Salawas Village

Looking east from "Hanuman" sanctuary, Salawas village.

Looking east from “Hanuman” sanctuary, Salawas village.

 

Feb 22. Two days ago we flew from Cochin International Airport to Delhi and on to the town of Jodhpur in Rajasthan where we were picked up by Shambu, the second-oldest son of Chottaram Prajabat, owner of a homestay and weaving business in Salawas village catering to foreign tourists. We are here courtesy of Carpediem Residency, an artists and writers residency run by film-maker Shivajee Chandrabhushan and his wife Triparna Banerjee. Shivajee is the director and producer of “Frozen” (2007), a prize-winning independent film. Triparna was among the first group of script writers for the Indian version of Sesame Street. She works with a group called Pop-up Talkies that brings Indian independent films to non-traditional venues across the country, among other things. Miriam and I share the residency with Johanna, a novelist and documentary film-maker from Finland, Moksha (a Pratt-trained painter from Mumbai), Pat and Lukas from Valencia (she is Spanish, he is German; Pat does fine-arts, Lukas composes and arranges techno-music for theater), and Filipa (a painter from Portugal who currently lives and studies in Tokyo).

It is too early to say much about Rajasthan or life in Salawas Village, but it strikes us as very different from Kerala. Kerala is green, the people are highly educated even in rural areas, and there is a degree of equality between the genders, at least historically and in comparison with North India. Jodhpur is in the desert, the village is dusty and monochrome, people are poor and less educated, the first impression is less hospitable in nature and culture. Married women veil themselves in the presence of their in-laws, but the logic of veiling or not may also be affected by our presence. People on the street stare at us and don’t necessarily return our greetings. Many children are out and about (some young ones naked) and they accost us with calls of “one pen” or “selfie” or gawk at us as incuriously as some of the grown-ups. None of this was the case in Kerala where, when you met someone’s gaze, they would invariably smile and recognize you with their characteristic head-waggle.

Our hosts are part of a clan that has friends and foes in the village. We were told (by the teenage son) only to shop at stores that are part of this network of families and avoid the others. When we walk around we feel we’re on a stage, exposed, seen as not classifiable other than potential sources of money.

The second day of walking around (just Miriam and I) mitigated our first impressions. A young woman invited us into her house and showed us around with pride and without ulterior motives, much as we were treated in Kerala.

Our little group is still finding itself. Miriam had hoped to replicate her experience from the three weeks at the Palette People residence, but everything is different here and we will have to figure out how best to use our time. We have two weeks.

 

Food

Eating at Green Meadows, Vagamon.

What about food in India? I wouldn’t know since we’ve only been here for a short while, and most of it here in the hill country of the Western Ghats near Vagamon, Kerala. Since we’ve arrived at our mountain lodge, courtesy of Miriam’s residency at Palette People, the home-cooked meals we are being served here three times a day have provided not just nourishment but structure to our days. Breakfast is usually when we return from our morning walks, around 9:30am, lunch around 1:30, tea around 4, dinner 7:30. Breakfast is usually a warm dish of chickpeas in broth, either with “poota,” which is dry cream of wheat or something like it steamed in form of a log in a “poota-maker.” or with spongy, pan-cake-like flat breads that taste a little sour, or with a nest of thin pasta. Sometimes the morning or evening meal may be a thicker stew with hard boiled eggs. Lunch is the most elaborate meal of the day. It may include “sambar.” a kind of veggie stew with some stalky vegetables that have soft stuff inside, or fish-currie, or some other main dish, along with usually one dish of finely chopped cabbage fried, but served cold, a dish of fried potatoes and onions, and pickles. If there’s fish-currie then there’s also usually a kind of yogurt based gravy that helps soften the somewhat pungent taste of the fish-stew, which is spiced with a kind of tamarind. At night we eat something like poori masala, similar to the morning meal but with more variety. Usually there’s fresh chapati served in a warming dish.

Poota and egg dish.

 

Eating with our hands required some getting used to. I am still a messy eater, much to Miriam’s amusement (I hope). The experience is a little like playing with your food before eating it. After you’ve done this for a while, you no longer like for metal objects to come between your mouth and the food you’re eating. It’s a wholistic experience you don’t want to miss. Of course you only use your right hand. (The left is for other business.) I like crumbling papadum into the rice, which makes a satisfying noise and adds taste and texture to the meal (only at lunch).

poori-masala

Poori masala.

 

The food is very different from what we usually think of as Indian food. The tastes are subtle, the textures complex. Almost everything is spiced with a handful of green currie-leafs that you’re supposed to fish out and discard. (Hence the local saying, “Don’t treat me like a currie-leaf.”) Our cook fries everything in sunflower seed oil with mustard seeds, lots of garlic, onion, green chili pepper, carrots, green beans, sometimes tomatoes. Masala is thickened with mashed potatoes and milk. Spices vary by dish and include garam masala, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and others.

Discarded curry leafs

Discarded curry leafs

Walking around the hills and getting to know what people grow in their gardens goes together with the cooking and the meals we have. We were able to appreciate the pieces of boiled tapioca that showed up on the menu one day because a few days earlier we had been shown a tapioca plant at someone’s orchard. We see the cows on our daily walks that (presumably) supply the milk for the locally grown coffee and tea. We buy bananas in the shop in Uluppuni that the shop-keeper or his neighbor cultivates in his plantation. The bananas, btw, are to die for. The larger ones are orange on the inside, the smaller ones white. Picked when ripe, the fruit is firm and sweet, and very satisfying. Some people grow pineapple, mango, and citrus fruit. There are tall coconut in lower lying areas and small date palms dot the grassland.

We’ve seen giant green beans, soy beans, cocoa fruit, eggplant, and other cultivated crops. There are “jack-fruit” trees, with green lumps that are picked in July and are supposedly  supposedly delicious to eat and used in a variety of ways. There are medicinal plants, tree nuts (cashew, pecan), passion fruit, guava, and all sorts of nuts, leafs, and fruit with intoxicating qualities.

cacao-fruit

Cocoa is harvested from the seeds of the cocoa fruit. Miriam brought some of the fruit back to draw, and one of the assistants here explained how you get to the desired parts. The seeds are covered in some white film that you suck off, then let the beans dry. To get to the inside, where the black flaky stuff resides that is the base for chocolate, you need to crack open the brown husk of the seed. By itself cocoa tastes a bit chalky but it’s very good and obviously not sweet at all, really more like the essence of dark chocolate. One can understand (says Miriam) why the Mexicans cook with cocoa, which takes the fruit in a completely different direction.

pepper

 

 

 

Water

img_0938

 

The future of water is a big issue, we’ve been told. This entire area (Western Ghats), should be verdant but the grassland surrounding the tea plantations is brown and periodically burns. People who didn’t need to do so in the past are digging wells. The water level in the great Idukki dam area, the major source of electricity in this region, is low. People are worried and talk about climate change. No hoax here. Just a fact.

Malayalam

Malayalam is a palindrome, as Molly, an educator and the wife of our host at Palette People, Cyril Jacob, pointed out when we met her at her tasteful and impeccably clean home in Cochin. Malayalam is also the main language of the state of Kerala, the first state in the world that voted in a communist government. When we were ready for our trip to India, we looked online for language instruction. We signed up for Hindi101, where a lively Indian woman by the name of Perna teaches you short and useful phrases such as “Namaste, meera nam [Perna] hai” (Hello, my name is [Perna].) “Aap se milker khushi huy” (Nice to meet you). And so forth. Little did we know that in Kerala people don’t speak Hindi. I pointed this out to my colleague and guide in all things India, Frank Korom, who explained.

Yes, no red-blooded Dravidian would ever be caught dead speaking Hindi, but some South Indian Muslins speak Urdu or a dialect of it, especially on Hyderabad. Hindi was arbitrarily chosen as the lingua Franca because of the majority of politicians who brought the Nehruvian Dynasty into power at the time of independence, but Tamils, especially, are avid linguistic nationalists. In fact, the first suicide bombing during the freedom movement was a Tamil nationalist who blew himself up at the Madras railway station shouting “Long live Tamil Tay!” (Tay is Tamil for Goddess, so the language became deified). Malayalam spoken in Kerala was thought of historically to be a dialect of Tamil. The Dravidian languages are quite different from the Sanskritic languages of the north, as you’ll notice when you proceed in that direction…  [spelling not corrected]

The interactions I am describing here (with Molly and with Frank) are typical for how we learn here. With little background and minimal preparation we stumble around, observe things, speculate about what or why they are, and eventually someone who knows will answer our questions. There’s a lesson for us educators here. [When you want for information to make sense to your students, make sure they show some signs of curiosity first. (Duly noted for when I return to teaching.)]

Malayalam (the language) has lots of syllables, and often we cannot make out the sounds even when we ask people to repeat certain words for us, terms we’ve heard repeatedly but cannot quite remember. Miriam writes things down, she asks everyone over and over again. She is determined. She is also a language teacher and we’re both struck by how hard it is to even hear what sounds people are making, let alone reproduce them correctly. By now we’ve lost all shame, though. We repeat what we hear, which sounds funny to the people we bother for linguistic information, and so everyone gets something out of it.

Not by accident perhaps, the first Malayali word that stuck was “ba.” Cyril used it when he spoke to a cow in the dell below the residency. People use it for animals and for one another. It means “come.” The word is similar to the Hebrew word for “come” (“bo”). Perhaps that’s why we caught on quickly and like the word. I can say it like a native and waggle my head for emphasis, much to the delight of the tea ladies for whom we put on a marital gender performance every afternoon. (Miriam is the empowered woman, I am the silly cum jovial man.)  What I really like about “ba” is that it reflects the character of the people. We feel entirely welcome here. People don’t look at us askance. They are curious. Miriam ropes them into writing the names of things she draws on strips of fabric (really: cut-up bed linen) in Malayalam and Tamil, as well as their own names, and they’re completely game. They take charge, they correct one another. They’ve adopted us. There is mutuality. There is a lot of “ba,” an invitation to see, to share, to appreciate the work, the landscape, the orchards and plantations, the fruit of everyone’s labor, a cup of tea or coffee, the moment at hand.

We don’t take this for granted. I grew up in a village, or rather in a small development located between a village and the nearby town, where even people who lived there, for example ourselves, were not considered quite trustworthy unless they had lived there for generations. People smiled, but we always felt their smiles were insincere. (“Net hinne wie vorne,” as we said in the inimitable dialect of our region.)

Today, as we walked back to the residency after a morning of such encounters in Uluppuni, I remembered the similarities between what we experience here and the time I lived in an Arab village on the eastern slope of Mount Olives. The name of the place is El Hardoub. Today it is more crowded and surrounded by bypass roads and barriers, trappings of Israel’s bizarre policies of encroachment onto Palestinian territories and the exclusion of Palestinian populations. Back in 1983, things were very different. East Jerusalem was still physically connected to the West Bank. You could drive everywhere. There was no separation wall. The atmosphere was much less poisonous. People were curious. Three of us (Germans, two of us studying Talmud at the Hebrew University, which was in walking distance, the third of us worked in a home for handicapped children in El Azarie, also within walking distance), rented an apartment from a young couple with two small children (Ashraf and Shemiran) in a house they shared with the husband’s parents and two unmarried siblings. When we moved in, the grandmother had just returned from the haj and we received small gifts from her in celebration of her return from Mecca. At night we’d sometimes watch television with our hosts who would turn the set to one of the Hebrew channels since we knew Hebrew but not Arabic. Hebrew was our common language. There was no issue, no tension, only good will and mutual curiosity. Exactly as it is for us here around the village of Uluppuni. Back in El Hardoub, people also got used to us going to and fro, appearing on the steep main road and walking at any time, day or night, going about our business without apprehension. Occasionally the winds turned. There could be tension. Street urchins might throw pebbles at us, testing our responses. Even then, there were times when one could not ignore the occupation, though by and large, Israel was more or less invisible and the state was less heavy-handed. West Jerusalem offered opportunity for workers and tradesmen like our landlord, Muhammad, an electrician. But there was a difference. The people of Kerala are the proud inhabitants of their own land. They may support or resent the central government, but they are not under foreign occupation. They can be generous because they are not encroached upon, or excluded. I wish things were still as they were for the good people of East Jerusalem, though even then they were far from ideal. Now they’re much worse. But I’ve already written that book. (Read all about it!)

UPDATE (courtesy of Frank Korom):

Tamil is the oldest attested Dravidian language (earlier than Malayalam), and the earliest epigraphical evidence is from 254 BCE. Malayalam developed out of Late Old Western Tamil dialects spoken on that side of the Western Ghats. Consequently, Malayalam lost subject-verb agreement and also became heavily Sanskritized, much more so than Tamil, even today. Anyway, in the earliest recorded period, Tamil was spoken all over south India.

Clarinet

Sabbaticals are periods when you have the rare privilege of time at your disposal to do what you cannot otherwise. This is my second sabbatical in twenty-three years since starting at BU. In 2002-3 when I was eligible for my first sabbatical, I took a leave of absence instead to teach in Frankfurt and spend time with my mother who was sick and died in early 2003. The first real sabbatical (a whole year without teaching) I took in 2007-8. My plan was to write the Jerusalem-book under contract with Blackwell. I did a ton of research and wrote about 120,000 words, nearly twice the projected word-count, but the draft was rejected by the publisher and so I needed to start over. Before I had even started on that project I got sucked into research on my mother’s life before and during the war, as a German Jewish refugee in England. The project yielded surprising information. But I needed to set that aside to work on Jerusalem, which I did, though not with the desired results. I also drafted a German essay volume on Jewish philosophy for which I received a contract but couldn’t really work on at the time. I ended that first sabbatical year with a lot of new knowledge, two books in progress, and a family research project that remains unfinished.

Right now I am on my second sabbatical, which I delayed so I could finish a three-year stint as director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, a task that I found immensely satisfying and hope to return to this fall. This time around, I knew my time was limited. I also knew I needed to have most if not all writing done by the time Miriam and I were to take off for India. This I did. With the assistance of Sarah Leventer, a PhD student in American studies, I was able to move along the production of the German essay volume, which came out in October of last year. In December I submitted a full draft of the new version of the Jerusalem book to the publisher, and I am awaiting comments. A tricky essay I worked on for an entire year is forthcoming in a volume edited by my colleague Allen Speight and myself. All in all, a good harvest.

As in the days of graduate studies, what kept me sane and balanced over the past few months was music. Back then at Brandeis, newly arrived from Germany, academically disoriented, and intrigued by the things going on at that time in Europe (German unification, the dissolution of the Soviet Union), I found companionship and good cheer among fellow musicians who have remained our close friends until today. This time around, I was privileged to host a regular weekly session at my house for a group called Zensemble. (Look for us on SoundCloud.) But the sabbatical leave also provided opportunity to try something different. After twenty years or so I picked up my old clarinet. I found a teacher. I practiced. (Amy Advocat. Check out her extraordinary chops at www.amyadvocat.com and www.transientcanvas.com.)

When the time rolled around for us to pack for India, the question was: take the clarinet or leave it at home? It’s bulky. On the other hand, the instrument is not very good, so if it were to fall apart or I gave it away, it wouldn’t be a great loss. Miriam’s most-India-experienced friend suggested the clarinet might be a great conversation starter. She was right. Since we arrived at our mountain resort/artists’ residence I’ve been playing every day, for at least two hours. Usually I walk away from the house, so as not to disturb anyone, and I am also still a bit shy about practicing or playing where others can here me. But I needed to overcome this stage fright quickly. Members of our little household and the ladies who work in the tea plantations and walk by here every day find the clarinet entertaining and encourage me to play. It’s become a conversation starter. It’s also something that anchors and disciplines me while I am still trying to figure out what I want to accomplish while we’re here. Our days are so rich and what we see on our daily walks gives me so much to process that I’m not at all sure I’ll accomplish anything in particular. But at least I practice the clarinet.

 

Why India?

You might well ask, what is Zank doing in India? Actually, few people call me “Zank” these days. Really only one person does, namely, our friend Guy, but it struck me as funny because that’s what they used to call me in school. Everyone was known by their last name, and not just during roll call. Also when a teacher called you to the board, in my case usually with the intention of amusing themselves at my expense. After a year of near despair, when I had my first “ungenügend” on a math test and my father comforted me (“it’s not like a broken leg”), I developed a thicker skin when it came to math teachers. I was still a musterschüler in other subjects for a while. I always met Fräulein Gamroth (German, geography, and sports) at the bottom of the stairs to carry her satchel. That relationship ended in seventh grade when I talked back at her for a perceived injustice. It was downhill from there. But that’s not why I am in India.

When Miriam and I thought about what to do during my sabbatical and her half-year of leave from the Hosmer School in Watertown, our original plan was to study Arabic. We had talked about this for a long time. The last time we discussed this was just before the Arab Spring, but then the civil war broke out in Syria (Aleppo seemed the best place to study the spoken dialect we are most interested in) and that was that. When we began making plans for this sabbatical, almost a year ago, we thought that perhaps Morocco would be the place for us. It was highly recommended as a wonderful place to live and travel (thanks, Diana Wylie!). It would have been close to Europe so we could have toured the parts of Spain that I hadn’t seen yet and also  visit our friends in France and Germany. But the spoken languages of Morocco wouldn’t have helped us achieve the purpose of learning to communicate better with our Arab friends in Israel. That’s when we thought this may be the time to do something completely different. Go somewhere we’ve never been. Do something we’ve always wanted to do. That’s when we decided on India.

Encouraged and equipped with lots of good advice from many kind people who had been to India and loved it we spent the next few months researching artists’ residencies for Miriam, contacted various places, and slowly but persistently worked out a plan. It took many “India meetings” to hammer out the details and make all the arrangements, settle our affairs at home, and get ready (visas, vaccinations, etc.).

Neither of us had a clear idea of what to expect. But we’re at an age and in a situation in life where we’re both healthy, greying but still in fine shape, our lives and affairs in good order, really an ideal condition to set out and explore a part of the world one is vaguely aware of and that has been weaving in and out of one’s consciousness without great urgency but with a certain allure of the exotic. Miriam did south Indian dances as a child (she still has the costume her mother sowed for her). In my adolescent years, a time of musical exploration, I listened to endless reel to reel tapes of ragas and adored George Harrison’s recordings of Indian music. Then I found Jesus and put away the songs to Krishna and Govind as pagan idolatry. But the love for Indian music never went away. After high school, during my first year as a student of Protestant theology in Göttingen I took Religionswissenschaft classes on Buddhism and Hinduism. Then I lost sight of it for a while. These last twenty-three years of teaching as a member of a religion department made me aware of the fact that it is a deficiency not to know more about other parts of the world. I learned a lot about the complexities of religion and identity in the wake of the British raj from the work of my colleague Teena Purohit, though I can’t say I was in any way prepared for what we are actually finding here.

It’s been a stroke of luck to begin our time in India in the south, in the state of Kerala rather than in one of the busy urban centers like Mumbay or New Delhi. Kerala, and particularly Cochin (Kochi) where we first landed, flying in through Dubai, is predominantly Muslim and Hindu but has a strong Christian minority (divided into Syriac Jacobites, Roman Catholics, and now a growing number of Pentecostalists) that traces its origins to St. Thomas, the “doubting” Apostle. (See this recent article on the question of authenticity of the tradition that the saint himself established the first Christian mission in India. With thanks to my friend Tomás Kalmar for the link.) Cochin also boasted a sizable Jewish community. There’s still an active synagogue (the oldest one in the lands of the British Commonwealth), but the local community mostly up and left for Israel shortly after the founding of the state. The Jews of Kerala are the stuff of great rumors of a Jewish kingdom in the east that spread to early modern Europe and stirred messianic hopes during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Archaeologists have evidence of regular Roman trade missions to the coast of Malabar going back to the first century CE.

We left the old port city of Cochin after a few days and moved up here to an artists’ residency twelve kilometers from Vagamon, in the Western Ghats, a mountain range between Kerala and Tamil Nadu that is deemed a world heritage site for its natural resources and bio-diversity. Our place, run by Cyril Jacob, a retired banker,  gentleman farmer, and founder-director of “Palette People,” is nestled between tea plantations and grassland. In the shaded valleys you find coffee, bananas, guava, cocoa, cashew, various types of legumes and spices, grown by the many small farmers who moved into this area since the partition of the sub-continent, when Indians were starving and the government provided opportunity to acquire leases of public land through provided there was evidence of farming and agriculture. Not far from here are forest preserves with settlements of tribes people who are protected by law from all land alienation. Here and there among the tea plantations and small land-holders are resorts, mostly for Indian tourists who enjoy weekends away, where alcohol–a scourge now widely controlled–flows freely.

Most enjoyable for us are our daily walks where we discover something different every day and make friends with the local population, despite the fact that we don’t speak Malayalam or Tamil and they speak very little English. I post pictures on my Facebook page every day that have proved a source of relief to my friends who have been hit by the full force of the political developments back in the US. Now it’s time to put aside the computer and take out the clarinet. This too has proved useful. The instrument is a wonderful conversation starter for people with whom you have no other common language. Miriam and I are spending altogether three weeks here at “Green Meadows.” We’re going back to Cochin on Feb 11, stay and explore the area until the 19th, then on to Salawas village near Jodhpur, for our residence at “Carpe Diem.”

Things that bubble up

As I am watching the last pink of the evening sky from our terrace, I think about the weird dreams and reminiscences that this time of pleasant idleness has begun to produce. Last night I dreamed about an undead twin, that was a Jewish me that kept getting up and denying that it was dead. Then tonight, as we strolled through the tea plantation, we were once again struck by the fact that here we are in India, and why didn’t we do this a long time ago. This led to the rehearsal of the travels we did when our kids were younger (usually to Germany and a few times to Israel) and to wondering what our respective mothers would think of our children now that they’re grown. “And your father?” Miriam asked. Which made me laugh, as my father does not usually figure in these conversations. Then we realized that he’s been dead for forty years.

I thought of my father recently when I skyped with an old German friend of mine, whom I’ve known since shortly after my father died when I entered the Evangelical seminary in Krelingen, near Hannover. Johannes  just completed a research project deciphering his father’s war diary that he discovered too late to ask his father or mother any questions about it. “What about your father?” he asked me, too. I tend to forget my father. He’s been dead such a long time and he wasn’t much of a presence when he was alive. As I worked my way from a born-again Christian orientation toward a more Jewish and philosophical one – a passage that took many years, two of which I spent in the Holy City – I tended to emphasize my Jewish family relations.

The truth is that things are much more complicated. There’s no recipe for living. We all improvise. Just like our parents.

 

First order of business: establish routine

Clarinet and cowshed

Clarinet and cowshed

Day five in India and day two in Vagamon. Now it’s time to establish a routine so as not to fritter away this precious time. What better than to take the clarinet case for a walk and find a place to practice after a week-long hiatus. I found the perfect shady spot under a tree near Cyril’s cowshed, not far from the main house, but far enough not to bother anyone. Practicing this tricky instrument is like meditation. You are completely engrossed by the challenge of producing a clean sound, working out the scales, melodies, and exercises you set for yourself, and before you know it, the better part of the morning has passed and your facial muscles need a rest. Later on I read and wrote some, and when the day’s heat gave way to a late afternoon breeze we ventured out and explored. That’s when we caught this lovely sunset.

Vagamon Sunset

Vagamon, Kerala

Miriam and I arrived in Vagamon, a hill-station in the Western Ghats, about 100 km east of Kochi. Our host, Cyril Jacob, who gave us a ride, is a retired banker who created a little paradise on an eighty-acre lot where he cultivates tea and cardamom and has built a lodge he calls Green Meadows and where he hosts the Palette People artists residency. We are currently the only residents here, but there is room for six to eight people. See HERE. We found out about this place through Resartis and Transartists, which are sites that list artists’ residencies world-wide. I am here to write and Miriam is here as a visual artist.

We were surprised when we found out that we were the only residents. We were also surprised by the stunning beauty of the landscape and the ideal conditions we are given here. Someone cooks our meals. Miriam already learned how to eat with the fingers of her right hand. We still do our own laundry, just so we don’t get too uppity.

It is an unbelievable privilege to be given the time and such ideal circumstances to work without any distractions. I hope, by the end, I will have something to show for myself, though I am not sure what exactly I will be working on. The last two days I was reading Bob Erlewine’s book on “Judaism and the West,” which I am reviewing for the Journal of Religion. I need to select maps and images for my Jerusalem book, and get permissions and high-res files for some of these images. I have no idea what changes my editor will require of me or when I will hear back from the publisher with the readers’ feedback, at which time I will need to set everything else aside and finish this short opus I’ve been working on for ten years. There are the very intriguing notes by Strauss that Thomas Meyer unearthed and deciphered, which need to be edited and translated. And there are half-thought-out ideas and drafts of the next projects. We’ll see what comes of this. I might just look out of the window a lot, walk through the hills, sleep, and practice the clarinet.

Kochi

It is shortly before 6am in Kochi, a port city in Kerala, on the famed coast of Malabar. Vasco da Gama was here, who left behind a Portuguese mission that was later joined by the Dutch East India Company. Kochi has the oldest functioning synagogue anywhere in the British Commonwealth. Though most of Jews of India made aliyah when the modern state of Israel was founded at the same time India was released into independence, the memory of the Jews of Kochi is part of the mixture of heritages that is the pride of the inhabitants of this small, clean, and friendly city. If you travel to India for the first time, start here.

That’s what we, Miriam and I, did three days ago when we arrived here on the first leg of our three-month Indian voyage. Conversations with more seasoned travels confirmed our own first impression that we were in a welcoming place of manageable size and density. Arriving here just as I finished the first full draft of my Jerusalem book, I am also struck by the omnipresence of a plurality of religions. Right now, as I sit on the roof of our homestay, still in the dark, I hear the sounds of the muezzins calling from nearby minarets, the morning raga from the nearby Shiva temple, accompanied by haunting flute play, and the chanting of a Catholic mass. A moment ago a church bell called for prayer. These human voices compete with the cawing of the ubiquitous crows and the crowing of roosters. With the exception of the bird-song, this aural experience reminds me of no other city more than Jerusalem where the voices of different prayers often intersect and overlap one another in precisely the same way. To some, this spontaneous, though regularly timed tapestry of sounds represents a cacophony. Right now, to me, it gives voice (still in the dark) to what you see when you walk the streets of this city: humans of different origin and persuasion but of great similarity in their outlook on life, their acceptance of common history and karma, their extraordinary friendly disposition, their readiness to smile when they meet the eyes of strangers. It is sad to think just how different, how ready for conflict, how fiercely unsettled, how exclusionary and violently sectarian is Jerusalem in comparison to Kochi.

(To see images from our time in India, see my FB page or find me and Miriam Shenitzer on Instagram.)