Monday, November 21, 2005

Kerala Diary I

Waiting for the monsoon

If the monsoon is romantic, in Kerala it is doubly so. The green gets greener, and the clean looks cleaner. It would be a sin not to sit in the balcony and watch the coconut trees take a shower. Ever since my affair with Kerala began two years ago, I have only encountered off-seasonal rains, which come and go without notice. So in the second week of June, I took off for Attingal — a rather laidback town between Kollam (Quilon) and Trivandrum — hoping to catch the first showers. Alas, I only got drenched in sweat, day after day, with no sign of the clouds. The clouds finally appeared on the day I was leaving, and just an hour before I was to take the Chennai Express, it began pouring heavily. I gave up every hope of making it to the station but somehow I did, just in time. When I was about to climb the bogey, a man at the door signalled me to wait. I turned back to find a tiny, old man approaching, holding a white cloth over his head. He was K Karunakaran, the former chief minister, who is now past 80 but remains politically as agile — if not more — as he was 20 years ago. He hopped in. I hopped in after him and the train pulled out. Nature had poured water over my plans to court the monsoon.

Marble war

On a cloudy afternoon or a breezy evening, nothing can be more pleasurable than driving on the national highway to Trivandrum. You tear through the greenery, without getting intimidated by the lorries and the buses, whose drivers are pretty considerate towards fellow motorists. These days, the highway is lined on either side by yellow hoardings. They carry a large picture of a sumo wrestler and below it, a text in Malayalam. Some of these hoardings, however, carry the picture of WWF wrestler Hulk Hogan. I asked my friend what these yellow hoardings were advertising. “Marble,” he replied, “but they are two different companies. One of them put up the pictures of the sumo wrestler, then the rival company came up with Hulk Hogan.” The market in Kerala seems to be waking up to competition.

Those were the days

One thing that strikes you about Kerala is the unassuming character of its cities. Take Trivandrum. It lacks the pomposity of its counterparts in other states. Life is as unhurried as it must have been in the 1950s or 60s. Fast-food joints like McDonald’s, where teenagers swarm like flies on a sweetmeat in other cities, do not exist here. (Teenage girls you see only in bus-stops, standing in groups, waiting for the bus after college). The only places which seem alive are the juice shops, which sell drinks like Sharjah Chocolate Milk, and the roadside tea-stalls. Most shops shut by 8 pm, and by 9, the city is silent. The days are as laidback as well, and why not? The good, old PSUs are very much alive in Kerala, and the corporate culture has not yet crossed over from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. So the ‘Work hard, play hard’ policy doesn’t work here: most people still go to the office in the mornings, break for lunch around noon, and head home at 5. So those who think that the 21st century is maddening and who miss the India of the 50s and the 60s, Kerala is the place to be in.

Parking problem

The corporate culture might not have permeated the borders of Kerala, but the car-buying culture has. And why not, when buying one has become so easy. But then, cars are going to pose a big problem to Kerala in the coming years: where do you park them? Most roads in Kerala are so narrow that two vehicles can’t pass at a time: one has to back off to let the other pass. So if you happen to live on one such road, you can’t park your car outside your gate because it will obstruct traffic. Even if you park your vehicle inside your house, what if a visitor comes to see you, in a car? Worse, what if you throw a party for 10 people and all the guests come in their cars? Where will they park? Think, think, think.

May 2003

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