South India; Where a day's work

The hot setting sun sank like a slowly orange beach ball into the Indian Ocean just west of Sri Lanka. As it disapeared out of view in a vast ocean empty of any warships, oil tankers, freighters, or ocean liners, the Kerala fishermen headed back for the coconut palm-fringed shore, as they must have done for thousands of years.

The fishing craft had no inboard motors, no outboard motors, not even sails -- just four logs lashed together, two to provide a flat bottom, the other two for sides.

The construction is rudimentary, the effect stunning. The tall, thin Indian fishermen stand erect on long, thin wooden boats that skim across the water against a rose-colored sky, a scene reminiscent of an artistic line composition of striking simplicity and beauty.

Kovalam, a few miles along the coast from Trivandrum, the state capital of Kerala, is so unspoiled that it seems the perfect film setting for a Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson movie.

From the expansive hotel window overlooking a curving bay, lush green hills of coconut palms clustered with fruit spill over into more green hills of coconut palms. There are no condominiums, no other hotels or beach kiosks selling ice cream, hamburgers, or peanuts.

Hidden under alll those fronds are quiet lagoons with quiet, motorless thatched-roof boats and small scattered thatchedroof villages, some of them inhabited by hippies from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England. A touring Swiss hotel manager says of this part of south India: "It reminds me of Bali, but poorer."

The cool green of the palms and the refreshing sound of the jade green surf rolling onto the shore are deceptive. Most of the fishermen and workmen are stripped to the waist in this tropical part of India, just eight degrees north of the equator. But it is winter here.

The temperature? A blazing 92 degrees. In the summer the weather becomes unbearable. If the tourists do come to India at that time, they avoid the south and head for the cool of Kashmir in the extreme north.

Along the beach live lobster do a slow dance, hoping perhaps that the incoming surf will somehow retrieve them from the cluthes of the fishermen who have put them out on the beach to sell to the tourists.

"The lobster is fresh, boss," one fisherman says. "At the hotel all you get is refrigerated lobster."

Refrigerated or not, the hotel lobster looks excellent, and the price is a bargain. A lobster salad garnished with chunks of fresh pineapple and a mild curry sauce is just 15 rupees (less than $2). Lobster thermidor is only a trifle more, about $3.

Indians feed themselves more cheaply than possibly any other peoples in the world, according to a World Bank official.

They also eat a great deal less than the Western World. Indian agronomists estimate that each Indian on average easts one-fifth the quantity of food an American consumes. The figures, though, are not quite comparable, because Americans eat much more protein -- in the form of meat.

Another piece of incidental intelligence: It takes an Indian all day to earn enough to buy one meal. The American does it in one hour.

Food habits differ quite sharply in the south from the north. The north Indian east more wheat and drinks tea. The south Indian goes for rice and coffee. Both are heavily vegetarian. A state like Gujarat in the west is totally vegetarian and totally prohibition.

South Indian Food is so spicy that many Indians from the north can't take it. One unsuspecting American tourist had to lunge for the water jug after trying some fiery souther-style curry. He couldn't recall the name of the dish to warn off other unwary tourists, but he had his own name for it: "Great balls of fire."

Gentle, passive, nonaligned India ha gentle, passive animals, but they are not nonaligned. They identify themselves very closely and easily with the Indian population. Do they know that most Indians are vegetarians?

In the villages cows and buffaloes coexist very happily with people. Peacocks are said to be attracted to humans. This writer was entranced by the sight of other wild birds perched nonchalantly on a fence here mere inches away from the heads of some Indians who were sitting down. The birds never flew away.

But for sheer audacity the Indian crow takes the cake -- and a lot of other food morsels. A hotel visitor in the south decided one sunny morning to take his breakfast of fresh pineapple and toast out on the bedroom balcony. Literally the second his back was turned, one crow took off with a big piece of pineapple in his beak; another made off with a full slice of toasted bread.

One American tourist said: "I put some washing out. The crows were especially intrigued with the crocodile emblem on my husband's golf shirt. They tried to peck it off as well as all the shirt labels.

"Every seen how big a crow's feet are?" she asks, holding up a shirt. A crow may fly in a direct line, but its feet move in circles over a freshly washed white shirt hanging over a chair to dry.

Dravidian south India is a distinct geographical, cultural and sometimes political entity from the Aryan north. In the 1977 election the four states of the south -- Andra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka (previously known as Mysore), and Tamil Nadu (previously called Madras) -- were the only states in the country that stuck with Mrs. Gandhi. Slum clearance and enforced sterilization, which were factors in helping to bring down Mrs. Gandhi before, played no role down here.

Within these four states there are further sharp differences. In Kerala they speak Malayalam.In Andra Pradesh the local language is Telegu, and in Tamil Nadu it is Tamil. Altogether there are 14 languages and more than 1,000 dialects in India.

In many ways Kerala is the most distinctive of the four southern states.

For example, it is one of the smallest states in India, the most densely populated, the most Christian (more than 60 percent are Christian), the first state to go communist in India (back in the 1950s), the state with the highest literacy (99 percent against the national average of 33 percent), and the poorest state.

The combination of high literacy and poverty has been a powerful spur in making the people of Kerala the leaders in India in finding work abroad. More than 100,000 Indians bringing in vast sums of foreign exchange now work in the Middle East region.

They call it the "Gulf Traffic," and if you are not alert enough to arrive at the Trivandrum of Bombay (which is in the west) airports about an hour before plane departure, your seat can be taken by an Indian passport holder heading for Iran.

One the flight from Trivandrum To Bombay, this writer was flanked on all sides by Technicians, engineers, doctors, nurses, and manufacturers with contract in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and Kuwait.

Conversation between a visitor and a 10-year-old Indian girl on the Kovalam in Kerala:

Child: "Good sir, you want to buy a pineapple?"

Visitor: "No thanks . . . may be tomorrow."

Child: "But tomorrow I'll be in school." (Next day)

Child: "Good sir, you want to buy a pineapple?"

Visitor: "I thought you said you were going to be in school today?"

Child with big grin: "Ah, yes, but you see today there is no school because they are holding state elections." (A communist-dominated alliance won.)

Visitor: "You sure one smart operators, aren't you?"

Child with laughing eyes: "Yes, I am."

Touting for custom or plan begging in India is one thing visitors are still bound to meet. The government is working hard to discourage it. In some hotels and at airports signs say "No tipping." Indians say their food situation has improved to such an extent that today there should be no need for people to beg anymore.

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