A Letter from Karavali

By Aditya Dev Sood

Mer des Indes Not many people know where or what Karavali is, I find. Many in the north refer to it vaguely as Mangalore, on account of the large port city located there. With friends from overseas I'm best off describing it as the strip of India south of Goa and north of Kerala. European traders from the 16th Century called it the Canarese coast, from Canara, or Kanada, the language of the inland powers that loosely controlled it. It is also sometimes called the Konkan coast, for the Konkani speaking merchants, originally from Goa, who did so much of the commerce with European and Arab vessels. So many different languages, cultures, and religions are folded into these undulating hills, which rise up from the Deccan Plateau, before plunging down, just a few kilometers from the Arabian Sea.

Country road I first came here by accident, in the late summer of 1991. I had actually gone to Goa to visit Ravi, an old school friend of mine, but hadn't counted on the dynamics of his rather conservative joint family, which frowned on us sipping beers in shacks by the seaside, and prevented us from going out at night, or from bringing friends over. He had a cousin graduating from the Regional Engineering College of Mangalore, several hours south by road, so we volunteered to drive down and pick him and his stuff up. We took the family jeep, a fiendishly powerful indigenous vehicle called a TRAX, which as I recall, looked to be built out of folded steel sheets and what was reputed to be a reverse-engineered Benz engine. The TRAX ate up the road, while its muscular window wipers swept away the rain furiously. From the right window you could glimpse the sea from time to time, and on occasion you would spot the trains of the Konkan railway, which run generally parallel and then sometimes criss-cross over or under National Highway 17. The drive down from Goa was among the most beautiful I had ever been on. And coming from the North, I was pleasantly surprised to find the scenic beauty coupled with a kind of rural prosperity I'd never seen before in India. Just about everyone seemed to have their own motorcycle and laterite-stone house with Mangalore tiled roofs and a clutch of coconut trees to tend. When I tried to explain what I'd seen to my friends and family back in Delhi, I struggled with the words. It's like India, I gushed, but perfect!

IMG_4885 I came back to South Canara in 2000 for an entirely different purpose: for a part of my doctoral dissertation, I was to make an ethnographic study of a system of monasteries located in the old temple town of Udupi, about an hour north of Mangalore. I stayed with a local cultural activist and all-round gadfly named Murari Ballal, and we became close friends. Sitting on his porch, sipping coffee and staring at the large fruiting mango tree in his courtyard, I learned from him and his many visitors all about the local environmental and developmental politics of the region. Ballal was adamantly opposed to the thermal power plant being planned near the Kudremukha national forest preserve. He fumed at the corrupt and corrupting influence of the executives of the American company promoting it, Enron. He campaigned relentlessly, and eventually successfully, to stop mining in and around many parts of the forests of Karavali, which he identified to me as one of the few global biodiversity hot-spots, where many more diverse flora and fauna are found than normal. Ballal also taught me to appreciate the diverse cuisines of the region, including Brahman, Jain and Bhunt, which made elaborate use of obscure local vegetables, but also Mussalman curries and Christian dishes of pork, fish and wine.

Life has conspired and transpired such that my wife Nita is from this region. My friend and sometime colleague, John Sherry, an anthropologist from Portland, Oregon, cracked that I'd gone and married into my field. Being that such is in fact the case, this letter from Karavali will have much the flavor of an ethnographic account of a visit with my in-laws.

The Telos of Fruit and Grain

Lovi lovi picking When Nita first brought me home to meet her parents, I learned that her father Irwin was fond of making wine out of the pineapples and honey grown on his farm. There is apparently a tradition among Mangalorean Christians of gifting one another home-made wines, but the local varieties of grape are not necessarily well suited to wine-making, and in any case, the region receives far too much rainfall to grow grapes well. I found Irwin's mead too sweet, but liked the intense sourness of his pineapple wine. We talked at length about the different kinds of fruits grown on the farm from which one might make wine. There was jamun, a sweet and sour purple fruit that I've only ever had in India, and amla, also known as gooseberry. But then Irwin proposed exotic fruits and flowers that I'd never heard of: the petals of the rosella flower from Australia, for instance, and a sour cherry from Indonesia known as lovi lovi, and the langsat, an indescribably wonderful variant of amla, from Thailand. We even considered wild local fruits, too sharp and sour to be eaten, because they function as a natural laxative.

Lovi lovi and mash There have been some successful results from our efforts during the last trip, but many deadends as well. Meanwhile, Irwin's pineapple wine is getting better and better with each version, his last batch having lost some of the more intense sourness, while achieving a soft golden glow, the likes, methinks, of an old Gewurztraminer. On this visit, we focused on the amla and the lovi lovi, which were both in season. In the mornings we gathered the fruit from the trees, either on ladders, or else by shaking the tree with nets on the ground to gather the fruit. At night we would take over the family kitchen, crushing the fruit in small batches of about two to five kilos, and then boiling the mash with an equal amount of water, adding to each batch half as much sugar as fruit pulp. Then Irwin prepared the yeast in a small glass, adding it ceremoniously to the cooling drum, and setting it aside in the store room in the back.

Beermaking This time, Nita and I had also brought back a couple of beer kits from the States, and we spent one evening running through the recipe systematically. We didn't have an airlock, and this was proving a major impediment to us getting started. Finally, Irwin came up with the plan of using his industrial pressure cooker without the nozzle, but rather attaching a pipe to its outlet and then running that through water. This worked much better than we could have anticipated, because we could track the pace of fermentation through the frequency and intensity of bubbles running out the water lock. We scalded the speciality grains, added the pilsen and boiled for an hour as instructed, dunked in the bag of hops for a bit and took the cooker off the flame. Then we added pure water to the wort, and set up the improvised air lock with the water bottle. We tasted all of the components of the beer kit and tried to think of local substitutes for them next time around. A solution of unrefined sugar, jaggery or bella, for example, for the pilsen malt extract, a local millet named ragi for the flavoring barley, local bitter herbs and vegetables like the karela for the hops.

I think Irwin and I have yet to decide whether we are innately brewers or vintners. Perhaps this is a European distinction that has no meaning in India. For my part, though, I'm leaning more towards brewing, because of the greater potential for creativity, for mixing and matching grains, flavoring fruits, and bittering vegetables. But either way, as all vintners and brewers know, there is something extraordinarily satisfying about causing yeast to turn sugars into alcohol, of changing the taste of something from ordinary to sublime, of bringing the fruits and grains of a farm to their proper and natural end.

Re-siting the Soans Family Plantation Home

Nita's father Irwin works with his brother Livingston, and together they run the Soans Brothers Farm, about an hour outside Mangalore city. Livingston studied and trained in the States for a period on a Fulbright, and has a specialist's interest in agricultural sciences, technologies and traditions. On the farm the brothers grow pineapples, vanilla, pepper, and other exotic fruits. They also have a live collection of rare trees, plants and bamboos, as well as a small museum of obsolete agricultural technologies. Visitors to the farm can stay in a little three room guest house on one far end of the property, and receive guided tours of the trees and plants, complete with tastings of some of the fruits, petals and leaves along the way. They also run a coffee and areca-nut plantation deep in the mountains, beyond the Kudremukha forest.

Lcs_dowsing When the brothers first began working together in the late 1960s, the farm was struggling to find enough water to reliably irrigate its crops, particularly the succulent pineapple. They hired a series of local water-diviners to help them. Some were better than others, and Livingston observed them all closely, to learn how they hold their divining rod, and how they sense the presence of water. With only this brief snatch of informal instruction, he began dowsing for water himself, later becoming a member of the British Society of Dowsers.

Once, when Livingstone was visiting the nearby Kantheshwara temple, a few kilometers north of the farm, he felt a spot of intense spectral energy emanating from behind the temple. This temple was known to be the place where an ascetic named Ambarishmuni meditated before he achieved enlightenment. Livingston dowsed the underlying energy line all the way up to a point on the edge of the Soans Farm, where it ended in another significant 'power-point' or high energy spot.

Labrynth Since then, Livingston has discovered a number of other power-points on the Soans Brothers Farm, as well as in other locations. He has constructed 'labyrinths' on these spots, which look like large mandala-s or abstract earthworks, so as to make their energy more visible to visitors, allowing them to better partake of their energy. The power-points are reputed to have therapeutic effects, and initiates like him can apparently feel their effects somatically, or perhaps through their higher sensorial faculties. Livingston gave me a brief lesson in dowsing last week, also giving me a small kit containing two different kinds of divining rods and photocopied handouts from British and American sources, as well as a small booklet entitled The Art of Rhabdomancy.

While most of the power-points Livingston has discovered over the years are in open fields, he found one particularly intense power-point directly underneath the Family's plantation home up in the mountains, just inside the entrance doorway. This year, the walls of the house have begun to crack dramatically, in all directions, apparently radiating outwards from the power-point. Maybe this had to do with the intense rainfall in the region last year and the landslides they caused at various times this year. Or maybe it is because the house was originally constructed of unfired compressed earth bricks. Or maybe it is in fact on account of the power-point below the house, which is now struggling to break free. In all events, since the house must be rebuilt from scratch including its foundations, perhaps it is best that it be re-sited, and the power-point released to open out into the atmosphere.

Soans at kalasa with overlay Irwin asked Nita and me to head out there to make preliminary drawings for the new house. The original house, with the still cracking walls and foundation, is perched on a shallow teardrop-shaped terrace cut into the side of a small mountain. It overlooks glistening green valley, of areca trees, vanilla plants and coffee shrubs. Nita and I found good connectivity there, and were quickly able to find it on GoogleMaps. On the basis of this satellite imagery I sketched out a site plan of the terraced site and we took turns drawing variations for the new proposed site of the home. We thought it was a good idea to provide a portico in the direction of the valley, and to place the house behind it, more or less on the western edge of the terrace. The power-point could be economically enclosed within a square courtyard constructed of live bamboo and other scrub plants useful for defining a border. We envisioned ceremonial entrances to the courtyard from the east, in the style of the Balinese courtyard homes, which are a temple-inside-the-home and a temple-for-living, both and in equal measure. Perhaps Livingston will design a labyrinth for the courtyard once the new house is built.

The Likeness of the Soans Family Patriarch

Gustav soans pic The Soans clan numbers almost six hundred people alive and kicking today, all of whom trace their lineage back to Gustav Soans (1855-1935), their common progenitor, a farmer with a taste for buffalo-racing. According to a souvenir monograph published in 2002 on the occasion of a major clan reunion, his father's original Hindu name was Mani Sona, and it was he who had first approached the Basel Mission because he was plagued by a 'spirit problem.' The family has a photograph of Gustav Soans staring directly back at the camera in a round-necked jacket yet to be popularized by Nehru, and a floppy Mysore Peta. His asymmetric face has high cheekbones and an incredible set of white whiskers.

Perhaps I was inspired by the verdant and teeming life surrounding us in the farm, or perhaps it was the wine and the wine-making, but it occured to me that he would make an excellent subject for a bust. It would be a nice gesture, and if it worked out, a fine gift to Nita's parents. I had enjoyed sculpting quite a bit while in high-school, but hadn't really worked in the medium since Architecture school. Nita arranged for twenty kilos of clay from her brother-in-law's tile factory up the coast, and I was on my way.

Sculpture_side profile I began preparing the clay with a rhythm and tempo that came back to me immediately, like swimming or cycling. I could hear my old sculpture teacher, admonishing me for disregarding technique and riding all on style. Without her around, without the lab assistants or the sculpture lab, all of them almost a lifetime away, I'm more acutely sensitive to how the clay feels, its moist leatheriness, its cool, giving, textured surface. I'm set up in an abandoned green house directly in front of Nita's parents house, with views of the pinapple plants and the coconut trees in the distance. Cars run by the highway out front from time to time, like waves crashing on the shoreline, a rhythm I perceive only peripherally, while I remain focused on forming this clay.

The key in this initial phase is to get the proportions right, the ratios between the eyes and the upper lip, the width of the head as a whole, the location of the ears. The things that you can't fix when you're working on the finer details later on. I draped and set the turban with thin flat sheets of clay not unlike the Mangalore tile that this clay was supposed to have become. Soon I was ready to lift the bust off its stand and rest it on its own clay shoulders — to make it a bust, in other words. I then hollowed out the entire turban from the back, creating in effect a vase in the shape of a human head. This was important not only because I had only a limited amount of clay to work with, but also because one needs to minimize the thickness of material whenever possible if you plan on firing your clay. Else it'll just explode in the kiln, like a badly primed bottle of beer.

Sculpture finished The difficulty in working from a single photo is that you keep thinking about things from a particular angle, when the whole point of sculpture is the experience of the round, the possibility of reading the bust from all the multiple points of view from which it can be seen. Your eye has to make judgements about depth in the photo that are just guesstimations, impossible to verify, until you start sculpting the thing out from different angles, and you begin noticing contradictions, and repairing them, slowly reconciling the disparate elements of visual and formal data.

By the end of the week I've been able to work the whiskers in a way that I'm not uncomfortable with and I've popped the eyes. Only now can I see that there are problems with the lips and chin, where expression and presence resides. The formal, engineering part of the project is over, and this is really the part that cannot easily be understood or shared. Some empathy with the subject in the photograph is required, which you then have to transfer over to the clay form, seeking an alignment between the two. I'm in a flow state, where meaning is being generated in a rather more subtle way, where information is being synthesized by the eye, mind and hand in ways that one has limited command over.
Learning to be Still

Soans farm areca path I’ve been getting up at dawn and working a double shift for most of this fortnight. I’ve gone for an early morning walk-run, done some writing, and then turned to the sculpture for a couple of hours, all before breakfast. Then I’ve been on skype and email with the office from about ten to four, delegating whatever I can and begging off late calls. Then another couple more hours on the sculpture before sundown, and then yoga and dinner, after which the vintning and brewing starts up. It doesn't seem an especially sustainable way of being, but I still feel like I have plenty of energy and only a limited time to do the things that can only be done on the Soans Farm and not in my everday life in Delhi. Work and play have felt like interchangeable, self-identical opposites, and life has felt like an opportunity to enjoy the creation of value, through whatever path or means available.
Soans farm coconut tree All these joint activities, and even my solitary efforts at the sculpture, have represented a kind of extremis, a high, which has allowed new thoughts and new perspectives to come to consciousness. There is the bonding that comes with collaboration and common purpose, on account of which, Karavali has already shifted from a field of systematic observation to a field of action, of entrepreneurial, design and aesthetic intervention.

But even beyond the highs of creativity and intense activity, there is a deeper kind of realization emerging for me, which cuts against the grain of much of my formal training and professional practice. I can now recognize that the world will still be beautiful if I were to do nothing more than to be within it, absorbing its beauty without even responding to it, capturing it, reflecting it, much less trying to intervene within it and improve it. While work and an active engagement with the world may be rewarding, life cannot be grasped any better for hurling oneself at it. It is only when one puts one's tools down that one can surrender to the fleeting, glancing kiss of life, experience its full impossible ineffible intensity.