Finally, stepping out of the orthodox Brahminical compound of Padmanabhapuram Palace at five, I found my feet float me to the guy with a hundred orange coconuts tied to his black bicycle. The setting sun casts deep orange gashes on roof tops and tree leaves. The rest of the road even though still bright, lies shaded. The length of the street is lined with shops selling cliché tourism mementos like bamboo artefacts, home decoratives, lamps etc. One refreshing drink later I find myself at the entrance of a local dhaba. Two steps down the road and through a small open doorway, I find myself a secluded spot among the many wooden benches and tables that line the hall. Half of the space inside is occupied by the kitchen set-up, with the center being a hotchpotch of glass shelved counters with a display of fried snacks and a cash counter manned by a middle aged man.
Thali is available even at five in the evening. Steamed rice is served on a banana leaf. It’s those thick ones with slight red stripes. I don’t fancy thick rice. It robs curries off their taste and as a Bengali whose meals are incomplete without rice, I’m not too thrilled with what’s available after a long day that’s left me thoroughly hungry. But this must do. Along with rice, there’s dal, kootu, mor kuzhambu, a serving of mix vegetable sabzi, pickle and papad.
I attack my food with single minded determination, stuffing my face while looking about the room solemnly. On both sides of the open doorway, the top half of the wall has not been filled in with bricks. The length has instead been secured with iron grills and the openings act as windows which look out to the road. Naturally, the benches closer to the window are more crowded. A series of thin old men sit sipping hot tea from narrow glasses one leg over the other, rubber slippers dangling from their bony feet. They look at me too from time to time, their big eyes roving from the street to the fat man on the cash counter who’s constantly transacting and finally to me where my big roving eyes meet theirs as I stuff a hand rolled ball of rice and sambar most uncouthly into my mouth. Thus the circle is complete.
Pabla still hasn’t found her way out of the Palace. She seems really interested in historical sites and has a lot of energy for doing this. I on the other hand am limping. Since my long aimless walk to Kovalam beach in kanyakumari, my feet have not quite forgiven me. Also because since then they didn’t get much rest. Right before reaching Padmanabhapuram, I bought some really good cramp band and stuck one half of it on my feet on the bus from Thuckalay. But even the band didn’t help much after I limped for 5 hours on the cold floor of the 18th century palace.
Now, I’ve had lunch and feel aimless but Pabla is still enamored by history. So I follow the street till it bends to the left and connects to the T-point where the bus from Thuckalay stops. Here, you can walk a little further to the left to visit the Bonsai Park or can simply sit in the corner, beside the chirpy school children and smell the aroma of grinded masala from the uncannily small shop behind that is run by a woman who is a Cinderella fit for the place.
She will tell you that there’s always a bus that connects to Trivandrum. And by 6, we are on one such bus. Waiting with our backpacks in the Thuckalay bus depot along with a crowd of office, college and school going women, we get pushed into an overly crowded bus along with the rest. And like in all crowded busses, the new occupants shuffle their feet and bags and hair and hands for an appropriate amount of time till everything falls in place and everyone’s reached optimum comfort position.
The 60 kilometer journey costs us Rs. 45 each but what should have been a 2.30 hours journey stretched to four hours due to the stubborn traffic on the narrow two-sided highway that welcomes us into Kerala. But the route is dotted with bridges that take us over rivers that are lined with coconut trees that reflect a thousand shade of green with the setting sun. Kerala has begun. The Tamil Nadu dust has been left behind. Of course I won’t notice it now but later when I go through the pictures I’ll also spot that the stiff geometric shapes of the Tamil script has given way to the curvy swirl of Malayalam.
In fact a lot has changed. We seem to be getting closer to a big city. The size of the shops are getting bigger, many are decorated with fairy lights. The profusion of cars and bikes is also increasing, so is the honking. And there’s the CPM flag and at one point there was also a protest march. Of course don’t miss out those gigantic Mohanlal posters by the side of the road. There’s Mohanlal just about everywhere.