Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

Tales from the Kalari

By Lucy May Constantini
Here I am, back in south India, after a near-three year gap that feels much shorter - and at the same time too long. I've been composing a blog for ages on my wanderings, on the whys and the wherefores, the mysteries and the muck. As always seems to happen here, time gets swallowed.
So, until I'm organised enough to write this masterpiece down, here's a synthesis of vignettes I've been posting on social media since my arrival.
Tales from the Kalari
22nd October:
Someone's decided I need blessings. Yesterday at the Saraswati darshana at the huge and beautiful Padmanabhaswamy Temple, despite the huge crowd and someone's attempt to grab it off me, the Brahmin put straight into my hands the marigolds that had been around the goddess's neck (a bit like catching the wedding bouquet, only infinitely more relevant) and this morning after the Kalari homa, the officiating Brahmin made a point of picking out one of the puja's jasmine wreaths for me. Maybe in my discombobulated, newly-arrived state, I look in need of decoration...
23rd October:
Well how lovely is/was that. I kept a low profile in the back, did my appointed kicking exercise with my group and thought I'd escaped lightly and could just enjoy the demonstrations and initiations (which I did). But just before we finished, I was called out to make a few passes with the long stick with Sathyan. It wasn't a demonstration and wasn't an initiation so I'm not sure what I was doing. And that was the last thing before the end of proceedings. I think I have Sensei Morgan's superb aikido jo teaching (and patience) to thank for the fact I didn't do as badly as I feared. Then post-puja clean-up (those brass lamps need scrubbing and all those petals picking up!) teas, snacks and prasadam all round and laughing conversations with some senior students about massage and yoga. Now for some waiting and off to meet my Sanskrit teacher again. I'm really back.
Tales from the Kalari
25th October:
You'd think blaring music at 6:30 through some very potent loudspeakers outside all our open windows on a Sunday morning would put people off, but here it seems to be the preferred electioneering tool. Oh well, between the heat and monsoon rains, there were no plans for a lie-in anyway. Happy Sunday.
I bumped into Arun today at Kovalam. He teaches surfing there He remembered me too. Last time I was here I helped him take back to sea 2 turtles whose flippers were almost fully severed by stray fishing lines. My turtle tagging days in Ecuador came in handy, though keeping them comfortable through partial amputation was beyond me. It's one of the most distressing things I've ever been part of. Arun was grateful I was helping rather than standing around taking pictures while the poor creatures bled over the sand, as almost everyone else was. He offered to teach me to surf as a thank you, but I was always too exhausted after the kalari on the days I got to the beach. Maybe this time I'll get round to it... But I pray any turtles I see are in one piece.
27th October:
As anyone who does anything physically taxing knows, it's not day 1 that's the problem but day 2 (and 3, and 4...) Beginning of the long stick proper today. "I am giving you many corrections but I must have perfection" says Rajan. It's going to be a long road.
3rd November:
"First we teach you the alphabet", said Rajan in the kalari this morning, "only then can you make words and later sentences - by practice and developing the body."
I thought the muddy patch I skidded on this morning was oddly placed. Normally the wetter patches are round the edges, from when the kalari has been hosed down and the water not quite dried off round the walls. Then I realised the slippery patch near the middle was made by me. Rajan had been working on the details of my sitting kick back-bending transition (never easy) and the mud was where I had dripped all over the packed earth floor. Will it ever get any easier?...
"You could be Kashmiri", said Unny yesterday over chai out the back after training, when we were discussing how to get me into the Padmanabhaswamy temple without reams of paperwork (no north Indian, incidentally, would ever believe I was one). "But if they hear you speak… If you speak Hindi, it will be ok". Ah yes, there lies a problem...
31st October:
It rained all night. I moved back into my downstairs room yesterday, cooler and familiar. Sleep was elusive in the sound of the rains and those crazy frogs, a loud, loud techno chorus all night. When my alarm went off before dawn, it was silent. Even the endless electioneering loudspeakers were subdued by the night's rainfall. The coconut tree field was flooded and I saw my first disorientated snake looking for a dry spot on my walk to the bus. Now I'm waiting in one of the treatment rooms for day 4 of pre-training shoulder treatment, the oils and bench and bandages and kizhi bundles feeling very familiar. And the waiting, which I do so much of here, which forces me to take space and time.
4th November:
Indian English, in all its regional variants is probably my favorite flavor of English. This afternoon, curled up on a rickety low chair, alternating between my legs and the chair arm for a desk as I tried to catch the failing light while scribbling earnest Devanagari, Mahadevan, the Sanskrit teacher, said to me: "You have to mug up all these shabdas. There is no other way. You have to by-heart it".
6th November:
"Today morning very fine climate", said the auto driver on the way to the kalari, several times. This means it's not raining and it's not too hot. I had planned on taking the bus, but this auto driver is a neighbor of sorts and was very helpful the first time I was trying to get to my Sanskrit class and couldn't remember how. He used to work in the Middle East and has now returned and bought or built a very nice house. He waved to me from the balcony as I walked by the other day, to introduce his wife and son. So this morning, in the interest of being neighbourly when he waved me over, I paid the 20p extra and took the auto-rickshaw instead of the bus.
7th November:
"Are you tired?" asks Rajan, before our third meippayat (the first meippayat, to put it in context, makes me think a little wistfully of Sensei Morgan's 50 mae kaiten ukemi drills). This after the usual intense drilling through all my long-stick shortcomings. Well yes, I am a bit but it's ok. Through the transition of the turning leg, hovering on my left foot as I backbend, it looks like rain coming down but in fact it's only the sweat falling from my arm as it circles my head. I do love the kalari but I'm also grateful tomorrow, Sunday, is rest day. Also Tuesday, for Deepavali, but I have a Sanskrit class that day, I suspect because it's auspicious.
I've been revisiting my role as big-sister/fairy-godmother. A young Italian actor came in on crutches this morning to watch kalari practice. It turns out, someone fell on his leg in an acrobatics session a couple of months ago, and it's not yet healed (all credit to him, traveling first-time in India on crutches - he arrived two days ago). He'd heard there was a good Ayurvedic place in Kollam. Did I know of it? Was it for his leg? I asked. He should really talk to the gurukkal in the clinic. So I explained how it works, told him where to sit, made sure the ladies in reception and pharmacy knew about him and went to get my breakfast. Some time later, on my walk back from Mani Mess as I headed to the shops before the bus home, I decided on the off-chance to see if he was still there and check he was ok. He was still waiting but as I walked in, we were ushered to another room and told to wait on a bench as Sir would come. I stayed to act as interpreter/explainer of everybody's English-as-second-or-third-language and perhaps also just the cultural gap of what is implied and what is meant. It was sweet to see him unravel a bit after his leg was treated. Anyway, he has his oil for the week, has I think changed his travel plans to chill out in Kovalam for the required application time and will return in 7 days to see about further treatment. When I explained to him that Sathyan was saying that if his leg continues to heal (slowly) on its own with no treatment, he will likely always have some stiffness in it, young Antonio was keen to continue his treatment. He was visibly taken aback by how little today cost him. It wouldn't surprise me if he ends up training here.
8th November:
It's Sunday-no-training-rest day, so I slept until I woke naturally, bucket washed and scrubbed the last two days of training clothes (oh, to be a boy and train in my pants. The time and energy and water I'd save...) and sallied forth to get the bus to Kovalam Swiss Cafe Sunday breakfast. The bus conductor was the same pretty lady from last time, smart with very good English. She indicated I should sit next to her on this nearly empty bus. She asked after my training, I asked after her daughter Maitri. I asked after yesterday's election count. I don't understand the details of the Malayalam but it's clear everyone everywhere is talking about it. Democracy seems very active here. 41 seats to the Trivandrum Corporation, 34 to the BJP. Do I wear a sari? She does, for outings and marriage functions. I should try a Kerala sari - white with a gold border. Very nice. If anyone needs a wedding dress back home, it sounds like a good option.
12th November:
I was feeling a bit perkier this morning, after my cold and days off training. Up in the gallery, as I waited for the sweat to dry in the approved manner before washing it off (though this doesn't quite work in clothes), Rajan, emerging from the bathroom said to me "Lucy, are you tired today?" So much for perkier. Then he patted my wet, oily head as he left the building. In this culture that doesn't touch, I think that's as good as a hug.
13th November:
I seem exclusively to be getting lifts when I'm wearing a skirt. It was still drizzling after training, so I knocked my Kovalam breakfast plans on the head and decided to head home after local breakfast instead. I've not seen Hari for a while and we don't understand each other enough to have a conversation about where he's been. He was back today and pulled up beside me as I was leaving the kalari. A lift here invariably means on the back of a bike and a lady in a skirt or sari does this side-saddle. So I folded my umbrella, gathered my skirts and perched myself on the back. I'm getting to be a dab hand; I hardly need to hold the bar round the seat at all. Mani Mess was shut so Hari drove me all the way home. I watched the world go by in the drizzle, over puddles and potholes, resisting the urge to swing my legs. I still have no idea where Hari was going or how much out of his way I took him. Riders here have to wear helmets, though passengers don't. I hear that's due to change, so the days of casual lifts seem numbered - doubtless very sensible but a little sad too.
18th November:
One of my tasks in Sanskrit class the other day was to see if I understood enough about the pronunciation of the Mahamrtyunjaya Mantra to write it in Devanagari (I actually didn't do too badly). Today, among other things, my tune was corrected. "Wash your hands and feet before you chant. And sit properly, straight". I looked at Mahadevan sideways: "I know how to sit. I've done quite a lot of it." I then apologised and thanked him for the reminder and we both laughed. After instructing me on my necessary pre-homework ablutions, Mahadevan announced that I will be sitting a Sanskrit exam in February. He must have faith in my by-hearting. Apparently, if I pass, I get a certificate from Mumbai. Meanwhile Rajan in the kalari has been instructing me to observe the short stick. My long stick had better improve a lot first, I don't say. It's gearing up to be a busy few months.
19th November:
A while ago, when I gasped as Rajan unexpectedly threw a long stick at Anoop (who very dexterously caught it), he came over to me at the side and explained how the old gurukkal would do this regularly, because you should always be alert in the kalari, because the body should be "all eyes". Today was my turn, though far less spectacular than Anoop's test, and of course I dropped it. It landed on Ganesha's lamp, extinguishing it. I picked up the stick, re-lit the elephant god's lamp and went round the kalari to pay my respects to the various gurus and gods before Rajan led me through the long stick sequence as though nothing had happened. Flustered, I forgot to check whether my stick was sufficiently oiled before my round of observances and so I found out just how uncomfortable it is when it's not. "This is not coming. Why is it not coming?" the usual refrain to one of my passes. (Because I find it really hard? Because I'm not very coordinated? Because the stick is catching on my hand and pulling my skin?...) Today is not the day for overcoming obstacles, so I'm off to dip my head in the sea until it is.
"Did I see you this week training at CVN Kalari?" asked the young man across from me on the bus from Kovalam. He's recently started his travels in India, post Oxford graduation and band break-up, and is hoping to include a couple of months in the kalari from the new year. "Do you get much instruction when you start? When I was watching, you all just seemed to be kicking for two hours. He came and corrected your posture once, but that was it. It looks really intense." I realize it must look a bit daunting for a newcomer watching. When I arrived at the time of the kalari puja, I'd asked Rajan a question about logistics of training. "Be free. You are part of us," he'd said. At the moment, I'm both the only foreigner and the only woman in the kalari. In the mornings, training with these people, many of whom I've watched over years now, I almost do feel like part of them. There's hardly any English spoken; sometimes I think they assume I understand the quiet Malayalam. We all run through our leg exercises and postures, negotiating pathways across the kalari, almost silent, the occasional glance or smile to let someone pass, our sweat and handprints merging in the earthen floor. At some point, Rajan gestures us out in small groups to run through the salutation, the meippayats, then individually, our weapon of the moment. All the sequences are accompanied by the spoken Malayalam instructions, set like sutras. I don't understand most of the words but I associate certain sounds with certain movements. Actually, there's a lot of instruction - but most of it is in the repetition of practice.
20th November:
Rajan always gives the long stick a good bending, weight moving down into it, before passing it to me. I think he's testing it for flaws. As he leads me through the blocks to the side strike sequence, I have reason to be grateful he does this. His aim is true at my temple every time, but my stick, vibrating with the force of each blow, holds. I remembered to oil it this morning, so I'm dealing with the lesser problem of keeping hold. It's a skirt day today, so of course I get a lift to breakfast after training. Walking home from Mani Mess, someone shouts "Hello!" and then adds "CVN Kalari!" lest I think it's some random wolf whistler. I'm never quite sure whether I'm the woman with 3 heads or something they're quite fond of. Probably both. Certainly, the elderly Muslim man taking a peek at training before his treatment looked quite delighted I am learning this Kerala art form, quite unconcerned at my dirt and my sweat and my bare lower legs and arms.
23rd November:
I couldn't get to sleep last night, and when I finally did, the street dogs got into an uncharacteristic fight, which continued long and loud. When I got to the kalari this morning, for the first time, both my ankles were complaining on the turns, and my balance on the turning kick was more tenuous than usual. Ah yes, lack of ground, lack of sleep; the body always knows... Despite all this, kalari wasn't as painful as I'd feared. Rajan is adding to the long stick sequence with me, so now there's much more off the line forwards and back, more movement in circles through the space. There's a particular transition that eludes me. "Aamaram with the left hand. Why are you using your right? I can feel it in my stick which hand you are using." So the back hand is where the force comes from, the front hand is a guide. I'm not manually dexterous at the best of times, and this transition, straight into my weaker side, is very messy. The more seniors, with whom I usually do the meippayat sequences, weren't in today, so the pace was a bit slower through them. I still had most of my breath at the end. I realize that I'm fitter than I thought.
24th November:
I'm back on the local eucalyptus oil inhalations over a saucepan of boiled water - not something I think most people associate with sitting in your knickers because of the heat. I'm not sure if it's a revisit of this virus which has promiscuously lodged in half the people I know, being stuck too often in diesel fumes of traffic, or what toxins I inevitably inhale when burning my rubbish (nothing like it to bring home the nastiness of packaging) that makes my lungs feel so constricted. Pacing up and down the kalari after today's meippayat to regulate my breathing, I thought, really, it's a marvel my lungs work at all.
26th November:
Over the last 24 hours, I've been clumsy to the extent I thought life might be better if the earth just swallowed me up, perhaps my most obvious incidence (though not the worst) being when I clipped Rajan's head as he was taking me through the long stick this morning. (Anyone who knows anything about my weapons practice knows the instructions "more force" and "use your wrists" together are fraught with danger in my case.) I then realised it's not just me. The impeccable, persistent Charles of the enviable forms kicked himself (hard enough to wince) in the face today, and even Rajan clipped himself with the otta, something I've never before seen. So maybe it's something in the air, or the full moon.
27th November:
Today after breakfast, under Sujith's orders, I returned to the kalari to wait in the clinic for Sathya to look at the foot I'd sprained last summer, which is creaking a bit. A very elegant and charming older couple were also waiting for the lady's check-up after some treatment. We got talking; I showed them pictures from a dance performance while they showed me their children in Sweden.
"Your sister has a Tamil boyfriend", they said "so you must have a Kerala boyfriend." 
"My life's hard enough!" I bluffed.

"No, no", said the pretty lady, "there are some good ones."

"I don't see how that would work", I replied. "It's all arranged here".

"We will look for you," she half-joked.

I suspect she'd find me a hard sell.
5th December:
Borrowing books. Part of today's homework: to copy out a prayer for absolution for all my errors. Well I certainly need it. Oh and to sing/chant with more confidence (because it is not correct to doubt). All those errors make it hard...
Tales from the Kalari
8th December:
Well today I went and ordered my specs. I hope my whizzy Nikkon anti-glare varifocals don't give me migraine because they are by far and away the most expensive thing I have ever bought in India. The service was superb, and they are also changing the lenses in my sunglasses for a very reasonable sum. They were so pleased with me, the guy who's making my glasses insisted on buying me coffee and a deep-fried thingy at the tea stall below. And he's called Mr. Bean. Really.
10th December:
This decided it liked my skirt as I was stirring the kashayam paste over the gas burner for the treatment Sujith is giving. It's still here. I'm guessing it's a moth...
Tales from the Kalari
12th December:
How did it get so busy? This was supposed to be my quiet week, training in the mornings, giving kalari uzhichal (massage) treatment in the evenings. It all started very calmly, my period arriving at the weekend (there's a whole area on menstruation and martial arts that deserves discussion) so I went into the kalari to watch at the beginning of the week. In one of those nice synchronicities, Unny was visiting, giving uzhichal every morning - and seeing as he was massaging a man, he was doing so at the side of the kalari. Sathya instructed me to pull the curtain aside, draw up a chair and watch (it's rude to watch someone giving massage if you're not somehow involved) and so I had two days of observing Unny, who is much more experienced than me, which was very nice. On Wednesday, leaning over the balcony, I saw Sujith making an interesting looking potion (a kashayam, it turned out). "What are you making?" I asked. "You come upstairs and help" he told me. So after I finished training I'd return from my breakfast and start "cooking" the kashayam which Sujith massaged onto a patient (it's important it doesn't stick to the pan). "You take rest," he would order me before we began, which was a very good use of the waiting. Savasana, or nap time. So that was my mornings accounted for, and between that and Sanskrit and giving kalari uzhichal in the evenings (and how nice to do a full 5 days once again) and preparing for my trip... Well, I am a little frazzled.
Oh yes, did I mention my trip? I'm off to Chennai tonight, scene of recent horrendous floods. I'm visiting friends, and then off to a Vipassana meditation retreat on Shiva's mountain at Arunachala. I suspect this one will have more in common with my Cambodian than my Herefordshire experience... There's Christmas sorted then.
From Lucy, with love, xx

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By Francesco Crook
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