Indian Student politics (via a wild goose chase)

Given the forthcoming elections in India, politics are front of mind here. A couple of days ago, I had a brief insight into the student version, via a circuitous route.

I had decided to try and get in contact with an Indian family that had looked after friends, Patrick and Mary Harrison, when they were here 15 years ago. Patrick (now retired) was Secretary of the RIBA and had been visiting an architect in Cochin. The architect had asked his secretary (Katherine Alencherry) to give them a tour of the Cochin backwaters.

The ensuing brief trip (with father Sebastien who worked for Indian Railways, plus two children) was one that I was told all had always remembered fondly. Christmas cards had been exchanged since, but no further contact than that.

To make the connection, I had been given a sparse architect’s scrawl – “ALENCHERRY, Railway Quarters 132/G (or 4?), Beat No.9, Ernaculam South, Cochin”. This drew blanks from the owner of my hotel, as well as from his friends rapidly assembled to help. More enquiries in town were met with similar puzzled looks. I feared a wild goose chase.

A couple of vague directions from random friendly looking people on the streets of Cochin didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time, but after a couple of hours I found myself on the first floor of a small building in a tight back street by the Ernakulam Railway Junction. I knocked on the non-descript door more in hope than expectation. (I recalled a discussion with my father before leaving where we had agreed that “the best thing about being a pessimist is that you’re never disappointed with the outcome”).

I didn’t have time to be disappointed. Instead I was taken aback by the welcome I got from Sebastien and Katherine Alencherry. It was pure chance that Sebastien had a days leave, and that Katherine had returned home for lunch. They had no warning that a random man would be turning up at their door saying he knew someone that they last spoke to 15 years ago.

Tea was conjured up; rapid telephone calls were made; in no time 3 turned into 6 as their law-student son Karol turned up with two of his college friends; plans were made without any consultation of me; and within minutes I found myself in a cramped Suzuki Maruti 800 heading for Cherai Beach with Karol and his friends.

Slightly stunned, I told them that while I was delighted with the rapid turn of events, I was concerned that I might be keeping them from their studies?

“Oh, don’t worry, there’s a strike at the college. There was an attempted murder there yesterday”. Gulp. “Oh yes, one of the BJP [Hindu Nationalists] student representatives tried to stab one of the SFI [Communist] reps in the neck with a sharpened screwdriver.”

Another gulp. I tentatively asked if they were involved in student politics. “Oh yes,” Karol responded cheerfully, “We have started our own party. Very important demands. We want that the college bus stops at the female college BEFORE they get here rather than after. This is very critical indeed – we need to meet girls!”

After a lengthy walk and plentiful conversation, I returned to Cochin for dinner, and an unexpected dip (fully-clothed) in the pool of the pricey Malabar House Hotel. (It’s a long story, not quite as loutish as it sounds, and not making it onto the blog).

I am now in the tea plantations of the Kanan Devan hills. Another amazing bus-ride to get here, and now traveling for a few days with the afore-mentioned Justin, who rode here on his Royal Enfield Bullet. We are staying with legendary Joseph Iype, made famous by Dervla Murphy’s book “On a shoestring to Coorg”.

Given the out-of-town location of Joseph’s home, moving anywhere involves riding pillion down potholed roads on Justin’s Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike. Which is just as fun as it sounds.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

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