A few weeks ago I went to Kochi for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an incandescent string of art exhibits put together by the passion and energy of two artist friends, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. Take a bow, gents - it was easily the best art event I had ever been to anywhere.
While there were dozens of amazing artworks, the piece that really took my breath away was a film/sound installation on the upper floor of Moidu's Heritage, a dilapidated warehouse that backed into a network of canals, which had been used to transport spices from the hinterland to Cochi for export. It certainly hadn't been used for decades and it showed.
As I carefully climbed the stairs, I could hear the most beautiful melodic whistling coming out of a darkened room. Rather than a bird, it was a Black guy in a blue shirt sitting in a cab. He was whistling to himself, not even smiling, deep in his own world - he went on and on and on, changing tune from time to time. It was hypnotic, so much so that I didn't even notice the heat till a bead of perspiration ran down my back and disappeared, laughing, between my buttocks.
I looked around to position myself by a fan just as the film stopped and another one started on a perpendicular wall. This was of a woman in a swimming pool splashing the water with her hands. She was smiling enjoying herself, and kept altering the rhythm as she splashed. At some point, I sensed, more than heard, her "music" enhanced by some real percussion playing below her. That's when I realised the whistling, too, had been enriched by a subtle instrumentation working underneath. After this movie ended, it flipped to the next wall - a blind man playing an electronic hand-held organ on the metro in Paris - and then the next. It was truly magical.
But, as much as the Biennale, there was another aspect of Kochi that delighted me, though in a completely different way. I have always loved Kochi because, like Venice and Istanbul, public transport is largely water-based. To enjoy this, we had taken a ferry to the Biennale, which was in Fort Kochi, and my jaw dropped at the fare: two - that's right, two - rupees a person, one way. Fortunately, my wife had some coins.
The quality of the service was excellent and remarkably - this is India, after all - on time. It got me thinking that this was how public service used to be. When I was a kid - granted that was a long time ago - even the BEST was cheap and reliable. Those were the defining hallmarks of public service.
And, indeed, most public servants were also reliable and trustworthy. People entered politics or the administrative services to make a difference, and not to their own wallets. This may seem hard to believe judging both from individual experience with and what we read about the public servants we have today.
I was discussing this with an elegant gent I met at a conference recently. He was quite a scholar in a range of humanist areas and he told me that the reason most people in "our time" - he was about my age - had much stronger civic and civil values was that we learned them (in many cases, literally) at our grandmothers' knee through stories extracted from the epics. These provided the underpinnings of our substantially better civil and civic behaviour.
Today, he feared, that source is fading. With more nuclear families and a much more hectic pace of life, most people have little time to sit with grandma; indeed, sometimes, grandma doesn't have time herself. Is it any wonder, then, with our anchor to history and mythology largely lost, that society has turned so bleak?
I had to agree with him - it may be old-fashioned, but the truth is that fundamental values begin at home. Circumstance in many forms - selfishness, apathy, the apparently all-pervasive corruption - constantly threatens these values to where the entire social fabric appears faded and tattered.
But the good news - and there's always good news if you look - is that the fabric is ultimately regenerative and, in India at least, we appear to be turning up from the bottom. One example of a renewed attraction for core values is the amazing popularity of books by three contemporary writers - Ashok Banker, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi - all of which are built around stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Their books are literally flying off the shelves. It seems that people know, even if subconsciously, that this is where they will find a framework for civic and civil renewal.
Perhaps, the Biennale will be a linchpin of this change - be sure to go there in 2014!