Kumarakom, India: An Indian Paradise
If you ask me, a trip to India is never complete without touching the holy land’s verdant feet―Kerala, or the “The Land of Coconuts”. A land quilted with coconut palms and paddy fields, a land hemmed by rolling highlands on side; and sprawling beaches and sinuous backwaters on the other. A land aptly nicknamed as “God’s Own Country”; a land I casually, yet proudly refer to as “Home”.
I hail from Kumarakom, a place which would roughly correspond to the navel of Kerala. It’s a slender peninsula jutting into the placid Vembanad Lake; poised to bewitch almost anyone with its demure, unassuming ways. This small, fertile ground which has cropped countless poems and stories, including Arundhadhi Roy’s Booker Prize winning “The God of Small Things”, is believed to have its ancestry in the sea. At some point along the planet’s coming of age, a patch of sea receded; uplifting the seabed to form marshlands. As a testimony to this event, marine mussels still colonize the lake; serving both as a local staple, and an alternative source of income for the fishermen who extract lime out of heaps of burnt molluscan shells.
Though I have been a gypsy all my life; never stuck in one place for more than a handful of years, it is here that most of my early childhood memories lie marooned. Summer vacation back then was synonymous with storming through Kumarakom with my cousins, who also would have flocked to the arena as soon as our schools had started to snooze for the year. The place would then bind us in its spell, making us run amok like wild tuskers on a rampage― clambering up trees, swinging from branches, plucking succulent mangoes, guavas, cashews and jackfruits, digging miniature ponds, weeding paddy fields with bare hands, fishing, sprinting through brooks, sailing paper boats over rain puddles, building sand castles, or simply prattling our heads off. It all seems eons ago. Time has since dispersed us across the globe, and our fond memories have now become mere bedtime fables for our children. Having had my stints with various cities across India and the U.S, I returned to Kumarakom after over two decades, only this time, during my daughter’s school vacation. An eighty five kilometer ride from the Cochin International Airport traced me back home through the meandering roads flanked by dozing lagoons, yawning fields, and stripes of jostling coconut trees. The hushed village of my memories had long transfigured into a bustling tourists’ haven by the banks of the Vembanad Lake.
Vembanad Lake, one of the longest lakes in India, is a great expanse of water into which a network of canals and lagoons empty. Its serpentine course along the western border of Kerala, skirting several major towns makes it the state’s largest inland waterway and a charming, perennial aqua tourism destination. If you happen to visit around the annual harvest festival, Onam, which falls in August-September, you would witness the sleepy lake spring to life like a phoenix in the spirited frenzy of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race―one of the largest team sports in the world. Scores of wooden snake boats crewed by a few helmsmen, a dozen singers, and a battalion of oarsmen sprint across the lake as their oars slash through the waters in unison to the brisk crescendo-decrescendo rhythm of the boat song.
Cruising around Kumarakom would be incomplete without a pit stop at Pathiramanal― a lush, uninhabited island, which thousands of avian tourists identify as a summer resort. About an hour away by boat from the mainland, is this boisterous bird sanctuary where you could spend the day prying into the lives of some exotic winged visitors from across the globe, while they fly about flaunting their vibrant costumes and queer melodies. I must warn you though, not to make a feast out of yourself for the mosquitoes swamping the marshes. Ensure that you wear protective clothing, and have no qualms about going liberal with bug repellants. An exotic fever is the last thing you would want to haul back home from a tropical vacation.
Along the Vembanad Lake have mushroomed a plethora of resorts tailored to suit all kinds of pockets. Most of the luxury resorts offer you a platter of activities designed to pamper the body and mind alike― such as Ayurvedic spa treatments, yoga, water sports, and backwater cruises to name a few. But if you are like me, you wouldn’t spend your numbered vacation days in a resort ashore when you could waft across the lake on a houseboat. The pallid lake once dotted by green clumps of lake weeds alone, is now strewn with brown blooms of houseboats as well. These bamboo furnished motorized mini-resorts are equipped with a kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, sun decks, and lounges. They are manned by a well trained crew comprising of a captain, a tour guide, a chef, and on occasion, local artists who would entertain you with regional dance performances even well after the sun takes a dip down the lake. After relishing the freshly prepared local delicacies on the boat like steamed tapioca, rice, tiger prawns, pearl spots, crabs, mussels etc., and washing it all down with some hot off the palm toddy if you may; you could either spend the day sleeping, watching TV, partying with family and friends; or as I would prefer it, laze around on the deck watching the sun sailing the sky, counting the billowing ripples below, eavesdropping on the chattering birds and croaking toads, humming to the fishermen’s hymns; while letting the occasional monsoon sprays and the gentle tropical breeze bearing the distinct scent of the marshes seep through your sinews; until finally, the soft, constant rocking of the undulating waters lulls you to sleep. And as you transit into the hinterland of sleep, you would hear the lake’s spirit whisper into yours―”be back”.