Exploring Arundhati Roy's Kerala
Qantas: The Australian Way, December 2011
In 1997, Arundhati Roy’s book, The God of Small Things, introduced the world to the southern Indian state of Kerala. In truth, it’s an odd sort of a cultural flag-bearer: it is a story whose key moments hinge on prejudice, betrayal and loss, and doesn’t always portray its community in a positive light. But its language is so evocative, from the “fatly baffled” bluebottles and the “nights, clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation” of the opening lines, that it has served as an incantation for millions of readers. Many have found it so seductive that they have come to see the place for themselves.
Today, the areas Roy wrote about scarcely need any help in attracting visitors. A few miles from the towns she described sits Kumarakom, where resorts are thriving to attract tourists to one of India’s most beautiful regions.
To see the article as it ran in Qantas: The Australian Way, click here: qa1211_Kerala.indd
Just two hours from the city of Kochi, which has direct flights from Singapore and the UK among other places, Kumarakom has become a leading place to enjoy one of southern India’s most compelling attractions: the Kuttanad backwaters.
It is impossible to discuss this place with anyone who has been here without the expression “god’s own country” turning up sooner or later – it’s part of state branding now – but it is unarguably magnificent. On converted rice barges called kettuvallam, guests drift around a network of inland lakes and rivers, watching everyday life proceed on the banks: people bathing and washing clothes in the water; carpenters artfully chiseling Jesus and Virgin Mary statues for the Syrian Christian churches of the area; men standing in tiny boats and herding hundreds of ducklings up waterways toward dedicated farms.
The houseboat experience, while fully entrenched – around 500 of these boats ply the backwaters – is not (yet) ruinous or twee, and is simply one of the most relaxing and peaceful things one can do in India. Kumarakom, sitting on Lake Vembanad which connects to the backwaters, is perfect for exploring it: since the resorts back on to the lake, houseboats come straight to their door to collect them.
Kumarakom is also a starting point for boat trips through the more intricate and less visited networks of waterways that lead many miles inland between the paddy fields, where sometimes the rivers are all but invisible beneath the weight of surface duckweed covered with blossoming hyacinths. An hour or so in one of these boats will take you to Arundhati Roy’s home town, Ayemenem, in which most of the action of her book takes place; the house and factory are based on real locations (and the pickle factory is run by Roy’s uncle).
One Kumarakom location, the Vivanta, operated by the Taj group, is where the area’s tourist industry and Roy’s literature coincide. The resort’s centerpiece is a grand, 134-year-old house built by a missionary called George Baker, and housed four generations of his family before the last of them left in the 1970s, after which it passed first to the state, then to the Taj group. Fans of the book will know this as the secretive History House, in which the novel’s devastating climactic scenes take place; Baker, in the book, is kari saipu. The resort has handled its heritage with some deference, and was strengthening the building’s roof and upper stories at the time of writing; it has built a limited number of guest villas between the house and the lake, among ponds designed to nurture local birdlife. Roy wrote of “cold stone floors and billowing, ship-shaped shadows on the walls, where waxy ancestors… with breath that smelled of yellow maps whispered papery whispers.” And, while it’s hard to feel that in the bars and hotels that sit in the former Baker family rooms, the place remains evocative and atmospherically decorated.
Roy was somewhat scathing about the tourist influx into Kerala. “Toy histories for rich tourists to play in,” she (or, more precisely, the book’s narrator) called it; “history and literature enlisted by commerce.” She bemoaned the compression of Keralan traditional kathakaliperformances, “collapsed and amputated”, and mocked the “old communists, who now worked as fawning bearers in colourful ethnic clothes, stooped slightly behind their trays of drinks.”
Nevertheless, Kerala and tourists do appear to have embraced rather well so far: the interaction is still friendly, the waves from the shore apparently genuine, the people engaging and not obviously cynical. As always, there’s a risk: in the backwaters, the impact of five hundred barges running daily on diesel cannot help but be felt eventually. And there are ever fewer children along the main byways who have not learned the ubiquitous: “One pen! One pen!” But tourism has been better planned along the backwaters than in many other places in India.
Kerala is a fascinating state, politically and culturally, and this too forms part of the texture of Roy’s book. Kerala and West Bengal are among the only places anywhere in the world to have democratically elected a Communist government, and both states have consistently voted them back in again ever since. Several side-effects of this are visible in the state today: high literacy; an orderly plotting of land; and, apparently, a higher representation of women in bureaucracy.
And, while local theatre and dance is no doubt compressed as Roy complained, it is at least made central to tourists in the resorts, along with many other local charms: the practice of ayurvedic medicine and massage, which thrives in the hotel spas as well as in local towns; and Keralan food, quite different to other Indian cuisines, with widespread use of the local bounty of coconut and mango.
Kumarakom is just going to get bigger. A Radisson has opened here now, and hoteliers report growing tourist numbers both domestic and foreign. British lead the charge, with Australians somewhat unrepresented: they tend to head further north. But not the least of Kerala’s attractions is that it offers the magnificence of India with a palpable dilution in the hassle involved in enjoying it. It’s a peaceful, calmer India, and those who overlook it for the tout-clogged riches of Rajasthan and Agra are missing a trick. There are certain places where you tell your closest friends to go there before it gets ruined, but you don’t tell everyone because you don’t want to be part of the ruining. This is one of those places.
BOX: Elsewhere in Kerala.
Kerala has it all. It is served by two international airports, in Kochi (Cochin) and Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum) – many travelers enter by one and leave by the other. Aside from the world-famous backwaters, attractions include:
Kerala has some of India’s best beaches, although Australians will be disappointed by their cleanliness. Near Trivandrum, Kovalam is the most developed beach centre, with top-drawer resorts, though it has correspondingly lost much sense of local charm; those in search of a more Keralan experience instead head further north to Varkala, where the beach is flanked by laterite headlands and the hotels perch above it on a scenic cliff.
Kerala also offers some of the best wildlife reserves in the south. Arguably the best, the Tholpetty and Muthanga reserves within the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, take some getting to but offer wonderful scenery, good eco-resorts, and occasionally even sightings of tigers. Closer to the cities, Periyar, centred on an artificial lake, is a good place for spotting wild elephants; Thattekkad is a world-class bird sanctuary; and Eravikulam is famous for its antelopes.
Munnar is a tea-growing town high in the hills with beautiful mountains and forests. It’s also close to the Eravikulam wildlife reserve.
Of the cities, Kochi/Cochin is perhaps the most attractive, with a harbour and well-preserved colonial architecture embracing the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. Its signature sight is the lines of Chinese fishing nets, a beautiful image at sunset.
Kerala is the best state for experiencing Ayurveda – whether a massage or lengthy stays for holistic herbal treatments. It is also known for its kathakali theatre and the kalarippayattu martial arts. Kochi in particular offers a range of kathakali experiences, from a one hour introduction to (literally) all-nighters. One of the highlights, for many, is to get there early to watch the extravagant make-up being applied.