When my wife Vanessa asked Bill Fletcher about visiting India
he said, “if you want India with pain, go to the North, for India without pain, come to the South where I live.” Our Indian visas were good for one year, so we decided to take the painless route, and visit Fletcher in Fort Cochin, in the state of Kerala. We’d visit the North on a subsequent trip, we told ourselves— it’s only a four-hour flight from Dubai, where we lived at the time. This proved incorrect, at least so far, as our daughter was born about nine months after that trip, and India with pain and a baby didn’t sound very attractive.
On our first morning in Fort Cochin, Fletcher informs us, “we’re going to take you to our favorite breakfast spot, but I have to warn you that some of our guests haven’t been able to handle the setting.” The decor of this particular restaurant, which seemingly has no name, isn't noteworthy by local standards, but to my eye it appeared to be one part jail cell, and another part woodshed, with a layer of grease on the walls like the high water line in a flood zone. The proprietors though, are to be commended for serving up some of the best food I've had, for the least amount of money, in the most unlikely and yet inviting setting.
Kerala, which boasts the worlds first democratically elected communist party, was the first Indian state to abolish the caste system, installing a social safety net that still sways in the breezes of financial chaos. Kerala is a relatively poor region, as evinced by the ubiquity of local households that rely on foreign income, particularly from family members working in Dubai. In addition to expatriate earnings, the safety net, it would seem, is buoyed by more informal arrangements— like when renters adopt the couple living on their doorstep.
“Mom” wasn’t exactly homeless when we first encountered her,” explains Fletcher, “nor did we refer to her as Mom at that point. She and her husband lived under an overhang in front of our old apartment.” Then, as now, Mom would clasp her hands together in welcome, uttering ‘Namaskaram’ with a toothless smile each time Fletcher and his partner Mahesh passed. “When we decided to move out, having finally completed work on a house of our own after years of delays, complications, and consternation, we learned that Mom and her husband, Durga Prasad Napali Gurkha Braman, were being evicted as a sort of collateral damage to our move,” says Fletcher. And so, rather than leave them in the street, Fletcher and Mahesh asked Mom and her husband to come with them to the new house, where Mom helps keep the courtyard clean and does other small chores in exchange for the guesthouse. Fletcher will tell you that he laments the loss of the guesthouse, but I know he’s secretly pleased to have Mom in the fold.
Mahesh Manohar is something of a local celebrity in Fort Cochin. Although he’s an award-winning director, it’s ultimately his finesse on the football field that has made him so popular. Everywhere we go people recognize him and he returns their smiles with a wave and a glint in his eye. According to Fletcher, it’s always been this way— ever since Mahesh was a young boy in the small Keralan village of Ponani, his magnetism and charm have cultivated a sense of extended family wherever he goes. In Fort Cochin, Mahesh’s admirers are as varied as the knot of grinning kids who chase after us as we buzz past, to the hunched and dawdling grandmother we meet en route to the market.
Football is Mahesh’s addiction and he’ll tell you that he can’t live without it. His goal is to assemble a club of eleven Fort Cochin based players and maintain a team for local Kerala tournaments. But before he can do that, he needs to get ahead in his chosen profession as a filmmaker. Mahesh plays every morning when he’s not working, and regularly subs as a ringer in local tournaments, staying ahead of prohibitions on outside talent by appearing wherever the officials won’t recognize him, a task made harder by his notoriety.
Clinging to Mahesh like an over-sized baby baboon, I’m toted from one place to the next on the back of his Honda Hero throughout the course of our visit. The roads in India are a little like the wilds of Africa, perhaps during a stampede, with drivers veering boldly into oncoming traffic to overtake slower tuk tuks and all kinds of other vehicles in various states of disrepair.
As a guest in Bill and Mahesh’s home, I’m struck by Mahesh’s importance to the community and its importance to him. When someone has a scrape with the police, Mahesh is there to smooth things over. Another friend brings by his girlfriend to meet Mahesh, despite the fact that premarital relationships are forbidden here. The couple seems to know that Mahesh’s house is a safe place to visit, to cast off the veil of secrecy shrouding their courtship. All week, visitors swarm around Mahesh everywhere we go and, although he wasn’t born in Fort Cochin, it’s hard to imagine anyone could ever be more at home.
“The story of how I came to Fort Cochin isn’t that remarkable, but the community we've built here helps explain why Bill and I have stayed” Mahesh explains. “Our adopted home, is a tranquil corner of Cochin proper, a medium size city that is laid back by Indian standards.” Fletcher and Mahesh spend a lot of time at the Kashi Arts Café, which serves as a meeting place and hub for Fort Cochin’s considerable arts community. On any given day they might share the courtyard with writers, painters, musicians, and our fellow filmmakers.
One afternoon we screen the film, One Day in Cochin, in which both Mahesh and Bill have roles. Bill is a veteran of stage and screen, and was for many years the premier wig maker in Hollywood (look no further than the coiffures of Adam’s Family Values and Pulp Fiction for evidence of his deft hand.) In the film, Bill plays a peevish American tourist, carping about the heat and mosquitoes. Mahesh appears in One Day in Cochin as a director holding a casting call, a role not too dissimilar from his real work, and he manages to look legitimate peering out from under a beret. Mahesh came to Cochin to study at its well-regarded director’s school, and his video Ormayil Adyamai won a Best Keralan Music Video award for 2007. The first cut of the video, which depicts a burgeoning romance between a local and a European tourist, was deemed too controversial by censors, so the final version features a sequence in which the male protagonist wakes from his dream of interracial romance to a more conformist reality.
I still haven’t awoken from my dream of returning to Fort Cochin, and the more painful corners of India. It’s a country that I feel I know better than I should— despite one geographically limited to visit to that enormous place, I did spend three years in Dubai, a place that is a major outpost for Indian expats, some of whom didn't seem to understand why I'd want to visit India in the first place. It’s interesting, because in many ways Dubai seemed like the opposite of Fort Cochin— lacking in community but drowning in money; international, but ultimately an isolating place to live; littered with shiny restaurants, but relatively lacking in great food (with a few exceptions). I’m sure living in Fort Cochin would be challenging, just not in the ways that Dubai was. I don’t know when I’ll see either place again, but I definitely hope that I will.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.