Christmas craze in Cochin by Liz Cleere. Just Back winner, December 2012
A rare easterly blowing through Cochin this morning has freshened things, brightening colours and tempering Kerala’s humidity. It has lured me from the air-conditioned saloon up into our boat’s cockpit. The breeze brings with it snatches of a lone voice chanting a Malayalam Christmas prayer across the water.
Jamie, my partner, appears on deck with two mugs of tea. A fisherman, his head swathed in dark cloth, paddles by; he is kneeling, straight-backed, his shiny torso the same colour as his mahogany canoe. Giant egrets look up from the edge of the pontoon. The man glances over. Jamie waves and I give the classic south Indian head wobble. The man answers with a sideways nod and a smile. The egrets go back to their fishing.
“What are you doing today?” I ask Jamie. “Thought I might string up our Christmas lights,” he says.
Two Brahminy kites sit on our masts, exchanging remarks about the breakfast menu swimming in the lake below them. A white-throated kingfisher pierces the water, carrying off its prey to the shore. Then the wind dies, and Kerala’s spicy heat slithers through the boat’s open hatch down the companionway, where it lurks below. To shed the torpor beginning to settle on me, I take the ferry across to the mainland.
Cochin has the highest density of Christians in India, and is dotted with cathedrals and churches. In a parody of our high streets back home, the roads are rammed with fevered shoppers, their faces consumed with the business of Christmas. The crowd scoops me up and funnels me into an alley, where I bash my ankles on rough wooden nativity scenes strewn along the ground. We move into a wider street now, and I step back to avoid a rickshaw driver who is unable to see through the baby Jesuses and fir trees swinging from his sun visor. I push my way into a shop; it is Christmas-decoration heaven. A sharp-elbowed nun lunges for the perfect bauble, scattering boxes of glittering stars to the floor.
“Silent night, holy night,” play the silver bells on a Christmas tree.
I examine them, noticing they are held together with little more than spit and old Sellotape. Then I am electrocuted. Everyone laughs, including me. “Forget the lights and bring the camera,” I say to Jamie on the phone. “I’ve never been anywhere so Christmas-crazy.”
Half an hour later, we find each other in the crush and are swept along by the Yuletide throng. A gang of barefoot drummers sweeps down the lane, adding to everyone’s excitement.
A scrum has formed around a variety of fake Christmas trees in a cave-like shop. The owner hands us a masala chai and a plate of uttapam. As Jamie mimes his enjoyment of the famous South Indian dish, I perch on an upturned box, smiling my thanks. So far my shopping consists of one inflatable Father Christmas. Maybe we need a fake Christmas tree on board, too.