The undulating tea gardens of Munnar are like a balm to city-tired eyes. Photo by: Alvaro Leiva/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library
In the days before Konkan railway, travelling to Kerala by train took three days. Most Malayalis with roots in Kerala would make their annual trip during the sweltering summer holidays. The train would chug along lazily under the summer sun while the dry heat lay heavy on our lids, as we too made the journey from Mumbai. Through the blur of eyelashes, we’d see the land shimmer with heat haze—mile after mile of barren, parched land, broken periodically by a house or two, painted blue.
And then with the dawn of the last day, an occasional cool breeze would drift in through the windows. That is when Dad would wake me and my sisters to go brush our teeth, while finally the train slept, after the hustle bustle of the night. We would grumble and burrow deeper into our pillows, but Dad wouldn’t relent. He would tell us that we could sleep after we had brushed.
Water has the curious and decidedly final effect of chasing away all sleep, so when we’d come back to our seats, my sisters and I would scramble for the window seat. Between sleeping and waking, the land would have transformed. A weight seemingly lifting off our train as it picked up speed passing by green after green, punctuated only by the blue of lakes and streams. We would have entered Kerala.
Through all the years that have passed, this is what Kerala has stood for to me—green. Verdant and lush; with thick low-banking clouds over the horizon, heavy with the promise of rain. As children, we felt it when sweat poured down in waves even as we sat under the fan at full speed. We felt it in the evenings that fast sped into night, as clouds boomed with thunder that seemed to send shock waves through the ground beneath our feet while lightning sparked and fell so close that fear had our hair standing on end. And finally when the rain came down, it would come pouring with all its might. Every sound drowned in the white noise of the rain, and all sight blurred—land and sky seemed to have merged.
When I would talk to people back home in Mumbai about the rains of Kerala, I would scoff at the spectacle we witnessed every monsoon in the city. In my tales of small exaggerations, the thunder crackled louder, the lightning fell closer and the rain came down heavier. The rain in Kerala was always mightier, stronger, more fearsome than anything we’d seen in Mumbai.
Except that one rainy night in Mumbai when it poured and poured as if all the water in the world was being discharged through the skies over the city. They called it a cloudburst. To me, watching from my office window, it evoked images of Kerala where sheets of water formed a screen through which nothing passed, not light, not sound. Those who tried to go home that evening came back carrying tales of wading through water neck deep. It was decided that we would all just stay in office. No one imagined that the water would rise further. But rise it did. Each of us received phone calls from home—of water entering ground-floor flats, and rising and rising till it was a foot high. Of water rising in low-lying areas, so much so that it ate up entire flats, leaving people desperately making holes in their ceiling so they could be hauled up.
It was a hellish, sleepless night spent worrying about families back home, not made any better by the uncertainty of the next day. Had the waters receded? Were local trains working? Did we have to walk half the length of the island city back home? It turned out we had to walk half way to catch trains that were plying only parts of their route, and so packed that people could barely breathe. Reaching home to relieved families happened amidst clean-up operations. The outside had brought its filth indoors and we needed to make the space liveable again.
These scenes played in my mind once more when news of the floods in Kerala started streaming in. And then we learnt it could get worse. What Mumbai had witnessed over a day, Kerala seemed to be withstanding over days on end. Snapshots appeared in my mind’s eye—of places we had visited in Kerala as children and adults. Places now under water or beset by relentless rain.
There was the Thiruvananthapuram of centuries-old palaces and temples, home to a figure of the reclining Vishnu spanning across three doorways, where iron bars rang out the notes of the saptaswara; the bustle of the capital that gave way to the dense forests of Ponmudi, where trees seemed to touch the skies and the rivers were rumoured to bring down semi-precious stones from the mountains. Another image brought up Munnar and Thekkadi: the undulating tea gardens of Munnar and the serenity of Lakkom Waterfalls, where sunlight filtered through the greens and birds cooed sweet nothings; the heady scent of the spice plantations of Thekkady, where night brought the fear of isolation in the dark forest with only the calls of the forest denizens for company. Yet another snapshot was a trip to Palakkad where we whooshed past Malampuzha Dam in a cable car.
Fear of heights was shoved to the backseat when awe pushed to the forefront, as we glided over gushing waters and the garden beneath. The next snapshot: the wilderness of Wayanad with its multitude of waterfalls, where I once watched my mother slither down a slippery slope towards the falls while we kids followed gingerly in her steps. The reason for her sprightliness?Running like a goat across the hills on her way to school.
The snapshots came fast—walking through the paadam (paddy field) at dawn to catch the sunrise and wave at passing trains, drinking jeera soda at the local thattukada (roadside eatery) to cool off the blistering summer heat, buses partitioned such that women rode in the front and men were seated at the back. But now these snapshots were interspersed with visuals from news reports of those places, those memories drenched in rain.
My family and I are visiting Kochi this October, to go to those places that faced the brunt of the deluge. We are going with the hope of creating new snapshots of not just gorgeous vistas and verdant countryside but of moments made richer by the resilience that marks the human spirit. A resilience that is among the many bricks that will help this beautiful state get back on its feet.