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Jaimon Joseph
Monday , May 24, 2010 at 13 : 43

The Kerala Files - Part I


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I was born in a tiny hospital in Kottayam district, Kerala, thirty-two years ago. Electric lights had still not reached my mom's village then. Telephones would arrive years later. I've spent my entire life since, in the glitz and glamour of Delhi, the nation's capital. I've hardly ever looked back. But this week, when I saw that hospital, now a huge sprawling campus, in the heart of a bustling town, it was strangely reassuring. It almost felt like an indulgent mother was welcoming back her long lost son.

I've been to a fair share of places in the last five years. Ladakh, Jaipur, Goa, Mumbai, Sikkim. Thing is, my parents never took me anywhere during my summer vacations. After slaving all year in the scorching heat of north India, they always headed to friends and family back in Kerala. For me, without running water, electricity, or TV cartoons, it often felt like a lush green prison. Especially when my classmates boasted of trips to exotic places, even Switzerland.

Kerala's changed, in the years I have been away. Apartments in Cochin cost more than those in Delhi's poshest suburbs. Everyone seems to have fancy houses and acres of rubber plantations. Everyone has relatives abroad. They say you'll find Malayalees in every corner, every country of the world today. Having a job in Delhi doesn't impress anyone. Heck, my own country cousins are now settled in London and Sydney.

But lost in that scramble to get ahead, to escape, to settle down, are the blood, sweat and tears of a generation past.

Yesterday, I spent the night with the Parapallil family, in Idduki district. It's among the very few places in India where Cardamom plantations thrive. The spice was exported from here to all parts of the world, even during the Roman era.

Cardamom was worth its weight in gold during British times. Legend has it that they were desperate to find the mother lode in Kerala. But the jungles here were so dense, they simply couldn't find their way up the mountains.

It was a naive adivasi couple that agreed to show them the way in. After an arduous trek over many days, when the Brits finally stomped onto the cardamom fields, the first thing they did was kill their guides. They didn't want anyone else to find their treasure. Folk lore says that the couple came back from the dead, killing and maiming hapless travellers on that route for years. The terror stopped only after a priest offered prayers at the site.

Idduki is amongst the highest places in Kerala. So high, that after five in the evening, a blinding mist blankets the road. Overshoot a turn and you drop eight thousand feet to your death.

When there's no mist, there are elephants. Last month, a wild tusker strayed onto the tarmac and held up traffic for kilometers. Tough as nails lorry drivers refused to drive forward. Two kids on a bike did.

The pillion rider was plucked off the seat and trampled underfoot. Then, the elephant impaled him on his tusks and carried the bleeding corpse around, like a macabre trophy, for hours. No one knows what happened to the driver.

Mathew Parapallil is eighty-one years old. He came to Idduki just after Independence, when wild forests still overran the place. Elephants didnt move alone then, they grazed in huge herds, tramping across the borders of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

For twenty years, the man fought off elephants, snakes and panthers, clearing forest into farmland. Others gave up and left, felled if not by the animals, then by a mysterious mountain fever, which would claim the strongest of them.

Mathew lived in a treehouse, where animals couldn't reach. He moved at night, with a flaming torch of dried palm fronds. A mountain python almost swallowed his eldest son alive, when he was just a baby in the cot. Another son died in the forest, after three days of constant diarrohea. There were no hospitals for hundreds of miles around, not even any sugar to mix into the child's tea. Mathew says he's seen ghosts and witches, streaking across the forest like blazing fireballs. When he built his first proper house, in 1969, he was lord and master of almost a hundred acres.

Today, his three sons each own twenty acres of prime farmland each. The eldest carries on the family tradition, harvesting cardamom and selling it, for more than a thousand rupees a kilo. But farming is slowly waning from the others' list of priorities.

A second son died young, of heart attack. His boys are among the humblest, nicest people I have met. His wife a beautiful, kind-hearted lady, not only let us stay the night, she worked overnight just to give us a sumptuous breakfast and endless cups of delicious Kerala coffee. But they're planning to move to Bangalore and then God willing, go to England.

The third son was what people call a lion among men. Built like an oak tree, he trained in Kalaripayattu, Kerala's ancient martial art. Locals say twenty men together couldn't hold him down. But then, that discipline gave way to a long bout with alcohol.

Today, he is a changed man. With a lovely wife and five adorable kids, his world revolves around his family.

Thirteen of us reached his home at eight in the evening, completely unannounced. He welcomed us in with a kind, gracious smile, made each of us feel welcome. Ten chicken were immediately slaughtered. And while his wife uncomplainingly whipped up a killer meal, he personally served each of us at the table. He's the perfect host, unassuming, self effacing, tuned to his guests smallest needs.

Grandfather Mathew Parapallil regaled us with stories late into the night after dinner. His extended family laughed and swapped notes. They were meeting after years, they'd come from hundreds of kilometers away. But as I watched them from my corner seat, I wondered. What changes might lie in store for them in the coming years. And like them, for millions of other families in Kerala, struggling to get a toehold in today's mindless, endless rat race.


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More about Jaimon Joseph

I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
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