Letter to Son No. 1 – Kerala

Moon Cottage, Kovalum
October 1-6 1985

Somewhere in the mists of time and post offices, Letter no. 4 has disappeared. There is no note about it in my diary. However, I did send a now lost letter to my parents from Hyderabad on 8th September.

From my window I can see, just beyond the well, coconut, papaya and banana trees. The sun cannot be seen through the overhead canopy of long-fingered leaves of the coconut palms. What light passes through may cast a shadow on the ripe orange and unripe green papayas just beyond my reach. The banana leaves are the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen. Indeed, in many ‘meals’ restaurants in south India, a section of the leaf serves as a plate for people eating rice curries, curd and chapattis with their fingers.

The land is terraced to form a series of small fields, each with a fortification, a low wall of packed earth, to retain the water downpoured by the monsoon rain which is carefully rationed. The controlled measures of irrigation water, essential for the well-being of the fruit trees, especially the tall branchless coconut palms, are channelled through breaks in the supporting walls, so that it cascades in a series of overflows from the highest levels to the lowest.

Beyond the trees, out of my view, is a large area of small paddy fields, some being ploughed with oxen, others showing the bright green of early shoots. It’s a patchwork of patterns. At night, the lighthouse on the headland is reflected in the water here as it casts its beam all around: across the Arabian Sea westwards, to Bombay 2,000 kilometres to the north, and to the southernmost tip of India, Cape Cormorin just 80kms away, and inland just over the tops of the coconut groves climbing over the coastal hill.

Night is the time that the frogs sing. Occasionally the croak of a bullfrog (?) will cut deeply across the constant rhythm, which is like a long tape loop of choruses spread across the fields. Those of us with Walkmans rarely play them. As well as saving batteries, the music we hear all around us far surpasses the sounds we carry in our luggage. Underpinning the night noises, and a constant reminder during the day, is the deep metronome of the ocean demonstrating its power.

The waves leave a purple polkadot pattern of jellyfish, all shiny, seemingly slimy, dissolving in the heat of the day to become less like a party jelly mould and more disgusting by the minute. Nothing goes near them, not the fishermen who live here nor the day tripping tourists who come here from Trivandrum, the nearest city, to walk in groups of at least four. The men are clad in sta-prest man-made fibre trousers or longi. Mahatma Gandhi wore one: it’s like a tablecloth wrapped around the waist without a belt to make a long skirt. The men also clutch a plastic briefcase, perhaps containing a spare clean longi.

The dogs, fastidiously ridding themselves of fleas with a continual contortionist act of tail chasing, which most succeed at, won’t touch the jelly fish either. Nor will the crows. Perhaps they’re too busy guarding their domain and ensuring that Kovalum is litter free: they eat it all. There are no seabirds here, none, and the assumption is that the crows have literally captured the territory.

I have seen two or three ernes (sea eagles) soaring majestically over the trees which ring the beaches. Like a World War II air battle, each eagle with roundels under their wings may get harassed by the quick tempered crows and glide away, disdainful of the cheek and temerity of the street urchins of the bird world.

The crows don’t go in the paddy fields which are too wet for them. So here can be seen egrets, white heron type birds with long thin bodies, like a cotton bud pulled out of shape, a long pointed beak to spear insects and frogs and supported on long stick legs with the knee joints on backwards.

There are also ducks. As this is not an area suitable for grazing animals, most small fields are too small to turn a tractor in, herds of ducks are kept. And what else but herds? They are lead to the flooded fields by a small boy with a long stick to keep them in line, just as cows are lead to their milking stalls. As many as a hundred ducks waddle to the chosen paddy where they will all search for insects in the very fertile soil. Their poop is the fertiliser. At nightfall, the boy will lead them back home, presumably a walled yard.

I like Kerala. People here have a sense of humour, something apparently lacking in the dignified, educated urban Hindus, the sweepers and servants, and beggars who have a lot less to laugh about, and in the Muslim communities. Hopefully, if Allah is truly merciful he will allow laughter in the heareafter.

Speaking generally, the only people I’d seen joking with each other, finding moments of fun and ridiculousness in the daily struggle, were the Buddhists in Ladakh. The sense of community was strong there, as it is here where the lushness of the land and the seasonal financial rewards of tourism bring a comfortable living.

In neighbouring villages, those people who have been able to afford a concrete clad brick house in 50’s suburbia style have a picture or plaster statue of the Hindu gods Krishna or Ganesha, the pink elephant god, on a ledge overlooking and guarding the front entrance. Or they place a garden gnome or the Three Wise Monkeys. Whether the latter are to demonstrate adherence to Shintoism or their sense of humour, I don’t know, but it is one of my main reasons for staying here.


I’m perfectly comfortable, as are the majority of travellers who, like myself, arrived in urgent need of rest and recuperation. I have seen some people come here fresh from working in Europe or sunbathing in nearby Sri Lanka who complain of there being nothing to do. They leave after a couple of days.

I will leave soon too, but I will have been here two weeks. My tan will be no darker nor my hair more sun-bleache3d. This will be partly due to the steady torrential downpour rolling in off the ocean which keeps us on our verandahs. Mostly though it’s because it’s been good to stop and do nothing. A few, very few, can be seen diving headlong into the breaking waves or baking themselves on the beach in a savoury coating of coconut oil and sand. I read and admire the view.

There are at least four libraries/book exchanges open. Come the season, around Christmas with hundreds more convalescing travellers, there will be many more. The room to let will have quadrupled in number and price, and the restaurants will serve umpteen more portions of porridge, fish and chips, spaghetti and fruit pancakes to gourmets whose taste buds will have become jaded by one banana leaf meal too many.

I have been able to read a book a day, adventure thrillers which unfold like a James Bond movie – all CIA, KGB and a revolution in China or the Arab countries; they put the travails of travelling out of mind. No wooden benches on trains for beds, no bus rides with legs and bum totally numb, and no frustrating conversations with a total lack of understanding or logic. No, there are no worries or responsibilities here so, for the first time in maybe 15 years, I am totally relaxed.

Yet there is a fishing village the next cove over yet to be visited, an eight-hour slow boat ride through the tropical waterways just north, and later I hope to meet some friends from Kashmir in Goa. I won’t be sad to leave here but, perhaps, just a touch regretful. In another four weeks I’ll be flying to Singapore from Bombay, and I’ll write to you there about how I’ll be feeling on leaving India after six months, a truly unique experience.

Until then, take care and/but have fun.

J
…………………………………………
Footnote: On my way to post the above letter, which I couldn’t because it was a religious festival day. I bumped into my successor as a children’s charity co-ordinator back in London. I wasn’t pleased to see her, and to this day, having fund-raised her salary feel disgruntled. However, the encounter provided further proof that this really is a small world

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About Jakartass

A Brit Abroad
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