Palakkad Junction, deep inside South India, is situated at the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Just twelve hours away from a metropolitan Bangalore, Palakkad has a rustic charm. A virgin land, untouched by modernity.
It was early in the morning when my train reached the station. I was scared that I might over sleep and miss the station, and had kept awake all night. There was nothing to look at from my window seat. The open fields filled with dancing greens and grazing cows in the day were all black now, and merged seamlessly with the sky. The compartment was full of people. All berths were taken, and there were more at the end near the toilets, where the caged yellow bulbs burned dimly, lying on their bundles of cloth. It was a cold night, and not all windows had glasses.
As the train slowed down and moved into the platform, I could hear the sounds of vendors selling morning snacks dissolve into the chaos of songs that devotees, travelling further south to Sabarimala, sang in the general compartment. At four in the morning, the sky was still dark. Those who had woken up early, rushed to water taps on the platform to wash their faces and brush their teeth. This was where I had to get off. Lazily I dragged myself out of the compartment. My shoes untied, hair crumpled. My eyes half asleep.
On the platform, I stood by till the engine whistled into gradual start; the station master waving the green flag. All the hectic morning activity of the platform came to a grinding halt, as everyone seemed to drift back into slumber. The next train would arrive only five hours later.
It was colder than I had expected. Wind blew from the scarlet skies behind the mountains covered with descending mist. The orange halogen lamps on the platform made me feel dizzy.
This was my first destination in Kerala.
I spent the day meandering through the lanes; walking by the markets. The town erupted into most of the activity by ten. Cycles and cycle rickshaws drove by in the narrow brick streets. Crowds gathered in markets that had slippery floors and the smell of freshly caught fishes. By the time sun shone in all its brightness most people went back indoors, in comfort of the shade of their slanted-roofed-houses. It was only in the evening that town came alive again.
This was a strange place, Palakkad. Its extremes of activity and inactivity seemed to be matched only by its extremes of temperatures. Without a hint, the afternoon heat quickly transformed into an evening chill.
When the sky was dark again, lights in the shops lit up. Suddenly there were people all around again. I meandered through some more lanes in the night and came back to the hotel late.
Early next morning I was on my way to Allapuzha or Aleppey. They call this place the Venice of the East. A six hour journey; and since my early morning wasn’t early enough, I reached Aleppey only at about 2 in the afternoon.
Back waters of Kerala are what tourists come here to see. There are two ways of doing that — staying in a resort by the side of the back waters and taking a boat to see the interiors. Alternately, just taking a house boat, and spending the night in the back waters. I chose the latter. After a bit of hard bargain — this doesn’t come cheap, it cost me two and a half thousand rupees — I was off to a nearby bank from where I would board my boat. Surprised faces greeted me, for it wasn’t often that somebody came here alone to stay on a houseboat.
The journey began well. It was already about four in the afternoon, and I had missed my lunch. So, I was only glad that food was served soon enough. As we moved on, I started to think if I had made the right choice — choosing the houseboat over a resort. The houseboat held its appeal in its wooden deck and the cane structure that covered the room. But, it wasn’t exactly luxurious. No lights for one. At least not the ones powered by electricity; there were some kerosene lanterns though. Then, the houseboat was not motorized — to be rowed all along. Perhaps it was a result of the hard bargain I had made — but the other way of looking at it was that this was to be a completely natural experience.
Yet, the murkiness of the water and all the weeds floating around disturbed me. I was reminded of my trip to Sunderbans a few years back. Vivid pictures of its green-blue waters and untouched beauty flashed in front of my eyes. And I felt that I was missing something. First few hours were spent in comparing the two, looking for that something exceptional. Something special. But as it happens with all things special in life, it could not be found until I stopped looking.
The sky was a little clouded. The air blew mildly. The palm groves across the waters looked black in the shadows of a setting sun. It was like a water-colour painting. Colours melting into each other ever so gently. Mist giving it the halo of a dream. I could hear the sound of oars splashing the waves, and the birds flying on their way home. And, when we passed by an island, there were children playing cricket, and girls all dressed up and going somewhere with the ladies. And, there was nothing around. The water and the boat and the islands, the trees on them, and the sky.
On the boat, I had with me three others — Babu and Shivdas, boatmen both. And Manoj, the chef.
Shivdas was about 50 years old. Grey hair betraying his age. He wore a light pink shirt, a green lungi and a white turban. And every bit of his cloth looked striking on his chocolate brown skin. Babu looked very similar too. Only, he had a more angelic smile, as his eyes shrank when his teeth showed.Both Babu and Shivdas were from nearby villages, and spoke only Malayalam. Manoj was the one who knew a little of both Hindi and English. He had worked in Bombay for a couple of years as an AC mechanic. He would get three thousand rupees a month there, but that wasn’t enough to meet his expenses. So, here he was, doing a job that gave him thirty rupees a day and tips from the tourists. Tips, I was made to believe, that were generous.
And, this did seem plausible. In this state of Kerala, God’s Own Country, there was little development beyond tourism. Most locals worked on farms, cultivating paddy and bananas and coconut, or they worked for tour operators. So, the wages were low. This, despite, or perhaps because of, a communist regime after every alternate election. But tourism did flourish here and tourists came from far and wide.
The sun was almost below the horizon when we reached in the middle of somewhere that was surrounded by water all around. It wasn’t a dark night even though clouds covered a half moon. Stars were missing. On the distant banks shone the lights in resorts, reflecting in the mirror of water underneath. There was silence all around. Only stray sounds of a motor boat passing by filtered through once in a while. November usually heralds winters, but air did not betray any signs of it. Mild breeze brought some comfort from humidity. And, the ripples it created swayed the boat in a rhythm. I lay on the deck, watching the clouds pass over the moon to allow an occasional glimpse. I loved the quiet and I loved the dim light of the lanterns that were lit now, but I hated my loneliness. And, I hated my mind for racing through so many thoughts.
I wondered about man. And I wondered about animals. And I wondered about life. And I wondered if animals are more blessed than men. Wondered if we are unhappy because we think so much; unable to just savour the moment the way life serves it. Wondered if there was a way that I could just stop thinking so much some day. And these thoughts kept me occupied till dinner was served on the deck. Keralite food turned out to be more delicious than I had expected. In fact, it was wonderful.
I lay on the deck till late in the night. Manoj saw the walkman I had and wanted to hear some songs. He sat by my side while Babu and Shivdas chatted away at the other end of the boat. Late in the night, I went into the boat-room, and tried to sleep there. Manoj had warned me about fishermen from nearby villages who came in the night to just see if they could pickup something. So, only one window of the boat could be kept open, and the night was spent battling the humidity and the mosquitoes. I hardly got any sleep. Each time I was in the middle of some dream, a mosquito would buzz in the ear.
But, mosquitoes did ensure that I was awake before dawn. I woke up a little tired and walked out on the deck. It was a lot chiller now. The clouds still covered the sky. I could not see the sun go up in the east. But the view around was beautiful. Serene. The freshness of the air, the rippling of the waves. It was all the same as it had been the evening before. And yet, it was different. My senses seemed to melt away into the beauty that surrounded me. Something inside told me that I was part of this creation, this beauty all around, and that what I saw was part of me too. Like the mosquitoes, all my disturbing thoughts had suddenly vanished.
For a while, I lay on the deck with eyes wide awake. And then, I didn’t even realize when sleep took over. Then, Manoj woke me for breakfast after a most refreshing nap I had had in a long time. It was about 8 in the morning and time to move on. Time to explore in greater depths the backwaters of Kerala.
As we moved further on, I saw some birds and saw some flowers. Flowers that I saw were mostly red. Crimson red. Some were hibiscus. And, there were greens all around. There were palm groves, and banana trees and paddy fields. And there were stray islands, small ones, dense with trees growing into each other, climbers hanging out into waters. There were small huts and villages nearby. There were fishermen in their boats with nets under the water, working for their daily catch. And, there were these small boats, Vallum. Thin and small, very similar to canoes. So thin that after one person sat in them, there was no space for anything else to fit in.
We moved on to the place where they repaired the boats. Somewhere deep inside those water alleys; it was actually like a cross-section of two water lanes. Just a shed of tin by the side of a smallish house. It was here that I finally found someone willing to lend their Vallum. As smiling faces greeted us, Manoj and I drifted into a Vallum. It was scary to start with. A slight shift in weight on either side, and we would both be in water. But, soon we just settled into the boat so well that we were one with the lake. We rowed in the water with the light wooden oars, as we waded through to the other end to buy a packet of match sticks. And, where I sat in the boat, it was below the water level. Just extend the hand a little and the hand was full of water. We waded through the water lilies and I plucked one there. This was the clearest water I had seen in the entire place yet; clear enough to be able to spot the small black fishes.
Half an hour of rowing left us tired, and yet it left me wanting for more. The lake seemed to allure me with its beauty. It screamed to me to tell me that I wanted more of it. That it wanted more of me. It urged me to take a plunge, to feel its water on my skin, to unravel its beauty, deep inside. The lake had a strange charm, mysterious and sublime; charm that I just could not resist it.
In those waters I swam like fish. I saw the pebbles at the bottom and the greens that grew on them. I saw the small black fishes float by me. And when I swam facing the sky, I saw the towering palms bowing to me; paying obeisance to the lake. I saw the clouds filter the light enough so that it would not hurt my eyes. And every splash that I made broke the silence, and yet it was the rhythm in which my soul danced.
This lake was what life was about. About getting deep inside, about taking what came on way, about absorbing the richness of the moment in its completeness. Like swimming, like flying, like dancing, like meditation. I had to dip myself in it. Surrender to it. Completely. And then, there were no boundaries, no limits.
When the body couldn’t take anymore, I was back on deck. Exhausted to the hilt. Lying on the polished wood, warmed with a now blazing sun. Eyelids battled exhaustion for a while, not willing to miss any glimpse of the beauty around, but sleep gently took over yet again.
A quiet nap later, we were travelling back towards the point where we had boarded from.
Soon, Manoj and Babu and Shivdas and the sky and the palm trees, the water lilies, the paddy fields, the dimly lit lanterns in the quiet of the night and the rippling, charming waters would all be part of memory; etched in a corner of my heart. And, I would be on a bus to Cochin; my skin a little more chocolate brown.