As I mentioned in my last post, travelling in Kerala’s ‘green streets’ was a fascinating experience on its own. My mother is one of those people, who, when they go to a different place, like to engage with the locals and learn more about them, not by travelling in taxis and watching them from a distance, but travelling with them, eating with them and sitting with them and talking to them.
Naturally, the only thing she preferred was travelling by the local and inter-city buses. Although initially, I was not so keen on doing the same, but when I did, I was glad and thankful that I got to know the people at closer quarters than most tourists.
For most of the year, Kerala experiences heavy rains as a result of which, most roads get damaged. It is difficult to maintain and keep repairing these roads round the year, so most of them are just let be. Obviously, as a result the road trip to most places was a little rickety, if not entirely unpleasant. The auto-rickshaw ride from Kumarakom to Kottayam was especially rickety, so much so, that it seemed we were riding on a motor-driven bullock cart.
The bus rides were a little better. Although the drivers loved rash driving in the narrowest of lanes, the driver and conductor were courteous and helpful, considering we did not understand the local language. Moreover, the blaring of loud Malyali film music (which is not too bad by the way!) made the journey even more enjoyable.
Speaking of courtesy, the Malyali people of Kerala do not immediately come across as very helpful. They hardly ever take the initiative to help out two women who are carrying heavy luggage. But they will help if asked. The Keralites dont even seem to be very keen on smiling, but otherwise, they are pleasant people.
The buses have no reserved seats for ladies either. But then, I noticed the fact that the men do not sit with the women.
Whether these facts have something to do with insensitivity towards the woman or belief in women’s empowerment and equality, I am not too sure. But probably, with a literacy rate of 100%, the women must feel a sense of pride, thus leading to these practices.
The blend of tradition and modernity is evident in the Keralite way of dressing and ethics too. While the women continue to oil their hair liberally with coconut oil hair every morning (imagine my state when I had to travel with them in the buses…my nose filled with the fragrance of coconut), they have started to get out of heavy saris and into salwar suits which suit the hot and humid climate more. Although, the process of getting acquainted with and acceptance of modern ideas is slow (Kerala being known for its traditional outlook), it is definitely visible. The men wear long shirts with their lungis, which hilariously enough, they repeatedly pick up and re-tie them even when standing in the middle of the street (no, no show of inappropriate parts of the body/underclothes). With a high per capita income, however, everyone from the police man, to the bus driver wears clean, ironed and crisp cotton clothes.
Overall, Keralites come across to be very simple people. They are happy and satisfied with their lives and do not interfere with others’ lives unless absolutely needed. The women, sometimes, still a little traditional in their outlook, asked my mother where her husband was and pressed till she answered. But I guess, this is a typical Indian thing. People have still not accepted the idea of two women travelling alone.
Of course, talking about the people I encountered, how can I not mention the scores of Sabarimala pilgrims we saw on the way…wherever we went! This happened to be the season (December-January) of the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala in which thousands of worshipers of the deity- Ayappa travel to the Sabarimala temple whilst practicing a strict regimen of austerity, etc. One would expect them to be polite and calm pilgrims who do not bother about the worldy things that matter us. But how wrong I was in thinking so! These pilgrims are as shrieky and loud and their groups as chaotic as those of the Kumbh Mela. But even seeing them make a ruckus was pretty amusing as they would sort of represent another culture altogether. They would more often than not, move around in huge groups, circling around a picture of their deity and chanting prayers wherever they found space. They would make and eat their meals together on make shift stoves and seeing them together, would make me think of them as a different country in Kerala.
On the whole, like I have repeatedly said, I have enjoyed my stay in Kerala, and my interaction, however limited, with the people. I would be rather confused if asked to decide between the people of Delhi, with their broad outlook and relatively independent lifestyle; and the people of Kerala, with their curt manners and respect for their surroundings.