I was woken gently by the sound of birdsong, dappled sunlight filtering into my room and Mrs Venugopal pottering about in the kitchen. She was undoubtedly knocking up some dubious curry concoction for breakfast. I am not much of a breakfast eater at the best of times, choosing instead to prolong my fast until the early afternoon. However, as a highly privileged house guest, manners dictated that I followed polite societal norms. And thus it was, that I found myself forcing down a trifecta of hot and spicy I-know-not-what at 8 o’clock in the morning. Breakfast, I concluded, was not the nations’ culinary strong point. That aside, it was a perfect way to start the day; rice paddies to the rear, serene flowing backwaters to the front, fragrant gardens both right and left. I sat out on the porch, read the Hindu Times and allowed my stomach to come to terms with the spicy onslaught. I was keeping fingers (and legs) crossed that it wouldn’t protest unduly during the potentially arduous journey that lies ahead.
All too soon we were climbing back onboard the little boat and leaving the serenity of the backwaters behind. Waving goodbye to Mr Venugopal, it was easy to understand why he had chosen this simplistic life for his family.
Back among the chaos of Alleppey we had the joys of the local bus to contend with. Bus travel in India makes train travel feel positively luxurious. It’s not quite people on the roofs and chickens in the aisles, but it’s not far off either. Air conditioning comes in the form of a large open window and the seats are sized to make them spacious for two but an uncomfortable sweaty squeeze for three. There is no place for luggage of any kind and needless to say, in keeping with the country as a whole, it’s dilapidated and ridiculously overcrowded. To make matters worse, our bus did not begin its journey in Alleppey, so the chances of bagging a seat were slim to non-existent!
With sharp pointy elbows at the ready, I muscled my way aboard. I ignored the conductor’s protestations that I’d gotten on the wrong end, stuffed my bag in the only available space I could see and sat down next to the most hygienic looking Indian I could find. I spent the next 90 minutes in a sweaty sandwich while being simultaneously blasted by a hot, dry and dusty wind. The journey was indeed a harrowing ordeal. I was beginning to develop a deep and heartfelt gratitude for the millions of Hindu gods who were clearly putting a shift in just to keep everyone on the roads alive. I am pretty sure that every single driver in India is either suicidal or homicidal. Our driver most definitely seemed bedevilled by some form of death wish. The horn honking was so omnipresent that it became meaningless, so too where the lane markers which seemed to have taken on a purely decorative purpose. We spent so little time on the correct side of the road that I started to become unsure as to what was what. When the man beside me disembarked, my initial excitement at being next to the window was soon replaced by an abject terror once all of my senses were subjected to the bedlam. Visual ignorance was truly bliss! As we closed in on Cochin the frenetic terror dropped to a more manageable low-speed anarchy. Not a moment too soon, we disembarked and piled into waiting tuk-tuks for one final dose of hysteria.
Thankfully, Fort Cochin was well worth the trouble of getting there. Not to be confused with the city of Cochin, which is an altogether less agreeable urban agglomeration of over 2 million, Fort Cochin (on the southwestern tip of the city) is an oasis of old world colonial charm. Oozing with European influence from the days of Portuguese, Dutch and of course British rule; the streets are quaint and filled with cafes, great dining options and alluring little shops. The bustling beach area is great for watching the fisherman work the old Chinese fishing nets and there are churches, palaces and forts aplenty. However, all of that could wait until tomorrow. Tonight, we would experience the delights of the Kathakali; a traditional folk dance unique to the state of Kerala.
As we made our way into the tiny citronella filled the auditorium, I had no idea what to expect and was a little taken aback to see, on the stage, three scantily clad men applying elaborate makeup to each other. I hurried to read the information sheet in hope of some clarification. Basically, it’s a bit like opera but with a lot less emphasis on the singing and much more on the gesticulation. Through a series of extravagant hand signals, demonstrative facial expressions and demonic eye movements, the actors tell a (thankfully) short story. The three of them, who are also dressed in elaborate costumes, are accompanied by a drummer and a singer/narrator who together help to set the tone and emotion of the scene with a sequence of banging, wailing and moaning. There really is no polite or politically correct way for me to fully describe this pantomime, except to say that it could be an excellent line of work anyone with Tourette’s Syndrome!
With the evil prince slain, we filtered back out of the auditorium into the muggy night air. I found myself in a rare but slightly stunned hush. It was tricky to know what to make of it all. I needed to chew things over with a masala of some sorts. The bedlam, it seemed, was not confined to the buses!