Once upon a time… in a land far, far away… I’d gone on a trip! This wasn’t a trip in an armchair… but one that physically transported me from one location to another.
The destination wasn’t some exotic land of mystique… but, just my jiju’s (brother-in-law) estate (in Thrissur, Kerala). There sure was mystery there… in the form of weird sounds & calls from among the rubber trees and the thick vegetation around the plantation and also in a crumbling, old two-storied house whose current inhabitants are bats, snakes, scorpions and spiders… all living in perfect harmony with each other and with nature ( a lesson to us humans). Ok… all that does sound exotic… in a rustic sense.
The drive to the estate was long and we started out from home in the wee hours of dawn, just before the sun rouged the sky. The drive required us to cross 2 districts… we started from home in the heart of Ernakulam city and wound through what seemed a trip in time rather than distance. The vibrant city gave away to bustling towns… and then a more laid-back, rusticity… not so much a village anymore and not yet the town. This was repeated in the next district as we crossed the heart of Thrissur ‘city’ which really is a glorified town… not as fast-paced and upbeat as Ernakulam city but with a less hurried, more mellow flow of life. Soon, we reached the outskirts of Thrissur district… and our destination, Chelakkara – a small town. From the town, we began the winding road on to the hills, with the mercury dropping 2-3 degrees along the incline. The huge, garish multistoried villas and bungalows which clustered in the more urban areas were more widely spaced along this stretch. Now, there were only one or two huge houses along the route which looked like they belonged in a Grimm’s fairy tale (specifically the gingerbread house of Hansel & Gretel fame)… or like huge wedding cakes that dotted the lush green hillscape (with white trellis-work & cherry-red, fuchsia or blue tiled roofs… the horror!). I am told it is a lot of ‘Gelf’ money that has gone in to the making of those nightmarish tributes to the Lord of Architectural Horrors! I wonder what goes through an owner’s head when he decides to paint the exteriors of his ‘magnificent’ villa in candy pink or fluorescent orange or chartreuse green or lemon yellow… or an eye-blinding combination of these. Oh well, I digress… the aesthetic tastes of modern house owners in Kerala is the subject of a long rant… some other time. Aah, so we leave these nightmares behind and move on…
The road had taken on a steep incline and our little cars (there were two – a Suzuki Swift & a Chevy Spark) were accompanied by massive trucks and trailers and those estate-boss Scorpios and Safaris. Being in Kerala, it goes without saying, that the road was narrow and there was no divider and the traffic hurtled down as well as trudged up without a bother. Parallel to our road ran a railway track… and there were occasional crossings… surprisingly, all were gated. There were tiny waterfalls along the way… the rains hadn’t yet started their fierce march through the state; some of these waterfalls formed sizeable streams over which the road bridged in small arches. After one such arch, we came across a roadside temple… a place where travelers stopped to bow their heads to the Vignahartha (Lord Ganesh) and throw a couple of coins in to the hundi. The temple had its shutters closed by the time we reached it… but the diyas (oil lamps) were still lit up and the general air of peace (when no one’s around) found in all places of worship prevailed. Right next to the little temple was a make-shift tapri (small shop on a cart)… a refreshment stall that sold everything from cigarettes to tea and snacks to nariyal pani (tender coconut). A particular jar caught my attention… it was filled with what to me looked like banana fritters (am absolutely crazy about these oily, calorie heavy critters)… but they were submerged in a liquid… there were other jars with stuff submerged in what I realized later, was brine. I asked the shopkeeper about the contents of the jar which attracted me the most… he told me that they were slices of partially ripened mangoes pickled in brine. I wanted to have a go at it and in my defense, he did mention mango and pickle in the same sentence. He told me that he had just put them in early morning and it had just been 4 hours… I really didn’t care… and helped myself to a slice. Like a magician he produced a pet cola bottle filled with some fiery, red masala and asked me if I would like the slice sprinkled. Ah… if that’s how you have it… sure… I went ahead and sprinkled quite a bit. Then, I bit in to the slice… the only thing I remember after that is that I was in heaven… life was as beautiful as it could get… everything seemed prettier, people around me were all nicer…so on and so forth. The masala was some magical trade secret or so he said… I still asked him to pack a bit for me. Between me and my two cousins we finished almost half of the jar.
*Wanted to put up the pic of the mangoes… but it has me in it…and am scary… Boooo!*
Soon we reached the estate… our tummies full of yummy street food, rural-style. After a round of lemonade (for me) and tea for the others at the overseer’s bungalow, we set out on an exploratory trek through the estate. My jiju had work to finish… some accounts to be checked and the labour to be paid off and stuff… so our trip was unguided and well, quite honestly, we just walked aimlessly around in the vicinity of the bungalow… a li’l worried about getting lost. Being the eldest of the trio (and with enough trust in technology… cell-phone coverage was good), I incited my cousins to venture a bit farther. We clambered through some dark and craggy paths… so thick with vegetation that it was difficult to walk without getting the twigs, leaves and the occasional spider web (with and without its owner) on the face. I managed to click the pic of a less wild path… considering I could not maneuver much in the others.
We called up jiju and asked him directions to his new plantation… he rattled of some directions… we didn’t follow any! We found our own way walking over rocky outcrops and some open spaces that connected the pockets of thick vegetation. I was intrigued by a shrill call of a bird, the sound was familiar… a desert dweller like me could not recognize it instantly… the call was shrill, a little unnerving considering the surroundings, a bit banshee like. Then we caught a fleeting glimpse of the creature… a peafowl (couldn’t see enough to say if it was a cock or a hen). We tried to follow it but it disappeared in to thick vegetation which we could not penetrate… and also, ‘coz jiju had warned us that the peafowls usually loitered around snake-nests (or snake-mounds or whatever they are called). After the mini-adventure through the ‘Jungles of the Estate’ where we came across varied wildlife such as the fashionable millipede and some high flying kites to the elusive pea-fowl, we finally reached the other plantation. Rows of plantains, a beautiful stretch of lovely green fields and more rubber trees greeted our eyes. And a well, which we used to draw water from to drink… and then thought better of it!
Ok… now, am tired… the adventure of the dilapidated house would be told some other day… along with the adventures of the andha kua (blind well)!
© Surya Murali