Sometimes in Kerala, to get a holiday, you just need the news of a Hartal. People get all festive & in holiday mood before even the sentence is completed. It is one of those rare days when nobody bothers you. On one such day, our principal declared holiday after the first period foreseeing a strike in the evening. The classrooms got empty before the announcement could be made officially. Even the studious ones who had completed their home-works gave up the eager wait for the public humiliation of the not so studious ones, and trudged reluctantly behind the jumpy crowd racing outside. We were so happy with the unexpected day off that we did not quite know what to do with the free time in hand & more importantly how to get home now that plans have changed. The excited crowd started dwindling as people headed off in different directions, theatres, playgrounds, homes, you could go anywhere you wanted now.
It was time for our group as well to disperse. One headed home, one went to the bus stand & then there were three. We all stayed nearby so we decided to head home together. We had this brilliant idea to splurge all our cash on ice- creams & goodies & take a short cut to walk back home.
The 90s candies
We started out with gorging on all sorts of processed sugar. With some of the bubble gums like Boomer & Big Babool, we even got the additional perk of annoying people with loud chewing & free stuff like holographic cards & scales. Wrapper collection for getting free goodies from the manufacturers of our sugary treats was a big fad of that time. Soon we were done & there was enough sugar in our blood to kill a diabetic.
Stuff left behind by British in Kerala
We merrily walked in the hot sun homewards. There are only two main types of weather conditions in Kerala. It either rains endlessly or it is hot as hell. An umbrella with UV coating as many of the manufacturers in the thriving umbrella industry of the state claim, is useful in both the situations. That afternoon, we felt like our brains would evaporate if we did not find some shade soon.
The weather in tropics are never a breeze like the vacation videos or tourism commercials people show online. It is always sweaty & there are a zillion insects out to draw your blood. And the leaf covered grounds are home to millions of strange creatures including not so cute leeches, horrible red ants, itchy grass & venomous snakes. The beaches are a great relief though. Before human civilization ate away forest lands, certain parts of the state were so densely covered in forest, no man dared to enter them.
Centuries ago, through such difficult terrain, our forefathers had built roadways & railways under the supervision of out white bosses. We decided it was time to ditch the mainstream roads probably built by our British rulers & take the more adventurous short cut.
Ancient Roads of Kerala
We call it “Eda vazhi”. They are the tiny muddy paths or roads of ancient Kerala that have been there long before the British influence brought us the wide tarred roads you see today. They are big enough for people, cattle & two wheelers to pass & are flanked on either side by plots of houses & trees. Don’t be surprised if you catch a snake or two basking on its hinges. We are not alone in our love for shade & greenery. All the natural green landscape & the tropical climate support variety of life from strange insects to queer animals & snakes. The bamboo shoots, shrubs & trees around these paths are home to a variety of wildlife including pretty birds & not so pretty monitor lizards & deadly snakes. Although rare, depending on the density of the foliage around, you may get the chance to see larger animals like foxes and sometimes ‘pooli’ or leopard.
Of Bamboos shoots & snakes
The shade from the trees was a welcome relief for us. Passing through the heart of countryside Kerala, we passed traditional homes with red tiles on roof, grazing goats & cows tied to their respective posts or trees, over-grown Bamboo & shrubs which we quickly passed not wanting to awaken any deadly sleeping occupant among the thick layer of dried up leaves & rotting foliage. Poisonous snakes including King cobras are known to build their nest with piles of dried leaves & foliage. The nest protects their eggs from the horrible humidity & torrential rains the area is renowned for. Most of the snakes are active in the night & as far as possible avoid bugging & being bugged by humans. But you never know when you bump into a foraging or sleeping serpent along the muddy Eda vazhi.
We soon came across this tiny house on one of the plots that had many love birds in cages & fish tanks with colourful fishes arranged neatly outside the house. The owner who supplied to many pet stores in the town was happy to see the bunch potential gullible customers. Thinking we would buy a lot of stuff, he proudly insisted on showing his collection of expensive colourful fishes & birds. We began to feel uneasy given that we were more than broke & had no intention of buying anything. But by now after asking so many questions about species of fish we never wanted to adopt or buy, we were a little too late. We could see he was a few seconds short of yelling & shooing us off his property. Scouting all the change & torn notes, I grinned & asked, “What can we get for 10 bucks?” The guy frowned and asked me to choose a pair from a cement tank with fishes so tiny that they looked like mosquito larvae. Losing the last bit of money we had, we made our way home with a pair of goldfish that looked like orange tadpoles.
The snake we scared shitless
Now there was an urgency to get home & transfer the microscopic fishes from their plastic bags into something less tortuous. There was only one problem. Our friend had last taken the short cut ages ago . The fresh over-growth of shrubs & new houses in the neighborhood, made it difficult to know the exact path of the short-cut. “We need to pass the railway track to other side.” She said. Encouraged that we had some sense of direction now, we asked people along the way & finally found the railway tracks. As we began crossing the tracks, people from behind screamed, “Pamb, Pambe!” Not having the guts or common sense to handle a confrontation with some venomous snake, we screamed & ran full speed in different directions, not even waiting to see the poor terrified snake scurrying for its life in the opposite direction on the other side of the tracks. The running stopped & we saw a few people staring at a hole in the overgrowth. Feeling like idiots we gathered our normal posture & pretended like the crazed running never happened & continued walking.
Across the tracks was this vast expanse of paddy fields. By now it was midday, & we felt like ants with a magnifying glass over our heads. Every breeze that swept across the coconut tree ridden landscape was a relief. Rice field crabs were playing peekaboo with each other from their muddy holes on the field. There were many dragon-flies in the air. We walked gingerly through the hard dried hinges of fields, careful not to step into the unknown & gooey depths of the muddy water & its many small inhabitants. Our march from one plot of field to another was halted abruptly when a small stream born out of the showers of the previous week blocked our way.
“Of streams & natural bridges.”
Groups of tiny fishes raced aimlessly on the surface of the water. Since it was bloody difficult to catch them & also as most snakes can swim pretty well , we searched for a way to get across. “This water was not supposed to be here,” said our discouraged leader who had brought us to this part of the country. The shortcut had eaten nearly half of my holiday & I missed lazing around in my home. Things looked hopeless till one of us spotted a fallen coconut tree precariously connecting the two plots of farm-land. ”See you can use this like a bridge”, quipped our now motivated, leader. We gingerly made our way one by one on the remains of the old tree with muddy water gushing beneath us.
On the other side, we continued our walk. It seemed endless. We started to wonder exactly what our friend meant by ‘short cut’. Finally we saw tarred roads, terraced houses & other hints of modern civilization. By now we were famished & thirsty. My friend reassured us that we were just a few minutes away from home. I could hear the bottle of cold water sitting in my home calling me. “Drink me”.
The long way home
A few left & right turns later, my friend triumphantly said, “There we are home. I told you this is a short cut to my home.” “What about mine?” I asked glancing around to spot any signs of my neighbourhood in the vicinity. May be I am direction impaired & that roof top there is my house, I told myself. My friend helped me out. “You just need to go straight, then a left again straight &…..”
Following my friend’s directions through mazes of houses in the afternoon, I finally barged into my home & raided the fridge. “Where were you?” Mummy asked. All the other kids in our area had reached their homes long ago & were playing outside.
“I took a short-cut”, I mumbled as I guzzled water like a castaway from the desert.