New interview

Interview with Calle and Marianne
Times of India, Dec 14 2019.

Building bridge

If Kerala today has become a popular destination in Sweden, the main reason would be due to the untiring efforts of a Swedish couple based in Fort Kochi for a decade. They have brought around 20,000 tourists from the Nordic country to different parts of Kerala, familiarizing them with local culture, music and cuisine. The couple, who are well into their 70s, make an interesting pair. Calle Hard, who has an uncanny resemblance to Hemingway, is a popular Swedish author, who has penned six books in Swedish language with plots centred around Kerala and Sweden. His wife, Marianne Hard af Segerstad, runs Ganesha Travels with her sister and have brought out a Kerala travel handbook in Swedish language. “It is better than Lonely Planet. Apart from giving details about tourist destinations here, the book has rich human-interest stories on local cultures,’’ says Segerstad. Excerpts from an interview with the couple:

When did you love for Kerala begin?

Marianne: I came to Kerala in 2000 and instantly fell in love with the state. What I liked about it is the fact that it offers such variety of culture that stands apart, as compared to other states in India. In 2006, we brought a group of Swedish writers on a residency programme. I used to work with the culture department in Sweden before quitting the job to stay back in Kerala. There is a popular notion that Europeans come to Kerala only to enjoy beaches and hill stations. But my clients, who are mainly perceptive travellers, want to come to Kerala to experience local music, dance and culture. We also have a domestic travel partner here in Trivandrum. So, it works both ways as both of us benefit from the venture. I wrote my first book, Lost in Kerala, after staying here for four months in 2000. At that time, there very were few people in Sweden who knew about Kerala. The latest book that I published in June this year, Kerala: Pearl of South India, has many touching real-life stories of the warm bonding and even creative partnership between Keralites and foreigners. For instance, there is Tora from Iceland who met Faisal, an auto driver in Fort Kochi around a decade ago and they converted a heritage colonial bungalow into a hotel named Secret Garden. There is so much to discover in Kerala if you are an endearing traveller with small homestays functioning in remote mountains. We go back to the hotels mentioned in the book to see if they have maintained the standards and update our handbook regularly.

How many are repeat travellers?

Marianne: The climate debate has actually made people in Sweden to change their modes of travel and switch to public transport. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has become a household name today. But, there are many who come back to Kerala. They, in fact, come back on their own using my handbook on Kerala as a guide. Unlike other south Asian countries, Keralites do not fleece tourists. We were fortunate to meet young entrepreneurs like Aneesh Kumar years ago. He began in a small way with just one hired car and a driver. Today, he owns two hotels, 13 cars and two buses with sheer hard work. So, the popular notion that Malayalees need to go abroad to make money is a myth. There is so much tourism potential in the state.

How did both of you meet?

Calle: We met at a bar in Sweden (laughs) and we fell in love. She gave me this lovely gift called India. We got married after nine months and a female priest conducted our wedding at a sea shore. I used to work as a senior reporter in the largest circulated Scandinavian daily and used to enjoy the comforts of life, travelling in business class and staying in plush hotels. Marianne was a hippie who taught me how to lead a simple life and yet be so joyful. I was not invited to join Ganesha Travels initially, as these two sisters were managing it so well. Then, I then decided to write books.

The first book, Number To Calicut, was a work of fiction. It has racism as a sub-text. A boy, who was adopted from the outskirts of Vizhinjam grows up in Sweden and his mother, a rape victim, comes looking for him and realises that things are not as rosy as it is made to be. There is a hell of lot of racism in Scandinavian countries and we cannot ignore that anymore. There are other major issues that need to be addressed urgently. Even Sweden is facing the brunt of climate change as snow is melting fast down the hills. We have 15 hydroelectric projects and 59% of power is produced from hydel power. But thankfully, the dams are maintained properly and we have advanced sensors which can predict heavy water flow.

Which are your other works?

Calle: Another work, titled, With Death As Wedding Guest, looked into the reason why women were burnt in and around Kovalam in 2007. There was at least 10 such cases and most were dowry-related cases. I met Kumari, a prostitute at a whore house near statue in Trivandrum. I hired a room and paid for talking to her and when we I left I asked for a receipt at the counter at the whore house and they were quite shocked. Kumari was such a gutsy character. She had found a safe place to escape abuse and rape by cops and robbers. She used to and sleep in a Christian cemetery at night on the grave stones. She said at least here nobody dared to touch her. The dead spirits turned out to be her saviour. Another work titled The Whore That Smiled is based on a real-life story of how a European who came to Kerala for missionary purpose, exploited a poor woman from a coastal community. The woman believed that the European was married to her though he came to meet her only once in a year.