Rooting around

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on January 17, 2018

Southern comfort: Pickled delights in a Thalassery shop   -  Zac O' Yeah

Pathfinder: Remembering the German missionary who played a significant role in Kerala’s cultural history   -  Zac O' Yeah

What’s cooking: The menu at Paris Hotel   -  Zac O' Yeah

The fish curry at Paris Hotel   -  Zac O’Yeah

Zac O' Yeah   -  BUSINESS LINE

Without Thalassery, there may not have been any Steppenwolf — neither the bestselling novel from a Nobel winner nor the world’s first heavy metal band

Weeks before the monsoon would hit Kerala and soften the tropical heat, I stood in the hot midday sun, snapping sweaty selfies outside a 19th-century bungalow with shaded verandas and a roof of Mangalore tiles. It was listed as one of the few tourist sights in Thalassery, so I had to check it out, only to discover that the historical bungalow is in use as a technical school. To enter the campus required taking a written permission from the principal. In the compound, the students sat under shady trees and looked at me as if I was some foreign weirdo tourist. Which I obviously was, coming from Bengaluru.

It was called Gundert Bungalow and on one veranda wall was painted a caricature-style portrait of a bearded foreigner, presumably Gundert. Later, in the centre of town, I found myself walking on Gundert Road, where there was a prominent statue of the same gentleman — a German missionary who played a significant role in Kerala’s cultural history.

This encounter with Gundert set off the strangest chain of associations in my overheated brain, once I did a bit of googling on the matter. It had to do with heavy metal and how that term came to be associated with a particular form of Western music. And in a way it all started in Kerala about 175 years ago, when the mother of one of Europe’s greatest novelists was born in these parts.

En route to Calcutta in the 1830s, the missionary Hermann Gundert fell so much in love with south India that he decided to stay put. He started a school on the porch of this bungalow and invited pundits to discuss Indian history and religion with him. He learnt Malayalam well enough to become a rather influential writer in the language, publishing some dozen books, including one on grammar and the first proper dictionary. He was also involved in starting one of the first local language newspapers. Furthermore, Gundert apparently introduced the German model of gymnastics here, which is why Thalassery is known today as the home of the best acrobats and circus artistes in India. All this led to his being appointed to the post of inspector of schools, overseeing an area covering most of Kerala and present-day Karnataka as far north as Hubli.

While living in India, Gundert married a fellow European, a French-speaking lady, and in 1842 they had a daughter named Marie. After the family moved back to Germany due to health reasons, Marie gave birth to a son who was named Hermann after his grandfather. Little Hermann had access to his grandfather’s vast library, which contained many books on and from India. He was 15 in 1893, when Gundert passed away, which was also the year little Hermann started drinking and smoking. He had by then gone through a somewhat sad period at the seminary he had joined — probably to become a missionary like his grandfather. But he ended up a manic-depressive misfit and tried to commit suicide. After a stint in a mental hospital, he took up a job as a bookshop clerk in the German town of Tübingen (in whose university, incidentally, Gundert’s collection of manuscripts from Kerala is housed). But he quit when he published his first novel at the age of 27. What would become his biggest bestseller appeared in 1927, the year he turned 50: it was called Der Steppenwolf. Some 20 years later, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A Californian hard rock group of the 1960s named itself after the novel — Steppenwolf. The singer John Kay hailed from Germany and his actual name was Joachim Krauledat — though, as far as I know, he wasn’t related to Hesse, except perhaps in a metaphysical way. That famous Hesse novel was, in those days, gaining the status of a hippie Bible due to its hallucinatory passages that were good to read while puffing on a spliff, chewing peyote or dropping acid, so it struck the band as a perfect replacement for their original, much lamer name, The Sparrows. In 1968, Steppenwolf released their third single, in which John Kay sang about riding a motorcycle, and the ‘heavy metal thunder’ it made. The song, ‘Born to be wild’, and it went on to become the biggest ever riff-based rock anthem — partly also because it featured on the soundtrack of the classic LSD-infused low-budget road movie Easy Rider starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. And so, in one go were born a new musical style and the cinematic genre known as ‘road movie’.

As a teenager I was heavily into Steppenwolf and their brand of psychedelic hard rock, so it was the music that led me to read Der Steppenwolf and its account of mental and spiritual self-realisation. And now, many years later I find myself in Kerala, investigating Hesse’s intellectual roots. The writer himself did, a few years before World War I, undertake a journey towards Kerala to explore his own ‘Indian’ background. Unfortunately, he caught a stomach bug and then he got heat stroke — the tropical weather was too much for him — so upon reaching Colombo he took the next available boat back home without ever setting foot on Indian soil or snapping selfies before his grandfather’s bungalow. He had also met some impoverished Hindus and Muslims on the journey and was very upset at the subjugation of Indians under colonial rule. Yet he was taken by Indian philosophical ideas, which made him write the Buddhism-influenced novel Siddhartha some 10 years later.

If Hesse had reached Thalassery, his mother’s birthplace, he might have enjoyed hanging around in Mahé, which was then a French colony some 10 km south of here. Today Mahé’s many bars are an ideal place to spend a hot afternoon, as I discover after my day of sightseeing and with my shirt dripping sweat. I rehydrate nicely with ice cold beer.

Then it is time to eat. Due to the French connection, one of Thalassery’s most popular and oldest restaurants is known as Paris Hotel. It is a couple of hundred metres south of Gundert Road, a heritage-style building that once housed one of Kerala’s first newspaper printing presses, perhaps the one that Hesse’s grandfather founded. You will not get German wine or French haute cuisine here, but I wolfed down the light and fragrant Thalassery fish biryani (₹170), recommended by a solicitous waiter who spoke a few words of English but no German or French. I didn’t even bother asking if he had read Der Steppenwolf or happened to have the mp3 of ‘Born to be wild’ on his cell phone. I was so taken by this biryani, which is, possibly, the best in the world.

The short-grained rice is made dum style (in a sealed container) with the separately cooked, delicate white aikoora or ‘kingfish’ added to it at some point in the process. The many available side dishes one can get at Paris include fish moilee, chemmeen mulakittathu (prawns cooked with chillies), meen pollichathu (fish wrapped in banana leaves) and other fishy things with enticing names and equally affordable rates. As I sat there digesting my meal, I was amazed by the thought that without Thalassery, there may not have been any Steppenwolf — neither the bestselling Nobel Prize-winning novel nor the world’s first heavy metal band. Funny thought.

Published on August 12, 2016

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