Storyteller Thommen Jose |

Tell us a bit about yourself! Why do you love travel? How do you think travel unites us or teaches us more about the world?
My dad used to subscribe to Reader’s Digest when it was not available in India, and I remember devouring the travelogue stories right from a very young age. I would shut my eyes and imagine I was there. While studying in Nigeria where my parents taught school, we used to head out to places like Kano or Kaduna during weekends; basically my dad loved to drive and my mom loved to see places. The travel bug could be part genetic and part what you grow into. Soon it becomes a sanity-keeper of sorts.

Why do I love to travel? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. In fact, I met someone just a few months ago who told me he doesn’t love to travel. I was so flummoxed to the point of almost doing a story on him. Then I realized I couldn’t, as it wasn’t possible for me to be objective here.

I recently got back from a trip to Indonesia; spent a couple of weeks in Jakarta, Bintan, Flores and Bali. I found the people there to be warmest and most helpful, despite the inability to communicate easily. But everything was forgotten with a ‘Terima Kasih’ and a cheery smile. It was almost like everyone was keen to take home the best of memories, and not leave with any animosity or agenda. That’s it, the more people we meet, the more we realize how peaceful and loving they really are.

Can you tell us something about the culture in your country and why did you decided to stay there?
We gave the world the Kamasutra and a truly world religion, a most beautiful one, Hinduism. But today the culture in India is quite unlike what it used to be. Without getting into the details of the various mores and conditions where things have changed drastically, I will say we have become a very temperamental lot, conceited and insecure. Then maybe that’s the direction the world generally is heading to, the growth of (misplaced) nationalism can be seen everywhere. Fundamentalists are on a rampage. Despite opportunities to leave I decided to remain, not because this is my native land but I don’t, cannot run away when things aren’t going alright. Once I got into a social media spat when someone said ‘all Roman Catholics like you should leave India.’ I asked him ‘and leave my country to blinkered fanatics like you?’ Well, that’s where I come from.

On a lighter note, my folks are here and they wouldn’t have it any other way or anywhere else, either.

What surprising aspect of culture do you love about your country (or your specific town/city) that travelers may not be aware of?
I hail from the southern state of Kerala, but have been living and working in capital Delhi for close to a decade. Generally, people from the rest of the country hate Delhi and Delhi-ites. Even I tell my friends that the unspoken motto of a true Delhi-ite is ‘Any man down is one man less.’ That said, I must say I have many friends, natives of Delhi. The angry, road-rage-prone, obnoxious, high-handed, ‘don’t-you-know-me’ attitude is, in most cases, just a facade. Once you get to know them, they are really gentle, nice, and humorous like anybody else.

Growing up in your country, what’s something that you believe makes it unlike anywhere else in the world?
As soon as I could take care of myself, I hit the road, during student years by public transport when my mom had to give me the money. And later on when I began going by train and bike and car. I have written two road tripping guidebooks, which were published by the Times of India, for which I have driven myself extensively over months across various parts of the country. I can safely say that the diversity of India is astounding – from people and culture to geography, climates and food. The people generally are a fantastic lot. While traveling in Chhattisgarh, a state which is affected by extremism, I was told not to visit certain places – which I made a point to. I must say I have never seen a folk so nice and endearing and eager to help. They have a fight, but it’s not with you.

Talk about the role of family in your life. What does family mean to you? Which family values are valuable to you?
My family has been very supportive of my travels. In fact, me and my wife have different notions of travel and we mostly travel separately, which suits us well. My mom behaves as if each of my trip is into some war zone and makes me promise that I will call her every once a while. Family is important regardless of travel, as a sort of anchor. As a sort of ‘pull back’ when you are going too far while out there. It’s a sort of subliminal safety net.

How important is spirituality and religion in your daily life? What do you do to celebrate the two?
I am a spiritual person, not religious. I believe in good karma, and that it all comes around. My charity is not directed at churches or organizations, but I’d give alms to the waif, directly. I celebrated my last birthday at a local orphanage with the kids there.

Share about a custom/tradition you observe. What makes it special?
Christmas. My parents are very particular that all us kids – me, my four sisters and our families – congregate at our home in Kerala wherever in the world we are, however busy we are. We acquiesce with immense difficulty only to later realize that it’s the only time when we actually get to see each other. Thanks to Christmas and obstinate parents!

Art and dance can tell a deeper story about local culture. Tell us the story of a specific artwork or dance that has a meaning for you. Share a photo, if you can. (It can be anything from street art to a festival to a painting to architecture to woven art work, to woodworking, a family heirloom, etc.)
I love art and culture and I could talk about the forms I love for ages. There are many. But recently I have begun collecting daggers, I have from most parts of India. Where I was born, a small town called Pala, we have a legend: every true Pala guy will have a dagger on his person. This used to be true, but a very long time ago. We used to be traditional guzzlers and fights were aplenty when these daggers came handy. Probably this now-myth is behind my fascination with daggers. From Indonesia, I bought a Keris, which I found with great difficulty at an antique shop.

Languages not only give us the power to communicate, but also can unite us across cultures. What’s something you love about the multitude of languages spoken in your country? Share a favorite saying you have, or teach us something in your native language.
While traveling through India, I have come across most of the languages spoken here. What has stuck with me are the sing-song way the mountain folk in the North speak – even a mundane, everyday exchange sounds so mellifluous you think its some lyrics.

I can share a saying, translated from Malayalam, my mother tongue: The jasmine in one’s own backyard lacks fragrance. This holds true for most staying in Delhi.

What local spot in your city/town do you love most? Why is it personally important to you?
There is this clump of trees adjacent to a park in Dwarka, where I stay in Delhi. During the summer, I come here sometimes with beer and cigarettes, and just enjoy the blistering heat. It’s away from the public, and I can keep an eye on any passing cop showing interest. I take stock and man up in this little sweltering corner.

Have you ever met a stranger during your travels who made an impact on your life in a certain way, or maybe it was you who helped someone else? Share the story!
During every trip, I have encountered someone who has left that indelible mark on me. I’ll tell you one from my latest one. I met this one-handed boy called Regan at the Monkey Park in Ubud, Bali. When he told me his name I laughed and said ‘boy, you are famous.’ ‘Yes sir, I know Ronald Reagan’ he said which totally gobsmacked me. I was walking away with a superior, condescending air.

Unfortunately, stereotypes exist in the world. What are some common misconceptions you’ve heard about your country? What is considered disrespectful in your culture that visitors should be aware of?
There is no smoke without fire, yes. India is complicated and one’s experience here will depend on how lucky and careful you are. I have known very sorted and strong people getting into all sorts of trouble. At the same time I know those who pine for experience but shuts it all out because they are extremely cautious. Well, the cow and the national flag are things one gotta be very careful about. One you can’t eat and the other ain’t a bunting you can wear, unlike in Western countries.

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