Life of Pi feels like a slightly too predictable choice for the in-flight entertainment, but having read Martel’s book and seen the movie once apiece I’m still not completely sure I get it. Something to do with God and how a story’s literal truth is of secondary importance to the message it conveys, I think. The sight of an elephant lumbering ponderously through Pondicherry zoo during the opening credits is, at any rate, enough to set my spidy senses tingling with anticipation for the upcoming journey.
Rebecca has woken up by the time Pi finishes and is now, predictably, half way through Eat, Pray, Love. Feeling adventurous, I plump for what looks like a Bollywood – Ashoka the Great. I’ve recently read about the ancient king, credited with spreading Buddhism across India and effectively beyond, in Keay’s India: A History, so it ought to be worth a crack. It’s a strange film, consisting of much suggestive eyebrow-waggling, an assortment of anachronistic props and, bizarrely for a film about the man who popularised Buddhism, bags of fighting and killing. Mad Max: Fury Road sees us through the rest of the first leg to Abu Dhabi.
With the help of vague directions from a security guard, we locate and board the blissfully air conditioned bus from Kochin International Airport to Fort Kochin. This takes about an hour through the surrounding villages, piled in an evocative hotch-potch of old, new, bright, murky, large, small, clean and dirty buildings teeming amongst the remnants of what was clearly once lush, dense jungle. Vivid green life blooms exuberantly from every gap, creating in places the illusion that the towns are in danger of being swallowed up by the forest. Occasional timber yards piled with stacks of felled tree trunks are a regular reminder that, when push comes to shove, this is a contest that urbanisation is winning hands down.
We pass Hyundai, JLR and Mercedes showrooms, an array of universities and other higher education centres in fields like law and engineering, countless hospitals and several ambitious under-construction flyovers. Juxtaposed with the primal wildness of the forest this middle-class modernity is initially jarring, but the blend of the two eventually becomes part of the area’s distinctive charm.
On arrival at Fort Kochi we take a sweaty amble down River Road towards Dal Roti whose kindly proprietor lets us set our heavy backpacks and knackered bodies down inside half an hour before they open. We’re then refuelled, after our three-part journey from Heathrow ,on veg thali and an egg, paneer and vegetable kathi roll. After an appalling job of haggling for an auto-rickshaw we finally arrive at the idyllic Kallanchery Retreat, where we immediately fall asleep for four hours.
Soon after coming to we meet Rockey, the manager, who is delighted to hear we’re from Surrey and Hertfordshire having himself lived and worked in Bagshot, Farnham, Cobham, Wellwyn Garden City and Stevenage. Rockey is a chef by trade, but it’s his mum who does the cooking at the homestay.
Dinner is presented to us by Raju, a perpetually smiling young lad from Assam who ushers us to our seats in the dining hall next to our cottage, and announces each dish in turn as he removes the lids from their containers.
“Fish curry… rice… papadum… okra…. and pineapple!”
This last one knocks my socks off. Neon yellow curry with the tiny black dots of mustard seeds running throughout, at once warmingly rich and sharply sweet, I can’t hold back a groan of pleasure as I dive in. It even works with the fish. Raju laughs at my unabashed enjoyment and from then on it arrives each evening in double portions.
After dinner, we watch a gorgeous sunset over the Keralan backwaters, the mottled pink sky reflected in a copper lagoon, while feet away fishermen dip Chinese style nets, and bats dart acrobatically among the treetops. The tiny island village of Kallanchery has us wrapped in a warm, welcoming embrace.