Day 5: Living in a houseboat at Allepey

We were having way too much fun and the houseboat stay loomed ahead of us. I would have gladly cancelled it at that moment. After all there were bound to be a few discomforts while living in a houseboat and even though it was only for a single night, I was in no frame of mind for any discomforts. So we plodded on. Our check-in time was at 12:00 in the afternoon but the journey from Munnar to Alleypey (where we were boarding) took so long that it was almost 13:30 when we reached.

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Our luggage was quickly taken care of. An old motor boat then came up to transfer us to our houseboat, where we would be spending the night. The ride on the motor boat was quick and painless. We passed several moored houseboats and each time a luxurious one came up we would wonder whether that was the one. We finally reached our boat – a decent sized two bedroom houseboat with no visible trappings of luxury. The boatmen helped to transfer us from the motor boat to the houseboat.

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The houseboat had an open air deck area at the end of which sat the boatman, with his back towards you (thereby giving you full privacy to do what you want), steering the boat on the lake. There was a chef, a helper and an assistant – a total crew of four. The deck area had a table with chairs and a cupboard with a TV and a DVD player on it. We were definitely not going to be needed those, I thought and for once, my pre-teen daughter agreed with me. There were two bedrooms- a master bedroom, which controlled the air conditioning of both the bedrooms and a smaller one. Only the bedroom area was air conditioned (switched on at 9 at night) as the deck area was open to air. Each bedroom had an attached toilet and a shower. There was a folded mosquito net attached to the ceiling of each bedroom.

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Lunch is usually served when the boat is moored but since we had arrived late, they decided to serve lunch with the boat in motion. The chef had whipped up two delicious dry vegetables, fried fish which was amazing with chapattis and Keralan rice. The assistant meanwhile was keeping up the conversation answering our questions (and as always, we had plenty). Surreptitiously (as always) I steered the conversation to the Indian elections and tried to find out which party he was planning to vote for. He shook his head laughing and said that he would not be telling us. Later when I tried to ask him again, he still refused to tell us. Curiosity will kill the cat, some day, I thought and did not ask him again. Though I’m very much aware that we Indians vote in secret, I have never actually met an Indian who refused to discuss – animatedly- their political affiliations. I still remain intensely curious about his vote and I am not proud of saying that.

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Meanwhile life was going on – on the banks of the lake. There were mothers shoulder deep in the water, bathing their children. Some of the women were washing their long hair. A group of men were chatting and bathing together (that is India for you). Women were washing their pots and pans. There were tiny shops and pretty bungalows that we passed. We saw the tourism police on another boat taking their rounds and were told that they would prosecute anyone who was caught littering the lake. Amazingly for an Indian lake and for everything that went on its banks, the water was extremely clean. It led me to believe that Keralans definitely take rules and regulations a lot seriously than other parts of India. In Munnar for instance, our taxi was stopped by a policeman, who made the driver undergo a breath test for alcohol. In all the years that I have lived in Pune or even Mumbai, I have never ever seen that happening.

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It was a lazy ride taking in the slow village life as we passed. Children waved to us, ladies smiled at us, delighted tourists waved to each other from the other houseboats as we crossed each other. Motor-less fishing boats slowly did their rounds, their amazing catch visible, even at a distance. The crew meanwhile was ever attentive without being intrusive. They asked us if we wished to purchase prawns which they would fry for us. We purchased some coconut water instead and sipped on it as we watched life go by in the villages that we passed.

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A tour of a village was included in our itinerary and as soon as the Champakulam village approached we got off the boat. I was eager to watch toddy being tapped but unfortunately a toddy tapper was unavailable during our visit. (I was eager to sample the Toddy as well but I will have to leave that for another day). The village tour consisted mostly of art stores selling artefacts until we came across this gem (shown in the picture above) – a reading room established several thousands of years ago (I’m pretty sure that the date was listed somewhere on the building but simply cannot remember. My camera too seems to have missed it). There were some newspapers inside and a few scattered books but I marvelled at the fact that the villagers had considered this reading room important enough to preserve for so long. Our guide did not know much about it and seemed to think that it was inconsequential. I tried to find out more about the origins of this place but could not find any details recorded anywhere.

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We then had a narrow canal boat ride to look forward to. This smaller boat allows you to traverse the narrow canals where the larger houseboats are unable to go. We got into a narrow boat, which wobbled dangerously (to the loud laughs of my delighted daughter) whenever anybody moved. The boatman handed over oars to us and we took turns in rowing the boat. The boatman, who did not speak English or Hindi very well, nevertheless kept the conversation going, pointing out various interesting things to see and showing us fascinating things to do. He plucked out a water-lily from the water (wobbling the boat dangerously as he leant into the water to pluck it), deftly made a necklace and handed it over to us. It was the mango season and we could see the branches of the mango, laden with the raw fruit, almost touching the water, as we passed. He plucked out a couple of raw mangoes for us to eat. Later he conjured up another flower with the most intoxicating smell ever, from the lake – I wish that I had asked him what it was called. Meanwhile life was going on in the villages around us. Children were playing cricket and waved to us as we passed. Women smiled shyly. They must have been used to seeing tourists in these boats all the time but they still had the willingness to indulge us. The boatman pointed to a small bungalow on the banks and told us that that was where he lived. It was a neat little place, which led us to another piece of information that is unique to Kerala and which managed to reduce the differences between the rich and the poor. The Land reforms act may have been controversial but if that means that a simple boatman can own a tiny bungalow on the sides of the lake then I am all for it. Kerala was governed by the Communists for a considerable time and with schemes like abolition of tenancy and exploitation by landlords, pension for farmers, good rate of provision of jobs for lower castes and subsidised rice for poorer households Kerala managed a social equality that cannot be seen in the other parts of India.

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After the truly enjoyable boat ride, it was back to the houseboat. We waved goodbye to our boatman who had entertained us so thoroughly in spite of not being able to speak the language – I will always remember him. It was the twilight hour and activity around the bank was slowly diminishing. Our houseboat was parked for the night. We could see the lights twinkling on the banks as we sat on the deck chatting. And that was when the insects attacked. As darkness approached and lights were switched on, the insects multiplied and were all over the deck. My daughter, not having grown up in India, was not used to the insect brigade and was even more horrified as she spotted a total of four lizards somewhere in the dark corners greedily trying to attack and eat the insects. We tried to switch off the lights to deter them – we tried to switch on a mosquito repellent (they were not actually mosquitos just lake insects that were attracted to the electric lights) to repel them but all to no avail – my daughter simply could not relax after that. The rest of us were fine. Insects and the like do not bother me too much and all this was very much a part of the deal.

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When another delicious dinner was served, some of the insects started to fall on our dinner plates. We had switched off the lights and ate in darkness. A tip to potential houseboat enthusiasts would be to have dinner when it is still light outside. That way you can finish your dinner before the insects come on. We somehow managed to finish our dinner but my daughter, who could not take it anymore, insisted on having dinner in the bedroom. Since the bedroom was air conditioned there were no insects there and she could eat her dinner in peace.

We decided to retire soon after that and could feel the sound of insects all around us, as we slept. We were protected by the mosquito net, which I tucked firmly in the mattress to prevent any insects that were planning to spend the night with us, from getting in.

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We rose early the next day. Having read reviews of a lack of hot water in houseboats, I was all prepared for a cold water shower but the water was hot and the shower refreshing. Our breakfast consisted of piping hot dosas, which the chef bought for us in a big pot from which we could have as many as we wanted. My daughter was satisfied after keenly scanning all the nooks for insects and lizards – there were none. Throughout the concern of our crew was overwhelming. It was as if they genuinely cared for our well-being. My daughter is the only one, out of us four, who does not like spicy food. I had requested the chef to prepare food that was not overly spicy for her. He had done just that. They would keep glancing at my daughter to ensure that she was enjoying the food as well and seemed genuinely pleased to see the way she was tucking into her dosas. All this was done in a totally unobtrusive way. They would keep checking on us from time to time and then leave us alone. Their warmth and friendliness was beguiling. It was one of the reasons why we enjoyed our stay in the houseboat and rated it as the best experience ever. After having experienced genuine hospitality from our crew, our next stay at a posh resort in Kumarakom simply did not match up. Yes, the resort had everything – it had slick professionalism but it did not have the thoughtful graciousness of the boatman or our crew.

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It was therefore with somewhat heavy hearts that we left the boat. Leaving a tip for all the crew, who had made our stay so pleasant almost seemed like doing too little for their thoughtfulness but it was the only way in which we could show our gratitude. We left them a huge tip and my daughter kept turning around for last glimpses of the houseboat where we had spent the night. We watched the boat until we could not see it any more.

 

 

Day 4: Tea and the Tatas in Munnar

Gargle your mouth with green tea every morning, instead of using chemical ridden toothpastes and then see how sweet your breath smells. We were at the Tata Tea Museum in Munnar (Kerala, India) and these words were uttered by an official, who had volunteered to give us information about everything related to tea. He went on to scoff at the way that the Indians prepared tea. Green tea should ideally be brewed for twenty four hours because it releases different nutrients at different times. We were in a dingy room, a factory belt full of green tea leaves in front of us, the lush tea plantations all around us.

Munnar is tea, tea and then some more tea. The region is synonymous with extensive rich tea plantations and the great house of the Tatas also has a role to play in this region. A unique tea museum has been established by Tata Tea at their Nallathanni estate. This museum is perhaps one of its kinds in India and one of the reasons for including Munnar in our itinerary. That the region itself is breathtakingly beautiful was the fringe benefit.

The museum displays various photos and objects that have contributed to the tea industry in some way. It allows you to see how tea is processed and also lets you sample various types of tea, giving you a free cuppa at the end of your visit. Plans are being made to allow the visitors to actually pluck the tea leaves thereby allowing them to be a part of the tea brigade in a small way. What more could a tea lover desire? While the actual tea museum is all right, it was the video that displayed the history of the tea industry in Munnar that was enlightening.

It is said that a British resident with the name of Munroe came over and fell in love with the beauty of Munnar. He managed to convince the then king to lease over the land of the Kannan Devan hills to him, over which he planned to have plantations. In 1877 around 1, 36,600 acres of land was leased to him at an annual lease of Rs 3000 with an Rs 5000 deposit. Munroe started planting various spices but it was only later around 1880 that it was discovered that the conditions were ideal for growing tea. Tea started to be grown and the plantations rose in number. In 1895, James Finlay and Company Limited entered the scene to manage the tea estates. The company started to expand but the environment always remained the prime concern. Every project was analysed based on how it would affect the environment and the decision to go ahead was only taken provided the ecology did not suffer.

The Tatas entered in collaboration with the Finley group in 1964. Tata Tea was formed in 1983. For the next two decades, the Tatas managed the tea estates in Munnar. However it was then decided that the business was no longer viable and the decision to concentrate on the branded business was made. In 2005 Tatas decided to exit Munnar and gave the shareholding of the Company to the employees who worked there. A separate company by the name of Kannan Devan Hills Ltd was thus established. Tatas still hold a minor stake in the Company whereas the majority shareholding is in the name of the employees. A woman tea plucker was inducted as a member of the board of directors. The entire tea company is managed and owned by the workers. The managing of the tea company is itself a lesson in participative management. It is ensured that the men and women are equally represented and the locals and employees are equally committed to preserving the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Though the Tatas have exited Munnar they continue to be involved in the social initiatives and manage the Tata School, hospital and a centre for the mentally challenged in Munnar.

It is not surprising therefore to note that the beauty of Munnar has remained intact and has not been taken over by commercial interests – as yet. The image that stays with you remains of an enchanting land with hard working locals who understand the benefits of preserving the environment. The admiration for the social commitments of the Tatas and for the things that India manages to do right, seems to increase after a visit to this region.

The Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company: http://kdhptea.com/

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Day 3: Munnar

Luxuriant green tea plantations, the mist, the air, the waterfalls and the romance of it all makes me think that the producers of Yash Raj movies do not have to go all the way to the Swiss Alps in search of their new location – Munnar has it all. No wonder then that movies like the ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Chennai Express’ have been filmed here.

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The way leading into Munnar is full of spice gardens. We went into one and had numerous questions for our very informative and ready-to-chat guide. He showed us the Sandalwood tree and we wanted to know whether the stories of these trees attracting snakes were true. He told us that it was true, snakes liked to coil around the trunk of the sandalwood tree. We wanted to know why coconut is not cheaper in Kerala, considering that it is so widely grown. He told us that in Kerala, coconut is grown more for its oil than anything else and the oil bearing coconut is a little different from the other variety of coconut found in other regions. We saw cocoa and coffee being grown. We were given a taste of the rose apple, which tastes a little like the gooseberry and which my daughter insists is available in some of England’s supermarkets. We saw clove, mulberries, bananas and paddy being grown. We saw how oil is distilled from herbs like the lemon grass. We also had time to admire the view from a tree house built right over the mountains. In return for all our questions, the guide was curious to know exactly what relationship we shared with each other (we were a group of four ladies – the oldest being my mum, followed by my aunt, then me and the youngest, my daughter). Indian ladies of varying ages travelling on their own without the security of an escorted tour are probably still a rarity in India. We were happy to explain the intricacies of our family tree to him. Now that we were really talking, surreptitiously I slipped in the topic about Indian elections and asked him casually which party he was going to vote for. AAP was the answer – joy all around – so are we, we echoed (though there are still doubts in my mind regarding where exactly my primary loyalties lie – with the AAP or the grand old Congress). When we told the guide the name of our hotel, he ominously told us that the path leading to it was very narrow but to not get too worried.

How true his words were. The road leading to the hotel was un-gravelled and extremely narrow with the mountains on one side and deeply lush but treacherous ravines to the other. Our car crawled its way towards it. I did not want to think about what would happen if another vehicle happened to come from the other side. Meanwhile pretty tea-pluckers waved to us as we passed. Tea is grown at an incline of around 45 degrees. Unbalanced (!) at the best of times I was not sure that I could have coped with standing at that angle on the mountains! Our hotel was located in the middle of the jungle, at the top of the mountain – the very reason why I had chosen it in the first place. There was no one around us for miles around, which would make it an ideal honeymoon location. I was not on my honeymoon however and there were paths to be explored and new tastes to be discovered.

Each room had a generous balcony, almost a terrace that put you right in the midst of the mountains. It was like living in a bird’s nest. Bird song surrounded us from all sides and I marvelled at how many different kinds of sounds, different birds manage to produce. I was all the more astounded by the fact that there were several birds living in Munnar, the sounds of which I had never heard in my life before. Drinking tea in Munnar overlooking the tea plantations had long been a dream of my mum, who was travelling with me. She was finally getting to realise her dream.

 

 

Day 2 – Kochi

With the help of a Keralan friend, I had arranged a taxi that would take us around Kerala and drop us back to Kochi on the final day. The taxi arrived promptly at the appointed time. Since we were staying near the airport, travelling into the city would take at least an hour, if not more. Hungry for the first glimpses of Kerala, we set off. Throughout our drive, the greenery of Kochi was very much in evidence. We passed coconut trees, banana plantations, chiku trees, mango trees pregnant with the heavy fruit and the luminously green Periyar river.

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The Folklore museum in Kochi was our first stop. This is a non-profit organisation that showcases Kerala’s heritage. The magnificent entrance to the museum has been created from a 16th century temple in Tamil Nadu. The museum consists of three floors with each floor displaying the architectural styles of Malabar, Travancore and Cochin. The lady dressed in traditional attire at the entrance informed us that the museum was largely due to the determination of one individual and had been inaugurated only in 2009. We were anointed with the traditional sandalwood paste on our foreheads (bring it on, let me savour the Indianness) and were then left free to explore on our own.

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Each floor was filled with beautiful curios. Not everyone is fascinated by these objects but I was content to wander around amongst these beautiful, old artefacts that are a part of our Indian heritage. The room that I found most fascinating was the theatre on the top floor, with simple traditional Indian décor, where they conduct Kathakali performances. One end of the room was full of the traditional masks depicting the various dance forms of Kerala. Watching a Kathakali performance was very much on my wish list. We just somehow had to squeeze it in between the various things that we planned to see or do.

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Having heard of antiques being displayed in the Jew market, we decided to head there next. The Jew market has a smaller market displaying touristic knick knacks and a larger market displaying antiques, the prices of which I did not dare ask. It is a fascinating place for a wander and I came across some beautiful, ancient clunky locks and keys, which still worked. I decided not to buy them, which was a big mistake as I came across similar locks and keys at a flea market in Edinburgh being sold for all of 14 GBP. I still remember those old locks – they would have made a great piece of wall décor.

The synagogue was unfortunately closed for the afternoon and since the heat was getting to us, we decided to move on. I had wanted to purchase an intricate Kathakali mask but could not find one to my specifications. Spices, banana crisps, tea, fish masala, sambhar masala, rasam masala and the like were plenty and I replenished my dwindling stock of the masalas. Buying a lungi was also on the cards for me. After all, what is a lungi but a wraparound skirt? I could not find any of the casual variety but could only see the formal white ones with gold border – mundus, I think they are called.

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Being the election season, I was trying to discern the trend in Kochi. All I could see was miles and miles of Congress flags and posters. Until our taxi driver, whose name was Hari (and who was an AR Rehman look-alike), informed us that prime minister Manmohan Singh was due to visit that day. I would have loved to meet Dr Manmohan himself (who irrespective of all the bad press that he gets, I admire a lot) but there was more exploring to do. During my entire travels through Kerala, I could only see a single BJP poster and just a few ‘Aam Aadmi’ party posters. Not surprising that BJP was unpopular as the party is not best known for its love of minorities and Kerala has a sizeable population of Christians and Muslims. Furthermore BJP’s ally Shiv Sena had actively campaigned to drive away the South Indians from Mumbai.

Passing the green backwaters, I came upon a scene that would have definitely won the ‘National Geographic – Picture of the Day’ award. A group of giggling half-naked children bathing and splashing each other in the backwaters. Where is the camera when you need it?

We had lunch in a tiny open air restaurant in Fort Kochi and the food was the most delicious that I have had in quite some time. Fish curry prepared the Kerala way with raw mangoes and a hint of spices. Just the right meal for a hot day. My daughter, who is no fan of restaurant Indian food could not resist it either.

Throughout our road trip we did not see a single slum in Kerala. The state has been dedicated in its efforts to eradicate the slums as is evident from this article. According to this article in the Hindu, at 1.6% Kerala has the least number of slums. We were marvelling at how clean Kochi was with not a single garbage dump visible. The backwaters, canals and rivers are super clean. A massive cleanliness drive was started a few years ago and the clean, green waters of the Periyar river glistened in the sunshine as if in testimony to the fact.

After seeing lone foreign women tourists almost clawed by the Mumbai hawkers it was gratifying to see the local men leaving the foreign women tourists well alone. Nobody approached them with offers or questions and nobody pestered them to buy their wares. They were given the freedom to walk through a busy touristy market, unharrassed, which in India is really an achievement. The roads in England seem to have more potholes than the roads in Kerala. How has such a small state managed to tick all the boxes? It follows that if one state can do it why can’t the rest of India? As an Indian you know what to expect from India but in this case, so far, Kerala had exceeded all expectations.

Greyfriars: The city of the dead

It is the cemetery where fans of Harry Potter leave notes at the grave of Thomas Riddell, thought to be the inspiration behind Voldemort. It is said that JK Rowling got the inspiration for young Voldemort’s name from the grave of Thomas Riddell when she was wandering around Edinburgh’s Greyfriars cemetery. That is only one of the reasons that make this unique cemetery interesting.

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While London’s Highgate cemetery is high on the beauty quotient and is utterly wild and beautiful, Greyfriar’s gothic fragments gives the cemetery an allure that more than matches Highgate’s beauty. While Highgate is all about ornate gravestones and beautiful angels guarding the tombs, Greyfriars unabashedly displays the macabre symbols of death like skulls and dancing skeletons on its darkened gravestones. This may have had something to do with the age of the cemetery when the attitudes towards death differed. The earliest gravestone at the cemetery dates to as far back as the 1580s and the cemetery is actually much older than that. In fact the bodies of the dead were stacked, often on top of each other, to such an extent that the mound of the cemetery, formed due to thousands of decomposing bodies, is at a level much higher than the street outside.

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Grave robbing was a common occurrence during the olden times. Grave thieves often stole the bodies and sold them to medical schools for their anatomy dissections. It was extremely difficult to find bodies for dissection and the Government normally sanctioned the dead bodies of criminals to the medical schools. However the schools were always in need of more and grave robbing became rampant. To prevent this from happening, bodies were often locked up in grave safes by the family of the dead. A locked iron cage was built around the grave to prevent it from being dug up in the hope of preserving the sanctity of the grave. However it was only the rich, who could afford such grave locks. The poor often took to guarding the graves at night but grave robbing still continued. These grave locks can still be seen at this cemetery something that was not present at the Highgate in London.

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Greyfriars is believed to be one of the world’s most haunted cemeteries. So much so that the local authorities were forced to lock up two sections of the cemetery because of complaints from visitors about frequent paranormal occurrences. One is the former open air prison where more than a 1000 members of the Covenant religious movement were imprisoned in the sixteenth century. The second is the mausoleum, known as the black mausoleum, of George Mackenzie, who was responsible for the persecution and torture of these locked prisoners. The cemetery is believed to be haunted by what is known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The authorities have permitted the local author Jan-Andrew Henderson to lead tours of both sites. The locked up prison is opened up especially for this tour which takes place at night. Tempting though the tour sounded (who wouldn’t like to visit a locked up haunted prison in a cemetery); time and other constraints prevented me from going, which may not have been an entirely bad thing. I have heard that these tours have actors who suddenly jump at the visitors thus ensuring the scare factor (in case the real poltergeist fails to turn up). Somehow these elements of artifice within the tour are not entirely my cup of tea and I was more than content to amble around on my own.

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The Mackenzie Poltergeist is one of the best documented supernatural cases of all times and a placard outside the prison states so. The ghost is believed to cause unexplained scratches, burns and bruises in the victims and there have been reports of some victims even being knocked out. There are 80 such pages of eye witness accounts detailing the attacks. To make matters even more interesting, a number of deaths have taken place within the cemetery itself.

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Day 1: Arriving in Kochi (Cochin) at three hours past midnight

Though I am a keen traveller, flying is my least preferred mode of travel. With progressing age and regressing patience, flying nine hours or more at a stretch has become almost impossible. When choosing a flight to Cochin therefore, opting for a flight that included a stopover seemed like the more sensible option. Considering that I would have to fly into Cochin at 3:00am at dawn seemed the least of my worries. Against the better judgement of my family members therefore I booked a Gulf Air flight with around an hour’s stopover at Bahrain. Things were fine until I started to research the city that I was going to visit. Kochi is scary and unsafe for women screamed the first headline. Kerala is the country’s most crime prone state screamed the second. Study says that Kochi is unsafe for women and I did not want to read anymore. I was going to be travelling alone with my daughter. Though my usual modus operandi is to book a hotel as close to the city centre as possible, this time I had to book one as close to the airport as possible. I really did not fancy taking an hour’s joy ride at dawn into the city. Thankfully the hotel was going to provide a free airport transfer. To survive the journey from the airport to the hotel, I hit upon the idea of carrying a pepper spray with me until I found out that it was illegal to purchase or carry a pepper spray in the UK. That was that then. I would have to carry out the ten minute journey from the airport to the hotel on my own in one of the unsafe cities in India at 3am in the morning.

Each time that I get on the plane, I promise myself that this would be my last plane journey. I detest flying so much. However each time I go back-for more. My daughter’s head meanwhile was full of the missing MH370 and she wanted to know exactly what precautions were being taken to avoid such a calamity from befalling us. Six hours and two bites of the airline meal later, we were in Bahrain. The airport was crowded and it was night time. We barely had an hour before our next flight. I am not an overly judgemental person but the repressiveness of Bahrain made me uncomfortable that day. The unabashed penetrating stares of the men and the fully covered women with only the slits of their eyes visible became a little too much to handle that day.

Once on the plane, there was another four hours to reach Kochi. Two hours into the flight and my energy was drained. Flights do that to me. They sap the energy right out. We still had to make the perilous journey back to the hotel and there were another three hours or so to go until we could sink our heads on the soft white hotel pillows. While counting every minute and every second (I was doing the counting, my daughter is blissfully unaffected by the discomforts of a long distance flight), finally we landed. We were helpfully given a form to fill and since the queue for foreign nationals is so much smaller than the queue for Indian citizens (when travelling to India) in no time at all we were at the immigration counter. Until the lady very kindly told me that I had filled up only one of the requisite two forms. So it was back to the end of the queue to fill up the other form. The queue crawled forward. The heat of India started to trouble my daughter almost immediately. I was on my last energy reserves until finally we reached the counter and then proceeded through. The bags were duly picked up and now came the exciting part for which I would need all my wits about me. We came out of the airport looking for a placard displaying our hotel name. We could not see any. The hotel had not sent anyone to pick us up. I knew that this would happen. We started to walk outside and I thought of calling the hotel as I did not fancy a walk so late at night. And suddenly there was our hotel sign held up by a young lad with sandal wood paste smeared on his forehead. The minute I took a look at him, I knew that we were safe. The hotel taxi was clean with the typical aroma of sandalwood incense that I will always associate with Kerala. The hotel lad kept up a constant stream of conversation and in no time at all -finally- we were actually sinking our heads onto the cool, white hotel pillows. We had arrived.

Kathakali – the dance of the gods and demons

Having watched a Kathakali performance on Doordarshan years ago and on learning that Kathakali and Kutiyattam were the traditional dance forms of Kerala, I made up my mind to catch up on a performance during my upcoming trip to Kerala. These dance forms were traditionally performed in temples or in the courts of the kings. The Kutiyattam dance form has recently been included in the UN’s representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and a complete performance can last up to 40 days. In spite of extensive research (on the Internet) and talking to friends in the know, I could not find details of any Kathakali performance in a temple. Finding a performance of Kutiyattam was even more difficult. There wasn’t a single performance listed in the places that we planned to travel to. I could find details of a past performance in London but no upcoming performance in Kerala. As a last resort, I even sent a tweet to a Keralan MP who is renowned for his interest in culture and had written articles on the subject and asked him if he had any details of any upcoming Kutiyattam performances. Not surprisingly, my tweet went unanswered. Reluctantly therefore I had to forgo any hopes of catching a Kutiyattam performance. On the other hand, Kathakali performances were plentiful. Though Internet reviews suggested that the Kathakali centre in Cochin provided the best Kathakali performance, having an evening free in Munnar, we decided to catch a performance in Munnar itself.

Kathakali blends together dance, music and acting and depicts stories from the epics. The dance entirely consists of facial expressions and hand movements. The make-up and costumes are elaborate, colourful and striking. The dancers are based on individual types rather than individuals. The type of character of the dancer can be discerned from his make-up and costume. For instance, Green make-up denotes a good character whereas black or red makeup denotes a villain.

Two members of our gang of four were somewhat reluctant to watch the performance and were unable to understand my enthusiasm for it. I could not understand my enthusiasm for it either, as I do not understand and have no interest in Indian classical dance. Let us just say that I felt instinctively that the allure and the pageantry of the dancers would not let us down. Since I felt somewhat responsible for our entire gang, it was imperative for me that the performance went well and nobody got bored. It was in this frame of mind that we reached the Punarjani centre in Munnar at 4:00 in the afternoon. The performance was from 5:00 to 6:00 but the make-up started from 4:00. For the next forty minutes or so, we were the only people in the audience. It was a hot day, the room was small, there was no air conditioning and the fans were off. Two members of our gang had already started yawning. Not a good sign. I was hoping that the reluctant gang members would be persuaded to change their outlook by the performance and most importantly hoped that they would let me enjoy the show in peace without displaying any signs of passive aggression.

The stage was simple with a single oil diya placed in the front. Kathakali dances do not require an elaborate stage. Our seats were on the front row. The putting on of the make-up duly started. Putting on the costumes and the make-up is an elaborate process and takes almost 5 hours. We were just given a glimpse of what the process entailed. A handsome young lad, sat on the stage putting on hues of yellow to his half painted face. This went on for about ten minutes after which he left the stage and was replaced by another young lad, this time putting on green paint on the face. It was revelation to see how young the lads were. I was under the impression that Kathakali was mainly performed by middle aged dancers. It was encouraging to see that young people were interested in keeping this tradition alive. Traditionally it took around ten years for the pupils to master this dance form with students starting to learn when they were as young as ten. However this has slowly started to change with new dancers now joining at later stages.

The show started at around 5:00 with rhythmic beats on the Chenda, which is played with two sticks and the Edaykka, which is played with one stick. A musician gave the accompanying music on the cymbals and there was one vocalist. One member of our gang complained about the music being too loud but I kept my eyes on stage feigning an inability to hear.
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A lady dancer with elaborate make-up arrived on stage. She started to demonstrate her various routines, which were enjoyable to watch. In the middle of the performance the dancer gestured to a member of our gang to join her on stage. Our gang member was extremely reluctant and refused to go. The dancer however was adamant until finally our very nervous gang member stepped up on the stage. The dancer then demonstrated the dance of a traditional welcome to our gang member. The gang member sat nervously through it all when finally after only a few minutes, she was allowed to join us. The dancer demonstrated various interesting routines calling up various members of the audience, all seated on the front row. So a tip to remember, if you are reluctant to go on the stage then do not book a seat on the front row.

A Tirasseela or a curtain was then held up on stage behind which appeared another dancer piercing the air with terrifying screams. The curtain is held up to denote a change of scene. The dancer could not be seen, only his screams could be heard to the accompaniment of loud music. The curtain was finally dropped away to reveal a terrifying figure with long hair, painted almost entirely in black, grotesquely screaming. One gang member held my hand thinking that she would be called on stage yet again and I could see that she was not totally enamoured of what she saw. It was a bit frightening to be honest. The screams along with the make-up and accompanying music created an atmosphere that reminded me of the ancient voo-doo dancers or the traditional ghost-busters of yore. The first sight of the grotesque dancer was electric and terrifying. It was difficult to believe that he was the handsome lad who had first appeared before us with the yellow make-up. His transformation was complete and remarkable.

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He was then joined on stage by the dancer who had his face painted green exuding an agreeable expression. His actions and dance movements denoted his nature, which was pleasant and appealing. It was not always easy to understand what the dancers were trying to convey. There was an explanation provided at the beginning of the performance, which was a little difficult to understand because of the sound system. An entertaining fight ensued between the two characters to the accompaniment of the music and the vocals. The musicians adapted their music whenever the dance routine changed. The green dancer won and it was the end of the performance. To say that we were riveted to our seats would be an understatement. Even the reluctant gang members had been fully engrossed. The performance had been alive and engrossing somewhat akin to watching a rock performance. The fact that it was only an hour long helped. Had it been longer then it may not have had the same impact. We were surprised to see that the theatre had completely filled up. I would have loved to know what the foreign tourists and especially the younger tourists thought of this dance form.

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A stupendous performance worth the amount of money that we had paid and the reluctant gang members had complained only once! At the end of the performance, you could walk up to the stage to have your photo taken with the dancers. Normally I’m shy with such sorties however I really wanted to have my picture taken with the impressive evil dancer. Finally leaving all shyness aside, I ambled up to the stage to have my photo taken. After having several photos clicked, I thanked the dancer, who smiled and even through all the layers of his grotesque make-up it was still possible to detect the shy, pleasant young man beneath it all.

England’s prettiest villages- Burton on the water and the Slaughters

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Whenever friends or family come over from abroad for a visit, it has become almost obligatory to take them to the villages of Burton on the water, Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter for a visit. These appealing villages never fail to impress those tourists who are seeking the quintessential English Countryside and more than satisfy the mental image that first time visitors have conjured up about England. The village of Burton on the water has everything going for it – a super clean canal that runs through the village, pretty cottages with gardens adorned with flowers, tea rooms serving the English tea with scones, strawberry jam and cream et al, a maze, a model of the village and a bird park for the children, tiny antique shops with quaint goods too expensive to buy, petite ice cream parlours selling fresh organic ice creams and even an old fashioned perfumery which I am yet to visit. If you decide to visit one village in England then make it this one.

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Having visited the village for more times than I can remember, we decided to take in the model of the village, this time around. A replica of the entire village, as it existed in the 1930s, has been created here. It includes all the prominent buildings and houses of the village. So it has the Lloyds bank building. It has two churches with beautiful stained glass windows and you can even hear music if you put your ear to the window. It also has a replica of the model village within the model village itself. It is a wonderful display of craftsmanship and every detail has been taken care of. The windows of the cottages have different curtain displays. Decorative ornaments are displayed on the window sills just like in real cottages. Miniscule chairs and tables are displayed in some gardens. A miniature river runs through the village. Another unique feature of his village is that it has been created by local builders using local material, which are used for building the actual Cotswold cottages.

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In order to recognise the uniqueness, craftsmanship and historical value of the village, it has recently been given a grade 2 listed status by the English Heritage and is probably the only ‘model’ village to be given this status in England.

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The Slaughter villages are my personal favourites and I dare anyone to walk through them without clicking photos. Super clean and having won numerous awards year after year, these villages have remained unchanged, having refused to relinquish their appeal.

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Chasing Anna

Article printed on Helter Skelter 11/3/2014

Chasing Anna

11/03/2014

By Sangeeta Mulay

For people living in Pune, the village of Ralegan Siddhi is not such an unusual choice for a day picnic, though I was surprised at how eager my family members were to visit the place when I suggested it.

I suspected that their enthusiasm might have something to do with the fact that the village has frequently been in the news, since it is best known as being the home of political and social activist Kisan Baburao ‘Anna’ Hazare. As I soon found out, they were not alone: Ralegan Siddhi has firmly established itself on the tourist circuit for both Indian and Western tourists alike.

Ralegan Siddhi Ralegan Siddhi’s colourful primary school. Photograph by Sangeeta Mulay.

The village is about two-and-a-half hours away from Pune, a pleasant drive. Having ventured out into Pune’s countryside after a long time, we were pleasantly surprised to see a series of green ‘Village Ahead’ boards announcing the arrival of one characterful village after another. Trucks piled high with sugarcane made us look around for all-too-familiar sugarcane juice “parlours”. Other vendors seemed to appear magically at every traffic signal, tempting us with roasted groundnuts and guavas in varying degrees of ripeness. We passed full-bodied rivers (unlike our Mula and Mutha) with children playing cricket on the banks, and soon reached Saradwadi, famous for its missal. We stopped to have strong, sweet tea at a dhaba there. (Incidentally, the dhaba also had live fishes that customers could select to have fried for them.)

Refreshed, we drove on towards our destination. As we got closer to Ralegan Siddhi, the landscape started to look increasingly greener. A narrow, dusty road led us into the village, and we soon came across Sant Nilobarai Vidyalaya, a school that admits pupils that have repeatedly failed exams in other schools. It was a novel (and noble) idea, I thought: after all, aren’t schools meant to offer help to those who need it the most?

There are a number of huge banyan trees in Ralegan Siddhi, but the banyan tree in the centre of the village was one of the most majestic trees I had ever seen. We asked for permission to picnic under this sprawling giant and thankfully, we were allowed to do so. What little picnic food we ate tasted much better under the tree’s generous shade.

Next, we walked over to the museum of Ralegan Siddhi, where visitors can learn about the various conservation and sustainability programmes that the villagers had initiated. It also contains a room that houses the numerous awards that Anna Hazare and his villagers have received over the decades, chief amongst them the Padma Bhushan (1990) and the Padma Shri (1992) awards, presented by President R. Venkataraman.

Ralegan Siddhi The Yadav Baba temple in Ralegan Siddhi, inside which Anna Hazare used to reside. Photograph by Sangeeta Mulay.

Anna Hazare’s influence can be seen in almost every aspect of the village. The Yadav Baba temple inside which Anna used to reside was renovated with his own provident fund savings and used to serve as a common meeting place for all the villagers. Anna continued to live there until the media arrived in the village and their intrusions made it impossible for him to do so. Next to the temple is the colourful primary school with inspiring slogans painted all over the walls. The school children volunteer their time and effort as part of shramdaan (volunteer work) and help in the upkeep of the village. The is stress on the importance of physical training in the school—several children from the village go on to join the armed forces.

Ralegan Siddhi, with a population of 2,300, is small and immaculately clean. Though it is located in a water-scarce area, the village has been remarkable in the way that it has reinvented itself under the leadership of Hazare. In the late ’70s, in a determined effort to solve the water problem, a series of bunds, reservoirs, and canals were constructed all over the village through shramdaan. The required funding came either in the form of donations or bank loans. Water conservation was made a priority. The growth of water-intensive plants was discouraged and water was managed and regulated. Dairy management was also encouraged as an additional source of income. Over four lakh trees have been planted in the village since then. The greater availability of water has led to an increase in agriculture in the village. All these measures led to a rise in the income of the villagers and in turn the village as a whole started to prosper.

The methods used to bring about a change in the village were successful because the intent was ethical and transparent. When some Dalit families in the village could not repay their bank loans, the rest of the villagers helped them by toiling on their land and harvesting crops, thereby enabling them to raise the money to repay their debts.

Ralegan Siddhi The entrance to the watershed development centre and the sign at the gate. Photographs by Sangeeta Mulay.

Drinking alcohol is banned in the village and was punishable by public flogging until the village managed to drive out alcoholism. Vegetarianism is strongly encouraged. Cigarettes and tobacco in all its forms are banned from the village—and no one is complaining. Having seen it prosper, the villagers are fiercely proud and protective of their village and its most famous resident. Furthermore, the now constant media attention somehow seems to reinforce their belief that Anna’s way is the right way.

Inspired by the water conservation methods used in Ralegan Siddhi, the Maharashtra government launched the Adarsha Gaon Yojana (model village program) in 1995, under the guidance of Hazare. The aim was to make villages healthy, happy, and self-sufficient, with monetary help and guidance from various N.G.O.s and government departments. Anna himself has replicated the watershed development programme in at least four other villages. His aim was to make at least a hundred other villages benefit from the adarsha gaon programme. Unfortunately, barring a few, not many villages have taken up this challenge. Whether this is due to a lack of an inspirational Sarpanch willing to galvanise the villagers and push them is debatable.

The watershed development centre in Ralegan Siddhi was established to provide training on watershed management, crop patterns, and dairy management, as there was a lack of trained manpower in the village. As we walked in, a placard at the gate informed us to contact the office if we wanted to meet Anna Hazare. We ignored the instruction and continued to explore the premises of the centre. Tamarind trees flanked our path and stern signs warned us of fines that would be imposed if anyone tampered with the leaves or fruits. The Anna effect was in full force here.

We soon came across a locked room, outside which we found four sleepy havaldars seated next to their outdated rifles. The friendly policemen indicated that Anna was napping inside, while allowing the younger members of our group to touch and marvel at their guns. Several people were sitting patiently on mats under the tamarind trees, waiting for Anna to emerge from the locked room.

Ralegan Siddhi Anna Hazare smiled as people came forward to meet him. Photograph by Sangeeta Mulay.

Somehow, I didn’t think that it would be so easy to meet a prominent personality like him. However, we were all pleasantly surprised when Anna Hazare nonchalantly walked out to meet everyone. He smiled as people came forward to meet him. Someone mumbled something about him giving hope to our nation. Several people bent down to touch his feet. He requested people not to do so, but blessed them graciously nevertheless. His modesty was completely disarming. The man is well-known the world over and yet he readily meets not only the Very Important People but also the inconsequential, the simplest of them—the aam aadmi (no pun intended)—sometimes at the cost of great inconvenience to himself. Later, the realisation hit us that we had met a man who was bound to go down in history as somebody who shook this slumbering nation of ours out of its lethargy and set forth the movement for change. So far, we had only witnessed India’s period of transformation via a television screen, and this chance meeting was highly significant and meant a lot to us.

It is no secret that since 2001, farmers have been committing suicide in India once every half-hour. India and her villages need more people like Anna Hazare and adarsha villages like Ralegan Siddhi to set a precedent.

http://helterskelter.in/2014/03/chasing-anna/

The Reading gardens

Located at a five minute walk away from my house in the village of Shenley Church End in Milton Keynes are these reading gardens.

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As the sign suggests, a reading room stood previously on this site. When the Parish Council obtained control of it, after a gap of nearly eight years it was converted to the reading gardens.

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A brilliant concept, I think – but then I am a book lover. I haven’t seen anything like this in any part of the world and now it is almost in my backyard.

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The gardens provide a peaceful place for all simply to sit and read. To date, I have never seen anyone use these gardens ever, which is a shame. However considering the British weather you cannot really assign blame. I suspect that the Council had this land on their hands, which was lying vacant and they did not know what to do with it. And so they converted it into a reading garden.

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An idea would be to leave books lying around for people to read so that people can pick up a book and return it back after they finish reading and leave some of their own books for others to read thus providing a small element of non-computer aided interactivity to the whole process.

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Maybe I will write to the Parish Council with my suggestion. Anything to encourage a love of books.