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Living Kerala Series: Summer Sunsets in Kochi, India

Sunset, in the hot summer months of February, March and April, signals the end of that day’s ordeal. From 1pm onwards the empty sky turns an impervious cyan and the land becomes a tandoor: street dogs lie in the shade of curbs or benches, too hot to even scratch their mange. Palm fronds hold their breath and coconuts roost like bats. Walking through the air is a viscous task as the sun melts the tar roads and chars the dust. The only survivable strategy is lying still inside. Being naked doesn’t work as then the sheets or sofa will become soaked with sweat; the better option is to wear absorbent clothing to catch the runnels of liquid that otherwise stream off onto the tiles. Even the tap water becomes hot, so that a cold shower is just a longing. The thick hot chai spiced with ginger and cardamom that is sold for 10 Rs. by chai-wallahs each afternoon is a surreal reminder that life could be even hotter, but as the body is already sweating as much as it can this is little more than a theoretical cold comfort.

[Caption: There were a few dozen more dogs outside of this frame, so hot and sleepy.]

And then the sky lights up as if it has touched King Midas and shadows sprout. The Malabar sunset is usually a brief burst of yellow fuchsia that illuminates the world with a gem-like ferocity.

[Caption: Just outside Kochi, maybe a 15-minute drive, there are stunning old fisheries that now exist just to make the sunset appear that much more golden.]

A timid evening breeze practises assertiveness and the pigeons start grooming and strutting. The temperature starts to fall even as the sun stays stuck to the sky and suddenly the ground feels hotter than the air. Our balcony walls are in shade but brightened by the diffuse light. From my nest in the sticky armchair I can see how the western walls of the honeycomb tower blocks that line the coast are chalked with the light as well. A few pigeons on the air con unit are also brushed with gold as they stand on the edge grooming, fluffing up their feathers and looking almost regal in their grey tweed.

[Caption: Left: View from our flat, looking up the coast; Right: The quality of light results in all the buildings looking baked and still.]

Downstairs there is a terrace with a direct view of the west and a strong breeze off the water. In my ears it sounds like I’m sailing, the canvas rumpling and whooshing. But it’s just the wind rushing in from the sea to fill the void left behind by the exodus of hot air. There are tall, anaemic stands of bamboo on the north side of the terrace and five crows frequent these stalks. One or two will sit on the very top and sway in the blustering golden air like Cirque du Soleil hopefuls. Their plumage is a deep russet grey, their underbellies a deeper dusty black. Their heads are thick and muscled so that they look like wrestlers. The pigeons are very cautious around them, and when a crow ventures up to our balcony the entire colony starts cooing ominously and ruffling themselves up like allium flowers. The crows are well aware there are tasty eggs tucked behind the air con unit, but in the heat even their hunger fades.

It is at this evening hour that homes everywhere are closed up as the mosquitoes awake. Missing the sunset cue by even half an hour will result in a sleepless night for the entire household, as it’s spent scratching and swatting at the enormous, hungry creatures that whined their way inside out of the dusk. When we arrived in Kochi, the first five people we met all independently advised against going out after 7pm; malaria and dengue, Chikungunya and Zika, itches and redness…these are the well-placed fears.

In more traditional buildings, where inside and outside flow together like marble cake batter, this is the hour to swing a thurible stuffed with anti-mosquito incense. The young man or woman tasked with this will wander back and forth across the lobby, throughout the restaurant, along every hall, scenting the building and gagging any biting critter that was foolish enough to enter. The smoke is pleasant in a lung-choking way and signals that the day is over.

Now that it is twilight and somewhat cooler, road-side stands get to work preparing Kerala parathas and curries for hungry commuters. The parathas are made with elegant efficiency over a roaring grill: the dough is oiled and rolled out until it is thinner than tissue. It is then rolled up into a snake and coiled into a chunk, squished in next to all the other prepared dough balls. When it is time to be cooked, the dough is hurled onto the griddle. As the heat percolates through, each desperately thin layer separates out from its comrades and becomes a gloriously light, chewy and oily bread to accompany any curry or chutney. It is a good food to end the torment, to indulge in a delicate bread the same colour as the sunset.

Then it ends, dropping the world like a marble into ink. The pigeons outside become disembodied rustles in the dark and the only sign of day is the steaming heat that emanates from every crumb of cement. The traffic surges and subsides, as people return home to celebrate surviving the furnace of another summer’s day, to eat and rediscover energy that had lain dormant since the morning. The twelve hours of darkness ahead will be stifling and ceiling fans will thump and click throughout the night; then dawn will arrive like a benevolent cousin and its beauty will fade into another summer stupor, and again, and again, until the blessed monsoon arrives - but that’s months away.


Note: We have now left India and at time of posting are currently in Penang, Malaysia. It is less hot and more rainy here, far fewer pigeons, but still plenty of parathas.

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