A trip to Kerala

Day 1, 3rd Sep 2012

We left Delhi from the 11:30AM Kerala Express, after quickly stocking up on Coca Cola and day’s newspaper from New Delhi Railway Station. Mansi agreed to play trip planner and dug into her Lonely Planet, leaving me peacefully with my book (Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban). Mom had loaded us with paranthas and poha. Our books, chai supply from train vendors and food all in place, we were covered for a day of train travel.

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Day 2, 4th Sep 2012

I had made good progress with my book over a day. Reading Taliban gave me deep insights about the crippling effects of conflict and war on human life. The book clearly conveys no matter what the provocation , war only brings misery and suffering. Standing at the gate, I got chatting with a Mr. Rameshwaram, who spoke about the temples in the Tirupati area with great fervor and wanted me to shave some days off my Kerala trip and check out the temples myself on the way back. I smiled, which is what I do when trying to get out of situations without an argument. He shared his contact details with me, and asked me to keep his pen as a souvenir. Kind man. That’s him on the left, in the picture below. He unboarded the train at 10PM at Tirupati, where i also noticed the train tracks were clean and no trash lay around. The fear of God also brings out the civilian in us.

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Day 3, 5th Sep 2012

I woke up at 6AM sharp with the first “Chayaa” call of the chai bhaiya. Got me a cup and went straight to the train door. The landscape clearly told me I was in Kerala: coconut trees, boats in narrow streams, and a calm rain. For the first time on the entire train ride, I saw women station masters waving red and green flags at stations. When we unboarded at the Ernakulam train station, I noticed that all of the housekeeping staff and the stall vendors were women. Perhaps Kerala does a better job of employing its women in professions across the board – a majority of women running a train station is a rarer sight in Northern India.

A 15-minute ferry ride away from Ernakulam is Fort Kochi. We checked into Good Shepherd homestay, and headed out. Fort Kochi is a serene place, perfectly carved out for a day’s exploration on foot. There are lots of schools and churches, and happy kids in school uniforms are the most common sight. The day ended with some delicious fish and rum at hotel Seagull. Below is a picture of the Santa Cruz Basilica in Fort Kochi.

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Day 4, 6th Sep 2012

A day into Kerala, and we hadn’t gotten our South Indian food. So Mansi and I headed to New Anand Bhawan for breakfast, and downed butter dosas and coffee. Satiated, we went to see the Dutch palace – it was built by the Dutch for the King of Kochi. The most impressive artifact in the museum were murals from the Ramayan built by the Dutch – they did a splendid job of conveying the entire story of Ramayana visually. We found a fancy decorated autorickshaw with a booming music system to take us back. The rickshaw guy requested me to stop by an artifact shop and tell the shopkeeper I was Malaysian. He apparently got paid Rs. 100 to bring unsuspecting foreign tourists to this shop, where they probably sell substandard art as exquisite mementos for high prices. We decided to make the pitt stop and help the guy earn easy 100 rupees.

In the afternoon, we headed to Cheraya beach. The bus that took us from Vypin to Cheraya smelled super nice, thanks to the perfumes and the gajras the women on the bus were wearing. Cheraya beach is a treasure. The Arabian ocean is majestic, warm and untamed. The walk from the bus stop to the beach is rustic and beautiful, with water bodies on both sides of the road. We also met a very friendly dog on the walk, who we decided to leave behind and not adopt (after deliberation).

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We lazed on the beach, played with a few more friendly dogs, and treated ourselves to some fried fish and beer at the XL bar in Fort Kochi.

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Day 5, 7th Sep 2012

It was time to leave Fort Kochi for the Backwaters in Alleppey. We made a dash for breakfast to New Ananda Bhawan, and repeated the butter dosa, this time with idli extra. On our walk back, we saw a school football game going on between two school teams. The referee and the scorekeeper were probably teachers, but there were also a number of parents in attendance. This impressed me, since it was a Friday morning and the parents had probably carved some time out to be there. Fort Kochi seems like a good place to bring up children. 

We reached Alleppey late afternoon, and checked into a place called Lake and Paddy. The hosts were cool – two guys called Sajee and Salu. The place is called so because there’s lake on one side, and paddy fields on the other. We caught a memorable sunset from our garden that evening.

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We walked to the Alleppey market for dinner. Ate at a place called Kream Korner, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Trust me on this – get their Shalimar Faluda. The memory will live with you for long.

Day 6, 8th Sep 2012

Lake and Paddy doesn’t have a kitchen so we started the morning with some Bru coffee, and Hide-n-Seek biscuits. We had setup our backwaters trip in the evening, and the oarsman arrived promptly at nine. It was a guy called Saiju, dressed in a crisp red shirt and dhoti. Our backwaters trip in his canoe began.

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Saiju was a loquacious, friendly man. We were with him in the canoe for many hours, in which we spoke of so many things – how a canoe is made, how canoes were the only sights in backwaters till houseboats arrived in ’95 with increased investments in tourism, how only Europeans now use “peaceful” canoes whereas Indians always book houseboats and motorboats.

Saiju stopped our canoe at an old lady’s tea stall. I commented that we had seen more than a few gold shops the night before in the marketplace. He said that gold was a traditional and culturally important commodity to the locals, exchanged at all auspicious occasions, especially in weddings. He said the pressure to offer more gold (as dowry) had gone up in recent times, leading to stress and even suicides amongst the poor in the local community. The sorrow on his face when narrating all this was evident. In a place close to paradise, money and gold had brought strain to a peaceful, simple community.

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We stopped for lunch at a waterside shack run by one of Saiju’s friends. They made me choose my fish, and I got served the best fried fish and fish curry of my life. We also made friends with Neelakandan, a 2-year old eagle.

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Saiju brought us back by late afternoon, and it was time to bid our friend, and Alleppey, goodbye. Our next destination was Kumily, a village that is also the entry-point for Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. We took a 2-hour boatride to Kottayam, and from there a 4-hour bus journey brought us to Kumily. At midnight, we checked into a homely, quaint place called Mickey’s homestay. We slept peacefully, with sounds of birds and insects playing an orchestra in the forest that surrounded us.

Day 7, 9th Sep 2012

Drained by the long travel from the previos evening, we had a slow start to Sunday morning. After a dosa treat at the New Anand Bhawan in the market, we returned to chill on our terrace. From our terrace, we saw the Krishnarjuna Ayurvedic Center across the road. I knew the moment had arrived – ten minutes later I was there for a Kerala massage. A guy called Daju (incidentally Daju means “brother” in pahaadi, my native language) gave me an elaborate hour-long massage. I got back, took a hot shower, and passed out on the terrace hammock.

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In the evening, we took a trip to the Periyar lake. Later, we went to watch Kalaripayattu – Kerala’s age-old war art form, believed to have been founded by Parashuram. It was an intense experience – the attack in Kalaripayattu is extremely aggressive, and the young artists  gave it their everything. We had our hearts in our mouths, watching them clash swords mid-air and play with fire. Mansi later made a very insightful remark – if these men, in this day and age seemed so superhuman in their acrobats, is it not totally possible that centuries ago, kshatriyas could really fly given all they did was train for 25 years?

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As we stepped out after the performance, Mansi sighted a Responsible Tourism Spice shop. The shopkeepers were Mr. John and Jessie Baby. We chatted, made friends with them and bought spices, as they told us about they spend their morning collecting spices from forests. We left promising to order their spices from Delhi (they deliver across the country). Here’s Jessie Baby with their awesome Elaichi stash my mother had ordered. Some butter dosa and sambar in our systems later, we retired.

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Day 8, 10th Sep 2012

Mansi and I tend to have strong restaurant loyalties in the towns we visit. In Kumily, it was New Anand Bhawan. Jayaraj, the head waiter there, was amused at us turning up for all our meals. Mansi had asked Jayaraj if they had any “Putta”, a dish made of powdered steam rice and coconut served with chickpeas. It wasn’t on their menu but Jayaraj got made some for her. Here’s Jayaraj.

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Our tummies full, we went for the Periyar boat ride for some wildlife spotting. We saw few animals on the boat ride, and it felt the prime tourist attractions to the tourists on the boat (mostly locals) were the two of us. Maybe because we look like two college kids who’ve run away.

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The park was burgeoning with tourists, who were troubling the monkeys and littering the park with a great display of zero conscience. I cheered and laughed as a monkey stole an aunty’s dupatta, who shrieked like the shark victims did in the Jaws movie. Monkey coolly returned the dupatta after examining it for 10 seconds.

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In the evening, Mansi went for a Yoga class, and I decided to take a cycle ride around Kumily. The ride tested both my lungs and my legs, but the pleasure of riding a cycle in a hill station was totally worth it. I came across an intersection not far from Mickey’s, with a clean, inviting right turn and a dark, dirtier left turn. I had already explored the right, and took my cycle left. Till then, I had thought of Kumily as a semi-urban village. On that left turn lay Kumily the village – old houses with deity statues outside, women sitting in a circle under a tree chatting, smaller shops selling candy out of jars. I thought that most of the locals I had met maybe live on this street, keeping us tourists away from intruding their everyday lives by housing us in the nicer part of their town. Here’s the end of that street.

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Day 9, 11 Sep 2012

Kumily had bowled us over, and we were the most relaxed we had been on the trip. Like all good things that end, it was also our day to leave. We spent some time chilling in our awesome terrace, packed and went down to say goodbye to our hostess, Sujatha.

Suajtha is a friendly, elegant lady and runs Mickey’s Cottage with her husband. She asked us to stay for a cup of coffee, which we gladly accepted. She said she was happy to see an Indian couple choosing to live in a homestay, as most who visited Kumily preferred resorts (works for us I thought, since Mickey’s is a catch and we want to keep it for ourselves). She told us how when she had started Mickey’s in the 80s, the locals did not approve of it, as they were afraid of the cultural dilution tourism would bring to the village. Thankfully, tourism had brought prosperity to the village and the foreign tourists who visited were also very respectful of the local culture, which helped reshape perception of tourism over the years. Going by the number of resorts and homestays that exist now, you would never think tourism was at some point opposed in Kumily. She also told us about how some of the villagers like her family, and some foreigners who had made Kumily their home, worked closely with the Forest department and the local government authorities to ensure tourism benefited all and elevated living standards for villagers across all income groups. I remember thinking it is local leaders like Sujatha our country needs, who can marry industry with social welfare. Sadly, she didn’t agree to a picture, she had oiled her hair that morning!

We took a walk around Kumily, said our goodbyes to Jayaraj and Jessie Baby, and headed back to Ernakulam.

The rest of the trip was getting back to Delhi, wherein I finally finished reading Taliban on the train. Mansi and I agree that Kerala qualifies as a top entry in our list of repeatable destinations. Till then, I will fondly remember and dream of all the fish I ate. See you again, Kerala.

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Delhi winter

From March to September, Delhi bakes you. It roasts your fragile body at almost 50 degrees Celsius, and throws in power cuts to mess with you some more. It provides no wind for respite, and when it does, it’s in the form of Loo. To provide that finishing touch to your misery, it asks you to share the city with 16 million people, which takes your endurance to its limits.

Sometime mid-October, the tide turns. The fans go off, and full-sleeved shirts are taken out for dry-cleaning. By the first week of November, winter officially arrives. It becomes acceptable to wear a coat on an evening out without people thinking you are overdoing it, and Pepsi is substituted with coffee. Over the weeks that follow, winter intensifies, and brings with it Diwali, the wedding season and new year. This winter takes you to the first month of the year, letting you spend a few more weeks enjoying the Sun, before handing you over to summer, and with it a year of work and toil.

This winter, it being my first in Delhi after many years, I am trying to spend more time out. There’s a lot to do – visit Dilli Haat, take the folks out for a picnic on the weekend, catch some movies at the theatre with my father-in-law (we share very similar taste in movies), and hopefully visit some of the many historic monuments scattered all over Delhi. Here’s one I visited today, where a friend proposed to his long-time girl friend. Called Bada Lao ka Gumbad, this one is right behind Priya in Vasant Vihar. The security guard might try stopping you from entering quoting it’s a historical preserver, just tip him Rs. 50.

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An awareness of death

It’s probably very rare to find two people talking about death. Definitely never makes for dinner table conversation. Mention it in passing (I sometimes do as an experiment) in a group conversation, and facial expressions ranging from bewilderment to disapproval arise. “My one evening out all week, and I run into this guy.”

However, it is probably the only certainty that awaits all of us: we were born, and we will die. I think the fear of what lies beyond, if anything at all, is not something we want to confront when trying hard to feel alive. It is better treated as a far away event, to be confronted only in its moment of arrival.

I believe that those of us who are capable of bearing this heavy thought, should sometimes think about death. Because it will make you more aware of how precious this time is. That you’re alive now, that you feel, and that this will not last, is a powerful realization. And this realization will probably make all of us live each day differently, prioritize things that give us joy over things we must do to exist, and try things we otherwise keep deferring, only to regret them when we have safely reached our final moment.

“Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.” – Dag Hammarskjöld (Swedish author, economist)

Fast forward a year, and we are in New Delhi….

I usually find myself struggling to maintain blogs. I start motivated, and find myself juggling a number of ideas I wish to write about. Over time, most of those ideas lose relevance or are simply lost. 

Nevertheless, here I am writing a post after a gap of more than a year. And boy, an eventful year it has been. Tied the knot in November with Mansi, thus successfully closing my “love” project I started with her in class 11th. We moved to Berkeley, spent many months learning to be married in the Bay area. Then this year, we returned to Delhi in August. I had a strong desire to come back home, and realized I was reaching the “now or never” point. With a lot of zealous support from family, I returned to the house I left in 2002 to study engineering in Bangalore.

On returning, Mansi and I spent a lot of time traveling. The most memorable trip was Kerala, on which I hope to write a blog very soon (I made notes on the trip!). Here’s a Sunset we caught in Kerala:

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In October, I got in touch with a few bright young folks in Delhi, looking to build a startup. Since I am in my “one life, try what you love” groove, I instantly offered to join them. We call ourselves Outline India, and aim to be a trusted field survey agency for academics and researchers interested in learning more about India through social, economic, policy or business research. It’s exciting times, and I hope to write about our work soon as well.

So all in all, that’s been the year. Winters are here in Delhi, and I’m back to 2 cups of chai in the morning. For now, there’s peace.