The god of travel is a peculiar god. He doesn’t just dominate your travel stars: he has a decided planetary influence on where your family and friends live as well. That would perhaps be the only rational explanation as to why my brother has always worked in some of the remotest and most beautiful places in Southern India.
Most of my friends have siblings who live in big cities – Melbourne and Paris, Delhi and Mumbai, London and Dubai… but these are places I would have visited on my own. But my brother Sunil’s places of work have always been destinations I may have dreamt of going to but would never.
And so after Kaiga in northern Karnataka, Vythiri in Wayanad and Kumbazha near Pathanamthitta, Mooply in Thrissur, the god of travel deemed to send my brother to Valparai in the Annamalai Hills in Tamilnadu.
That we were going to a hill station with limited resources was obvious to me from the moment we stopped at Spencer in Coimbatore and I watched Sunil and Rajini my sister-in-law shop. For those of us who live within walking distance of markets and stores, the idea of such stocking up seems strange. But the fact remains that remote locations change you into a different sort of person. You learn to adapt what your life demands of you.
We head towards Pollachi which has always seemed to me like a bustling town based on what Malayalam cinema has made it out to be. Pollachi is known for its markets, especially for jaggery, fresh vegetables and cattle. In fact, the Jaggery Market in Pollachi is Asia’s largest of its kind and the cattle market, the biggest of its kind in Southern India. It was said that anything could be sold/bought in/from Pollachi market (including elephants) except one’s parents.
We stop at Sakthi, a little restaurant that has a big menu and many sign boards placed here and there. One reads: Try our Special Fish Manjurion Chicken – 555. Another says: What is Biriyani – Biriyani is Derived From The Persian Word ‘Biriyan’ which means ‘Fried Before Cooking and finally Non Veg: Food Halaled.’
I didn’t need much convincing. I opted for the Mutton Biriyani and ‘Nethli’ fry. The Tamilian biriyani is robust and very heavily spiced. Unlike the Kozhikode biriyani which is delicate and high on flavor, the Tamilian biriyani has an aroma that is unmatched by biriyani from any other part of the country. It is an aroma I know from a childhood spent in Tamilnadu. Of eating at Madurai Muniyandi Vilas and other such places where food is supreme and all else – ambience, place settings, staff manners – is cursory.
The nethli fry was crisp and succulent and as I am someone who reads omens in everything, the lunch at Sakthi seemed like an auspicious start to my travel this time. Replete with food, we hit the road.
There are two ways to reach my brother’s home. From Chalakudy via Athirampally to Malakipara Check post is 80 kms of forest road where wild elephants abound and trees falling cause sudden road blocks. Or there is the 40 hair pin bends to Valparai from Pollachi. Either way, travel is long and high on the spirit of adventure.
En route, my nephews throw up into plastic bags. This too is part of the routine like the stocking up at Coimbatore.
At every second or third hair pin, the boys leave a bit of their lunch behind. By the time we reach Valparai, they look pale and drawn. and I think of the two of them – one 20 and the other 11 and of how they brave this trip every few days to see their parents. Love completely obviates reason. Love makes us do things we would otherwise flee from.
At one of the pins, we stop for a cup of tea. The mountain air is crisp and cold. The estates flank the sides of the hills and there is a serenity that fills me even in those first few moments there.
On one of the hill slopes, I spot a derelict house with a wooden box that must have held the electric meter still clinging to an outer wall. Alongside it is a stream. Trees surround the house and it seems removed and separate from the real world. I could see myself restoring that house and living there with several dogs and cats and a couple of cows and goats. I imagine a flock of hens pecking on the grass outside and the coo-ing of pigeons… I tell Sunil my dream.
He smiles and says, “I could find out if the house is available. But I need to warn you that there are leopards here and they are exceptionally fond of dog meat…. Or, you could just stay with me.”
Murugally Estate where Sunil works as a doctor is 30 kms from Valparai town on towards the Chalakudy side. From Valparai, the roads change. The smooth tarred roads with embankments give way to hard narrow roads gutted with potholes. On one side the slopes press down and on the other side the hill drops into ravines that seem bottomless.
“This morning as we drove to the airport, we spotted a leopard here. He was standing there by that bush,” Sunil said matter of factly pointing to a clump of trees and bushes.
Animal-man conflict is a recurrent theme in Valparai.
But it is the human-elephant conflict here that is most worrying. The tea plantations are a hindrance to the movement of wildlife, particularly elephants who walk large distances to reach water bodies and feeding areas.
Sunil is caught between this delicately perched balance. His bungalow edges a forest directly in the path of elephants. A few months after he moved there, they arrived one night and broke open the garage door and smashed his car. They bent a window grille and tried to reach within the house. They pushed open a bathroom door and pulled out the toilet roll. Eventually the elephants went their way. The first time Sunil and Rajini were petrified. Now when they spot the elephants on the hill behind the house, forest watchers are summoned. The watchers beat drums, light bonfires and burst crackers. Nevertheless ever so often, the elephants come. They topple the plastic water tank, trample the plants, forage whatever they can and leave.
The bungalow is old and huge. The rooms are enormous and the setting is picturesque. My room overlooks a panoramic view. The window is wreathed in creepers.
The night came in abruptly as it does in the mountains. One moment the sun was a red disc in the western horizon, the next moments the stars blazed up the skies. A cold breeze left a trail of goose-flesh on my arms. All around was dark and strange.
As Sunil and I stood outside enjoying the nightscape unfamiliar sounds punctuated the stillness.
A twig snapped; something heavy on the carpet of leaves; a giant breath. A few months ago Sunil’s dog, a dachshund Mili went missing. They found a tiny scrap of her fur on the barbed wire. A leopard had taken her. I felt as though there was something out there in the darkness. I didn’t wait to find out. Sunil and I fled into the house.
Later that night, I left the window open. Never mind elephants, snakes or whatever else may choose to come in. I decided I would go to sleep breathing in the mountain air and with star light on my face.
Morning dawned and I was plagued by choices. I would like to have stayed in bed watching the skies. Or, I could wander in the garden that turned into a forest after thirty feet. Or, I could go for a walk through the tea slopes. Or, I could sit with a cup of tea and watch the grass grow.
None of the mobile networks have coverage here. There is a landline that worked erratically and the net connection has a mind of its own. I felt a great sense of escape, and relief. Out here I could forget reality and just be.
Then Kesavan appeared with an offer to take us boating, I agreed readily. It would be perfect to glide in a boat on water watching the clouds, I thought.
Ever since childhood Sunil has always been part of most of my adventures. Perhaps I became the person I am only because I had him to support and encourage me all the way. From my first bike ride to my first visit to the anatomy lab to see the human body cut open; from my first travel to Kanyakumari to that first visit to a second-hand book shop, we have done and seen many things together and so once again when Rajini and the boys balked at the notion of riding a coracle, Sunil was prepared.
From the Sholayar dam which is nearby a stretch of water flows to turn into a river that separates Tamilnadu and Kerala. This is the water body the elephants come towards to drink and bathe in.
A steep slope of tea descends to the river. Only a 4 wheel drive jeep can handle the almost nonexistent road and to a point. Thereafter we have to walk to the water’s edge. As we climb down, I stop to admire the view. It is sunny but a cool breeze blows down the green slopes.
I have my first moment of misgiving when I spot the boat. I had expected a coracle but this was just three stout bamboo poles held together. And there wasn’t a jetty or even a bank to step onto that contraption called the ‘boat!’ I didn’t speak and proceeded towards getting onto it. But how?
So there I was one foot on a wobbling rock and other foot on the raft when it began to move. Like in a slow motion shot, I began to stretch my legs wider and wider until I had no option but to jump into the water with one hand holding aloft the camera. The river is cool and clear and I emerge fully drenched with a wrenched left wrist but the camera was safe. Somehow being wet made it all easier. I didn’t have to worry about staying dry….I also discovered that the raft floated at precisely the water level so I would have got wet anyway. This way, soaking wet, I could experience the river at its fullest. No sounds of life but bird songs and above me a blue blue sky.
“This must be a beautiful place to swim,’ I said.
The boatman frowned, “Hmm…. yes but there are crocodiles in the water.”
My heart sank a bit. The shore (if you call that line of wobbly rocks one) seemed very far away.
I heard the sounds of branches breaking on the other side. I asked the boatman about it. He said, “Those are wild elephants.”
On the other side, the shore didn’t seem that far either. Between elephants and crocodiles, we didn’t stand much of a chance if either decided to attack. And then, I thought : what the hell…I would worry about that when it happened. Meanwhile here I was on a bamboo raft with all of nature’s beauty spread before me and around me…
And this was the joy of Valparai and this trip. The joy of taking a chance. Sometimes life throws up certain experiences our way. It is upto us to know it to the fullest or ignore it. As for the god of travel, he is a great one for offering challenges to his devotees.
Seize his offerings and life unfurls in a way you never thought possible. That is the blessing the god of travel offers.
Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.