“Heh, heh,” the autorickshaw driver answers with the sideways shake of his head that looks like ‘no’, but means, ‘yes,’ only his is a particularly dismissive sideswipe which seems to mean, ‘of course, you idiots’ and he springs into gear (and put-put) and we, who are not able to bear crossing the sprawling exhausting tar-melting streets one more time, breath a sigh of relief that we won’t have to, so sit back, holding our hats, thinking maybe this city, Thrissur, isn’t so bad if you just whiz around it, avoiding the sidewalk crush of people and trash and generator (the small gas kind which exude hot rumble outside every couple of shops.) (The hydro-electric grid can’t be trusted after a few years of very bad rains.)
Until suddenly, the ride just seems too long, and I shout out once more “Archeological Museum?” and “do you know where we are going at all?” and the driver stops in the middle of a roundabout, annoyed, but also clueless, so after I shout “Archeological Museum? repeatedly and show him my guidebook map, he swerves through the traffic to a guy on the side of the road, and at last, after much discussion and more blank review of my map–I realize that drivers here–even men – are not used to reading maps–we head off again, in a completely different direction, till our driver pulls us into the grandly gated entrance of a large official-looking building bright with white paint and past colonialism, where I confirm ‘Archeological Museum?’ and he bobble-nods again.
We walk up to a dark entryway, a blur of fans and men in glasses–maybe the intellectuals of the town–sitting around a long wooden table. They look up from their newspapers (many with wooden slats down one side) intensely irritated by our approach, telling us dismissively that it is the town hall, also, it seems, the public library and basically to go away–
But I insist, and one comes to the door, and “Museum,” he says and directs me around the block – well, around the block and “no more than half a kilometer.”
In truth, we are not sure we care half a kilometer about the Archeological Museum, but it is really too hot to look for elephants right now, the reason we have come to this town–so trudge down the road, backtracking the way the rickshaw has come, and treading a fine line between debris and traffic but glad at least that the alleged museum is on the same side of the road, and that the only street crossing required is relatively mild (though we hold hands and trot)–
Come at last to a small gathering of food stalls and rickshaws, people, children – the municipal zoo is here – park benches, shade, wilting flowers-and a large green building labeled with a small sign “Multipurpose Museum.”
The description “Multipurpose” does strike me as odd, but this is India – home of signs like “Infant Jesus Tyre Repair,” and electric words at the highway toll booth that blink after one has paid “Happy Bye-bye”–
My husband, a man of maps and precision, particularly when it comes to historical, geographical or scientific matters,would undoubtedly look back at the guidebook around now and comment that this building is not in the same location as the “Archeological Museum.”
But hey, it has a big skeleton of an elephant in the doorway. The tallest elephant in memory, says the explanation, and describes this particular beast’s history in all state festivals around the early 1900s.
It doesn’t occur to us that the early 1900s is not exactly an archeological age, nor that the large wooden sculpture (next to the elephant’s bones) that was made in ten months in the prison yard by someone sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1970’s is a strange choice for an archeological curator.
As are the chipped models of various sea creatures. “A Dolphin.”
The next room though has some old armor and weaponry: “A Curved Sword.” “A Straight Blade.” “A Sword with a Silver Line.” “A formidable knife used by Afghans.” Truthful enough descriptions so far as they go.
Next there’s a model of a Dutch House, Kathakali dance costumes, and many cases of minerals – meaning rows of rocks with things like “Sand” written underneath them. Photography is prohibited, but we cannot resist the specimen above ‘”Model of Gold Mugget.” (We joke, but also acknowledge that our Malayalam is nonexistent, and frankly, I kind of like to imagine young children coming here on a Saturday morning, their imaginations sparked.) (There are large conical breasts on one of the Kathakali sculptures that would seem to spark a lot of things.)
However, the most excited visitors we see are two young couples in the shadows of the upstairs landing, who, when we come up the stairs, immediately spring apart from each other, while the guard up here, a woman pushes a small plastic “backscratcher”- the kind with a little curve-fingered hand–down the back of her sari blouse.
On this floor, the cases hold rows of cloudy glasses of water showing various species of dead crustacea,fish,a cobra and various moth-eaten birds.
It is worth noting that in all this touring neither my daughter or I question where are those items specially mentioned by the guidebook – the cooking pots big enough for children to fit into, certain special intricate boxes, old scrolls – but honestly, we are probably just as happy to see things like the “gold muggets.” There is something about spending time in India when it is very hot – combined with the strange veering between freneticism and torpor (all mixed up with a heavy dose of avoidance of any kind of offer, question or tout)–that just seems to sap the good old intellectual curiousity.
Then of course there’s the brain fog of the antimalarial tablets.
Though, as I sit here, writing this, I suspect that our willingness to accept, to even be content with the Golden Mugget Museum, to not even realize till several hours later that it could not have been the Archeological Museum, probably cannot truly be blamed on the antimalarial tablets – or even on the heat.
But rather that it comes from some deeper aspects of our personalities, at least, of mine. (I will not hook it on my daughter.)
On the one hand, I seem marked by a kind of intellectual laziness–that part of me that would find all the informative signs at a true archeological museum rather hard going. On the other hand, I have been granted the gift of a fascination with “just folks”–big-eyed couples jumping apart, bored women scratching themselves.
I do not, frankly, know if this is a genetic gift, a general gift (meaning applicable to my greater life), or simply something I long ago picked up for the specific purpose of travel in India. I do know that it is an extremely useful quality for traveling here.
There are plenty of historic sites, beautiful sites, archeological sites, and even some good museums in India. But if you travel here with an expectation of seeing a large number of them (even those directly on your route) in any truncated period of time or budget, you are pretty certain to grow almost immediately irritated and frustrated (i.e. “hot and bothered.”)
You are also likely to miss whatever golden muggets lay just before your eyes.
And there are so many of those – I think of our cooking instructor in Cochin – who so sweetly called out “Leo” – her husband’s name–every time the power went out in our little cooking class–not pausing in her supervision of my daughter sauteing at the small gas range; while Leo repeatedly carted out a lithium battery powered light from a back room, and set it up on a corner shelf, and how, in those fan-less moments of rather complete- and then semi-darkness, I would become conscious of a delicious, if slight breeze, lifting the air–
But I am still in the museum in this particular story, and as we step out into the blistering light, we come onto two hedgerows of deep red Amaryllises–and I say something to my daughter like – “okay, they’re wilting, but you have to admit that they are beautiful,” and she admits that they are beautiful, and we get into another rickshaw, and this time, although we tell driver the name of the biggest road in town, we mainly just get him to drive until we get to a good stopping place, or should I say, jumping-off place, and ‘stop’, we tell him, waving our hands, and he, scooting as close to the curb as possible (given the traffic), does.
PS -after the museum and elephant, we got ourselves taken to one of the big churches in Thrissur – Our Lady of Lourdes.
There are a zillion churches in Kerala. They are huge and extremely ornate, with spires and a bit of a wedding cake motif. This church – which really had a lovely atmosphere–had a big green tent in the inside (below most of the front nave) to block out the sun, and a very cool (temperature-wise) underground sanctuary. The pictures show the tent part of the nave.
I also include a quick picture of the Town Hall’s reading room, and my favorite place in Thrissur – the Indian Coffee Houses. Indian Coffee House is an old chain owned and run by a cooperative of Indian coffee workers (in the South.) The waiters all wear weird cockades. I really liked this place because when I was here before (thirty years ago), they always felt like a certain respite. They’ve gone a bit seedy, but still feel very fun to me.
You can see that pink is a popular color around here.
PPS – sorry for endless typos and endless text – I really feel as if I’m losing my grasp of language of late. This part I’ll blame on the anti-malarials.