level with multiple shallow depressions holding lit wicks. Across a raised, tiled floor the first gate to the shrine is flanked by large posters of the same temple elephants I had seen the day before at Guruvayur. The attendant points to a poster and speaks to me; I hear and repeat aane, elephant, he smiles and gives me the distinctive, confusing Indian head-wobble nod of agreement. I say Guruvayur, he nods, Guruvayur, it could be the mascot elephant of this shrine. We repeat aane, aane, Guruvayur. The gate is lined with blue LEDs chasing around the jambs and header, strings of white and yellow flowers make a delicate canopy over the vestibule, the inner gate outlined in more lights red, blue and green. In the deepest sanctum is the goddess, her multi-armed orange body just visible through a dense cloak of red, orange, pink, white garlands of flowers and silk surrounded by live, flickering oil lamps. A sharp, hollow pop as a man smashes a coconut onto the pavement; he picks up the pieces to distribute to women at four stalls who sell oil, flowers, fruit and 500gm. bags of salt. A loudspeaker plays an endless loop of upbeat, falsetto praise-singing which abruptly stops mid-verse every few minutes, pauses, then repeats. Bells and drums briefly drown out the tape, another coconut smacks the pavement and an unmistakable, gut-thumping pulse announces the arrival of a Royal Enfield. Usually the ride of young Indian men or dissipated Europeans who look like they have had way too much sun, this one carries a family of four. Mother gets off, lifts down the 6 year-old, father hands the toddler across the gas tank to mom, they leave their sandals beside the machine and cross the street to do darshan. A steady stream of men and women from the neighborhood pour oil from small bottles onto the flames, empty bags of salt onto the cone, wait their turn to see and be seen, to exchange the gaze that develops affection. A few minutes later the family returns, mother carefully applies pigment to the son’s forehead, yellow and red, a touch on the chest. He makes the face of every boy whose mom is fussing with his appearance. 15 minutes, duty done, they remount the Bullet and head home.
In Fort Cochin today, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Christian and Jewish temples closely intermingle. From a neighborhood minaret, loudspeakers play a muezzin’s recorded call to prayers next to a large Jain temple, down the street from the Sri Krishna Cafe. A loudspeaker near the old synagogue in Jewtown blasts an earsplitting and unmistakable cadence of call and response; Hail Mary in Malayalam. Inside the church, six rows of women wearing red and pink choir robes, crowns of white flowers in their jet hair, sit on one side of the aisle, more women in saris on the other, facing an altar where a female officiant leads the recitation. The baby Jesus has a distinctly Indian look, the intense colors of a Hindu high gloss enamel aesthetic.
Few surviving traces of 16th century Cochin remain; European influenced architecture, Catholic churches, a synagogue and a global spice trade. Fort Cochin was the port of embarkation for Portuguese armadas headed to Lisbon in the early 16th century. In addition to the primary cargo, black pepper, the armada that left in late 1510 or early 1511 included one nau carrying a young elephant. Both survived the six month journey, a fact by no means guaranteed given the hazards of long distance ocean travel at the time. Fort Cochin was a tenuous colonial toe-hold on the margin of a vast continent, its natural harbor had been used by fishermen, merchants and navies for many centuries by the time the Portuguese arrived, its sheltered channels and vicinity to spice growing regions making it a highly desirable and contested site. In the early 16th century the port was within the sphere of the Vijayanagara Empire, whose ruler tolerated and profited from the Portuguese. One theory is that the elephant Annone was a gift from the Emperor of Vijayanagara to the Portuguese King Manuel, another that it was a gift from a king in Sri Lanka. Yet another possibility is that the Portuguese bought it locally and sent it to Lisbon simply because they could.
In muggy early morning on Bazar Street in Jewtown, dozens of trucks unload heavy burlap and poly sacks of rice, flour and spices of every kind, the smell in the air thick, luscious and complex. Bags are hooked and handed down from hyper-painted All India Permit ten-wheelers onto blue, hand-pulled, two-wheeled carts with hard rubber wheels over iron rims, or onto the heads of barefoot men in dhoties. Men, sacks, trucks, carts, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and goats compete for space until traffic congeals to a standstill, then moves again. Bags disappear through massive turquoise wooden doors into sunny interior courtyards and dark warehouses. Inside one yard a woman scoops coarse, fragrant, dark brown granular material from sacks onto a 5X10 meter repurposed plastic advertising billboard. Back bent double, she spreads an even layer with her hands, divides it into long rows, then into piles to dry in the sun. A pigeon picks its way through the rows, a chicken eyes a cat nearby. I find the India Pepper and Spice Trade Commission, the Cochin Pepper Exchange and many shops that sell spices to tourists. Farther away from the tourist zone the price of a kilo of pepper drops until I find a merchant who is selling to local residents at half the cost of the others. He carries ginger, turmeric, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and dozens of other spices, beans and varieties of rice. I want to ship some Kerala pepper to Portugal, he will sell me as many kilos as I want, carry it on the plane he says, I think, our mutual understanding limited by meager English and nonexistent Malayalam. Pepper is not cheap today and was worth more than gold to the 16th century Portuguese. In addition to the cargo assigned to the king and his financiers, crews were allowed to bring home personal pepper in quantities according to rank. A captain was allowed 500 quintals, 10 for a regular sailor, 5 for a ship’s boy; at 59 kilos per quintal, pepper could make you very rich. I decide to buy two kilos, we do our trade and the bemused gentleman finally asks me why. It’s a long story I say, we laugh and then I tell it to him with supporting images from my iPad. He understands the gist of it, although maybe still not exactly why.
Walking down Bazar Street with my pepper in a blue plastic bag, past ginger merchants, tea, rice and flour dealers, the chaos of the street eventually calms. Looking deep into one warehouse, through the dark vestibule, across the bright open courtyard and into a dark shed, I see women working, their forms backlit by the sun through yet another door that opens to the waterfront. One of them makes a gesture with her hand that could either mean go away tourist, or come in and look. I take a chance on the latter interpretation and enter. A gentleman in the outer office invites me to come in and sit down, I tell him I am interested in black pepper. On his desk is a shallow basket of his product, small black grains of pepper. He explains that this is second grade product, destined to be ground and mixed with other pepper, not to be sold as whole kernels; this is all he handles. Again I tell my pepper/elephant story, show my pictures, explain the origin of Annone’s name, how the Italians made “aane” bigger by adding the augmentative suffix “-one”. When I say aane, he breaks into a huge smile and shakes my hand, aane, my one word of Malayalam. Laughing, he puts it together; Kerala plus Italian makes Annone. I cross the blinding bright drying yard to the back warehouse where the women are sifting and bagging pepper into white woven poly sacks stacked 8 high, piles of loose pepper line the room and the dust immediately burns my throat. On my way out the trader suggests that I stop at the tea shop next door where a woman serves me a glass cup of scalding hot milk-tea, two deep-fried bananas and a slice of battered, deep-fried white bread. Her husband comes in for his lunch and eyes my blue bag, it’s pepper I say, I bought some black pepper. Without asking he unties the outer bag, pokes his fingers through the plastic and takes out a pinch of twenty or so grains. He puts one in his mouth and begins to roll the others on the worn formica table, pressing hard on one until it crumbles. From his expression and gesture I can tell that this is a poor quality pepper grain and for a moment I fear that I have made a bad trade, but the others grains are solid. I ask him how much a kilo of pepper should cost; he leaves the room, comes back with a newspaper, begins to flip pages and I think our conversation is over, but he is looking for the pepper quote, the price of pepper on the market today. In the columns of figures and Malayalam script he finds black pepper and points to the number 52000. Fearing the worst, I ask what that means, how much should one kilo cost? His lips move silently as he makes a quick calculation, then says 500 rupees. I paid 580, not bad for retail.