An exptriate, a frequent visitor and the Member of Parliament from the city talks about his dicoveries of Thiruvnanthapuram.

 

 

How does one honestly write about a place one represents in parliament? I am the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, and while I can be forgiven for wanting to praise the city that elected me, the truth is that I had to discover it for myself when I first contested for the Lok Sabha from there.

As the son of expatriate Keralites, I had never lived in Thiruvananthapuram before. Born in London, raised in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi before going abroad for graduate studies and then embarking on a 29-year international career with the United Nations, I knew my parents’ home state only from childhood visits to their ancestral villages in Palakkad District. (Even those I initially resented, grumbling to my parents that annual migrations south were strictly for the birds.)

 

But once in a while we got out of the villages to see other parts of the state. I was 11 years old when I first visited Trivandrum, as it was then known, with my family in 1967. I remember how there was a thunderous monsoon downpour—and within minutes the streets were bone-dry. I turned with astonishment to my father to ask him how that was possible, given that a rainstorm like that in Bombay, where we were living, would cause so much flooding that young men would stand by to make some extra money by pushing stalled cars through the waterlogged roads. He explained to me that Trivandrum was the best-planned city in India, with every road built with a sloping gradient so that the rain poured into well-designed drains on the roadsides and flowed into the innumerable canals that in turn took the water to the sea. 

 

I was suitably impressed, and recalled the story when, four decades later, I returned to a transformed Thiruvananthapuram to seek to represent it in Parliament. Of course the city had changed: many of the drains had been built over, the fabled canals were clogged with weeds and refuse, and some junctions now witnessed Bombay-style flooding. But these challenges apart, Thiruvananthapuram had managed to stay true to itself while finding new relevance as a 21st-century city.

On my first visit to Thiruvananthapuram after returning to India for good in 2008, I was given a warm reception at the city’s pioneering Technopark, the first IT park in India. CEO after CEO told me in glowing terms of their satisfaction with the work environment in Thiruvananthapuram, the quality of the local engineering graduates, and the beauty of the lush and tranquil surroundings. But it all came together when one chief of a Technopark firm told me of having bid for a contract with a Houston-based company. The Americans had drawn up a shortlist of Indian service providers and placed the Thiruvananthapuram-based company last.

Then the American executives making the final decision flew down to India to inspect the six shortlisted firms. After three harrowing days ploughing through the traffic congestion and pollution of Mumbai, Bangalore, and Gurgaon, they arrived in Thiruvananthapuram, checked into their hotel at Kovalam beach, sipped a drink by the seaside at sunset, drove just 20 minutes in the morning to the greenest technology campus they had seen. They voted unanimously to give the contract to the Kerala firm. “If we have to visit India from time to time to see how our contract is doing,” the chief said, “we’d rather visit Trivandrum than any other place in India. “

As an MP who keeps travelling to his constituency, I can appreciate what the Americans were thinking. I’d rather visit Thiruvananthapuram than any other place in India too.

It’s not that I get to enjoy a lazy layabout on the spectacular Kovalam beach, as legions of tourists do; for me, the beach is where I deal with the problems of impoverished fishermen and the challenges of coastal erosion. One can take a boat out onto the Arabian Sea from a luxury hotel and soak in the saffron sunset, but the only time I did that was to examine from the water the fishing harbour alongside the site where we are developing a new container port. When I visited the Sree Chithra gallery, which has one of the country’s best collections of Raja Ravi Varma originals, it was to demand more resources from the government to preserve the priceless works in better climate-controlled conditions. And though I did spend a couple of hours browsing through the remarkable exhibits of the exquisite Napier Museum, my big event on the museum grounds was to bring free Wi-Fi to the denizens of that popular tourist spot.

 

But where else can work and pleasure intersect quite so beautifully? When I won some funding from the Central government for light-house improvement, I went to see how it had been spent. That gave me an excuse to do something tourists can now do: climb up a wrought-iron ladder to the top of the Vizhinjam Lighthouse that commands a breathtaking view of the tip of India’s southwestern coastline. Standing on the balcony, with the wind whipping through my hair, I could see the golden beaches below, the red-tile-roofed resort bungalows, and the fishing vessels bobbing on the blue-grey Arabian Sea that stretches into the endless expanse of the Indian Ocean. My waistline has never recovered from the inexhaustible dining options in Thiruvananthapuram, from shacks on the beaches to one of India’s highest-rated restaurants, Villa Maya, which offers an eclectic fare in a beautifully-renovated 18th-century mansion. Though I am a vegetarian, I have never found myself lacking in temptations in this city understand-ably famous for its seafood.

My relationship with this city is ever-growing and intense. Beyond any other, the emotion I have experienced here is compassion. I have seen Thiruvananthapuram reeling from the horrors of Cyclone Ockhi, but I have also seen the city rally behind victims’ families and come through with assistance, solidarity and prayers. As a worshipper, I go often to one of the oldest, most attractive temples in India, the 11th-century Sree Padmanab haswamy Kshetram, sometimes to escort distinguished visitors—including then President Pranab Mukherjee—or simply to pray myself. Beautifully constructed and tranquil, the temple encourages the devotee to feel at one with the divine. It is one of my favourite places in the city. The remarkable idol of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta in the sanctum sanctorum can be glimpsed only in sections, as doors are opened to give devotees a glimpse of one portion of the statue after another. The city owes its name to this celestial serpent—Thiru or “Shri”, plus Ananta, plus Puram or town, make up Thiruvananthapuram. There are probably more temples per square kilometre in Thiruvananthapuram than in any other Indian city, but there is no shortage of mosques and churches either.

 

Every year that I have been MP, bar one, I have attended Christmas Eve services at four different churches of the city’s different Christian denominations, concluding with midnight Mass at the magnificent St. Joseph’s Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of the city. But I have also gone across the road at Eid to greet worshippers at the gleaming Palayam Juma Masjid. This year, at Eid-ul-Fitr, I went to the Police Stadium near the mosque and joined thousands of worshippers at the ldgah celebration. Visible from the stadium was the Cathedral where I had spent Christmas; the sunshine glinted off the white marble of the grand mosque; and my second-favourite Ganesh temple stood down the road, all within sight of each other. As the Imam finished his sermon and the faithful began to stream out of the ground, people of all faiths embraced each other, offering “Eid Mubarak” greetings. On more than one occasion that day, Hindu friends, caught up in the moment, wished me Eid Mubarak too! Above all else, Thiruvananthapuram has an impressive spirit and as MP I’ve been struck, at the numerous convoca-tions I’ve attended, by the success of Thiruvananthapuram’s women students, who consistently walk away with a major-ity of the distinctions. The city was historically a pioneer in women’s education and empowerment. It was here, in 1817, that a woman ruler, Rani Gowri Parvati Bayi, declared univer-sal, free and compulsory primary education for both boys and girls, making the princely state of Travancore the first place in the world to educate girls on the same plane as boys. In the 1930s, the “Senior Maharani: Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, took this cause even farther—all girls who went to college in the state automatically received an invitation to tea with their queen at her palace. Today they are a majority; and as I hand out prizes, I wonder if they realize how unusual that is in India as a whole. There is much to celebrate in Thiruvananthapuram that goes beyond the tangible. While writing this piece, the editor asked me which fictional character my city reminded me of. M a Wodehouse fan, I see something of Jeeves in my city—steeped in tradition, knowledgeable, well-functioning and discreet, but prepared to adapt himself to the needs of the persons he serves and to help them find solutions to their plight.,_

 

 

Source : National Geographic Magazine