[Pre-warning: bit of a long one this, best put the kettle on.]
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”
John Le Carre
I started a pre-set-off blog using that quote to make a point about perspective. Yet a writer should have a desk, no? Aspirational Sunday supplements oft carry pictures of authors writing spaces for us plebs to ponder, appreciate. So on this occasion, dear reader of blog, I shall describe “my” desk. In terms of furniture, it’s a fairly sorry piece of rough sawn timber and bamboo: unevenly topped, slightly wobbly. However, as Phil & Kirstie have built an entire TV career on it there must be something to be said for location, location, location.
Perched at an altitude of 1600m (near 4,800ft) on the trailing (eastern edge) of the Western Ghats range the desk overlooks the Blue Mountains. In the distance – it’s not long after dawn – the lumpy outlines of the Peryiar wildlife preserve are becoming more sharply defined by the minute as the morning haze lazily burns away.
There are some 40 tigers in them thar hills, wild heffalumps and other protected/rare species.
Afore you gasp for fear of us Beers becoming big cat breakfast, rest easy. We are protected by the natural barrier of a great valley that forms the eastern most spur of the Indian state Tamil Nadu. When I think “state border” my imagination runs to conflict and squabbles. The cold war Checkpoint Charlie, Hadrian’s Wall, North vs South Korean soldiers facing each other down. The fence around the garden of our homestay is the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border and our lookout tower is a (magnificent) treehouse. No machine guns, no searchlights. Missions to the “other side” involve nothing more than opening a garden gate. (If only someone had told me, I spent ages furtively digging down below in the night before finally going commando across no-man’s-land. But that’s another story Mrs Beer might tell you about.)
So opening this gate takes you onto Government (common) land and to a precipice. No thoughts of tossing off here though – better sleeping arrangements as hinted – because it’s a lonnnng way down to the coconut, rice and teak plantations (over 1000m/3,000ft) below. It was the late 1800s when British forebears created Lake Peryiar and diverted it’s outflow into the previously parched hinterland of Tamil Nadu. Now in the 21st century the Tamils and Keralans are still a little brusque with each other (he says with understatement). No matter, this magnificent viewpoint shows a plentiful agricultural landscape.
But this splendid outlook is not the only lush, green view. By dint of tremendous planning skills/sheer luck we have landed at the Indian equivalent of Colin Creese’ domain. For those of you not fortunate to know Col’ let me summarise by saying that he has both vision and energy in gardening. Take it from me that the following are direct parallels to his Worcestershire exploits: a Keralan doppleganger if you will.
[Correct and proper reading instructions for those outside the Creese circle: the following is so jaw droppingly similar to Ashbee – the Creese abode – that it will cause an OMG! reaction. If you do not know Col’ Creese and wish to replicate this feeling, read the next section with your mouth agape – jaw swinging in that breeze – and gently gasp in amazement at every point.]
Thomas Tomichen is a gentlemen of agri-business. His entire family moved up here from the Keralan lowlands in the second half of the 20th century to settle. He has an acre or two of (spice) garden and his main business is cultivating organic pepper and cardamon with local farmers (which somehow happens whilst he is at home). He has developed a beautifully laid out, yet unfussy, natural feeling garden. There are veg plots near the house, fruit trees including banana and papaya. He enlists me to catch Papayas he dislodges ripe from some trees. Pineapple plants here and there counterpoint numerous ornamental shrubs. Potted plants, ankle-height hedge borders and pathes punctuate teak, rosewood and other hardwood trees. All of this outrageously healthy foliage in hills where your daily cuppa comes from: this is tea country.
So to take the in-laws parallels further, Thomas takes in paying guests at the family run Manyath Heritage Homestay He then offers them excellent food – mainly prepared by Mrs Tomichen – and their own home-made passionfruit liqueurs, home-made (pine)apple squash and rustic yet delightful Keralan fayre. Eggs come from his own chickens. The kitchen has some strange labour saving/cooking devices languishing in the cupboards that surely are never used. They are into alternative (Ayurvedic) remedies – we discover on a guided walk – holding strong opinions on genetically modified crops. We spot a deer just outside the garden. He even drives around in a suitably rustic 4×4.
So with country walk out of the back gate and a large garden to relax in we’ve stumbled upon a little slice of hill country heaven here in Kerala which is oddly, incredibly familiar… Within minutes of arriving, Morgan was swinging in the hammock singing loudly a song of his own creation for no other reason than sheer joy. Gilly wore the broadest smile, as did I. Josie had legged it up to the treehouse with Super-Rosie (teddy bear shaped defender of all things good). So immediate was her delight she may also have been spontaneously skipping. Our lodgings are a 140 year old teak lodge. Simple, with a steeply pitched tile roof, wide shady porch placed out amongst the trees and shrubs. Peaceful and private.
Col & Jen: when you come to India come here, you’ll feel right at home. They even have a pet mongrel called Maxie! That’s a lie. Were it true I’d’ve not bat an eyelid.
[Note to non-knowers of the Creese clan: you may close you jaw now, please check for ingested flies as you do so.]
It’s a noisy quiet place though. It bothered me as I found sleep last night. We are so used to processed nature and commanding sounds in the UK with our double glazing, 7.1 surround sounds and so forth. I smile as the penny drops that the “full Dolby” of sound effects here are simply nature’s high-jungle soundtrack. Crickets, goats, chickens, pigs at ground level. In the trees calling hornbills – bringer of rain apparently, none yet though – and fast moving dog-fights of swiftlets cheeping at each other on the wing.
Breakfast is coconut and flour cakes with a curried peanut salad. Well, I enjoyed it. Served with a cuppa to our thatched veranda. Pretty soon we’re bouncing down the road to a state aided primary school whose morning – as far as I can gather – we’ll be crashing. The family is Malabar Syrian Christians and so is the school which was built in 1967. They take our distracting arrival with good grace and pretty soon Teacher Beer and the kids are presenting to class. It goes well, smiles all round and minor pandemonium as we leave. Similar in intensity to a X-factor runner-up arriving at a UK facility I imagine. (Although they would definitely fail a CRB check on account of being fame-seeking-gits and be banished to a far away place for simply wanting to be famous. I live in hope.)
I’m not finished with Kerala by any means, but the consistency of being welcomes and people with ready, genuine smiles is endlessly refreshing and I’ll wager an enduring memory in the making. What a contrast to, say, a wealthy farmer in Wiltshire.
Historically, this area was even more sparsely populated than it is now. But following independence and wars (one with Pakistan) India was poor. Government encouraged families to up sticks and settle where they could sustain themselves and produce surplus foods. Politically also, this was a Tamil area and the authorities – rightly or wrongly – wanted to address this by migrants from the Keralan lowlands. It must have been tough going for all back in the day. It’s no picnic for many folk now, but communications links (road, phone & web) are hauling the new century up into the hills making life easier. Roads bring tourists – following in the long distant footsteps of the British colonialists escaping the heat of the plains – and catering for tourism is less toil than digging a ditch. So it is we find neglected fields where it’s no longer appealing nor economically viable to farm. In one high plateau there’s an expanding tract of wasted land ready for compulsory purchase. Here the “vision” is for a “small airport” within the next decade. Thus India is changing: what price progress?
Ooh dear, I feel a dreadful narrow western view coming on here, bear with me. Much of the India that I have travelled – a small percentage, let’s remind ourslves – is best viewed with the lense focused on the near distance. Close up shots reveal details which can jar one’s sensibilities: raw sewage, poverty, unsafe construction, corruption. The daily press here are filled with stories on these topics. (Sounds like home, eh?) Set your focus slightly futher out and the richness of the picture is often deeply moving. Here in the hills it is simply mesmerising.
Our final full day in Kerala is a morning of an elephant ride for the kids (of all ages). As people have domesticated the lands, so the elephants have become marginalised. The Periyar sanctuary (among others) is the last haven of the wild elephant in the south. To villagers and farmers the elephant has become a heavyweight pest. No longer are they required to do the heavy lifting as earth/rock/lumber moving kit is now freely available: paciderms replaced by JCBs: unemployment is rife. So the beasts we encounter are part of a jolly circus that seems them fed, bathed and – kind of – employed. Are we there because of them? Yes. Are they there because of us? Probably. What else do you do with tonnes of mammal when nobody wants them on their land? Elephants eat 350kg of greens a day and need 250litres of water. You’d soon tire of them munching upon your hard won crops. Their mahoots? They’d be wiating for fares at the tuk-tuk stand. It leaves you feeling uneasy. J&M however have no such qualms: they are exstatic to play with real elephants.
We check out the bus departures from Kumily – you should see Gilly’s face at the, er, quality of public transport on offer – and note that it’s like a ghost town. More politics: there’s a strike due to the tensions with Tamil Nadu and most businesses are closed. Perhaps a good excuse for a day off. There’s a counter-weighted border barrier on the edge of town signalling the start of Tamil Nadu. In a typically Indian way we walk around it unhindered to the bus stand.
Unburdened by any new information by the denziens of Tamil coach travel we pause to watch cheeky monkeys scurrying through the emptying newly arrived bus from Madurai for scraps to eat. In the utter absence of help from officialdom we ask some newly arrived back-packers how the ride up was. They say “no big deal.” Gilly’s face says otherwise. We’ll find out in the morning who’s right.