"Latin America is my favorite destination for travel", says Dr Natarajan Pillai, the ENT surgeon from Kochi, who has made six trips to the region. He 'feels at home' there and describes his experience as 'adventures'. I saw a lustrous Latino shine in his eyes and an enigmatic Ipanema smile whenever the word Latin America came up during my encounter with him in his Kochi home in January this year. He is yet another proof of my saying, " Indian visitors to Latin America come back happier and younger.."
Dr Pillai has been to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. He has spent a total of around 130 days in the region. He has plans to visit the remaining eight Latin Americans in the future, to match my record..!
He has written three books in Malayalam on his Latin American journeys:
1. Dakshinaayana Kaalam ( Southward Bound ') - about his trip to Sao Paulo and Santos in Brazil. Published in December 2010.
2 Samkrama sooryante Nizhal (The shadow of Transiting Sun), March 2012. It covers Rio and Foz de Iguazu in Brazil besides Ciudad del Este and a Guarani village in Paraguay
3.Ven Samkholikalude Pranaya Theeram ( echoes from the white conch in the shore of love) - about his journey through Chile and his 'love affair with poems of Pablo Neruda and Hispanic literature'. Published in July 2014, this book got him the ' KV Surendranath ' Award of C.Achutha Menon Foundation for the Best Travelogue published in Malayalam in the last five years.
He has written another book 'Mekkongile Malsyam' ( Mekong Fish)- March 2008, on his experience in Laos. He has a passion for travel and has visited 57 countries. He takes off every six months or year since 1984 on travel to different destinations in India and and the world. Once he spent nine months traveling in northern India, staying in temples, ashrams and monasteries. Dr Pillai's next book, 'Shadow of Winter Solstice', about his Antarctica trip is coming out soon in English. He writes a regular column for Mathrubhumi Yathra Travel Magazine. The June 2016 issue carries his article on La Paz , the Capital of Bolivia.
"There are three aspects in Dr. Natrajan’s travel writing. First, there is well researched background information; from history, geography and anthropology to contemporary economics, politics, education, arts, sports, cuisine and culture of the places. Second, there are his observations and comments on what he witnesses during the journey. The reader is taken as his fellow traveller, accompanying him to the cities, monuments and museums; enjoying art,music and sports, tasting the typical food and drinks and living the experience. Here too, details do not escape the eyes of Dr. Natarajan; be it the presentation of the Carnival in Rio or just the preparation of a local drink in a bar. Third, he gives us yet another dimension of the adventure through his informative conversations with people whom he meets. They include Guaresi of Sao Paulo and Alfonos in Chile with whom the author gets to spend considerable time. Then there are others with whom he enjoys brief interactions, like Amelio, the hotel boy in Sao Paulo, Eloy the moto taxi driver and Abdullah Khuri, the Lebanese settler in Ciudad del Este, Pauline from Belgium in Paraguay and Matias and Leonor in Santiago. The simplicity he adopts in his travel also reflects in his narration. His passages through history and description of art and interpretation of literature are more like story telling. He has used easy-to-read language for the ordinary Malayalees to understand and appreciate. He has sprinkled humor here and there to make the reading more interesting such his description of the Café de las Piernas ( coffee with legs !!) in Chile. He has made an effort to expose the reader to the Spanish and Portuguese languages by including some words and sentences in them".
Dr. Pillai is a backpacker, uses public transport and stays in budget hotels when he is not able to find local people to stay with. This approach has given him opportunities to get a real feel of the daily life of the common people and interact with them. He says, "People are the greatest sights and all else is secondary". He does not plan and prepare everything in advance. Sometimes he lets his legs wander without a pre-planned programme.
Latin America, in many ways, is close to Malayalee heart. Malayalees, along with Bengalis are the most knowledgeable and interested in Latin America especially in literature, Leftist politics and football.
Latin American authors are familiar to Keralite readers thanks to prolific translations. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a household name and his books have been in the best-seller lists in the state and had fifteen editions. When Gabo was diagnosed with cancer, about 200 people in Kozhikode had held a prayer meeting. When Marquez died, the Keralite media paid homage saying," Marquez leaves an indelible mark in Malayalee hearts". Some even claim that "Magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Garcia Marquez had published a word". Khasak in Vijyan's novel is similar to the mythical place Maconde in Marquez's works. Dr Pillai had started reading Latino literature since his college days.
Posters of Fidel Castro, Che Guavara and Chavez are the sacred trinities adorning the Marxist party conferences even now in the interior of Kerala. The adoration is so much that the Trivandrum audience in my lecture last year were not amused when I described the destruction of Venezuela by Chavistas. Dr Pillai was himself a leftist in his youth.
The Maradona-Pele rivalry plays out and flags of Brazil and Argentina go up in rooftops across Kerala during World Cups. Maradona had visited Kerala in 2012 at the invitation of Bobby Chemmanur Group of Kannur which has made him as their brand ambassador. The Chemmanur Jewellery released a gold coin with Maradona’s picture on one side and his signature on the other.The suite no. 399 of Hotel Blue Nile in Kannur, where Mardaona had stayed, has become so famous that the management has converted it into a museum.
There is a spice connection too. The Keralite cardamom growers make long distance calls to Ambassador Babu asking him to report on the Guatemalan production which determines the global prices. Guatemala has become the largest exporter of cardamom in the world, overtaking India in the last three decades. The variety grown in Guatemala was originally taken from the Malabar coast.
Despite the political, literary and sporting inspirations, Malayalees have not ventured out to the region except for about a hundred catholic priests who connect the Latin Americans to Jesus in fluent Portuguese and Spanish across the region. There are a few professionals married to Latinas and settled there. The most prominent is Mathew Kodath, who has become a leading producer of Honduran films. He has married a Honduran and settled there. I liked his film "Amor y frijoles"( love and beans).
Dr Pillai's books, the first-ever comprehensive travelogues on contemporary Latin America in Malayalam language, have become popular. Latin America can expect more Mallu travelers to come greeting 'Hola' and 'Ola'.