The Reading Rooms of Fort Kochi

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Notes from a socialist utopia.

A Year of WritingSawubona magazine. Alongside contributions by Maxine Case, Mohale Mashigo, Nthikeng Mohlele and Sisonke Msimang.

I am writing this in Kochi, an island city off the south west coast of India, where I am on a sabbatical with the aim of finishing a book. And I think it might be one of the best places in the world to do that.

Why? It’s hard to say exactly: the mixture of tropical ease, bookshops and art galleries. The promenade where you can look out at the ancient Chinese fishing nets or the less ancient container port, and get some necessary distance from what you’re writing about: South Africa. (Though the cricket team, especially A. B. de Villiers, comes up in conversation all the time, and I pretend to know what I’m talking about.)

Somehow there is a feeling that reading, writing and the arts have been important here for a long time. By the 14th century, the port of Cochin had one of the greatest libraries in Asia. In the museums you can see cabinets of palm scrolls covered in the tiny, beautiful Malayalam script. There are cafes down the narrow alleys, most of them empty ahead of tourist season. In the backpacker hostels, people seem to have left behind a more varied selection than the usual: not just Grisham or Shantaram but maybe Arundhati Roy’s collected journalism, maybe some Amitav Ghosh or Tagore.

The state of Kerala is run by one of the only elected Communist governments in the world. So: Che, Marx, hammers and sickles painted on the walls; but also a wonderfully austere Reading Room near the bus stop where old men come and carefully page through The Times, The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle under the whirring fans – all courtesy of the state, the librarian told me.

I was writing away there, trying to make some progress on my academic ‘monograph’ about South African autobiography (hard going, because the last book I wrote, Firepool, was a collection of personal essays and creative non-fiction that I had a lot of fun with). But then I worried that the clacking and tapping of my laptop might be disturbing this quiet pocket of socialist utopia.

So I moved to a café, The Teapot, located between a basilica, a muddy football pitch and a school. The days start with Christian hymns, Muslim calls to prayer and north Indian ragas all overlapping. Then the school kids arrive: in buses, on scooters, in tuk-tuks, and I hear the assemblies from the café where I am typing away across the road, with people loudly practising their English.

Seeing me each day in the corner, the owner of The Teapot asked what I was working on. And I had to admit that the working title, Experiments with Truth, was stolen from Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (it’s on sale in the local corner shop for 30 rupees – about R6). By the next day he had arranged for a journalist from The Hindu (his cousin) to interview me about my writing (she seemed almost bemused as I was by this).

I talked about what ‘fire pool’ meant in South Africa, but explained that I didn’t only want to refer to President Zuma, that the title was also meant to be a metaphor for the time of questioning and raised political temperatures that we were going through.

‘Like a churning?’ she said, and I agreed that churning was the right word: ‘It’s the same here in India.’