By the time the headlights of Hari’s Datsun Go was illuminating the mossy residential walls of Vazhapally in Changanassery, I knew I had truly gone off beat with my Kerala drifting.
Two weeks ago I had had to Google Changanassery and struggled to pronounce it without losing my way in the alphabets. And now, here I was. After an eight hour long fatiguing ride, about to find a home away from home.
Rusted grey metal gate doors open out to a drive way that leads to the garage. Hari’s house in Vazhapally is a sprawled bungalow with a front yard housing a pond and two wells. There’s also an overgrown backyard with a Jackfruit tree.
And in the middle of it all, an angelic white house, all equipped and ready to accommodate a party of fatigued nomads.
In the living room, Pabla and I have picked our sofas to sprawl out, while Hari shuffles about the house, switching on lights, wifi and fetching water; visibly embarrassed and unskilled in the role of a host.
Somewhere ahead of me, beneath a flat screen TV set perched on the wall, a glamorous wooden case holds Hari’s Sister’s Veena. On top of that rests his acoustic guitar. Towards the left, in the corner of the room, a golden Krishna murti stands on a wooden frame forever blowing on a silent flute. A decorative wooden elephant tramples on a small table next to it. There’s also a Shiva and Ganesha murti. An entourage of Hindu Gods. And a Shyama tulsi in the front yard.
Vazhapally is mostly very quiet. A walk around the area leads me past various Banyan tree junctions and ponds, reflecting the sky on multiple shards the slight breeze creates on the water surface, every second.
My accomplice is the greed inducing Google maps app on my phone and the agenda of the afternoon is to find Kodoor River. It seems fairly accessible and quite close but eventually I am to discover everything in Vazhapally besides what I set out to look for.
However, no hard feelings at Kodoor River because in its elusiveness, it taught me a bit about life in Kerala.
I had been wondering for a while, why everyone I meet in this state is initiating an urge in me to be all proper and well behaved. The number of times Hari has pointed out cops from his driver’s seat in a hushed and tensed tone, the number of times he’s stopped me from picking up random conversations with random people in my makeshift non-Malayalam…
Initially I thought, Hari is just scared in general. But then I found that same fear seep into me. I wanted to check my loud voice, limit my cut-sleeve attires to the bottom of the backpack and in general behave as though my dad was looking at me with angry eyes.
In Vazhapally I finally find an explanation and a lot seems to fall in place.
Most of Kerala is made up of clusters of villages with each locality housed by an entire set of extended family. Far off relations, third cousins and neighbouring chechis who live a mile away from where you do, all matter. Their stares matter and their opinions of you matter.
Even if none of them figure in your scheme of things they could still wreck havoc if they give your family the wrong review. All it takes is one misplaced misdeed.
During my chaotic haphazard alley hopping walk to find my river I had the misfortune to think that I should ask for directions.Two elderly women standing by the side of the road are having a jovial chat. It’s about to be 5 p.m and I walk up to them and ask “how to get to the river?”
I immediately regret the words I have uttered. First my question has given out that I am an outsider. Second also that I am ‘lost’. Third naturally, it’s about to be dark soon and fourth that I am an unaccompanied woman.
I am bombarded with questions. Where am I from. How did I get here. Where am I staying? How will I return. I have come alone? Where are my parents. Soon an auto is hailed in an attempt to get me to where it is I want to go.
I just want to go home, is all I want to cry out now. I don’t like the attention and I don’t like the doubtful look on their faces. Neither do I want to get Hari into trouble.
Maybe that’s why this is also where modernity really crashes against the shores of tradition.
A walk around Vazhapally brings notes of earthy beats and trebled shehnai floating to the ears. A call for the evening prayer as the sun melts into the clouds like paint in water and stays stagnant for a few moments before mixing secretly into another shade.
But these same lanes also bring round the corner a scooter perched youth zipping past, with flamboyantly styled hair, dyed a shocking shade of blond. And also way too many balconies blare out rock and jazz.
There’s always that guitar resting over the Veena case. Always a Skoda parked at the gate and an oil lamp inside.