On Bazar Road in Fort Kochi, it is an old building that I don't really pay much attention to, there are buildings older, and prettier than this. It is but a fleeting glance from an auto when the cheta - older bro, general moniker/honorific for an unrelated male - is zooming past the old spice market. For the Rs 30 that he is charging for a 10-minute ride into Jew Town, he won't allow my touristy eyes to linger on sights that have remained unchanged for what feels like a thousand years. In front of this non-decrepit building stands a man in a mundu, his right arm grabbing a fistful of his paunchy waist as he stands looking down the road. Behind him are sacks of cloves, cinnamon and other fragrant spices, bits and pieces that built and brought down empires.
I don't imagine this stance and the timelessness of the market to have changed much in five centuries, when Vasco da Gama landed on these shores in search of famed spices and promised riches. The stretch of road, crowded on both sides with crumbling buildings, heritage warehouses and men in mundus is the old spice market. It was once a highway, and remained so for some three hundred years, someone tells me. It was once the nerve centre of the region's spice trade.
I pass by this every day, twice, on the way to Jew Town where Forager Collective, the arts collective that I am part of is installing a work, one of the collateral projects at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014. I steal some deep breathes as the auto cheta zips past, they are all the sorts that glare you into feeling guilty if you should dare ask for a slower ride. I am an art green horn in Fort Kochi, flooded as it is with the air kissing crowd from tight knit art circles, from Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and the wide world. It is fascinating, seeing art by people I have been hearing about from my own tight knit band of boys. But at most times, I feel obliged to feel a tad intimidated.
A stack of bamboo poles haphazardly strewn on a platform - now I can't tell if that's someone's work or not. Next to where a friend is showing his work are several gunny bags that I think the workers haven't cleaned up yet - they are still cleaning up several places even after the opening. Turns out that indeed is someone's work. Yikes!
Being Kochi, and the lot of us constantly spoiled by the equanimous climes in the hometown, much of the talk was about the heat. It did rain on opening night, soaking us and the bar at the club. Alcohol ran out very soon and we were mighty disappointed. It was too late and too far to go to the government store and stand in line at the 'beverages'. That, post all the rules imposed in Kerala over drinking, is a store that can pass off as a temple - seriously! - where you stand in line and buy the strangest named whisky bottles. Foreigners can cut the line, the rest of the kings and commoners have to wait for their tipple. Beer in the cheapest joint in town is Rs 200 a bottle. We want to cry but it is too hot to do anything but lament over capitalism with a cold beer in hand.
An art event allows for such oddities - there you stand near works worth millions, talking of the drudgery of consumeristic societies, expensive beer in hand. Someone tells me the fine for smoking in public is Rs 10,000. Again foreigners are spared and only, like a beloved naughty child, chastised for being bad-bad, or so I am told. God is partial to some in his own country, looks like.
The locals don't entirely seem to mind, they know who has the dollars to spare. It is just the second edition of the biennale, yet everyone knows it is a big deal. The smart guy at the thattakada - a roadside shack that sells food, tea and snacks - asks if Anish Kapoor is really coming. He promises to take time off on Sunday and go see the works. The rest of the days he is up early to sell puttu, idiappam, chaya to the fishermen who leave at dawn. The fish they bring back sometimes have a green tinge close to their bones and are almost buttery as they melt in the mouth, my two favourite boys tell me. It is cute to see the way their eyes sparkle when there is a block of fish (or any meat for that matter) before them. The thattakada is an institution in Kerala. I can see why.
Fort Kochi is the perfect place for an art extravaganza, I constantly catch myself thinking all through that week I am there. The coast is where a lot of the trade in spices started from and sustained for centuries. The Jews have been here. Every other building is heritage, most at least a hundred years old. If you let your imagination run with the sea wind, as I do mine, you can almost see the traders haggling over prices, the relentless movement of men and goods across countries. You can will yourself to smell the ground pepper in the air. Pepper that was once costlier than gold.
Nikhil Chopra is performing in a room facing the river, it is a 51-hour long piece. The last time I peep in, he is lying on the floor trying to light a cigarette. Just outside, the skies have turned a bright pink. I don't care for that colour, except that when it frames the famous Chinese nets and a host of ships and boats, big and small, passing by, it makes for a picture postcard. The sorts that I buy one of and write 'wish you were here' for a dear friend I miss while at Idiom Booksellers, a little store with the most eclectic collection of titles. I wish I had discovered it on day 1.
The ships go by, bhoooaaa-ing their horns. A lone fisherman in a dug out boat floats by arranging his net. The outsiders hurry to frame him against the pink and the nets, he must be used to things like that. It is time to leave, the volunteers insist.
"I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now" Damien Hirst
Somehow, the title of his book seems to sum up why I am there, at that moment, at the biennale. I am exactly where I want to be, Fort Kochi included.