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A Slice Of India In Africa

Published 4 years ago
By Renuka Methil

Almost four hours before sunrise in Cape Town, another coastal town, 7,000kms away, in Kerala in south India, wakes up to the sights and sounds of dawn.

This is Kozhikode, where fishermen return ashore from the choppy waters of the Arabian Sea, bringing with them boatloads of fish, stuffed into baskets they then haul on to their bare, bony backs.

They sell the morning’s fresh catch on Kappad beach, made famous by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who landed here in 1498, on a voyage from Europe that included stopovers in South Africa and Mozambique before his itinerant tryst with India.

A small, near-derelict stone monument on the beach stands as a lone reminder of Da Gama’s Kerala expedition. The powerful Zamorin rulers of Kozhikode welcomed the Portuguese but kept a close watch on them. The spices were enough reason for the Arabs, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the English to flock to this palm-fringed, leaf-shaped Indian state.

With a population of 35 million and regaled in global travel brochures as ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala produces ample coffee, tea, pepper, rubber, coconut and cashew. Yet, the state’s most famous exports are its people.

Immigrants from Kerala can be found in any nook of the planet, but predominantly in the Middle East, from where the trade winds blew strongest across the Arabian Sea. The joke in Kerala is if there was a tea stall on the moon, you would be sure to find an enterprising Keralite running it.

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With its strong Arabic influences, in Kozhikode, you find temples designed like mosques; and every home boasting family in the Gulf. As dawn moves to dusk, lilting strains of Sufi music fill the evening air, even as the arterial S M Street (known as Sweetmeat Street) selling red halwa (a sticky sweet) and savory Arabian snacks winds up for the night.

The red, rain-drenched earth, the red sweets and the soulful music beckon any traveler to these shores.

The tea stalls of Kerala, as ubiquitous as shawarma joints in the Middle East, are where newspapers are devoured and politics hotly debated over steaming glasses of tea and crisp dosas (rice pancakes) served on banana leaves.

These are eaten perched on rickety wooden benches undeniably wet from the rains and the leaking thatched roofs. This culinary experience transcends socio-economic barriers, as every Keralite worth his salt would have tried it at some point in life.

It is from Kozhikode that many wannabe entrepreneurs, with dreams and dirhams in their eyes, have boarded the flight to Dubai – that mecca of opportunities – and some to South Africa, where they have made their millions in the little trading hubs of Johannesburg.

Fordsburg, the colorful cultural quarter in Johannesburg, teeming with traders from the subcontinent, has its own glorified Kerala tea stall on Central Road selling authentic cuisine prepared by cooks brought all the way from Kozhikode.

Discerning dosa-lovers arrive in droves to Dosa Hut, a restaurant run by Keralites Judy Joseph and Abhilash Raveendran. Joseph arrived here with $500 in 2005 and never looked back. On weekends, they rustle up as many as 600 rice pancakes a day to expatriates hungry for a taste of home.

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This year, for Onam, Kerala’s annual harvest festival celebrated in September, the two restaurateurs, who now own a slew of eateries in Johannesburg, fed traditional fare to 500 Malayalees (as Keralites are known) at a cultural get-together in Lenasia, an Indian township south of Soweto.

The day-long event featured a live orchestra – a music troupe flown in from Kerala – and dances and skits from the motherland. This convivial communal event every year is a true experience of south India in South Africa.

October in South Africa also saw a performance of Kathakali (classical dance-theater from Kerala) by Arjun Raina, an Indian dancer, actor and playwright whose show The Magic Hour was an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Othello.

It was watched by an audience all too familiar with the classical art form, which transported them to the oil lamp-lit temples and stages of Kerala, but more importantly to their rich past, and the land and lore they left behind for a country they now call a home from home in Africa.

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Related Topics: #Africa, #dosa, #India, #Kerala.