Saturday, April 6, 2013

Kochi Marching Forward!

Okay, enough of my Cairo reminiscing, am back to Kochi gushing! And for good reason too! The past month saw me swelling with pride over two completely divergent visits I made in the city within the same week. The first to the newly opened LuLu Mall and second to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012. Occupying two opposite ends of any spectrum out there, these two ventures however, gave me reason to believe that there is much to be expected from our emerging metropolis. And it was important that they happened together for me, as it illustrates the very exciting fact that there is a very diverse and all encompassing cultural landscape being created in this magical city.

When LuLu Mall finally opened up on Sunday 10 March 2013, I was not one of those people hyperventilating with anticipation. Yes, I was excited about the prospects of a new shopping option in the city and in particular the arrival of national brands like Westside and Crossword, but I was not screeching my way through the traffic to get there. I have never been a big mall person. For me, they served the practical purpose of shopping under one roof for a variety of brands in controlled climatic conditions; and not arenas for social activity. This is probably because of a childhood spent in a city that boasted of wonderful weather for a large part of the year that made walking around very simple. Our socializing as teenagers was spent outdoors, playing games and hanging out with each other in sporting clubs, the Indian embassy lawns and the backyard of the AUC Hostel where we lived. Besides the fact, we were of course not privileged enough those days to have any decent mall to just hang out in! Even when I went to the States for my further studies, the trips to any of the malls were very shopping focussed in nature, not a social outing. So it's no surprise, that ever since malls opened up in Kochi, I have only been frequenting them as a shopping destination and lately more for watching movies at the multiplex theatres.

However, the hype was growing over the days of all that was going to be opening at LuLu Mall. The indoor rollercoaster, the skating rink, a bowling alley, plenty of eateries, including McDonalds, and much much more. The day finally dawned and LuLu Mall was opened to the public amidst much fanfare...and record breaking traffic! Our neighbours, Benson and Anupa, pitched in their loyalty for the LuLu brand and went on the first day itself, braving two and a half hours traffic for a distance that would have been covered in fifteen minutes on a regular day. We were the luckier for it, for they came back with grand stories of the new mall in town and all the goodies within. My ears pricked up when I heard about the hypermarket which contained everything and anything that we would require, especially meats and cheeses!

That was enough to get my interest going. The next day was Monday and as soon as Rehan got back from school, we made our way to LuLu, with the expectation that there would be less traffic as it was a weekday and school exams were going on. We figured it was wise to go before the vacation season started at the end of the month as the place would undoubtedly be a zoo with out of town visitors. We were right and despite it just being the second day of opening, we were at LuLu in fifteen minutes and were soon driving into the copious parking lot made for 3500 cars.

And yes, there's no doubt about it. LuLu Mall is as grand as it is being made out to be. Four floors of commercial and entertainment paradise awaited us. Corridors wound their way through twists and curves in the structure, as more and more stores became visible. My first question to the information desk was whether Westside had opened up and was given the affirmative answer. And it made me even more excited to find a Marks and Spencer getting ready for opening right opposite the Westside showroom. Yes, finally Kochi ladies get some decent fashion outlets to shop from! And another store that has arrived in town is the international favorite, The Body Shop. Now if only Bath and Body Works would come over too! Most of the other labels in the mall were those of stores that already had outlets in Kochi, other than of course LuLu's signature stores like their Hypermarket, Celebration, Fashion and Connect outlets. The only one we actually went to on our first visit was the Hypermarket, as Fashion and Connect were too crowded, and Celebration just seemed like another silk saree showroom.

The Hypermarket was beyond comparison, THE highlight of the place. A truly international level supermarket with stacks and stacks of goods. Even though most of the grocery brands on the shelves were those we could get outside, the very fact that they were displayed in stacks higher than us with many of each item staring out at us, just filled my heart with joy. Other than the self serve aisles, there were also special counters for all kinds of imported cheeses, olives, cold cuts, nuts, chocolates...ah the list goes on.

And then comes the Meat section. Now, despite being a population that loves its beef fry and mutton biriyanis, Malayalis have a difficult time getting decent meat in Kerala. Often tough and chewy, there is no concept of the right cuts of meat in any local butchery here. If you are lucky, you can get the entire tenderloin, at the most, and even that, you have to make sure that the butcher removes the tenderloin in front of you, or they may pass off a piece of thigh instead! Your best bet is to just plonk it in the pressure cooker and over cook it away! As for chicken, I never realized how hard it is to get a simple chicken cut according to its different parts, until I came to Kerala. Usually just chopped up randomly into small bits, such that you can't figure out a leg from a neck, eating chicken pretty much meant blindly going into your meat just for the general flavour. Nothing irks my dear hubby more than not knowing what piece of chicken he is eating! So, imagine, the lilting euphoria that went on inside us when we saw beef, veal, mutton and chicken in abundance, and all displayed according to their specialized cuts. Steaks, medallions, mince, boneless, thighs, offal, wings, was all there for our consumption!Now I just hope the local populace takes full use of this service and keeps the demand high for such products, otherwise we will be back to the pressure cooker!

Sea Jewels!
Like the Meat section, the Seafood section was also copious and reasonably priced. But frankly, living in Kochi, an abundance of sea creatures is nothing really that new to me and the fun of buying fresh fish directly from a waterfront market holds a lot more significance. The one thing we did buy though were the mussels, or kallumakay, which are very popular in the northern part of Kerala where my mother is from, but harder to find in Kochi. Kallumakay is one of those foods that is steeped in childhood summer nostalgia for me. We used to come every year for our summer vacation, which was of course the monsoon season in India. Mussels are not generally available at this time, but somehow my aunts and uncles would manage to find some in the market so that we could savour their unique texture and flavour. Simply marinated in salt, chilli and turmeric, these little marine parcels would be shallow fried, and obviously consequently devoured by us. That tantalizing taste was enough to keep us satiated for the year. If we were lucky to get enough, my aunt would pickle some and we would carry it back with us to Cairo, to relish sparingly with our meals there. Even after being back in Kerala, the Kallumakay experience is still restricted to the northern regions, but we make sure to indulge every time we are in Kannur or Calicut. So obviously finding it in the local supermarket, in both the shelled form and the peeled form was a sight for sore eyes!  

Needless to say, with such wonderful produce available, the hypermarket also had an entire ready to eat food section occupying an entire side of the store. There were sections for chaat, Chinese food, Kerala specialities, grilled chicken, an entire salad counter with arabian and regular condiments, bakery items and live jalebi and aish/qubus counters. Like in Arab countries, the Aish/Qubus were constantly rolled out on a conveyor belt and delivered oven hot in packets of five. It was interesting to see so many people carrying out dozens of packets of the hot Aish. Am thinking many were folks who had lived in the Gulf at some point, where this affordable staple bread was such an integral part of their lives there. As for the jalebis. So so so so sinful! Am so glad I only took 250gms, otherwise we would have polished off even a kilo of those treacly sweet monsters!

The CROWD at McDs!
We actually didn't end up eating at the hypermarket, because the kids were dying to go to the McDonalds next door. As far as I am concerned, a McDonalds that doesn't serve Big Macs is about as non McDonalds as it gets! People who have only eaten McDonalds in the Europe and the US may not understand what the big deal is about McDonalds, coz its pretty crap there. But there really is something to be said about the beef patties made in the Arab world. Whatever they do with it there, they do it right!  While a McChicken is a nice change, only having chicken and veggie options hardly gets me interested here in India. That I can get at any fast food outlet, why should I head to McDonalds? But then, the kids want their Happy Meals, and what do they know about the joys of biting into a big fat juicy Quaterpounder! I must say though, whatever said and done, the efficiency of the management at this particular branch was amazing. The crowds were thronging and when I saw the queue at first, I thought we would never get our food. But I hardly waited for five minutes before it was my turn at the counter and within another five minutes I got my food. With plenty of space in the restaurant, we even managed to find seating despite such a big crowd. Now that says a lot for the foresighted planning of the management.

The rest of the mall, other than the stores that have opened, is still coming up. Most of the entertainment consoles are not up and running yet. Some of the food court restaurants have opened, but nothing really caught my eye as being different to what is already available in other malls. There is a branch of the legendary Kozhikode based Paragon restaurant opening up in the mall, which is something to look forward to. They also have some fine dining options coming up as well, but somehow a fine dining place that doesn't serve alcohol just doesn't fit right. I actually would love to know what kind of restaurants they have planned for the Marriot Hotel that is coming up within the LuLu complex. I had a brief moment of excitement when I saw something called Aroma Thai in the list of outlets at the Mall. Yay! Finally a Thai restaurant in Kochi, I thought! That excitement was nicely doused when I realized that it was the name of an upcoming salon cum massage spa in the mall!

The Sunlit Atrium
Of course, Kochiites are also eagerly awaiting the arrival of the nine screen PVR Cinema that is getting ready for the public. We got a brief glimpse of the place that is almost ready from the outside, and it just looks fantabulous. The more screens available in the city, the more chances of more movies of different genres managing to get screened here. Good news for Kochi film buffs indeed!

All in all, the visit to LuLu was highly satisfying and if nothing else, it brought a semblance of a new world to Kochi. How that pans out in the future is something that we just have to watch and see. As parents and responsible citizens, it is important that we give due recognition to ventures like these that bring a sense of prosperity to the land, but at the same time we have to make sure we are not over consumed by it. Malls should not become the only arenas for our children to have outings, just because it easier and more convenient for us to buy them fun in cool environments. We are blessed with a lot of avenues of recreation in this city, and it is up to us to make full use of them.With the vacation season on, am racking my brains to figure out ways to keep the children entertained, in the outdoors, without falling prey to the heat!

Which brings me to my visit to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012. We had been wanting to visit the Biennale from the time it started in December. But as procrastinators go, of course the trip kept getting delayed. One of the downsides of living in Kakkanad, is that we get very lazy about crossing our self imposed Lakshman Rekha, ie the NH Bypass, especially during the daylight hours. A trip to Fort Kochi, which we used to happily do frequently when we were in Kadavanthra, has now become a whole expedition in itself these days. Finally we reached right to the end of the Biennale and realized we better make our trip over fast! Its a different thing that they decided to extend the Biennale till the weekend on that day!

Bright As A Nano!
Anyway, let me just say, I had images of what the Biennale would be. We had seen enough photos posted by friends who had already been. A boat full of junk, white violins dangling down from the ceiling, a painted car, so on and so forth. True, all those were there, but at a scale at which I had never imagined. I had expected random installations in different parts of the Fort Kochi area, not more than fifty in just one location itself! We started our experience at Aspinwall, the erstwhile home to a trading company. Somehow from the time we arrived in Kochi, this building had always intrigued me, with its rustic air of old worldliness. At the time, it was still the office of the Aspinwall company, and hence we couldn't get access inside. But from outside, and when across the water from it in Vypeen, I would often get lost in its colonial charm.

The different faces of Art
For the Biennale, Aspinwall' s ruggedly pristine environs had been transformed into a semi alfresco art museum, housing a wide range of contemporary installations by artists from all over the world. Walking through the property, all our senses were put into action by not just the installations, but this sprawling compound that took stage as their canvas.  Smells from different eras permeated the inner halls, providing a unique ambience to the out of the box installations in view. What impressed me right from the beginning was how well each installation was labelled and explained, in both English and Malayalam, making the art in front of us so accessible to even the layman. I can't pretend to be an art connoisseur who immediately necessarily "got" all the work that was displayed. But the thought process that went into imagining such work and executing it, using sometimes, the most obscure items was something that had my mind buzzing with stimulation throughout my journey there.

Waterfront cemetery
But there was one particular installment that did capture me in totality and lingered on, way after I reached home. That of the grinding stones. When we climbed up a little concrete stairway to a low loft containing nothing but ammikallus or grinding stones strewn across the floor. It definitely made no sense. Then we came down and entered the next room which opened out onto the waterfront, and all around us were the desolate "other parts" of the grinding stone machinery - the giant mortars that the ammikallus would go into to do the household grinding work. These grinding stones in the olden days performed some of the crucial culinary functions in the homes. It was in these stones that spices were ground, rice was reduced to batter and meals were started. The stones were actually built into each house's structure, an integral part of its very being. Over the years, many of these houses were razed to the ground, but somehow, nobody wanted to take on the responsibility of demolishing these grinding stones. They were considered too sacred. Instead they were just left around, often taking new roles as lamp posts, a stool on a roadside etc. They literally disappeared into the landscape. What the artists of the installation did was to collect these stones and assemble them here, to bring them back to visibility. To give them a cemetery. Maybe it's because I am cook, a foodie and worship my food, but I was engulfed with emotion, just being there amongst all those grinding stones, with so many stories to tell from so many homes over so many years. Wow!

With the growing city as witness, a unique memorial
And it wasn't just the halls, even the waterfront on which the building was perched, had been put to use with one of the most touching tributes in the form of art around. Alongside the building, a row of buoys holding up photos of men who had lost their lives to the waters in front of us, either through forces of nature or man-made problems,  bobbed upon the gently waves. With each bounce, the bells on top of each buoy, would tinkle, in memory of those lives lost, creating a melody of tinkles that merged with the swishing of the water beneath. Yes. Profound.

The cocoon of negativity, all set to be burnt away
After a full afternoon of totally immersing ourselves at Aspinwall, we made our way to Pepper House down the road. Not before noticing the giant cocoon like bamboo structure hanging above our heads, with sacks piled up underneath. This installation involved some participation on the part of the viewer. We were to climb up the path made of sacks, and put our head through a big hole in the otherwise mesh of the cocoon. There we were to get out all our negative thoughts into that confined space, to be left behind inside the cocoon's mesh. At the end of the Biennale, this cocoon was burnt away. Putting to flames, all the negative thoughts and energy that confounded our minds with it.
Pepper House Courtyard

A porch full of stories...Pepper House
Pepper House, though a much smaller exhibit ground, housed some equally profound pieces of art too. Including the now iconic room filled with white violins dangling from the ceiling. Like Aspinwall, the structure of this archaic building contributed as much to the installations within. 

Artwork of children from various schools in Kochi
We finished our evening with coffee and cake at our favourite Fort Kochi art cafe, Kashi, which of course was also part of the Biennale. While there, I regretted having coming so late to this grand event that had been in the city for the past three months. More than anything else, I was really kicking myself for not having exposed my children to this phenomenal experience right here in their city. An experience that involved learning how to navigate the heart, mind and soul through the mysterious corridors and pathways of creativity and deciphering the various messages emanating, each person having their own interpretation of the same matter in front of them.  The best part was, unlike so many other "activities" available in the city, this had  nothing to do with consumerism and instant gratification!

Now I await Dec 2014 for the next Biennale, to show my kids how their hometown Kochi blooms internationally  on the art scene. Well done to all those who put this together. It was one mindblowing effort!

After the Biennale, the famous painted Nano was exhibited at the LuLu Mall...right next to McDonalds!! Could not end this blogpost of mine on a better note!!


  1. Loved reading it! Beautifully articulated!

  2. Wow! I am so much more aware and enlightened about Kochi now where I have a house, but never spent much time. You really know how to express yourself through your writing. I enjoyed reading it. Cheers!

  3. thats just like our roads.. so packed :)
    yes go kochi go...
    i m waiting for the Metro to happen, there wont be anything like it when (if) it happens

  4. This made me miss Cochin so much...and my conviction that it is as good, if not a better place than any to live in! Of course, I never did explore it quite the way you have. I remember my friend sona and I dropping in at Chitram art gallery back in the day, looking at all the exhibits. Wanted to be there for the Biennale - will surely make it in 2014!

    1. Can't wait for 2014 to enjoy it with you!

  5. Insight and Information combined. The contrasts of the mall and the "pall" very well illustrated. Enjoyed reading this piece from an astute chronicler of "Kochi times"

    1. That's a huge honour for me...coming from you Rony...:-)

    2. That's a huge honour for me...coming from you Rony...:-)