Cochin Post

I went round and round the slab of stone in a corner dank in the humid of the monsoons, and went and saw the rest of the simple church and came back and stood about the stone again, and sat down on a bench by it. A woman came up with two kids and whispered "Vasco da Gama" and all sound receded altogether. He had been dead fourteen years from 1524 under that stone in Cochin, and then they took him away to a church in Belem in Lisbon, which is where he is dead ever since, under finely ornamented stonework with a statue of him supine on top.

St. Francis Church, CochinWhen I read of him when I was young his story was all of valor and adventure; when I grew up and read of him again the accounts were of intrigue and intolerance and unspeakable brutality; now I'm grown even more and I've begun this week to read Sanjay Subrahmanyam's scholarly understanding of him. The reason for my enduring fascination for the man, I don't know still, but he will surely bother me for many more years.

After living a life causing and suffering great dangers, at age 55, he fell to the Cochin mosquito on a Christmas eve.

A Dutch cemetery is close by the church, its gates locked, neat and clean and maintained by the Church of South India. And the Chinese nets are near too, still working, centuries after the Chinese installed them at the edge of Fort Island, at the mouth to the sea. When I was there last week, one of the nets was manned entirely by young men, who called out insistently to an attractive young white woman to come on up for a photo. She coped with their attention with silence, and her man with bashful nays on her behalf.

On the narrow road from these foreigners' remnants we passed tiny churches in which lamps (candles?) were lit, and they were performing western customs in the local manner, somewhat like the arti in Hindu temples. The Fort area is clean and pretty with bright, spruced-up colonial houses used as home-stays—Christians, my driver Salim Kumar informed me, weighting the word.

The entire coast on Mattancherry that faced my hotel, the Taj Malabar, was lined with colored fishing boats where a bustle was about, because the ban on fishing was coming off that night, with the monsoons having eased their grating on the sea. Behind the boats are the line of ancient warehouses, bastions of the spice trade, to which the captain of my rented yacht took me as close as he could and said is in the control of the 20,000 strong Gujarati community. Their children don't advance much beyond school, he told me. They are quickly put into the family business, one of the measures the incumbents have taken to foil all competition.

Chinese nets, CochinThat shouldn't bother many, now during boom time, when plantation land and the spice trade are less coveted than the business of concrete and construction that you can do anywhere where you can wangle some land and people will buy at your price. And, across the strait from Mattancherry, a new foreign hand is shaping Cochin, this one from Dubai, building a modern port that plans to compete with Colombo for mother vessels. The development is swelling land prices and the locals are dazed and amazed at how rich they've so easily gotten.

Cochin is the only South Indian urban center without a majority Hindu population and is hence a hospitable home to many gods, big and small, local and foreign, who have been accepting ardent reverence for centuries, occasionally making room for a new god seeking welcome. I couldn't make time for the synagogue, so I have a strong reason to go back there, soon.

From the plane, I searched the land below for at least a sliver of brown, but it was green everywhere, even in the places where men have played with sharp objects. They call the place God's own country, and tourists come believing it and they leave saying it is true, but when you're on land you can see without looking too hard that Man is working overtime to wrest God's country from God' giving hands. It is petty to wish failure for him.

Why didn't the sea smell of itself in Cochin? I realize only now as I write of it.

View from Taj Malabar: Cochin Harbor under construction