What’s in a name – changing places

Alappuzha is better known as Alleppey. Since independence, India has been gradually renaming places. There are a variety of reasons for these changes, such as using a spelling that more closely resembles the local pronunciation of the place or using a name that the locals use. Well-known examples include: Kolkata (instead of Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Mysuru (Mysore), Bengaluru (Bangalore), Chennai (Madras), Kochi (Cochin), and Puducherry (Pondicherry).

Some of the changes are politically motivated. Perhaps because of this, even some Indians reject the changes so, for example, Bangalore is still largely used, and I’ve also heard Indians saying Mysore and Bombay.

When I was growing up, my mum used to say “Mumbai” and we used to say, “No, mum, it’s not Mumbai but Bombay!”. What did we know!

Today was a return to the backwater, this time in Alappuzha instead of Kochi. The backwater is a network of waterways. Alappuzha is unimaginatively, and inaccurately, known as the “Venice of the East” because of its waterways, which, although not as plentiful as Birmingham or even Venice, are beautiful nonetheless.

My homestay (which in the UK we’d call a guesthouse/small hotel) owner recommended this trip. All homestay owners in Kerala must recommend a backwater trip or face ten years imprisonment and, more importantly, loss of commission. So I was sceptical. However, he was so sincere that I did the trip. He considerately organised everything: a rickshaw to pick me up, drop me off, and return me at the end of the day.

This backwater trip was a contrast to the Kochi one. For one thing it was on a four-person canoe instead of a twenty-person boat. This allowed us to get into the narrow canals, which are luscious green, allowing us to see village life in all its rich variety.

I met some lovely people on the trip. A well-travelled Japanese woman was on her third trip to India. An English couple took time out from working to spend three months travelling in South East Asia – a whirlwind tour from Sri Lanka to Malaysia. Amongst other things, we discussed the evils of Facebook!

A glamorous Spanish couple from Barcelona were on a three week holiday. The man was a chef (now in Madrid). He had his own restaurant but also created dishes for other companies (he had recently created a new sofrito for someone). I grilled him with questions about cooking! He told me of his delight in discovering new dishes around the world. I wondered whether he, like me, asked for the recipe when that happened! To my surprise, he said that he could generally work out the ingredients to recreate flavours and smells. I learnt that there were two essential elements of Mediterranean cooking: sauces generally but sofrito in particular. Sofrito is a bare sauce consisting typically of olive oil, garlic, onion and tomatoes. I told him I loved steaming vegetables then tossing them into a wok with olive oil and garlic for a quick meal. He suggested caramelising onions in olive oil for an hour or two (there goes my quick meal!), adding a little salt to speed up the process and bring out the flavour. He was one of those rare people who’s enjoyable to talk to: he had spent a lifetime doing something that he loves, is passionate about it and enjoys sharing his knowledge.

After returning to land (we were out from 8.30 to 5pm), some of us went to the beach to see the sunset with several hundred Indians, it being the weekend.

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