A Window Frame along the Old Wing

I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise lines and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It’s looks the way it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes look colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one. He doesn’t look out even once.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been around this corner –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds – the only visible difference are the vendors on the sidewalk selling miniature commandos – these moving plastic toys are dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards an unseen enemy.

Coffee, Crickets and More – Kerala in Pictures

Kerala. Everything is quiet, even in the noise. My mind is calm, even though there are a hundred things racing by. Maybe it’s the green colour that stretches on for miles – I see green from the blue train; I see green from the bedroom window; I see green as we cross milestones. I see green when I shut my eyes.

*

The yellow classroom stands on an elevated patch of land, the grilled window eye-to-eye with the traffic light. The classroom is almost empty. Kids seem to be filtering out; it must be break. They see our bags, held by rope and tarp, on the carrier. Then they see the camera. They are quick to band together and pose. They flash peace signs and smiles. As the light turns green, they wave us off and disperse.

Growing up I had a book of Indian folktales that I absolutely loved. It was hard bound, and the pictures were watercolours, vivid and bright. The stories were usually set in small towns and villages, and came tailor-made with a moral. The villages usually looked like this. I feel like a child again.

The sign board announces timings for the last boat/raft within the park premise. It covers all bases – English, Hindi, Malyalam, and two other languages, I think. I understand the Hindi and English. The parks department should have invested in a proof reader. These are dangerous times for grammar.

Life in these parts is counter-fitted against the sprawling plantations. I’m driving past a tea estate that extends on either side. Little bits of tea hedges fit together like Lego pieces. Farm hands are busy at work. When the red bus passes by they all look up, maybe in search of familiar faces, or just in need of timely distractions.

I imagine the crashing waterfall and rustling leaves make for a very romantic setting. There’s even a soft breeze flowing. The stream of voyeuristic tourists, though, can be a problem. As it turns out, it’s not that much of a problem.

I walk over a few black ants, tens of black ants crawl across my foot – all parties involved panic, on the way to the tree house. This used to be yet another plantation, but a few years ago the owners decided to convert it into a plantation-resort. Inside there’s room for a double bed, a television and a fully equipped bathroom. The windows open up to dark green birdcalls.

Kuruva Island is a protected reserve – all around us there are trees, mostly bamboo, water and monkeys. Walking under the trees, a peaceful silence takes over, but when a slight breeze comes around, and stretches past the tightly packed bamboo plants, a million wind chimes begin to play.

The variety of coffee grown in these parts is Robusta. The fruits start off as glossy green before ripening and turning red. I can’t get my head around it. This bright, cheerful fruit that hints at things sweet and juicy, is a far cry from the strong, brown coffee that punctuates my day. It’s funny how things start off and where they end.

It’s not a good idea to walk through a plantation right after a night of heavy rain. The ground is treacherous. It gives way and I’m left grappling for balance. Eventually I do slip. The mess is monumental. Still the storm brought down a banana plant, and a bunch is ripe for the picking.

It’s a small, beautiful temple. Its facade is decorated with ornate sculptures, intricate designs and mythology. The priest, a young man in a white kurta and dhoti, requests that we don’t take photos within the temple complex as he goes about chanting prayers, lighting diyas and incense sticks; inside the little flames dance in quiet grace.

Resolutions and Celebrations

I spent the days by the stove. I roasted gram flour, measured sugar, melted unsalted butter, crushed cardamoms and shaped them into sweetmeats.

In the evenings I lit tealights and arranged them around the house –along the stairs, by the door, around the centre table, in front of the Ganesh idol.

I logged onto facebook and signed into my email account. I dialled in numbers on Skype. In the silence of my study I wished family and friends a very “Happy Diwali,” feeling every square mile of distance as the muffled sound of firecrackers filtered through.

Next year, I promised myself, I’ll go home.

*

I am up at 5:00 am, woken not by the alarm but by the Diwali crackers. The kids are already out, bathed and dressed in new clothes, burning through this year’s pile of firecrackers.

The house smells warm and festive – of mithai and filter coffee. The earthen lights, diyas, are in place all along the house, both inside and out. “Happy Diwali,” I say a bit too loudly. “Happy Diwali,” they answer back, amused.

Seasons’ greetings and New Year wishes collect in multiple cell phones. The annoying ringtones are drowned out by exploding crackers. By sundown the sky is multi-coloured and the smoke is as thick as a winter blanket. I don’t enjoy crackers, but I’d rather watch them exploding from the terrace than listen to them muffled over Skype.

It’s Diwali; I am glad to be home.

*
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Taking on Winter with Wooden Toys

It’s getting colder. It’s also raining; it has been for the last two days. The leaves have all fallen and I can see the windows, and bulbs, of the houses across the hill again. The day feels as bare as it is grey. I hate such days; days that even multiple cups of coffee can’t save. I rummage through folders of photographs on my computer looking for pops of colour and bits of inspiration to keep my day on track.

This photo was taken in December 2006 in Kerala at a souvenir stall selling traditional (Indian) wooden toys. Such toys were once common all over the country. Today they are a dying art kept alive by artisans in select pockets. Each toy is work of art, and unlike conventional toys that have distinct comforting (or addictive) elements in their design, these have a sense of regale formality to them. The figurines here are of animals – tigers, cows and elephants, brightly painted as is the custom during festivities and festivals. Where the real creatures are swathe in velvet and bells, decorated with paint and vermillion on select days in a year, the wooden versions remain forever in celebration.

On a more recent holiday in the south of India I passed through a small town called Channapatna, between Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka. This town is known locally as Gombegala Ooru,  toy town, and its claim to fame is that it continues to make traditional wooden toys, one of the surviving pockets in this era of mass produced toys. While the toys are slightly different in artistic style as compared to the photo above, they are equally well crafted, and colourful.

All along the highway and at every rest stop stalls and souvenir shops offer a variety of  wooden toys. They are stacked one after the other, a wooden army that dares you to leave empty handed. The collection includes tourist oriented designs like key-chains, toy trains that look a bit too much like Thomas, and automobiles that are anything but traditional. And then there are the ornate rocking horses (I craved for those as a kid), Indian musical instruments, and figurines – the men are fashioned as soldiers and farmers, the women are housewives busy in their chores – saddled for a lifetime with a grinding stone or drawing water by the well. Some wooden women even have a toddler clutching on to their wooden sari pleats. Each expression, each fold, each action is life-like, grooved in small scale units across this tiny town, mirroring a way of life that still continues beyond the new booming economy.

I picked a doll. A lady in a yellow sari with a green blouse. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun. She wears a bright red bindi and red bangles. Her eyes are lined with kohl. She is seated on the ground, one leg stretched out and the other is folded. Her hands are working a traditional circular grinding stone. In some era this was my grandma. Today it’s a kitsch addition to my décor.