Do you like water, greenery, houseboats and sea-food? Then head straight for Kumarakom.
In June every year, with unfailing regularity, the rainclouds begin to discharge their bounty on God's Own Country. Having lived in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, for the first two decades of my life, I have experienced the magic of the monsoons first-hand. The day the skies open, the schools also reopen. I still remember the thrill of walking to school, sloshing about in puddles of rainwater —the muddier, the better. And then there was the heady smell of damp earth to intoxicate the senses until one threw all restraint to the winds and did an impromptu rain dance before the startled eyes of passersby. Such was the spell that the monsoons cast on impressionable minds.
Yearning for the past
When I moved to Chennai I had no idea that one day I would yearn to recapture this memory of my childhood and youth with a longing that people usually reserve for lost love. This year, finally, I decided to revisit the monsoons in Kerala. We booked a room at a home stay in Kumarakom and set off by train a week later. Soon after reaching Kottayam, we were speeding down the narrow road that led to Kumarakom. On the way, the taxi driver showed us a spot where a bus had fallen into the Meenachil a few days back. “Eleven people drowned,” he said. But the river flowed harmlessly past, betraying no signs of the ghastly tragedy. Disappointingly, the sun was out in all its splendour, with not a single raincloud in sight. “Are there no rains here?” I asked, crestfallen. My husband stole an amused glance at me. The driver remarked that the roads had been waterlogged two days back.” So there was hope yet. At the homestay, we were warmly welcomed by our host. After breakfast, we sat on the porch swing and surveyed the surroundings. Just beyond the manicured lawn, a white picket fence ran around the house. But there was a gap in between where an arched doorway-like structure had been built. A few steps led down from this point as in a temple pond. Standing here, one could see a narrow strip of water flowing past the house. “It flows into the kayal (backwaters),” informed our host. As in a dream, I saw a vallom (wooden boat) glide noiselessly past. Just then, a vanload of children on their way to school saw us from the road and shouted excitedly, “Sayippu! Madamma!” I was astonished because my husband and I hardly resembled foreigners. “We get a lot of foreigners here,” said our host by way of explanation.
I looked up at the sky and asked anxiously, “Does it rain here?” Our host smiled apologetically. “It rained heavily the first week. Now it usually rains in the evenings.” My heart sank. My daughter flashed a look that said, “I told you so.” She had never been enthusiastic about the trip. “You want to see the rain?” she had asked, rolling her eyes. We planned our itinerary for the day. There was not much to do except go boating in the backwaters or visit the bird sanctuary and the Driftwood Museum. My husband wanted to visit a toddy shop. Our host dropped us off at the place where the motorboat was moored. Huge houseboats idled nearby, sporting fanciful names and fancier furniture. Our boat began its journey at a sedate pace, allowing us to soak in the sights and snap pictures. We spotted several lakeside resorts as we glided by. (Kumarakom had been a sleepy hamlet before Vajpayee's visit put it on the tourist map). It felt very quiet and peaceful. After an hour, the boat came to a stop and we clambered ashore. I saw a modest, green-painted building on what seemed like a small island. It was the only building there. My husband explained, “It is a toddy shop.” Soon, two glasses, a bottle of milky-looking toddy, and plates of lobster fry, karimeen (pearl spot) fry, kappa (tapioca) and fish curry materialised before us. The toddy was slightly sweet and the food fiery and tasty, complementing each other. The toddy detour over, we got on the boat. Soon we had left the open expanse of water behind us. The boat was now passing through residential areas. Life unfolded before us as we went past. A cradle rocked gently inside a hut, a child sulked on a chair, school children washed their lunchboxes in the water that flowed past their school….I lost all track of time, seduced by the languorous charm of the backwaters. I was reminded of a poem by Tennyson —‘The Lotus Eaters'— which described a similar state of being. The spell broke when we reached our embarkation point.
And it rained...
After a post-lunch siesta, we went fishing nearby. The backwaters flowed all around us, so all we had to do was pick a spot and squat. Several young local boys engaged in the same pursuit seemed to have their plastic bags full of fish. We inspected their catch. The fish were small, flat in shape and bony. They didn't look very appetising. Later in the evening, it rained. But it was not like the rains of my memories. No loud claps of thunder, no blinding flashes of lightning, no gusty winds, and, to cap it, the rain fell with breaks in between as if to allow people to go about their business. I felt let down. The next day, we visited the bird sanctuary. Half-way through our trek, it began to rain. We walked on and stumbled upon a ‘vallom' lurking around a bend. The boatman looked at us hopefully and we hopped on. He told us that it took 40-50 lakhs to build a houseboat. In three months, a boat could be readied. Banks gave loans for the purpose. Many farmers had sold their lands and gone into the tourism business as it was more lucrative. Our host at the homestay himself had been a farmer. Scarcity of labour had rendered farming unattractive. An entire way of life was in flux. The profusion of luxury resorts told its own story. Our boatman helpfully guided us to a toddy shop... Sated, we walked to the Driftwood Museum nearby. Climbing up a bridge, I saw a board which read, ‘ Aymenem Grama Panchayat Welcomes You.' Stunned, I contemplated it for a few seconds. I was standing in a place immortalised by Arundhati Roy's “The God of Small Things”.
The founder of the Driftwood Museum had been a schoolteacher in the Andamans. Her driftwood collection was sourced from there. Some of the driftwood sculptures were amazing, like the nest of birds and the entwined snakes. My eyes were drawn to some lovely oil paintings of the Andamans on the walls. “Who painted these?” I asked the lady. “They were gifted to me,” she said dismissively. The next day, Kumarakom slumbered under the benign auspices of the hartal. All shops were closed. The roads were emptied of people and vehicles. We were trapped in the land of lotus eaters. Our host dropped us off at the Kottayam railway station. Luckily, our train was on time. With a sigh of relief, we boarded it. It was time to return to the real, or rather, a hartal-less world.