Monday, March 9, 2009

Connected To The Net

I love my neighbourhood in the morning.

There's a lot of life going on before 7AM here. A bunch of neighbours have scratched out a badminton court in an empty lot, and there are spirited games going on at 6AM. Labourers brush their teeth and hose off their feet at communal faucets that empty into the open sewer. There is an old woman who grazes her two cows in the neighbourhood empty lots and on the grasses that grow beside the sewer ditches. She scurries about in the early morning hours with assorted bottles, delivering fresh raw milk still warm from the udders of her bony bovines to her network of clandestine customers. Men on motorcycles head to work, grateful for the breeze beneath the lunghi. Women return from the market laden with vegetables and fish, dodging the odd rat that has been unlucky enough to have been recently flattened in an ill-timed dash. The last tired choruses of hopeful amorous insects buzz, as night gently gives way to morning.

Of course, I was missing all that because I was in bed. I heard a muffled voice say "That ****ing phone of yours!". "What?", I said, as I removed the earplugs that I usually sleep with. "Your phone!. Its' been going off since 6:45!" I hastily wrapped a lunghi around me and went to go and check to see who called. It was my friend Rajesh, who lives just up the road. I figured that he wanted me to go and re-injure myself on the soccer field, and was calling to check my availability for this ritual humiliation. I declined to call back. I opted to maintain my functional knees and the ability to walk upright, and instead returned to bed. Then the phone rang again. I ignored it, while my lovely wife gritted her teeth into powdery stumps. A few minutes later, we both heard the gate clanging as someone from the outside lane tried to gain access. We were being invaded!

Figuring that the sight of a flabby ferengi clad only in a lunghi would be enough to frighten away even the most adamant intruder, I wrapped the cloth around my naughty bits and marched towards the door, prepared for confrontation. The door swung wide to reveal Rajesh and his young daughter. He looked understandably surprised at my appearance. Nothing like a sleepy old white guy in a piece of cloth to get your day off to a good start. "You are having an extra long sleep?", he asked, unaware of the irony of his inquiry. I mumbled something unintelligible. As my fog lifted, I became aware that he was planning a trip to Vypeen to buy some crabs again, and thoughtfully asked if the family and I wanted to come. Naturally, my irritation at being woken evaporated as visions of crab curry danced across my inner field of vision, like one of those old snack ad trailers they used to play at the drive-in movies. "Let's all go to the lobby....".

Changing into my shorts faster than Superman can don a cape, I also managed to convince the boys that putting on clothing before going outside was actually a good idea. Grabbing our trusty green crab bucket, we three headed up to Rajesh's house and piled into his car for the short trip to Vypeen. Vypeen is a long, thin island that can be reached from Ernakulam, where we live, by a series of bridges, and also by ferry. Rajesh first drove us to his friend's prawn farm on one of the lesser islands on the way. This was a very cool property that bordered one of the backwaters that Kerala is famous for. We went to the little "seafood shack" that was right by the water, and there we found a couple of men hoisting large baskets of freshly caught small shrimp. Unfortunately, there was only one small crab was to be had, but as a consolation, we got to follow one of the men to the water to watch him fish. He cast his hand-net out 8 or 9 times, each time coming back with a fish or two. There were Karimeen, or "Pearl Spot", small barracuda, a carp-like specimen or two, and one that looked very close to what we would call a ling cod. A couple of good sized shrimp, and a small crab or two, and there was more than enough caught in 10 minutes to feed a whole family for at least a day. I've got to get me one of those nets for when the eulachon are running at home!

This made me think of why Kerala is called "God's Own Country". No, it's not that there is a Supreme Deity with a penchant for real estate speculation. The name means that this area is so rich, clean, and diverse, that one can pretty much live off the land. Coconuts grow in abundance. Fish and prawns proliferate in the abundant waters. Banana leaves for plates. Perfect growing conditions for rice. Great soil for vegetables. Eat with your hands. You can live pretty simply here, and live pretty well.

We bought a couple of kilos of the fresh prawns, and had them cleaned for us on the spot. Unfortunately, our second "Quest for Crabs" was thwarted, as access to Vypeen was rendered impossible due to a colourful festival, complete with drums and dancers with enormous fake heads, that was taking place in the one main road that runs the whole length of the island. Abandoning the quest after a lengthy stop on the last bridge to the island, we turned the convoy around and headed for home. We had to content ourselves with the fish, the prawns, and a lonesome small crab. Once home, I drained the prawns, and then sprinkled a little turmeric, chili powder, black pepper, and salt on them. Then I deep fried them in coconut oil, and drained them on newspaper. I fried some onions until they were golden brown, then added some fresh green chili, garlic, coconut chunks, curry leaves, and the previously fried prawns. A few stirs and dinner was ready...

I love my neighbourhood in the evening.

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