Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Colours of Kerala


The saree must be the most beautiful garment a woman can wear on earth. So colourful, so regal, and so gorgeous. If ever there is one reason why I want to live in India – it’s to wear sarees everyday!

Shamsu my driver took me to Kalyan Silk centre in Ernakulam – touted ‘’the world’s largest silk saree showroom’’, with seven floors of fabrics for churidars, shalwar kameez and sarees, as well as plain silks and cottons and all sorts of fabrics, not to mention ready-to-wear clothes.

I went mad there. Swooning with excitement and drooling over the glorious bales of fabrics, I bought six tops, two sets of fabrics for churidar sets and countless metres of cloth.

Shamsu was glad I enjoyed the shopping. ‘’This place has a lot of stuff and the price is good – it’s where all the locals go to’’. He was right – I was the only ‘’foreigner’’ in the mega mall.

And I am so grateful to Shamsu. He had earlier taken me to another boutique just to ‘’compare prices’’ and for me to get my big notes changed to smaller denominations; and had warned me not to get anything there as the shop is ‘’for tourists’’ and the price is high.

While in Cochin visiting the historical sights he had warned me not to get anything at the shops there either. Using his hands to point to the throat, he said, ‘’they cut like knife here!’’

Kashmir – the very name spells romance
Oh Kashmir – the name evokes political unrests, pains and conflicts. But it evokes beautiful mental images of magnificent mountains, valleys and rivers, cashmere wool, pashminas, exquisitely expensive saffron, natural beauty, Mughal gardens, quaint crafts and lifestyle. Even the pronunciation of the name is sensuous – the release of the ‘’k’’ followed by the ‘’sh’’ sounds is so soft and gentle, like a kiss in the breeze.

And in Kerala, I realised the men from Kashmir are handsome too (at least those I met)! At Trident Hilton where I stayed for the first two nights, I met the shop keeper of a gift shop.

I was admiring his necklaces at his window when he leapt out of his seat and invited me to go into the shop. I just gazed at him, and blurted out by way of reply, ‘’where are you from?’’ ‘’Kashmir,’’ he said matter of factly.

He looked so different, not just in his fair skin (in contrast to the Keralites), but in his deep set eyes and sharp nose, and very fine features. I went in briefly and promised to return to the shop after my city tour.

When I returned, I bought a few gifts, like paper mache boxes. They are from Kashmir, which is known for their paper mache crafts. He tried to interest me in some shawls but I was not keen at first. “’I have many at home,’’ I said.

‘’These are not too hot for Singapore, and they are from Kashmir – 80% silk and only 20% wool. Look at the flower designs – they are from the famous Shalimar Garden in Kashmir,’’ he replied.

Shalimar Garden – that grabbed my heart. Shalimar – what a soft, gentle, lovely name…. My imagination fired up, I started looking at the few pieces he showed me. It was tough choosing the colours. I almost decided on a green piece, but saw his unenthusiastic look, and decided to do the usual whenever I am undecided on colours – get a man’s opinion (they are usually right!). He picked out a brighter one for me. ‘’OK – I’ll get this one then!’’ I said happily.

No wonder women are easy targets for advertisers – just appeal to their imagination and sense of romance… and in my case, a name!

Regretfully, I could not follow a man’s opinion at Saga Dept Store (the boutique where I was brought to compare prices). As suggested by Shamsu, I was to ‘’look around and compare prices’’ but I was not prepared for the persuasiveness of one of the staff.

I have always been enamoured of India’s lovely moonstones. Again, the very name breathes romance. Good moonstones are so hard to come by in Singapore. At the store, I asked to see some.

I was shown four lovely pieces, unset ones. The man tried to sell me others that were set into rings, necklaces, ear rings. But I was not inclined to spend, only content to buy one loose piece.

After helping me pick a ‘’better piece’’ and explaining his choice, he tried to up sell me other stuff, like this pair of gorgeous emerald and diamond earrings, with a matching, ultra gorgeous pendant.

I gave every excuse not to buy them. I even refused (unsuccessfully) to try them on:

Me: (lying most unconvincingly) But I hardly wear such things
He: Sometimes you have to try something new; they are so lovely –
the current fashion – Victorian setting
Me: (again lying) But it’s not my style; I prefer something modern
He: Just try them on and see for yourself!

I put them on and fell in love ….

Me: Yes, it’s not bad (lying again – it was actually gorgeous) but I
can’t afford it, and I really don’t want to buy something I will not
wear.
He: These are not expensive because they are set in silver and it’ll
be so special when you wear them.
Me: No …. (running out of excuses)
He: M’am, they really suit you and look great… you can’t find
similar pieces elsewhere. Believe me, you will regret not getting
them… this pair suits you more, unlike the other pair you tried
earlier.
Me: (as firmly as I could) No, no, I don’t wear them, it’s nice, but no,
thanks.
He: You must try something different and get used to wearing them.
If price is an issue, I can give you a better price (and he gave me
a good discount…)
but take it from a man’s opinion – they are so
lovely on you….
Me: Thanks, really, if I change my mind, I’ll come back tomorrow,
OK? I just want the moonstone cos that’s what I’ve always
wanted.
He: You are sure you don’t want these ear rings? When a man says
something is beautiful on a woman, you really must believe
him…. (I truly buy this philosophy but…)

Sigh… it was my first day in Cochin and I really had to watch my spending… so regretfully, I had to say no. I marvelled at my own will power. Strange, in Singapore, I have shelled out a lot more money on less deserving jewellery, but why did I decide to deprive myself here?

He walked me to the cashier as he gave me this most ‘’regrettable’’, almost heart-breaking look, still repeating, ‘’you must believe a man, it’s realty a pity, they really looked so lovely on you…’’

To change the subject, I asked where he was from, since he looked very charming. ‘’Kashmir, m’am,’’ he replied. ‘’Kashmir again? Why are there many people from Kashmir in Kerala? I just met someone this morning. Are all Kashmir guys so handsome?’’ I shameless replied.

‘’It’s for bread and butter m’am,’’ he laughed. ‘’The other guy who showed you the fabric earlier is also from Kashmir,’’ he continued. ‘’I heard it’s a lovely place; I would love to go there one day,’’ I told him.

‘’Yes, please come; it’s beautiful. See the pictures on the wall – that’s Kashmir! Come in May or June when it’s warmer… here’s my card, let me know when you come to Kashmir!’’ said my tall and handsome jeweller, Rafiq.

Ayurveda – a heritage of Kerala
I normally hate massages and ‘’spa treatments’’. I dislike the kneading, the pressing, and the physical abuse of my skin and body. I have yet to find a real, well-trained, qualified skin specialist or masseuse who knows what she is doing, no matter which renowned beauty salon or spa resort she comes from. (Except for one expensive ex-nurse from the UK, whose philosophy was, the harder and more painful, the better for you. She might know her science and anatomy, but no thanks, I am not into masochism.)

Surprisingly, I enjoyed Kerala’s ‘’rejuvenating ayurveda massage’’. Well, at least the relaxing massage bit, not necessarily the sesame and herb oil they used.

So much oil was poured onto me that I felt like a piece of chicken being marinated and ‘’tenderised’’ with all that kneading.

When I had to turn around on the ‘’operating table’’ so that they could knead my back, it took two women to hold me on each side, so that I would not glide off the oily table. I have not figured out why they don’t use a towel on the leather-cushioned table. Imagine the oil seeping into the leather.

For the steam bath after, I was led to a wooden contraption that looked like a be-heading equipment. I sat inside this wooden chest with my head sticking out of the hole as they carefully covered the chest to enclose my body and expose my head. The first time I did this, I had to ‘’crouch’’ a bit for fear the doors would close on my neck, be-heading me. Much later, I managed to sit tall and straight, phew!

At the Marari Beach, the ayurveda centre offers talks on ayurveda and walks around their garden and visits to their ayurveda kitchen.

I was the only eager beaver who turned up and had the full attention of the doctor on duty. He asked me if I had specific questions or topics to ask him, or did I want a general introduction?

I told him to start from the basics as I had very little knowledge on the subject. And so I had a private tutorial on the history, background, the three text books, the eight branches, the five elements, the three doshas, the seven datos and some strange practices.

It was mind boggling, first having to deal with his accent, the names and pronunciations and the spellings of the names. Even more mind boggling were the tales of ayurvedic procedures and cures that have been recorded. For example, he recounted how a man got his youth back by spending 62 days in a wooden chest, with layers of walls surrounding him and some other treatments. Soon his teeth fell off, hair dropped, they grew back, and he became a new man.

Wow. Women should take note – it’s only 62 days – think of all the money you can save on La Mer anti-wrinkle creams!

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