(As promised last week, I pick up from where I left — on the hilly highway between Munnar and Thekkady).
The drive from Munnar to Thekkady defies description, mostly because you can hardly see anything even 10 feet away what with it being mostly misty. But, in between, when the weather clears, as if some invisible magic hand has moved aside the gossamer-textured screen, what you get to view defies description even more. But using all my experience in journalism and my ability to explain things in great detail, let me describe the scene in front of me: Beautiful.
With a slight drizzle spraying gently through the billowing mist amidst mid-morning darkness that hangs over the sprawling tea estates like an angel’s aura — it all seems as if the nature told itself ‘okay, today I will dress up like I am in a Maniratnam movie’ — you feel that if ever there is a heaven on the earth this has to be it, and then your daughter wants the driver to stop the car and she emerges out, takes a deep breath, and pukes. If curvy roads and hilly rides bring out the poet in many, in my daughter, they usually bring out whatever she had for breakfast.
Later, we take a walk through one of the tea estates and meet one of the supervisors, who has the impossibly brilliant name to match the impossibly brilliant surroundings: ‘Sachinkanth’. A wispy lad of 20 years of age, he is a diploma holder and hails from Salem. I take his name to be a portmanteau fusing of Sachin and Rajnikanth. But I am wrong as it turns out that he is named after Sachin and — rimshot — Srikkanth. ‘My father is a big cricket fan,’ he says tersely.
Looking at the never-ending rows and rows of tea plantations, I ask him what is green tea and he replies — you may want to write this down — ‘every tea is green only’. I then hasten to modify my query to what is the green tea that is sold in the market, and Sachinkanth explains that there is nothing separately grown as ‘green tea’, it is just that those tea leaves that don’t undergo the process of oxidation are classified as green tea. After this helpful answer, I now have to figure out what oxidation is.
‘Will green tea help in reducing my weight?’ I ask. ‘Yes, but only if you climb the hill by foot, pluck them and then make tea all by yourself,’ the daughter interjects in a sarcastic reply. Sachinkanth smiles.
Closer to Thekkady, the scenery changes: tea estates give way to coffee and spice plantations. And it is here I encounter the second-most puzzling nameboard of the trip: ‘Spice Garden. Urinal Available’. The strangest, of course, is: ‘Arrack shop. Family room available’. Kerala is no stranger to bizarre stuff. But this must rank right up there. And we think Punjab has a drink and drug problem. Udta Kerala anyone?
Thekkady is a typical tourist town where the bulk of the population is involved in the ancient and traditional activity of selling various stuff at unimaginably exorbitant prices to hapless travellers. They try to peddle me a vial of shampoo for Rs.250 in one of the shops. ‘Rs. 250 for this small bottle?’ I ask the shopkeeper incredulously. ‘Yes, it is an ayurvedic preparation,’ he says. ‘The shampoo is a mix of aloe vera and beer,’ he adds. Yes, beer, in these parts, is ayurvedic. You cannot but fall in love with Kerala.
Staying on the subject of of Ayurveda, Thekkady is also well-known for its traditional massage centres, which, regrettably, don’t involve beer. I go to one of these centres, which is attached to a resort facility, and they have a big counter at the entrance where a guy, in a tie and smart blazer, explains to me how wrong we are to lead a non-traditional life. ‘Our modern lifestyle is at the core of why we suffer so much stress and strain,’ he says. His mobile on the table is whirring non-stop with WhatsApp message alerts. After this spiel, he gives me a background to the various facilities at the centre. ‘Our Ayurvedic massage is fully state-of-the-art,’ he says without any trace of irony.
‘Ayurvedic massage helps to remove the toxins from your body,’ he says. I ask him what exactly is a toxin and he answers me convincingly with an offer for a discount from the quoted price which I accept.
Soon enough, I am ushered into the massage wing, which is wood-pannelled, and the floor is more slippery than the snows of Shimla. I am introduced to my masseur who turns out to be one Siljo, a taciturn lad from Kasargod. He takes me into a room, bolts the door, asks me to disrobe completely, gives me a loin cloth and then takes a selfie with me.
I am, of course, kidding. The massage session and the steam bath that follows it is magical. It is indeed pain-alleviating. My joints feel easy. The problematic neck seems comfortable. All the toxins must be out, I tell wife later. What are toxins, she asks back.
Well, they, too, defy description.