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.

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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.

The Boatman on the Backwaters

The dark brown boat wobbled like a village drunk as I stepped into it. My husband, still on land, gripped my left hand (the right instantly flew up in search of balance). Our boatman laughed. He stood a little away, one hand resting on his waist, the other on a pole. Unlike the resort staff, he was dressed informally, in a once-white tee shirt and a yellow-blue folded-up lungi. As he caught my eye, he dropped his arm and in heavily accented English asked me not to worry. His hand now pointed at the (dirty fraying) rope holding the boat in place; maybe he thought this would be reassuring. I dug my nails deeper into my husband’s hand. The boat continued to sway.

He waited for us to settled down on the red cushioned wooden seat and once we were done, he swung into action. His movements were swift and well rehearse.  He kept one foot on the quay and the other in the boat as he untied the rope. With his right foot he pushed against the concrete, propelling the boat into the water. He swung the long wooden oar around his body and in sharp fluid movements that defied his age, steered the boat away from the uncontrolled sprawl of water hyacinths. We watched in awe as he effortlessly led us through the backwaters.

Drifting along the Backwaters

He took us through a never ending expanse of water before hitting up on a cluster of tiny villages, past broken bicycles and drying laundry, past temples, churches and shacks. Kids playing along the water waved at us and we waved back. Everything was dense and green and humid and muddy. The silence magnified every tiny sound. The water parting under the force of the oar; insect and bird sounds punctured by intervals of clanging pots or a lone scooter puffing along the little road beyond the water.

He wore a crooked smile as he explained the history and socio-economic reality of the region to us. As we crossed an underconstruction houseboat – it was all wood and tarpaulin; the constant drilling, hammering and sawing on the water seemed oddly appropriate- he told us it would take  at least four more months before the boat could be used commercially, which meant it would make money only in the next season. But apparently the owner was well-off and the wait wouldn’t be hard on him. That right there was Arundhati Roy’s village. It wore no frills, no plaques. And this was the home of the richest man in the region (he lives in the Gulf, only comes here during Christmas. See all the decorations they’ve put up. He will be here soon).

Then he twisted the boat into a tiny stream and with pride he added, “This is my village.” It was a mass of small homes hidden under thick dark green foliage, protecting the village from prying eyes. The only visible sign of activity was a middle aged woman, in a purple housecoat, crouched by the water not a few feet away from us. She was cleaning a pair of traditional Indian brass lamps in a forceful 1-2-3 scrubbing action. She didn’t look up. The boatman powered on.