… seem to be my recurring themes in India. Yet again I’ve been through three days of the Mughal’s other revenge and am feeling almost amused by it. (The original would have been far worse.) Also I have been invited by yet another total stranger to her wedding. I still can’t believe this – it seems a totally genuine invitation (fancy card and all!)
Again, you may ask yourself ‘How did I get here?’. It started, as so many good things in my life did at St Andrews. During my over-extended doctorate, I shared a flat with a bloke who had spent most of the 80s in India, mainly in Kerala. He’s become a long-term friend, as has his wife and their three daughters. I’ve been fascinated by his stories: mad exploits in India and living in the depth of the Sumatran jungle. (His wife is from west Sumatra.) A lot of this journey has been engenedered by my desire to see for myself!
He told me just befor I left of the village in Idukki district he stayed in. I’ve been spiralling down (to this hole in the ground?) ever since I’ve been in India. I had finally had enough of Kumily on MOnday (29th) and wanted to actually visit this village before the rain became unbearable.
I’d been told the nearet place I could stay was a town called Cheruthony, about 7 miles north of Idukki. Despite this district being named after Idukki, Idukki town itself is a blink-and-you-miss-it village. Cheruthony isn’t much bigger – about the size of the medieval part of St Andrews but sat on a relatively important river-crossing. It has two hotels, a post office and the usual range of services and traffic noises. I stayed in the cheaper hotel (the Shikkara) and had a perfectly fine room (en-suite shower/bathroom and balcony [YEEHAH]) but often no water. The hotel staff tried to convince me that this was because their water tank was empty but because it had rained every day for the last week and I could hear folk in the next room showering, I tended to, ahem, disbelieve them.
By the way, the other, far posher, hotel was the Hotel Stonage. Make of that what you will!
I arrived in Cheruthony about mid-day on Monday and, feeling beligerent and energised by being ripped off in Kumily*, I decided to walk to the village my friend had described. I’d also been nauseated by the bus journey to Cheruthony, especially when a bloke sat just ahead of me vomited in his sleep agains the closed window.
*total cost: one pair of undies [and the ripper was welcome to my used grunts], 100 rupees and a half-bottle of local rough brandy. Not a large amount but currently equivalent to a day’s food and accommodation)
The walk took me past the entrance-drive to Idukki dam. This is a fantastic structure, a piece of smoothness that somehow blends well with the jaggedness of the mountains it’s amid. I couldn’t get as close as I wanted – there were no officials to ask at the entrance and police were prowling but not being helpful and I didn’t want to end up wearing a lathi intrnally.
I walked on past a driveway to a new-ish house. (There’s quite a lot of new building in this area, funded by tourism and oil-money). The owner beckoned me and got his sons to put me on a bus to my destination.
The village itself is another Y-junction, a few small shops and chai-stalls and some rather dilapidated houses. One of the shop-owners appears to remember my friend – talking with him and his daughter was all I had time to do this afternoon before the rain and dark set in.
On the way I’d been passed by a guy called Ajeeshkumar and his friend (er, I forget his name!). Ajeeshkumar is a local Red Cross, development and eco-worker and his friend is a journalist for a malayalam newspaper. How I wish I’d brought my NUJ card (oops – just found I did!) They caught up with me again at the chai-stall and Ajeeshkumar invited me to stay with him for a while and see ‘real India’. I arranged to meet him on Wednesday (31st) morning to go to his village – I still wanted to nose around here a bit more.
I bussed back to the village and sat in the chai-stall, trying to regather my anatomy from the shaking it had received on the way. Some children beckoned me from a doorway across the road. Assuming an adult was behind them, I crossed over to join them. They took me to the local library/primary school and gathered some of their elder (18-19 year-old friends). We exchanged some songs and stories: I’m hoping for forgiveness for my renditions of the hero’s return and exercising some control. I then made a heart-rending mistake: one of the first children I’d met here was cold and wet so I lent her my jacket to walk her home. She thought I’d given it to her and so asked time and time again to get it back when I insisted to it being returned to me. I can’t yet decide whether I’ve been selfish or sensible. She has a home, friends and relatives here. I don’t. However he situation has been forced upon her while I chose mine. Also, how could she understand that a rich-looking westerner doesn’t currently have money to give away when so many folk who look like me do?
I returned to Cheruthony feeling depressed and ill around 2pm. By now the rain was flooding down, drenching Cheruthony’s main street under half an inch of fast-running water and making anything but staying in my hotel room a fool’s errand. I slept fitfully from 4pm that afternoon to 8am the next morning.
By about 8am, the sky had brightened and the rain had petered out. I took a bus to Kattappana, a big town south of Cheruthony and north of Kumily from where I could travel on to Nedumkandam (the closest town to Ajeeshkumar’s home village [Nikunjam]). I took a couple of hour’s break to blog, email and steel myself for the rest of the journey. I managed to leave my tourist map of Idukki district in the bus-station toilet. I’m never going back there to look for it. Uurrgghh!
Ajeeshkumar had phoned me to say that his father would meet me at the town’s main temple because his car had just been taken in for servicing/repair. We hadn’t set a time to meet but I had been told his father would collect me and take me to Ajeeshkumar’s home. I don’t quite know what happened but I gave the temple priest a large conumdrum – he hardly spoke English but did his best to try to help me. It seems Ajeeshkumar’s very well-known and liked here. Anyway, after a few calls, Ajeeshkumar’s journo-friend met me and took me to Nikunjam by auto. This involved some terrifying slopes and stops to let the auto drive on without passengers when the slope got more than 40 degrees.
At Nikunjam, I was met by Ajeeshkumar’s parents, youngest sister and neice. We chatted fitfully and atched some Malayalam soap-operas while waiting for Ajeeshkumar to return. He eventually did so about 10pm. Thereafter, presumably, sleep occurred.
Ajeeshkumar took me to Nedumkandom school to give an impromptu spoken-english session to some senior students. This was even more terrifying than yesterday’s auto-ride: my spoken English can be patchy at the best of times. I talked a little about my history and situation (answering yet again the usual questions about spouse and children – aarrgghh!) and then tried to get them to speak back to me – after all, I wasn’t the one trying to learn English. I asked them to talk about their career/life-ambitions and their opinions on the ‘reservation’ issue.* That had some effect and helped me learn too.
*Students and doctors are currently striking over the government’s decision to reserve 27% of medical school places for ‘other backward castes’, etc
After this, the teacher took me to lunch and then Ajeeshkumar took me by motorbike to a mountain that overlooks the drop down into Tamil Nadu. It’s breath-taking, purely amazing and on its own has made this trip worthwhile. Ajeeshkumar commeneted unhappily about the plastic litter his country-folk leave about. He and his friends regularly come here to clean up but it seems a thankless task. He’d really appreciate other eco-tourists coming to join this struggle.
The other pollution he finds objectionable is a ridiculously huge sculpture on a nearby hill. It’s pointless and almost obscene to plonk a lump of tacky concrete in the midst of such natural beauty.
(photos of all of this to be uploaded from a cybercafe that doesn’t use 56k dial-up)
We then journeyed in the dark through more scary roads to where Ajeeshkumar’s friend Bhindu lives. She’s getting married tomorrow (the festivities start tonight). She’s invited me along – formal invitation card and everything ! – and yet I’m just a random western bozo. I don’t understand it but am hugely grateful.
Today I’ve been trying to organize, blog and get ready for tomorrow. See you later spacecats!