Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Tamil Nadu on the Arabian Sea and Kerala on the Bay of Bengal
What appears to be a warped understanding of geography is the speciality of the Kanyakumaari district. The Travancore royals had their palace at Padmanabhapuram and the conquering Dutch had a seafront fort at Vattakottai on the Bay of Bengal (legend has it that both these places, about 25 kilometres apart were originally connected by an underground tunnel system). Bartering away Palakkad district to Kerala, we Tamils got to keep Kanyakumaari. Almost everybody is fluent in both the states� languages, and have the most interesting Christian names I have heard. The locals are famous for the typical lilt in their Tamil and their vocabulary is rather unpolluted, sometimes almost classical. The fishing villages dotted with churches and red tiled-roof houses on the coast, from the heights of Yaanappaarai, look like they are off postcards from the Mediterranean. Just one question, do they have coconut trees like these in Spain? In Thengapattinam is the PoLi (estuary). Boy oh boy! One of the highlights of this trip for me has to be the evening swim at the PoLi. As the sun set on the Arabian Sea, and with the seasonal narrow sandbar blocking the mouth of the river, a dip in the freshwater pool took me to paradise and beyond. We also took a boat ride up the river. While the firangs get to pay thousands of rupees for the same thing in Kerala, we got everything for free (Of course you need, as we did, to personally know some locals: the ones with strong forearms, convex torsos, friendly demeanour and the guts to beat the same out of anybody in the wink of an eye). Another speciality of these strong men is their singular ability to empty bottles of �medicinal� Arishtam. It is a strong drink with lots of herbs that goes down the throat very warm; and mixed with a little bit of spirit, makes violent philosophers out of happy fishermen. I have not had too much time to know more about their social lives, but they do seem to have a distinct taste for things. I heard that they get their kids the best clothes their meagre earnings buy. What really took me by surprise was that Nithil�s friend�s father was a rather keen connoisseur of classic Tamil films. An admirer of Kamal Haasan, his favourite Kamal film is Kurudippunal. The next time another Kodambakkam �pundit� talks about the preference of the �mass� & �C� audience, I will sure whack him as usual; this time though with the backing of a fisherman turned bodybuilder turned schoolteacher.
The other big thing about this trip was the strenuous climb up Marutthuvaal Malai. The view is worth all the effort. From up there, you can see the southern tip of India, the Ocean, the Bay, the Sea, the end of the Ghats, the mouth of a river, a large part of the small district, a small part of the neighbouring district, the rock memorial to a Hindu philosopher and an effeminate statue of a legendary Tamil Scholar. At the hill�s summit, standing at a height of so many hundred feet, on a rock only as big as small room, there are 360 degrees of pure visual wonder. Two pieces of info for the aspiring traveller: There is absolutely no barricade of any sort around the summit and the wind can get a little brisk. The second thing is to try and do what we did: brave the scary images of Siddhars (shaivite hermits) living at the base of the hill, brave the scarier thoughts of invisible loose rock, and brave the scariest sounds in the pre-dawn darkness. Starting the climb in the early hours of the morning (more like the late hours of the night), you can get to the top just when the sun rises. It is a remarkable sight for sure. This exercise in fighting fear can also save you from the heat of the midday sun, as the trek/climb-on-all-fours can get pretty exhausting. If the way up is hard on the lungs, the climb down gets very hard on the legs. The path, marked with painted arrows on the rocks, is very steep at spots.
One of the last places we visited in the district was Muttam, the hometown of a cart-pusher, one Mr. J Panki Raj, who of course, is now famous in Chennai for things altogether different. He no longer uses his full name, just his initials.
Thus transpired a weekend �working holiday�. The holiday part was enjoyable; the work part, Hmm� we should soon know.
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