La Vie de Pi

27th January

To my relief, the Suresh Greenview Residency in Thekkady has nothing besides a name in common with the Greenview Inn in Munnar. They’re, happily, worlds apart. The homestay is bright, spacious, immaculate and the walls proceed all the way to the ceilings without interruption. As well as a reliable supply of hot water our room is furnished with a cosy veranda looking out onto the dense jungle of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Brazen macaques scamper on the balcony in the daytime before fleeing the advance of the more mysterious, people-shy Nilgiri Langurs in the evening.

The journey here brought us out of Munnar’s broad-stroke tea plantation monotony and into a vastly more interesting mixed terrain of spices infused through Kerala’s ubiquitous coconut palm and jackfruit forest. A kindly man named Kiran sits beside me and narrates the surrounding plant life – cardamom, pepper, coffee, tapioca – and the area generally. When we’re held up by construction work in a high pass he explains it’s a railway line that will link Cochin and Madurai, and points out the Mullaperiyar Dam whose construction in the late 19th Cenury by British army engineer John Pennycuick made the region’s cash and food crop agriculture possible. To demonstrate my interest I relay all this information to Rebecca who sits the other side of me, suffering from travel sickness and a sense of humour failure so drastic that she demonstrates her disinterest by moving to the front of the bus.

After Kiran gets off his place is taken by Vipul, a local spice plantation worker who takes down my number with a promise of a free kilo of cardamom and never texts. Rebecca’s seat is taken by an endearing kid called Rajesh who spends the last two hours of the journey staring wide-eyed at my crappy £5 digital watch, telling me earnestly what a brilliant piece of kit it is. He’s nice but I know what’s coming; as we pull into Thekkady he asks if he can have it and I do a heartbreakingly bad job of explaining, over his protests that he’s poor and I’m rich and can just buy a new one, that I’m here for four months on a tight budget with no source of income so can’t afford to give it away. I relay the story to Rebecca later and she replies that her watch has been bothering her and she’s thought about chucking it out of the window.

Besides the noisy, stony-faced group of Israeli travellers camped out in the shared veranda with ukeleles, acoustic guitars and a burning desire to re-enact the entire Red Hot Chili Peppers back catalogue, life is good at the Greenview in Thekkady. After a tasty dinner at nearby Chrissie’s, we rest happy and content.

28th January

Our first day of genuine down-time since Kallanchery. We discover poori masala at Coffee Garden – a cosy raised shack just off the main road into town – and after a bit of asking around find Ebony’s for lunch. Everywhere else seems to be closed and since we’re the only people in an otherwise pleasant, tastefully-hipster decorated rooftop garden restaurant I can only assume this is because most of Thekkady’s tourists are out trekking. The food is very good and we wile away lunch and the afternoon playing yanniv before heading to the well-rated Grandma’s Café for dinner.

Here we tuck into our first beer of the trip. Hard to believe we’ve been here nearly two weeks and haven’t touched a drop, but Kerala is one of a number of states where alcohol is semi-prohibited. Consumption is legal but the hoop-jumping required for a license and heavy taxes mean it’s both hard to come by and disproportionately expensive. We share two large bottles of Kingfisher that come to five hundred rupees, which more than doubles the cost of our meal.

Grandma’s is crowded so we share our four-person table with Isabelle, a hypnotherapist from Clermont-Ferrand. Kerala, home of Ayurveda, is a superb setting for a discussion about alternative medicine and as well as hypnotherapy we get going on topics like meditation and mindfulness. I resolve to try to learn more about holistic medicine during our stay.

Our conversation turns to more whimsical subjects, in the course of which Isabelle says bluntly that she finds my English harder to understand than Rebecca’s. Since meeting the French couple yesterday I’ve been itching to dust off my former grasp of the language and when Isabelle mentions she’s been to Pondicherry I find myself trying to explain the plot of Life of Pi in broken, long-forgotten French.

“Le bateux est… how do you say sink..? sur la mer…” I waffle to stifled laughter from Rebecca and the sort of sympathetic nods normally reserved for asylum inmates from Isabelle.

Happily, Isabelle has also been to Madurai and Trichy on her travels in Tamil Nadu, two cities I’m desperate to visit but have scrubbed off the wishlist in the face of stark disinterest from Rebecca (on account of their unsuitable yoga : historical monument ratio). Both, according to Isabelle, are home to decent ashrams and as such are back on the menu.

29th January

Much of today is spent listening to Rebecca describe various ashrams across Tamil Nadu. All have thick-sounding rulebooks prohibiting most of my favourite things, from talking to consumption of garlic.

I venture into town in the afternoon with the intention of withdrawing cash, which in India is best approached as a sort of fun lottery unless you want to collapse into a tearful puddle of anger. I assume that most of the ATMs’ primary purpose is to steal bank details, or possibly decoration. It clearly isn’t to dispense money. Error messages are so frequent and various that most cash machines are accompanied by large wall-mounted displays explaining the meaning of their different numerical codes, which reach into triple digits. There’s surely a version of Indian ATM Error Message bingo already doing the rounds, and having just picked up a rare #067 – Magstripe Not Enabled I’m keen to join in.

Deep in not-entirely-harmonious conversation about the merits of various ashrams and generally what to do when our stay in Thekkady comes to an end, Rebecca and I head to a Kathkali show in the evening. Kathkali – an ancient, heavily stylised fusion of theatre and dance in which solo performers, who train for a dozen years or more, recreate tales of the ancient Hindu epics in silence save for accompanying music – is famous throughout Kerala but we’ve so far not been to see any, and this bugs me.

Our hostess Suneetha has secured us the tickets, and presents them grinning “Look! Front row seats”. Fantastic. I joke as we sit down in them “By the way, Kathkali is famous for its audience participation”. Rebecca looks at me furiously. “Don’t worry, it’s not like they’ll pick on the white couple in the front row, is it?” Her anger turns to fear, so I explain quickly that I’m joking and even though I know nothing whatsoever about Kathkali I’m sure there isn’t any audience participation.

In the event, there’s a lot.

It’s Rebecca’s worst nightmare in almost every other sense, too. The performance hall is hot, stuffy and there’s no A/C, and while we wait for the show to start one of the two shirtless teenagers that peek nervously round the curtain as the audience dribbles in lights a large candle right in front of her face. Then, clanging a pair of cymbals while his accomplice raps a tabla, the candle-lighter announces the star of tonight’s show, the Famous and Globally Renowned Mr Alim Khan.

Enter, stage right, a terrifying sight. Swaddled in gaudy clothing, caked in pale make-up, eyebrows rippling like caterpillars on strong amphetamines, the performer looks like the demonic offspring of a pantomime dame and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Panto dames, as it happens, have a talent for embarrassing me. A year or two ago, soon after we moved to Bethnal Green, I found myself outside a greengrocer’s debating half to Rebecca and half to myself whether or not to buy a bulb of fennel. On uttering the inexcusable line “Ooo, I could do an Ottolenghi! What do you reckon?” a voice sounded behind me.

“Oh, just buy it, you ponce!”

I span round, and there, of all people, stood Christopher Biggins. He chuckled jovially and skipped inside to pay for his shopping. By the time he emerged I still hadn’t decided what I’d do with the fennel if I did buy it, so he chimed “Blimey, are you still here?” before vanishing into the East London sunset like a merry woodland elf.

Anyway, after a demonstration of the key poses and expressions of Kathkali, which mostly involves Alim Khan moving his bloodshot eyes rapidly from side to side for ten minutes, he starts pulling members of the audience up, performing stances like Anger and Amusement at them while they, clearly familiar with the format, entertain the crowd by going along with it and bobbing their heads enthusiastically.

Two thoughts enter my head. Firstly, Rebecca was already sceptical about this beforehand and not in the best mood after our travel planning. Conversely to ashrams and yoga retreats, watching traditional performing art forms falls squarely in the bracket of Things Danny Wants To Do. If she gets dragged on stage I can kiss goodbye to idle conversation and anything more culinarily adventurous than rice and mung beans for the next three months. Secondly, everyone else who went up took their shoes off. Must remember to take my shoes off.

Then, a third and entirely unwelcome thought joins the party: our lunch had raw salad with it, and one of our anti-food-poisoning golden rules is don’t eat raw salad but hey, I wolfed it down anyway didn’t I, and guess what? I kind of need the toilet. It would be so typical, so cosmically right and proper, if my stomach decided to offload a dodgy batch of tap-water-washed vegetables just as the Most Auspiciously Esteemed Alim Khan summoned me onto the stage.

So when he inevitably points his trembling finger vaguely in our direction and I fall on the grenade, I am concentrating so hard on not shitting myself that I completely forget to remove my shoes, much to Mr Khan’s displeasure. Once barefoot, I follow his mimed instruction and sit on the stool on the stage, trying not to read too much symbolism into the act, and freeze rigid while he has a bit of silent back-and-forth with the crowd and eventually lets me scamper back to my seat.

This concludes the first section. The second half features Alim recreating the story of the infant Krishna killing the demon Putana who tried to kill the God-baby by suckling him from her poison-covered nipple. One of the musicians describes the story before the re-enactment begins, but I’m so elated to have got through the audience participation without soiling myself that I forget to pay attention. I later piece it together from the bits I remember, leading to the unlikely Google search “Krishna poison nipple”.

In the meantime, I entertain myself by imagining he’s acting out the story of Life of Pi. In French.

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