No, not this time. This time, I am on more than just a visit. And there's no other place that I can call home. Not for another month atleast. Anyway, wrote this last January and looks like I forgot to post it then. So here, notes from my last trip to Kerala:
“When did they build this road? I have never seen such a wide highway in this city before.”
“A couple of years ago. It’s a bypass road – they are still building some parts of it”
“So this goes straight to Kovalam?”
“Yes, no need to cut through the city. Airport to Kovalam in 20 minutes flat”
“That makes sense. There were so many tourists in the flight. I didn’t realize so many of them come here.”
“They do alright. Isn’t this God’s own tropical paradise?”
“That it most definitely is”, I agree with my father. Look out of the window and it is all postcard country – coconut groves, lush-green fields, tiled-roof houses. The rains of the day before conferred on them a particular shade of green, a green that reminds me of monsoon rain and school re-openings, of St. George umbrellas and Maveli stores, of new books and old friends. Billboards on the highway promise world-class guest rooms, rustic houseboats, quiet beaches, glorious sunsets and ayurvedic treatments guaranteed to give you your life back. Other than the billboard ads and the sleek road we were on, nothing seemed to have changed in God’s own country. People reading newspapers by the tea shops in the intersections; the fishmonger with her basket full of fresh fish on her head; kids in that familiar cream and blue pinafore returning from school; a girl arguing with an auto rickshaw driver – it is almost as if I’d never left home.
Soon we take an exit from the highway and turn into one of the side roads which seemed to have become narrower in the two years I was out of the country. It reminded me of the time I was in college and we had our school reunion. We all went back to school and in an obviously nostalgic mood, some of us visited the class rooms we grew up in. It took me more than a couple of minutes to realize that the desks I used to sit in had not become smaller; I had grown bigger. I get the same feeling now looking at the narrow roads and the small houses that we pass by – I didn’t remember them being so narrow or so small.
We pass by the Killipalam Girls High School and turn into the very familiar Killipalam road. The narrow, barely two-lane National Highway has four lanes with a divider separating traffic! What used to be a traffic nightmare is now quite peaceful. I remember Bini, the girl who used to live by the Killi Bridge – she lived in one of the small one-room houses by the river. Her cousin used to work as a maid in our house. I didn’t befriend her for the longest time though we met every day – I would be walking to the school bus stop while she would be walking to her school. We would look up and give each other a half smile and continue walking on opposite sides on the road. Until one day when we discovered that a group of boys from the nearby school have taken to sitting on a wall by the roadside. From that day on, we both walked on the same side of the street and became fast friends. I lost touch with her once I left for college and haven’t thought of her in a long while. Now, seeing this wide road which has been built over what used to be her house I can’t help thinking about her. I want to ask my mother about Bini but I am afraid of the answer. Maybe she is a maid at someone’s place and maybe she has nowhere to live as they have demolished her house.
“Bini is doing very well. She went to college and she’s now working as a music teacher at a school. She just had her second baby. She will come to the wedding.”
Mothers do know everything.
The wedding is over. Most of the guests have left. We have a couple of days to ourselves before the groom leaves for Bombay. He has never been to Kerala before, so I am determined to show him whatever I can. I drag him through the bustling Chalai market on our way to the Padmanabhaswamy temple. We visit the Ravi Varma gallery and the museum. We walk along the wide Kowdiar streets to Vellayambalam junction. We spend the evening at Shangumughan beach. I cannot stop talking. My city, my home, my past life has to be shown and explained; the groom and my home should be made to understand and like each other – all within a day.
Another day remains. A friend suggests the island of Poovar. We decide it’s a good idea as the groom’s never seen backwaters. The driver drops us off at the boat jetty. We take the boat to the island. Houseboats on backwaters, people on vanchis, and that shade of green everywhere. We sign in at the guest house. The place is filled with foreign tourists and honeymooning couples, all of whom seem very content to rest by the poolside. We, in our weary pretend backpackers mode, are very much out of place. We spend hours exploring the woods surrounding the guest house; it is beautiful. We walk down to the boat house and get a ride to the beach. We wait for the sunset; the boatman waits for us. Kids play with balloons a little further away. I fiddle with my camera to see if I could get anything of the sunset. Two of the kids run towards us; they stop a little further away. They talk to each other in Malayalam. They apparently are trying to guess which part of the country we are from. It sounds more like they are reciting state names one after the other. They soon run out of states. I start talking to them in Malayalam, they are elated and start chattering away to glory. A little later, we leave the beach for the island. The boatman gets to talking to us on the way back. He tells us about the different kinds of people who visit the island and he says that he can never understand how anyone could spend their time by the pool when there’s so much around. We tell him that we don’t understand it either.
We are back on the highway. We are running a little late for my flight. I fly to Bombay and a week later I will be back in Chicago. The thought of freezing temperatures and biting wind chill makes me shudder. But I also feel a strange longing to be back home in the comfort of my tiny apartment. For a long time, I thought that home is a very possessive idea; it requires one to be faithful. But what do you do when you have multiple homes and do not want to choose one over the other?
We drive by a stretch that is under construction. Construction workers are paving the road. By the side of the highway, I see makeshift huts with asbestos roofs. In front of them, kids in rags are playing hide and seek. I am a little surprised. A woman rushes to her crying baby lying by the side of the road. She takes the baby in her arms and starts feeding it. This is not a familiar sight, not here. I turn to my father.
“What’s happening here? Do these workers live in these huts?”
“Yes. They are not from here.”
“Where are they from then?”
“I talked to some of them one day. Most of them are from Orissa. The private contractors got them here for the road work so that they don’t have to pay them the minimum wage.”
“Remember, this is Kerala. If you hire someone here to do this job, you cannot get away without paying them the minimum wage.”
“And no one’s told these people they ought to get paid more?”
“They are not unionized; they have to make a living.”
“Do you think that woman there is making a living?”
My father laughed.
“Remember when we moved to our house fifteen years ago? We couldn’t unload any of our furniture by ourselves. Those union people came and made a big fuss about how they would unload the furniture and we would have to pay them hundreds of rupees?”
“Yes, I remember. You called it highway robbery.”
“Yes, I did. It still happens and I still call it highway robbery. But I have come to realize that there are varying degrees of theft. Some I can live with, some I am not so sure.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That night we moved, neither you nor the porters’ daughters starved. You got your dosais and they got their kappa. Can’t say the same for that baby we just passed by.”
We reach the airport. My flight is on time.