You could epitomize it as a woman, one who serenades her changing mood, shades of which coincidentally reflects the state of soul the onlooker experiences in the length of a day. From the brilliance of a mid-day sun to the porcelain hide-and-seek of a gentle May moon, the backwaters resolutely reflects the time in an ever-lasting ballet of waves, emphasizing the ongoing greater conversations habitual of Nature; of course, much of it oblivious to a world fascinated by material pursuits.
Couple of hours ride by car from Thiruvanathapuram, much easily recognizable as erstwhile Trivandrum, I watch the ominous dark clouds gather as we near Allapuzha, oh yes! Alleppey – Venice of the East, home to Nature’s love child- the Backwaters. The last few days have been affected by a sudden depression in the Arabian Sea and the eventual rainstorm had lashed through the length of the state of Kerala. Fortunately, it had sent the mercury plummeting a few notches at the height of the searing tropical summer.
“Sir, I don’t think you are going to get the best of it. It’s always better if the rains weren’t there. It’s bad.” Sabu, my driver, for the last few days just about comes up with pithy comments in the nick of time; it makes you smile most often but, sometimes, it frustrates immensely. He couldn’t have made my day today. I am hardly smiling when the car pulls into the pier.
Blotches of rain start painting the pier the moment I set my foot on it. I really try not to bump into Sabu’s meaningful grin as I watch the pitter-patter on the engine-oil thickened waters. It’s a jostling cackle of boats as far as the eye can see, these converted rice-boats of yore now carefully catering to the luxurious whims of tourists like me. Let not the metaphors fool you into complacency about these gentle giants- a skillful demonstration of timber and coir on the outside and everything in luxury that you could possibly command on the inside. Even as my wayfarer’s soul prays for that picture-perfect day, despair is just beginning to consume me.
Do I sense a hint of apprehension behind the smiles on the sun-tanned faces of the boat crew, as I sink into the relative comfort of the cane chairs in the living room? The room yawns onto the bow ahead, its little copper fittings polished to sheen, almost imparting a royal character to the boat. I am told that the boat crew consisting of the driver, cook and the waiter can stand in for each other, multi-skilled to control the boat through the narrowest canals that form the backwater’s arteries. The driver’s eyebrows furrow when he hurriedly glances into the sky as the boat crew, with the help of long bamboo barge-poles, maneuvers the heavy boat into position so that they can rev up the powerful engines that will power the boat’s glide through the canal into the backwaters ahead. Nature puts on her grey countenance and sends in a waft of rain-tinged breeze into my face.
The waters are dark and ominous; unflinching in its effort not to give up her secrets whilst throwing your mind into a tizzy as if faced by a woman with a threatening intelligence; drawing you closer but wary of what awaits you. The waves are coils of heaving black as if poised to strike – the gnawing fear a reminder of the hidden depths. Sabu is just going to be so much right. The waiter, probably sensing my mood, asks me if I would like to have my lunch served. I go for it.
The engines settle into a clunky mode as the giant barge drags its huge frame inching its way through the palm-hugged canal. I dig into the Aviyal, a local delicacy that is a mixture of all local vegetables you can imagine, cooked in their own juices with a wise dash of Indian masala and a generous touch of coconut garnish. There’s steaming rice to go with it, while a round steel platter is decorated with a whole fried pearl-spot, a much sought after fish common to the backwaters, the size roughly that of a large human palm and firmly jacketed in fiery spices, not to mention popadum and rasam, the latter a thin, watery but misleading character quite capable of raping your sensitive innards in the first instance yet much acclaimed to be a tummy-soother after a typical local meal, replete with the usual spices and oil.
I am finishing off the meal just when the ambience suddenly begins to change – the crestfallen grey giving way to a luminous green; as if honoring a truthful prayer, the sun begins to peep and the ecosystem explodes in the sudden transfusion of energy, the wet coconut palms acquiring a bold sheen and reflecting the verdant spirit into everything else around. It is as if this place’s soul has woken up, touched by the scepter of an angel who has somehow heard me – though consciously, much scarred by harsh realities of life, I never quite answered the urge to ask for a better experience on this very inclement day.
I resist the meal-induced drowsiness and drag myself onto the outer deck, right behind the driver. Murali’s face is now a mixture of confidence and anticipation and he winks at me as I settle on the cushion and stretch my legs.
Tonight, when I sleep in the comfort of my floating bedroom, as much as I wander in my dreams rocked by the gentle wind in the willows lining the banks, one part of my subconscious that belongs to a traveler will begin to believe in that one simple fact – Each journey we make is as individual as we are; it’s a fallacy if we think that it is governed by laws common to all, simply because each journey is not about getting from here to there but rather, it’s an intrinsic urge of the soul to chart a different course, a different journey that will be true to itself. It is the only way we will see the truth, our own personal truth.