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The Essence of India

Derek Keen

 The first thing we notice is the humidity.  It envelops us like a damp duvet and we can almost feel our skin react to the unaccustomed moisture.  After spending over 20 hours in the sanitised, air-conditioned confines of airports and planes, it is a relief to breathe the moist air.  We fill our lungs and inhale deeply.
There is the faint aroma of incense and the delicate scent of frangipani.  The frangipani trees border the airport and welcome visitors with their perfume.  The heavy scent of jasmine combines with the faintest smell of spices and wood-smoke.  There is always wood-smoke here.
Our sense of smell, dormant during the long journey, has been aroused; now another sense is triggered as we see the people at the barriers waiting for loved ones, relations, friends or visitors.  Ravi, who owns a clothes shop here, had told us that Indian people love colour.  

‘It doesn’t matter if our clothes don’t match.  If it is bright and colourful, we will wear it.’ he explained.

This is clearly evident now as we walk past the rows of people looking expectantly at the latest arrivals.  They are dressed in all manner of colours and hues; bright saris, their shades blending together and flowing like a river, moving and swaying in the slight breeze.  Men in coloured lunghis and mis-matched shirts mingle amongst the ladies jostling for the best positions; their dark eyes eager to be the first to spot and greet their visitors.  Girls dressed in their Sunday best with pink, red and yellow dresses embroidered with sequins that catch the light.  Boys in bright T shirts and jeans, shuffling their feet to show off their brand new, counterfeit Nike, bright green trainers.
All too soon we are ushered into our waiting taxi for the drive to our hotel.  Once again we are confined to air-conditioned coolness but our senses have been awakened and, as we drive through villages and towns, we become aware of other things.  January heralds the start of the festival season in Kerala and Hindu Temples broadcast loud music from giant speakers as we pass.  A lady in a vivid blue sari sits cross legged outside one Temple.  She chants mantras from the Vedas, the Hindu holy book, her hands gliding over the pages as she sings in a clear, melodious voice, which is broadcast throughout the area.  Yellow, green and silver bunting forms a canopy over the road outside the Temples and flower sellers weave brightly coloured garlands with dextrous fingers.
Everywhere is alive with colour.  Bougainvillea cascades like pink and purple waterfalls over walls and fences.  Shops spill over onto the pavement.  One sells plastic buckets in a variety of shapes, sizes and shades next to mops, dusters and rugs of all different hues.  Another displays pillars of highly polished brass Vilaku lamps which burn coconut oil in Temples and homes.  They vary in size from a few inches to over two metres in height, all burnished to a brilliant shine. A man walks along the pavement towards us with a large bundle of steel cooking pots balanced on his head. They are polished so bright they catch the morning sun and dazzle us.  A group of tall schoolgirls walking slowly to school, dressed in their uniforms of bright pink salwar kameez and scarves, remind us of flamingos standing at the edge of a lake.

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