Our Man In Bombay

Prem Panicker



Prem Panicker's Calicut

June 1997


When you land in Calicut for the first time, you are darned if you can figure out what the fuss is all about.

Basically, the city is about a couple of commercial streets crammed with Ayurvaidya Shalas and customs notified shops cheek by jowl... and a mix of old and new-style residential areas surrounding them.

So why do the natives swear by the place?

Simply because Calicut reminds you of a duck. All calm and tranquil on the surface, but there's a lot of busy paddling going on underneath.

Commercially, Calicut is the most important city in the southern state -- the clearing house for trade and finance, and hub around which the commerce of Kerala revolves. Could well be an accident of geography, given that it is situated pretty much in the middle of the state, which means that all the trade between the northern and southern parts of the state have necessarily to go via Calicut.

Which is not to say that the city is nothing more than an overgrown marketplace. For the curious traveller, the city where Vasco da Gama first set foot on Indian soil, is full of oddities. Like Kallai -- the largest riverside lumberyard in Asia, and second largest in the world. Logs are cut in the forests of the Western Ghats, and floated down in little rafts of three down to the mouth of the Kallai where it joins the Arabian Sea -- a pretty spectacular ride, if you can by investing a few rupees persuade the lumberjacks to let you tag along.

And then there's Beypore -- the little known pocket of Calicut which is, perhaps, among the most talked of boat-building centres when the cognoscenti foregather. From Arab sheikhs to Western playboys to the Japanese adventurer who, some five years back, sought to recreate the voyage of Thor Heyerdahl, they all come to Beypore to place their orders.

It's a tight, feudal community headed by the moopans. Building the most complex of yachts is, for the Beyporeans, a pretty simple process. Up goes a thatched shed tall enough to accommodate the boat to be built, the moopan in charge of the project whistles up his flock, and little by little and bit by bit, before you know it, you got your boat. Built totally of wood and jute, without the least use of iron -- even the nails holding the joints in place are fashioned of wood.

The most spectacular sight, though, is watching the locals take the finished boat from the beach into the sea. All it takes is two logs of wood slid fore and aft under the boat, a wooden wheel with a log of wood transfixing it, a tight-wound jute rope and a collection of ancient Keralite ballads which the workers warble as they coax, tease the ship into the water.

Looks pretty primitive at first sight, the entire operation. Yet, in the late 1960s when the bridge over Ashtamudi Kayal collapsed, taking a train with it, and the engineers of the Indian navy gave up in their bid to salvage the carriages, the moopans of Beypore were called in. The rest, as they say, is the stuff of local legend.

Calicut, for the business traveller who wants to kick back and relax, is also nicely placed at the beginning of the Ghats. A nice easy three hour drive over the spectacular ghat road brings you to Sultan's Battery, famed for being one of the most impregnable of Tipu Sultan's fortresses. And an hour's drive again from there puts you in Ootacamund.

How does a native sum up the city? I would put it this way -- I've never felt truly comfortable, truly "at home", anywhere else.

Prem Panicker was born in Calicut and spent many happy years there before emigrating first, to Madras, and then to Bombay where he has lived since 1988.

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