Sunday, September 25, 2011

Monsoon in Kerala

It has only been an hour, and Mumbai already seems a world away.

The airplane is languorously approaching Kochi, and I am mesmerized by the sight on the other side of plexiglass.  It is fresh, it is a bright spring green, it is a plush blanket of verdant forest.  These are the last days of the monsoon, and we are in God's own country.

There is something truly jaw-dropping about approaching this land from above.  It seems a thwarting of nature's plans, this stealing of a perspective that should be the birds' preserve.  The hilltops are rolling underneath, wisps of white clouds kissing their foreheads.  A newly refreshed Periyar river is flowing joyfully, a silver streak meandering through dense coconut groves.  The green is everywhere.  Our toddler is standing in his seat, ignoring every safety announcement, staring open eyed at a landscape overwhelmed by a color Mumbai allows but grudgingly.  The other hues, where there are any, seem to pop out against the sage backdrop.  There! There is a brown shingled roof, peaking out.  There - a church spire, standing proud, white and tall, peering over the treetops.

Our first destination is Munnar, a good five hour drive from the Kochi airport.  We settle ourselves down into the minivan the travel agency has sent out to be our companion for this week, and we set off.  While we are still within town limits, the rituals of weekend morning life play out around us.  There are a lot of people on the road this early in the morning, and everyone seems dressed for something.  Church, our driver tells us, and it is Eid today too.  A group of men in crisp white mundus walks toward us, laughing heartily at their private jokes, the women doing the same across the road.  As our car reaches them, the men's group splits, one half walking into the compound of one of the hundreds of churches that dot the Kochi tourist map.  The other half carries on, only to enter a chartreuse domed mosque a block ahead.  There is the occasional temple too, the brightly statued gopurams standing out for their novelty.  We are of course in Guruvayur country so Krishna devotees aren't likely to be far off.  But right where we are, driving lazily past the pedestrians, steering clear of the boldly marked 'bicycle lane', it is all the white of churches and the mosaic green of mosques.

Out in the countryside, on our way now and on every drive over the next two days, the monsoon's presence is everywhere.  Spontaneous waterfalls gush down every hillside.  They aren't tiny rivulets of water either.  These are bold, roaring waterfalls, thundering down tall hills, spattering vehicles passing on the narrow road below.  After the first ... oh I don't know, hundred waterfalls, the daughter finally stops being excited by them. 

We are on one of our daily quota of long drives when the monsoon skies burst open.  We are driving precariously up a mountain slope, with barely enough room for cars on the other side to pass, and with scarcely a moment's rumbling notice, the torrent is upon us.  The wipers are working extra hard as we trudge  slowly up.  Through the intermittently clear visibility of the windscreen, I see in front of us a David fighting the rain-god Goliaths.  An auto-rickshaw, battered for wear, is struggling up the hill.  It is overfull with passengers.  The monsoon rain lashes at it from all sides, the blue tarpaulin curtains that drape its sides proving comically inadequate as they flutter violently in the wind.  A bangled arm stretches out from inside, clutching at the curtains desperately, pulls them inside.  It is fighting the strength of the wind.  As we cautiously pass the auto, I see the wind winning this battle again, the shield of blue fluttering out of control.  It is too loud outside so I cannot be sure, but I think I heard a squeal of laughter from in there.

Munnar is plantation country.  Rubber and tea for most part, from what I can tell.  As you go around, you are likely to be greeted every so often by rubber trees, neatly lined up in a plantation.  Green plastic sap bags are tied around the midriff of rows upon rows of rubber trees, like a prayer assembly of extraordinarily tall schoolgirls, standing at attention in their green skirts.  It is tea however, that gives the vista its distinctive look.  Sloping patterned beds of tea plantations stretch all around Munnar, somewhere brown from having had their leaves harvested, but mostly at this time of the year, bright spring green.  Plantation workers can be seen hard at work, even when the rain is upon them.  These are mountain slopes, where no tractor can be used for harvesting.  The workers (at least half of them women) carry what look like specially designed shears, with a collector box attached underneath.  They keep clipping the leaves, the box filling up as the day wears on.  These workers clip at least 50 kg of tea leaves a day, we are told, and the more skilled ones upto 100 kg.  That is a lot of boxes.

Tea plantations are a truly unique vocation, aesthetically speaking.  Hills upon hills roll out in front of our eyes.  Hills where human industry has displaced nature.  Yet, somehow, the landscape seems to have been rendered more beautiful than it was before we started.  We visit the Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company, where they show us pictures of these hills over the decades.  Yes, I have to admit, the plantations have made the hills more picturesque.  I might be going out on a limb here, but I don't think we could say the same if we dotted these hills with call centers.

Tea and Tourism seem to be the only games in town.  Every car we pass seems to sport a yellow license plate.  Which has an unfortunate side effect.  There seem to be an acute shortage of local ethnic restaurants. Every culinary entrepreneur seems to be catering to the lowest common denominator of the tourist population.  "Multi-cuisine" every restaurant board proclaims, wearing what out to be its shame with unseemly pride.  Step inside, and we are ushered quickly into what are prominently marked 'Family Rooms'.  We aren't allowed to linger in the 'common' part of any restaurant for any time at all.  What exotica is being served in the outside world, we wonder sitting in our cosseted corner.  It feels like being at the suite levels of the Titanic.  If only we could step down to the sailors level, I am sure there would be loud music and bawdy partying.

After much searching, we do find an ethnic restaurant.  I ask for the menu.  No menu, I am told.  "White or boiled?" the waiter asks me.  We realize that is the only choice we have, white rice or parboiled.  I vote for white.  The water pre-served at the table is warm.  And pink.  Not sure whether to try it, I peer into the jug that has also been set helpfully at the table.  No water in the jug.  Rasam.  A whole jug of it!  As we wait to be served, I watch the middle aged couple at the other table in the 'Family Room'.  The man has ordered ('boiled').  The wife however, seems to be there only to give him company.  She coolly  opens a large doggy bag she has got from home, unpacks her lunch, and starts eating.  No one seems to mind, least of all our waiter, who finally comes out.  He sets out our meal before finally starting to serve the rice.  He balances a huge bowl in his left arm, and with his right, using a dinner plate as a serving spoon, he piles up heaps of rice on my plate.  Using a dinner plate as a serving spoon!  Boy, they like their rice in these parts, don't they?

On our way to Kumarakom, our last destination, the scenery changes.  No more tea plantations.  It is open field time now.  Fields that extend farther than I am used to seeing anywhere else in India.  Along much of the road, there is no cell phone coverage.  The whole population seems caught up in an older era of communication.  Until, of course, I notice the billboards advertising assorted local websites.  "Where Malayalees Marry", claims the tagline of a matrimony site. the site is called, which sounds hilariously Malayalee if you pronounce the number in its original form.

Kumarakom is Kerala as I had imagined it while we planned this trip.  With birds.  There are birds everywhere here.  Exotic ones.  At one point during the day, our daughter starts crying when I tell her she missed a kingfisher just flew past.  "Why are you crying?" asks the wife dismissively, "you've already seen four kingfishers since morning."  Well, there's the tagline for a great vacation day right there.

We have planned on a day-long houseboat ride through the backwaters.  Grandeur, our baby is called.  It is a pretty grand affair all right, with two well fitted (air conditioned) bedrooms, a large living and dining hall, inexplicably ornate furniture, a captain, a full time cook, and a helper boy on board.  It is late morning by the time we set sail.  The waters are about 90 ft wide here.  They are lined by paddy fields on either side, with little hutments housing the caretakers.  Housewives are out in force.  Across the waters, they are beating clothes on washing stone.  And all the while, they are bantering with each other, shouting jokes across the 90 ft of water.

After a day of lazy drifting along the backwaters (including lunch at anchor across a paddy field, alongside a tiny shack that shouts 'crabs for sale!'), we drop anchor for the night.  The helper jumps ashore before we come to a complete halt.  He is pulling in some long cables from land.  Before we know it, he has rigged up a full power line and - what? - cable TV.  Well, we can hardly be expected to eat dinner without cable, can we?  Hey, we are houseboat people, not animals.

I had feared mosquitoes at night, but it doesn't turn out to be bad as I had feared.  Before we know it, the stillness of the night lulls us to sleep.

It is our last day here.  I wake up to a cock-a-doodle-do for the first time in memory.  I step out to the deck.  Life is starting up.  The boats are already out and about.  A houseboat passes our spot slowly.  It has music on loud.  "Hawa hawa aye hawa" croons Hassan Jehangir (or whoever it was ... what happened to him after this song anyway?) ... "Yaar mila de, dildaar mila de".

"Appa, you know what?" asks my daughter on our way back home.  "When we went on the elephant ride, the elephant's ears kept flapping against my feet.  Isn't that crazy?"

Our car isn't here when we get out of the Mumbai airport.  The driver is caught in traffic.  "Bas sir paanch minat me pahunch raha hoon" he says.

1 comment:

  1. It is truly is the LAND OF GOD's..!! Hope to witness it soon..!! For now its Vroom Vroom.............'F1' I come Noida..!!