Finally, after months of deliberation and delay, I determinedly got into a semi-sleeper bus headed for Munnar at the crowded Koyambedu bus stand in Chennai. I was alone, a backpack slung over my shoulder. The journey was comfortable. I reclined my seat well back and slept fitfully for ten hours before I woke up at 7 am to a rude shock. “Passengers heading to Munnar get down at Udamalpet. There’s a strike in Kerala,” our conductor said tersely.
I got down in that sleepy little Tamil Nadu border town which acted as a gateway to Kerala’s hilly areas and bought a copy of The Hindu to find out what exactly had gone so wrong in God’s own country. Thanks to Communist rule, Kerala already has a reputation for perennial strikes and I did not feel vindicated to have my stereotyped suspicions confirmed.
The controversial Mullaiperiyar dam! I couldn’t believe it. How could my timing be so wrong? The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the Tamil Nadu government and allowed it to raise the reservoir level of the dam much to the chagrin of the Congress-run Kerala state government which promptly announced a hartal in Idukki district.
We were asked to wait for an hour for a new bus to take us to Munnar. After waiting for half an hour which I spent reading the special feature on Mullaiperiyar, my rumbling stomach pointed me in the direction of my standard South Indian breakfast, Masala Dosai and filter kaapi.
When I stepped out of the restaurant figuratively rubbing my tummy, I discovered my fellow passengers had disappeared along with the bus that was supposed to take us. Blackness descended upon me. I looked around. Men in starched white shirts and spotless lungis were sipping tea reading their morning paper. The sleepy little town was waking up.
I proceeded to the government bus depot and found out that all state buses to Kerala were cancelled for the day. The only mode of transportation was a jeep that would take me to Marayoor, a town around 40 kms from Munnar known for prehistoric megalithic burial sites dating from 1,000 B.C or muniyaras as they are known locally. I decided to take my chances. I desperately wished to see the muniyaras thanks to an archaeology course I’d done in ACJ and now I didn’t have a choice.
The jeep was a derelict machine with a death rattle deadlier than a rattlesnake. The conductor herded in 13 people in a jeep meant for 8 with five people crowding it out on the front seat along with the driver. I feared for my life. It was going to be a steep climb to Marayoor and no matter how good a driver one is, one at least needs breathing space to change the gears and turn the steering wheel.
Thankfully, right before we could make the ascent and tumble down a cliff, a police naka bandi forced us to stop at the entrance of the Annamalai Tiger Reserve, which acts as the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. An open road to the left led to Amaravathi on the banks of the Amaravathi river. The straight road to Munnar will be opened at 6 in the evening, they told us. I heaved a sigh of relief and died a little inside at the same time.
To my relief, I caught up with fellow passengers from Chennai many of whom were sitting aimlessly by the side of the road or taking a nap in the verandahs of a few surrounding huts locals had graciously offered to the stranded women and the children. I whiled away a couple of hours sipping lemon tea and reading In Xanadu by the brilliant William Dalrymple, the perfect literary companion I could have wished for.
Soon, my fellow passengers, family tourists determined to utilize every waking moment of precious vacation time, hit upon the idea of visiting the Amravathi dam and a crocodile park barely 5 kms away. It was a good idea. It turned out Amaravathi had a Sainik School, the sight of which harkened me back to the old times. The parade ground, swimming pool, horse stable, all the typical markers of a Sainik School were there. The only thing missing was a distinct campus. Sainik School Amaravathinagar has a goddamn highway running right through it.
The view from the dam was breathtaking. In the light drizzle, cloud-capped peaks swathed in a carpet of green surrounded us. Palm trees dotted the flatland in between paddy fields. Everything around was a pleasing green that cooled the senses.
However, the highlight of the day was the excellent fish fry I ate there, freshly caught from the dam. The soft flesh melted in my mouth and in my haste, a few treacherous thorns also managed to make an appearance in my throat before being unceremoniously evicted with a lot of phlegm.
After lunch, we headed back to the check-post. Stranded people had rallied together and were bickering with the police to open the gates. In the meanwhile, with nothing else to do, I bonded with a couple of fellow passengers over a bottle of rum like a bunch of shipwrecked sailors. One of them, Thiyagarajaa, was a sales executive with an insurance firm. Top that with his personal history of accidents and I understood why he had such a morbid outlook of life. His father had passed away when he was 3 leaving his family in financial ruins. The first thing Thiyagarajaa did when he started earning was to buy a life insurance policy.
I learnt one new thing from Thiyagarajaa and his obsession with safety. I learnt that a good helmet will crack into two equal halves upon lethal impact leaving the rider’s skull completely unharmed. A Ninja helmet was what had saved his life in a motorcycle accident that left him incapacitated for 6 months and was a deathblow to his budding career as an amateur weightlifter and boxer. He was a good man with an easy smile (does any salesman worth his salt not have one?) who gave me his card (like all salesmen) and promised me to lend his wooden dumbbells to cure me of my shivering hand ‘problem’.
I learnt another thing from him. I learnt that almost all husbands are nagged by their wives into giving up smoking. Thiyagarajaa had the permission for a daily quota of two cigarettes from his wife for which he was very grateful.
The other man, Ganesh Swamy, was a catering technology student who was to undergo some unspecified ‘training’ in Chinnakanal, a town 20 kms further from Munnar. He didn’t look like a student. He was a round, silent, brooding kind who first spoke when I said something objectionable about AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa. I did that under the influence, I presume, for it is a very foolish thing to do in Tamil Nadu. Talk soon veered to politics and as I do everywhere, I asked the men what they thought of AAP.
“I don’t know much about national politics,” said Ganesh Swamy, “But I do know Tamil Nadu politics and AAP will not even open its account in the state. DMK and AIADMK, that’s all the people know.” Thiyagarajaa, the ex-sportsman, seemed politically apathetic but even he voiced support for the Dravidian parties. It seemed to be an affront to Tamil pride for the two men if ‘a party from Delhi’ managed to seize power in the state.
Soon, the police succumbed to public pressure and opened the gates to Munnar at 4 in the afternoon. The road passed through three national parks on the way to Munnar: Annamalai Tiger Reserve, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Eravikulam National Park. It was littered with signposts that either exalted the importance of forests or warned passing vehicles of elephants and panthers crossing the road. Chinnar is also famous for having the only natural sandalwood forest in the Kerala. Once we crossed Marayoor, the palm groves gave way to tall deciduous trees that stood out amidst square patches of tea that covered the hills as far as the eye could see. Streams and waterfalls crisscrossed like a flash of quicksilver in the distance while rain-laden clouds hung ominously over the bare rock of a mountain peak.
It was dark when I reached Munnar and I decided to talk a walk around to get a feel of the place before settling for a hotel. Like all popular tourist towns, it was annoyingly crowded. However, I found that Kerala is not a pushy state. I roamed around the entire town of Munnar with my luggage for half an hour and not a single person asked me if I needed a room. Finally, the only man in Munnar with an eye for business spotted me wandering around like a vagabond and made his bid. I agreed to rent out a dubious room for the dirt cheap price of Rs. 600 for two days. The filthier the room, the more I’ll be out trekking or hiking or doing something productive, my mind told me, rationalizing where it didn’t need to.
It was a truly dingy windowless room with pista green walls covered in grime. But dirtier still was the way to the room. One had to climb a creaking wooden staircase and pass through low corridors smelling faintly of cooking oil and faintly of dead animal. I discovered later that the cooking exhaust from the restaurant below opened up near the corridor.
However, I did a near-victory dance when I inspected the Indian bathroom in the privacy of my room. I hate how all developers these days only install those filthy Western commodes in their buildings, another example of Indians aping the West blindly. If there’s one thing about our culture we should be proud, it’s our scientific manner of taking a dump. Squatting places delightful pressure on the bowels and does the needful much quickly than groaning and moaning out the last remnant of dinner with a splash. Somewhere deep inside (I won’t tell you where), it feels wrong to eat and shit in the same position.
(I also finally bought the excellent election issue of Frontline in Munnar. Yay!)
I thought it would be appropriate if my first meal in Kerala was something indigenous. I decided to eat egg kuttu parotta (minced parotta fried with egg and spicy masala) at a roadside stall, something I didn’t regret. Stalls in Kerala usually have a long communal banquet table instead of private tables arranged separately. A thrifty Marathi family (from Kolhapur guessing by the accent and all the lays) was eating parotta with chana beside at the table. They were vegetarian (mostly Brahmins) who crinkled their noses as my steaming kuttu parotta smelling of omelette arrived. But still more hilarious was the following conversation which I feel I know so intimately from interacting with Maharashtrians all my life.
Marathi man (excitedly): Swast aahe ga. Pot bharun khaa (It’s cheap food. Eat to your fill.)
Marathi woman: Kitila aahe? (How much is it?)
Marathi man: Dah rupay! (Ten rupees)
Marathi woman: Mast ki! (Proceeds to stuff mouth with parotta)
While ordering tea for his wife and parents, the husband confirmed with the vendor whether the glasses were small or large. If they were large, two would do instead of four. Upon being told they were tiny cups, he ordered four cups with a heavy heart.
After a satisfactory dinner, I headed back to the hotel in the slight drizzle where I drifted off to sleep wondering what lay ahead for me, just as Han was about to teach Sean the art of drifting in The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift which was playing on the surprisingly functional TV.