Our first dose of ‘fame’ at an Indian festival

Cochin / Ernakulam, Kerala, India – Got up and went to our usual breakfast at the Indian Coffee House. After walking around for a spell we decided it was too damn hot to be outside so we headed back to the room to play the new game we’d invented two nights before. It’s called 999 (because that’s the number you have to play to) and it uses two decks of cards shuffled together so you have no clue as to what cards are going to be coming up. It’s sort of like Rummy 500 with a few twists to the rules – too many to put in print here. We played 999 until 4:00 p.m., for we had to get some food and catch the boat across the bay to Vypeen – Cochin’s version of Marin. 18k’s north of Vypeen in a city called Cherai it was the final night of the Pooram Festival at the Sree Goureeswara Temple. Who were we to miss a festival – no way.

We caught the car ferry across the water, and it just so happened that a wedding party’s cars and bus were also on the boat across. I spotted the bride and groom in one of the cars and all I can say is that the bride looked very, very young, and as the Indians have arranged weddings she looked terrified. She was sitting next to the groom and all she could do was pull her shawl up under her nose and look away from him in fear – not once did I see her look him in the face.

Our boat arrived at Vypeen and we jumped on the bus with the crazyman driver at the wheel – as usual. You see, in order to get a bus driver’s certificate you absolutely must have a lead foot for the gas pedal – it’s a standard Indian requirement. Our bus literally flew down our one and a half lane road with villages and houses whizzing by (some not more than 10 inches from the side of the bus)! We arrives at the festival at Cherai a short while later; we knew we were at the festival by the sea of people walking down the street towards the temple. We walked and found the temple with little problem – it was the 21 live elephants decorated with silver and gold standing in a row outside the temple that gave it away.

There was a large courtyard outside the temple and when we walked up there it was like being at a concert in Wembly Arena – people everywhere. Plus as we were at least half a head taller than everyone else we had a great view over the crowd and could see how far this sea of people stretched. As there didn’t appear to be much going on yet, the fireworks were much later, so Rich and I took a walk through the town to see what was up. It was a real carnival atmosphere with people everywhere.

As we were walking down the street every single person walking the opposite direction was STARING at us. You’d have thought we were zoo animals that’d escaped the way these people were watching us. Of course to the locals we do double as zoo animals on a very regular basis while traveling around. This was different though, out of a crowd of more than 100,000 people we were the only Westerners, and from the looks you could tell some of those people had never seen a sahib before. We just walked along returning the “Hellos” called to us, shaking a few hands, before we decided to head back towards the temple to see if anything was happening yet.

During our walk, on the way back a group of guys about our age walked up and started talking to us. I was walking behind Rich when one of these five guys walked up to him and held his hand, as is accepted in Indian culture for men to walk along holding hands. They don’t do it with any sexual connotation attached, the males just hold hands with their friends – it’s a socially accepted thing in India. Before I knew it another Indian dude was holding my hand and talking with me. Rich tried to get his hand free, but couldn’t, so he just talked to the dude some more, whereas whenever I let got of the hand holding mine it would just re-attach itself. In talking with this guy I did find out that NO Westerners come to their festivals. We walked along and talked with these guys en route to the temple. When we arrives there they let go of our hands and said they’d meet us later.

Rich and I walked through the crowd, which was swelling even more than before by this time – all eyes on us, and every once in a while one of our friends that we’d met on the way over would come over and chat to us. I guess if you knew the sahibs you may as well flaunt it, especially in this environment where everyone in the village would see them talking to us. We walked to a point where we could see the elephant procession when I spotted a little girl about nine years old looking in our direction, but hadn’t actually spotted us yet. She spotted us moments later and her mouth dropped open in awe. After five seconds of shock, staring at us (mouth still open), she reached up and without taking her eyes off us fumbled to grab her older sister’s arm to tell her there were two white dudes at the festival. She got her sister’s attention then blatantly pointed at us as she said something to her sibling. I smiled at her which scared the hell out of her, causing her to hide on the opposite side of her sister, occasionally poking her head out to take a peek at us. From the expression on her face you’d have thought she was seeing extra-terrestrials or something!

Shortly after the little girl’s sighting we met this nice man who worked at some university in Kerala. He took us to tea and asked us questions about America. He was really well educated and didn’t seem spooked about our presence like a majority of the population there seemed to be. He asked if we had elephants in America, I guess we didn’t realize that elephants are pretty commonplace to an Indian, like dogs to us. I told him we didn’t have elephants, only dogs. “You eat dogs?” he asked. “No, we eat c–” and cut myself off before saying “cows”; we were at a Hindu festival, as Rich finished my sentence with “We eat other things.” After tea we walked back into the crowd to see what was going on, for now there were large cannons going off at 10 minute intervals, and there was a red flare of some sort being held above one of the elephants.

Every time we stepped into the crowd people would gather around to talk to and look at us. There was always a row of people walking past to have a look at us. At one point I felt like a royal dignitary greeting the guests at a social gathering. With all these people constantly around you it was (as we decided later) a dose of movie star fame. It wasn’t popularity, because that’s when everyone likes you. This was fame – when you’re just all around known to the people and a spectacle. “fame – n. state of being widely known or recognized.” With both of us a minimum of two to three inches taller than everyone else we were easily identifiable and people were definitely going out of their way to have a look. Some of the people in the crowd surrounding us (a certain few who we’d been speaking to) must have been wasted, because at one point they dragged over an Indian albino and told him he was another Westerner at their festival. They though it was funny and I was rather appalled. This was all going on in an atmosphere of ear-shattering cannon blasts, Indian men talking to us constantly from every direction, and the crowd surrounding us getting bigger by the minute.

I decided it was time to break this up so we moved to a slightly more secluded area where our friends from the street found us again. We stood there and watched the elephant procession move forward, then eventually disperse in every direction with elephants going everywhere through the crowd. The viewing line of Indians soon appeared to our right and our crowd around us was beginning to form again, so shortly after the elephants made their exit we decided to make ours as well; there are only so many hands you can shake and people you can talk to at one time.

Being that the elephants were exiting in all directions you couldn’t leave the area without walking past one. We were almost out of the crowd, with the street in sight, when one of the three elephants blocking the way decided to take a few steps closer to the crowd. Well the pachyderm’s actions almost caused a riot because everyone kept smashing up against one another and screaming to get out of the way as the elephant got closer and closer. The animal finally sorted itself out enough so Rich and I could make our way out of the crowd, passing between two of the elephants, and out onto the street.

We were still famous as ever; people were touching and pinching me, screaming “Hello” and staring away as Rich and I made our way through the masses down the street. We jumped on one of the sardine can packed buses (where we met some more of our Indian friends from the festival) and headed back to the port at Vypeen.

It was the day after the full moon and by the time we were on our ferry across the bay the moon was up and its light glistened off the water like diamonds dancing on the waves. We arrived back in Ernakulam a while later – both of us physically and mentally drained from our experience with fame. We passed an Indian wedding, just getting started, on our walk home, and when I asked Rich if he wanted me to see if I could get us invited I got a hearty “No!” from him. I think we’d both had enough fame for one day. Not that it was bad in any respect – just different and we weren’t really prepared for that large a reaction on the locals’ part.

It was incredible to actually learn what it feels like to be famous; yet another thing I’d learned while on this trip. I had a fabulous time and now I know what a movie star or a politician feels like being famous. It was our lesson in fame. I guess it’s another facet of the world / life which I hadn’t fully understood until placed in a first hand situation where I got to experience it. Now I’ve learned about it and am better prepared for my next dose – there’s got to be another one coming up somewhere soon!

Tuesday 16th February 1993, Indian Express (Newspaper) –

Desert Festival

BHUJ (TOINS): Large scale preparations are on for the second ‘Kutch Utsau’ festival which will begin on Wednesday at Gangaba middle school here. A “Sanskruti Yatra” consisting of decorated camels, bullock carts and the police band will be taken out after inaugural function of the four-day festival.

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