Pepper kingdom

February 18, 2007 at 10:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

          Along the roads of Kerala -- the easy-going, tropical, Communist-led state in southwest India that teems with coconut trees, pineapple bushes and spices growing randomly in every nook -- tacky billboards line the roads, goading women into buying silk and jewelry. They are predictable, showing young women in heavy makeup decked out in gold necklaces or elaborate sarees. 
          Jacob Mathew has been asked to have a billboard placed outside his property, but he has declined. He wants to put up a different kind of sign.
          "It would say, 'Birds welcome, insects welcome, animals welcome. You all have a home here.' "
          By 'here' he means his 2.5-hectare "forest garden" an hour east of Cochin. The land once supported rubber and coconut -- Kerala's cash crops -- but after Jacob inherited it, he began growing spices on the land. And then in 1990 he read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and decided to adopt organic practices. 
          "I also began to think about the commandment 'Do not kill,' " Jacob told me. His family is Catholic, like many in Kerala. "And this is another reason I wanted to stop using pesticides."
          With his characteristic graciousness and warm and easy smile, Jacob will freely share information about Indian agriculture with guests at his peaceful homestay, which is called The Pimenta, or "pepper kingdom." I learned, for instance, that there is very little demand for organic products in his area, which is one of the reasons he has stopped selling his spices at the market. No one is willing to pay extra for them and give Jacob a profit.  
          So now he uses his home-grown spices in the Keralan dishes that he, his mother, and two hard-working helpers prepare for their guests, including those who take his 7-day Keralan cooking course. Keralan food is largely about the coconut, which is not a nut, by the way, but a seed -- the largest seed in the world. Its main use in cooking is as oil, but it's also used in chutneys, curries, alcoholic drinks, and numerous savory dishes. You can even drink fresh coconut water from a freshly plucked coconut, though it's a bit bland.  
          A friend has asked me to write about the food in India but I'm afraid I lack the vocabulary (and the time!) to describe it all. There's the smoky taste of a fresh, cooked curry leaf, the smooth and spongy texture of an idly (a thin, rice-flour pancake with a bulging middle), and the beauty of okra (you never knew okra could be a thing of beauty, did you!) cooked with cardamom, cloves and turmeric. In my herculean effort not to get sick, I have stayed away from street food and dairy products but I've managed to enjoy all my thalis (a meal consisting of little dishes of various concontions, plus bread, yogurt and something sweet). I've eaten pretty well with my right hand, as Indians do, although I've stopped short of mashing my rice and curry together into a little ball.. and I've tried not to watch it being done, either. 

         I spent a week at Jacob's, making a few day trips from there. One of the trips I took was to an elephant training center, where elephants are domesticated for use in temples and for forestry work. Every morning the elephants are washed in the local river, and visitors to the center are invited to help. I waded into the river and scrubbed one of the elephants with a coconut shell. Her power and energy were very much felt through the density of her dark gray skin. It was exhilarating to look in her eyes and see a very fully-developed personality looking back at me.
          But I was conflicted about the training center and its subjugation of one of the most extraordinary creatures on earth. If you read the excellent New York Times Magazine story on elephants a few months ago, you will know that they are extremely sensitive animals. They have elaborate family structures that, when broken, cause individuals to suffer the same symptoms of traumatic stress disorder as humans. They are so sensitive that the Bronx Zoo recently made a courageous decision to no longer keep elephants.
          If only the outdoor zoo next to the elephant training center were as enlightened. I made myself go in it, suspecting the worst but knowing that the best way to honor suffering is to bear witness to it. Inside, monkeys were clawing at the bars of rusty cages -- cages with nothing inside but puddles of water on the concrete floor. Nothing was provided for the monkeys to play with or climb on. They just sat there, looking out with their all-too-human eyes. A deer, alone, occupied a similar cage, able only to walk around in a circle, never run. Water birds with dirty ruffled feathers were being kept in cages matted with their own droppings. Indian tourists were walking around the zoo, laughing and pointing, not a care in the world. When they saw the tears streaming down my face, they stared. I have never felt so different from mainstream Indians as I did then.
          One of the questions thrown at people who feel deep compassion for animals is, Why do you care so much about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?  Here in India, where humans and animals in pain walk side by side, I am asking myself that question. I cannot trust any mental explanation, though, only my instinct, which asks another question: If there is a difference between human pain and animal pain, can you describe it?  And are they not both a product of greed, hatred and ignorance?  It will take patience and some courage to answer these questions, or at least partially answer them, at least for myself. In the meantime, I realize that I cannot change Indian attitudes towards animals but can start reflecting on my own treatment of animals, particularly the ones I put into my own body.
          Back at the Pimenta, Jacob reminded me that he had recommended a visit to the elephant training center, not the zoo. Indeed, his advice and expertise in planning day trips made my week at his forest garden a special time. Most notably, I visited a hand-loom weaving center with a Swiss-English couple who grow olives for olive oil in Umbria, Italy, and I visited Munnar, a tea-growing region in the cool mountains, with a group of five very high-spirited and adventurous Londoners. More importantly, though, I spent a good amount of time sitting on the verandah of my bungalow, just sitting there, beginning to see (as if through the mist) some of the essences of my journey, such as trust, acceptance, and allowance, and beginning the very long process of sorting through the avalanche of impressions that have emerged from my experiences.
          A few days later I ran into Jacob at a cafe in Cochin and it felt like seeing an old friend. Between Jacob and Lalita, I have gotten to spend time with two Indian farmers who have taken an unusual path compared to their fellow countrymen (although the Indian organic sector is, indeed, growing). As Mrs. Mathew, Jacob's very sweet mother, told me, "We are not a hotel. We are something special."  I believe the organic farmers of India are something beyond special.