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The evils of Kerala

The evils of Kerala

It is 9p.m. and I’m in a run-down corridor. In a crisp white adidas jacket and shorts, I’m literally rubbing shoulders with a rather rough crowd. Frayed shirts, if any, and a lungi or dust coated trousers. A jumble of sweaty limbs and hard worked faces. There is one light along this 10 metre alley way that you wouldn’t notice if not for the queue that emanates from it.

As the feet shuffle along slowly, pressed between a second line on my left and the derelict wall on my right, the person in front of me takes out a phone. He’s dialling ‘bibi’. I discern – ‘Rum. Quarter’. He puts the phone back in his pocket. He’s smiling.

I am standing in a line at an alcohol shop in Kerala. The few that are.

Kerala is a drinking state. Always has been. Earlier today I walked past a small green walled hut that flashed the word Toddy over it’s front. Inside you wouldn’t have to look deep to find handfuls of people sitting at a table with a bottle of the unmistakable white liquid in bottles. People winding down after a long day.

The same is true in the line I’m in. Despite the dark and the squalor, cobwebs hanging over us, the mood is happy. Everyone is slowly but surely inching towards a good night. Down at the end of it, a thick grill divides me from the cashier. I ask for 3 Kingfisher Premium. He hollers over his shoulder. And holds up 1 finger. I ask him what else he has. Zingaro. Strong. 2 I gesticulate. He nods. And types it into a machine. A dot-matrix printer starts buzzing and he puts his hand forward. I give him a 500 that’s ready. As I wonder how much more I’ll need, he says 280. He’s joking.

In a cruel twist of fate, Kerala has the cheapest legal alcohol, and very few shops to sell it. It has been cracking down on the liquor shops systematically, and apart from 5 star hotels and KSTDC(Kerala State Tourism…) restaurants, you can’t hope to sit and drink into the night. Some say, it has some correlation with Kerala’s steadily rising illegal liquor market, but you didn’t hear it on this blog.

I head to the pickup spot, bill in hand. He offers me my three well-earned bottles. I don’t bother asking for a plastic bag, having not seen them on anyone who’s emerged from this corridor yet. And I snake my way past two lines. Outside Najeeb meets me to tell me he found a place we could have avoided this. I say, why would I have?

The next time you’re in Kerala, keep an eye out for them. By afternoon or early evening. A line of patiently waiting labourer-looking-hard-worked people with a twinkle in their eye. No jostling, no breaking formation. Just the patience of someone who knows better. And attached to the mouth of this happy line is a run-down establishment selling cheap legal liquor.

The other thing that might hit you, is the Bakeries. Lined all along the roads, you can’t miss them. Koolbar and Bakery. Offering fresh juice and warm cake. Macaroons and Halwa. Biscuits and pastries in all colours and shapes. ‘Farsan’ in big glass containers. Egg patties with half a boiled egg in them. And if you missed it, you won’t have to hold your breath too long, because another one will be with you 4 shops away.

Najeeb fills me in on this curious occurrence too. Kerala-ites love bakery food. You can’t visit someone’s house without it. In Ramanattukara, the small town I’m in, alone there are roughly a 100 bakeries. One in every 4 shops. With a population of 30,000 that’s 300 people to one bakery. And do they make any money? Najeeb puts it at 1 Lakh a day. Investment? 30 INR per sq. feet rent a month.

And he starts pointing them out to me. Slowing the two-wheeler as we pass them. He tells me that even in the remote villages, there are 4-5 bakeries. I ask him – ‘How many medical shops?’ He answers 1-2. But easy to imagine this being an inflated number. Maybe in Kerala cake saves lives.

As we stop at a petrol pump to fill up Najeeb opens the hood to reveal our catch. The attendant doesn’t flinch, or smile. He understands. And asks Najeeb – ‘How much?’ Here, in this quiet town in Kerala, with a literacy rate of 83%, it is easy to see, that everyone either bakes or gulps it down by the bucket.

A train scatters a flock of eagles that come straight at me under a bridge over the river.
Photo Reprieve: The eagles are Coming!
Standing Still.

Standing Still.

If I stand still, two brahminys eagles will sail overhead, talons out to attack each other. The white heads screech out and swoop down over the clear green water.

A train scatters a flock of eagles that come straight at me under a bridge over the river.
The eagles ae coming!

If I stand still, as the river bends, the golden glow of the setting sun will crawl over the water to reach me. But before it’s piercing rays start their work an idle cloud blows in it’s way & sends crimson across the sky.

If I stand still the sea wind blowing the cloud, dissipates the heat of 12 kms of kayaking up river. Palm trees rustle in the wind and sway shadows in the water.

Kayaking in the middle of the river
The swaying coconut trees.

I am kayaking in the Chaliyar river in Kerala & everything here is crimson, green, blue & yellow. As I explore Kerala, the way I know best, I ponder on my love for things swift. Racing, with the wind in your face, is my rush. Still & I aren’t found in the same pincode. And yet, Kerala has brought that out in me. Locals call you over to their boat, or the riverside to simply chat with you. The language barrier melts as I explain the speed of my kayak to a fisherman in his colourful boat.

Red and Yellow kayaks waiting to enter the green water surrounded by coconut trees.
All the colours you need.

Another 3 kms on, a father & son are standing still in the middle of the river. The young one translates for us when his father enquires about the price of my kayak. He seems unfazed by the cost, but the fact that you can only fit one person in it puts him off the purchase. After a fair back-and-forth, he reaches into a plastic bag and holds up a green back crab. His son smiles. Dinner.

Father & son fishing on the river.
Crab Dinner.

A bridge emerges & brings me back to civilisation. I hasten to avoid it, but as I draw close, it dawns on me. I stand still to reflect on the realisation that I am invisible to civilsation. Up on the bridge, in buses packed to the brim, or in the silver Audi working it’s air conditioning over time, one lone kayaker 30 feet below in a meandering quiet river is so insignificant, that it’s both heartening and sad. A well spent moment taking it in.

Boatsman ferrying kids around an island.
Taking an evening ride.

I realise soon that it’s a busy river. I meet children jumping off of rock cliffs. I spot elders smoking on the side of a river, fishing lines out, underneath a billboard ushering in new-age products these people never asked for. Everything is in juxtaposition here. I turn around and head back, picking up the pace. I’m cruising when I spot a youth nestled in shrubbery, his house hidden from clear view. I smile thinking, atleast the young ones are the same; busy texting a girl far from the prying eyes of a conservative family. Before the smile reaches it’s edges, he looks up, and with one swift motion flings out the bait he’s been meticulously rigging on the end of a thing fishing line.

It is evening in Kerala. And I am standing still.