I read Arundhati Roy’s heartbreaking, funny and tragic The God of Small Things: A Novel during my first year of university. I loved it. Those close to me who are reading this are probably rolling their eyes thinking, “is she still going on about that bloody book?’
It is my favourite novel of all time. I have owned many copies. Earlier this year, I would have told you that it is the only book I have ever read twice. That was until I traveled to Kerala in India’s south, the birthplace of Roy and the setting for that exquisite piece of literature.
There, in the sleepy backwaters, drifting past countless swaying coconut palms, I read it for the third time, laughing and weeping and having my heart broken along with the characters all over again as though I’d never met them before.
We’d made the short journey by train from Fort Cochin, a bustling seaside village, to the town of Allepey, our gateway to the backwaters. As we made our way along the canal in the dark, fireflies danced around us, providing the only source of light. I was in awe- I had never seen them before!
After unwinding at our simple hotel on the river for a couple of nights, we boarded a houseboat for our journey through the backwaters- a series of tiny villages connected by a system of rivers and streams.
The house boat cruise is a very touristy thing to do in this area (and it’s not exactly cheap). It is certainly not the only way to see the backwaters, but it is the way we chose and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The boats are built in the style of traditional fishing boats, called Kettuvallam, with woven thatched roofs. They have all the modern conveniences- A/C, toilet, shower, double bed, and the crew consists of a captain, a chef and an ‘engine driver’. We chose a boat with an upper deck, so we could take in as much of the striking scenery as possible.
Now, if ‘tropical’ had a picture in the dictionary, it would be of the backwaters. In stark contrast to most of India, there are no cars or motorbikes to pollute the sounds of birds and laughing children. Chanting from a nearby temple is carried by a light breeze, and the coconut palms sway along in unison.
We stopped for lunch and dined on delicious mild curries and fresh bread. Then, we meandered along the river for another few hours, observing village life. Children ran home from school along the riverbank, in full uniform, backpacks bobbing behind them.
Small motor boats zig-zagged across the river, depositing mothers, children and workers onto its banks. Fisherman waited patiently for their catch in small row boats. Brightly coloured, gaudy churches dotted the shoreline- a lasting legacy of Christian missionaries from years gone by.
At dusk, we docked alongside a small village, and went for a wander.
“Hello, hello!” We turned to find two young girls greeting us in their best English.
“Do you have one pen?” the older one asked, as though it were the most normal question in the world.
“Hello, actually I do,” I replied, thankful that I had remembered to bring the packet of pens I had carried around India, waiting for this type of encounter.
“Now what colour would you like?” I asked, as I presented the packet of about ten pens.
“This one…and this one…And this one, and this one!” The two girls cleaned me out of most of my pens and ran off, giggling hysterically.
We continued walking along the muddy banks of the narrow river. A young boy approached on a bicycle and stopped to greet us, using the Queen’s English. I offered him and his shy friend some pens, and some notebooks I had taken with me. After dragging these things around India, and only managing to unload a few, I was glad to have so many takers.
“Would you like to come to the temple with us?” he asked, his long black lashes framing large, expectant eyes. We weren’t sure. This was only meant to be a short walk before dinner.
“Umm… I’m not sure we can… where is it? Maybe we can meet you there?” We were avoiding hurting his feelings.
“Okay, I will wait for you! Please come!” and he peddled off.
Two boys came running towards us, their feet covered in mud.
“Pen! Pen!” they cried, hands outstretched, smiles reaching from ear to ear. As if by some weird telepathy (or perhaps they do have phones in the backwaters) word had got out that there were tourists handing out free stationary. I dished out the rest of the pens and notebooks, and the boys ran home to brag to their families.
As we passed the temple on our way back, the boy with the Queens English was picking flowers outside the gate, for offerings. His face lit up when he saw us, and we helped him pick the flowers that were too high for him to reach.
“Are you sure we can come inside? I asked, as I stepped out of my flip-flops. The boy reassured us and led us in to the courtyard of the tiny outdoor temple. I didn’t feel like we were intruding- the boy made us feel like special guests, marking our foreheads with white chalk.
We moved towards the encased statue in the centre of the courtyard. I think it was Lord Shiva. Reverently, the boy placed his hands together in prayer, bowed his head and gestured for us to do the same. We did as we were told. I was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the experience, and felt very honoured to be standing right where I was, at that exact moment in time. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
I closed my eyes and said a prayer of heartfelt gratitude, for the novel that first introduced me to Kerala, for Tyrhone who accompanied me there, and for the little boy with long lashes and perfect pronunciation who showed us a very special glimpse of village life.
Aerial photograph by Kerala Tourism, the rest by me.
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