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Near–the-Nila


One of the problems of having your home in a top ten destination of the world is that you see it as nothing beyond home. Where gaggles of relatives live and the topography is rife with family feuds, gossip and countless speculation on whether your hair ought to be braided or left as it is....

When friends start gushing paeans about Kerala, I feel that wry amusement score my face... It isn't that I don't consider Kerala beautiful; in fact, I think of it as perhaps the most beautiful place, but Kerala is home. Tell me something new? I hear myself say....

So it was with the river Nila. Shoranur, my home town is on the banks of a stretch of the 240 km long river Nila. As a child, the river was my playpen. In its shallow pools and on its bank, I discovered a world of continuity. No matter what changed, Nila, a turgid sweep during the monsoon and a trickling stream in the summer month, would always be there.

But the Nila perhaps again being representative of home didn't hold the magic of discovery of the Seine or the Thames or the Kali or the Kaveri.

Then one early afternoon, a middle-aged voice on the phone asked me if I would like to be part of a river project. I blanched. Were writers and causes such a cliché that people assumed that a cause would interest a writer? What made him think a river would interest me? What if I was a mountain person or a desert one at that?

"Which river?" I heard myself ask in a tone I reserved for a telemarketing type offering me a personal loan I didn't need.

"Nila," the voice replied.

Something in me bloomed...I had always thought of the Nila as my river - the leitmotif of permanence in my life and here seemed a way to marry memory with reality.

I wasn't to know this then but the Nila was waiting. A river with a chuckle as it thought of what else it was going to fill my life with...first, there was the embarrassment of discovering the middle aged voice with a name attached Gopi was a youngish man with an evangelist's zeal and a true raconteur's skill to bring the river alive. Both literally and figuratively.

Secondly, the overwhelming realization that a fact file and memories didn't constitute knowing what the Nila was all about. And so it was to plumb at least one hidden depth of the Nila that I set out on a journey one week-end.

As the sun appeared by the banks of the Nila, so did I. Since I knew rather well the stretch from Palakkad to Pattambi, I chose to explore the length of the Nila that ran alongside Kuttipuram.

From the window of my cottage at the Riverside Retreat, I stood gazing at the Nila as it shimmered in the early morning light. Somewhere in the distance I heard a peacock scream. And I knew there could be nothing more surreal than holidaying in home terrain.

I was determined to shrug the usual tyranny of tourism. I would lie-in and settle for a late morning splash as the whim took me. I wasn't going to run hither and thither, and instead would take a cue from the Nila and meander lazily through the day.

The Nila doesn't advocate Carpe Diem; seizing the day being too dynamic a proposition for a slow-moving river. Instead it urges you to freeze the moment...

So the moments arrived:

Breakfast. Amidst the cluster of traditional Kerala style cottages built into the sides of a hillock. was the restaurant where traditional Kerala cuisine reigned supreme. As I tucked into a sumptuous meal, for the first time in many years, I felt as if I had escaped ennui - the monotone of resort décor and formulaic breakfast buffets. In many ways, the meal was a harbinger of what was to follow...

At the Kooderi Mana, Nibha Namboodiri and Karnan waited. The first female mahout in Kerala, Nibha has set up an elephant rehabilitation centre to rehabilitate captive elephants that are temporarily indisposed both physically and psychologically and to adopt and care for elephants that cease to be economically viable and have turned into a liability for the owner either because of old age and/or terminal illnesses.

Karnan, 22 years old, tall and handsome with a dental condition that prevents him from eating fodder, flung dirt over his freshly scrubbed skin much to his mahout's annoyance and peered from beneath his eyelashes at us radiating mischief. Ever so often he would punctuate with a swing of his trunk and a snort Nibha's introduction to elephant physiognomy and elephant tales as if to say: look at me, look at me.....ye mighty and despair....I am king of kings, but nothing remains but decay of this colossal wreck - me!

There were 250 captive elephants in Kerala in 1983. This number is above 800 now...many of these elephants are kept in intolerable conditions, made to walk long distances on the road, overworked during the festivals and remain tethered when there is no work. And I think Karnan is fortunate to have found Nibha as the Mana was to have found the Namboodiri family who bought the four hundred year old home, and restored it lovingly.

And, it is this that strikes me again and again. A compulsion to conserve and preserve, be it heritage homes, elephants, or art forms. The Vallabhatta Kalari Academy is just a few kilometres away from the Riverside resort. A classic example of a kuzhi kalari -a sunken arena - kalari payattu, the ancient martial art is taught here by the last descendant of the Muduvangatt family whose head was the commander-in-chief of the royal army of the Vettath Raja. Tracing a lineage of ten centuries, the kalari has managed to keep its traditional grandeur despite the lure of commerce.

As I walked into the kalari, the earth cellar like area with its thatched roof, mud floor and array of weapons laid out on the sides, I felt I had stepped back in time. Then my eyes trailed to the kanni-moola [ the southwest corner]. Here the kalari deity sits adorned with flowers and lit with oil lamps. A silent spectator, constantly assessing, perennially judging all that happens before her eyes, Bhadrakali, the deity radiates a presence that tolerates no deviation from tradition. And, it is this I see as the kalari comes alive. The short stick and long stick fights, the dagger, spear and sword fights, in the hand combat and finally where a blindfolded student located a dagger hidden in the arena floor and then used the dagger to slice a cucumber placed on another student's body... it's only when the cucumber fell apart, I realized that I had been holding my breath....perhaps so did the deity, I thought. No matter how often you saw this, one couldn't discount the possibility of human error....

If the visit to the kalari was about moments in the multitude, the thoni cruise on the Tirur river was a moment in slow motion.

The thoni or a country boat moved at a languid pace that allowed me to soak in the beauty as we drifted though the backwaters formed by tidal waves of the Arabian Sea. Anwar who has been diligently planting mangroves along the banks of the river to prevent erosion and maintain the riverscape joined us. Apart from being a treasure trove of information on the local flora and fauna, Anwar can be persuaded to organize a picnic lunch of organic food in one of the small islands. For the moment though, I sipped freshly tapped toddy and listened as Gopi brought alive the legends of the Nila.

It was a little past five when we arrived at the Vakkkad Beach near Ponnani. A long stretch of virgin beach, the Vakkad beach has much to recommend it. However I preferred to be by the Nila...

As the night deepened, the pulluvars arranged themselves by the intricately patterned kalam they had drawn on the ground as part of their performing ritual. Lamps glowed. The Pulluvan struck the opening note on his veena and the Pulluvathi plucked the strings of her kodam. The song began....

The knots in my shoulders loosened and I felt a wave of calm suffuse me...why didn't I think of doing this before? I ask myself.
In answer, Nila chuckled. "I told you so", it said. "And this is just the beginning."

And amidst the shrubs a lone firefly drew neon green smileys in the dark...


The Blue Yonder is set up to raise funds for the Nila Foundation, to revive and regenerate one of the longest and sadly neglected rivers in Kerala called Nila. Built on the premise of Corporate Social responsibility, this is tourism that cares. Bringing in community ownership in various stretches of the river. For, The Blue Yonder believe that a healthy river means better livelihood options.

Help breathe life into the river Nila. For more details, please visit www.theblueyonder.com

 

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