Periyar and Prejudice

30th January

“Can’t touch your toes?”

Ha! Toes. Kneecaps would be nice.

“No,” I wheeze, bent forward over my carefully sculpted paunch in a sitting position, legs flush against the floor, hamstrings like rubber bands about to ping.

“Jah, jah. It’s the climate here.” Sure. Climate. “It’s ze altitude, you know? If you go to Varkala it is much warmer, there you can touch your toes.” Whatever you say, Kirsten.

Chrissie’s yogi-in-residence, Kirsten is German and married to a Kashmiri which means there’s a fun Teutonic/Sanskrit fusion running through her class. She’s a good instructor on the whole, keeping it stretching (literally) but achievable, pitched well to mine and Rebecca’s respective abilities.

My reward for attending the 9am session is a Chrissie’s breakfast buffet, an odyssey of home-made breads, masala, jams, eggs, lush watermelon and curd. On the way out, the quirky Israeli owner tells us that since we’re basically regulars now we’re welcome to use their rooftop pool.

The rest of the day is uneventful, mostly spent planning our journey into Tamil Nadu and watching enormous bats flock endlessly over Greenview’s rooftop at dusk. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of them. For half an hour they maintain a continuous, aerial stream out of the Periyar Wildlife Reserve – where we’re booked for a stroll tomorrow morning.

31st January

Nilgiri langurs surround us, hooting bassily from the treetops. I’m already intrigued, having seen them from a distance from our veranda at Green View. They are visually stunning: sleek, black, golden-maned and long-tailed living shadows, they possess a majesty that eludes the scraggy, opportunistic macaques. The latter, being smaller, clear off when they hear the langurs approaching. Langurs though, unlike the mischievous macaques, are afraid of people.

“They were used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine,” our guide Raji laments, “so they’ve come to see humans as predators”. The practice has been illegal since the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 but the monkeys, it seems, are still justifiably cautious.

Their deep calls are easily identifiable, even against the symphonic backdrop of a jungle at dawn. Our stroll is meditative and therapeutic. Periyar is one of southern India’s foremost nature reserves, renowned for being one of the best places to sight elephants if your budget stretches to taking a raft out onto the lake. Sadly, ours doesn’t, so the closest we come are more tell-tale signs – paths of smashed trees and flattened grass criss-crossing the walkways – that they are nearby.

Periyar’s biodiversity is in part due to the fact that it covers a diverse range of altitudes, so within one park there are various different microclimates each with their own distinct ecosytems. We pass through open glades as the sunrise glints through bamboo thickets; bare, plantless rocky outcrops; sparse forest; and dense, tropical jungle where a species of fig constricts other trees, resulting in some dramatic natural sculpture. These aggressive plants are tolerated by the forest authorities because they fruit all year round, providing an important food source for many local birds.

We see gaur (Indian “bison” or water buffalo) and sambar (huge, stately deer), stumble upon a massive rat snake basking in a thicket that slithers away silently when it realises it’s discovered, its two meters of body disappearing without a trace into the undergrowth, and spot a plethora of exotic birds, many of which we recognised from our stay at Thattekad. Raji tells us that the park is home to a tiger population that since 1978 has increased from around twenty to over fifty, though this is contradicted by a British couple we bump into whose guide told them the number has fallen from seventy to forty-four.

After three hours of walking through the forest, we enjoy another Chrissie’s breakfast and retire to the homestay, where I sit on the veranda reading City of Djinns and munching reflectively on 50:50s.

We have lunch back at Coffee Garden and are joined by Jay and Kasey from Manchester, and briefly by an anonymous middle-aged couple who stare perplexed at the menu in the entrance. We tell them the food is great and the man replies in broad Lancashire “Is it? Oh that’s good. To be honest, it’s nice just to see a white face. Haven’t seen any for ten days.”

We return awkwardly to our card game for a few minutes before realising they’ve left. I’m not sure exactly why they scarpered, but I can imagine the lady chastising him: “Geoffrey for heaven’s sake, how many times do I have to tell you – don’t do the racism thing in front of strangers!”

1st February

Jay and her boyfriend Luke – who are lovely and, unlike their fellow Lancastrians, not at all racist as far as I can tell – join us for another session with Kirsten the following morning. We have a by now-obligatory Chrissie’s breakfast, then spend an hour by the rooftop pool.

In the evening, we share a table at Grandma’s with a lonely Dutchman called Mikkel. Mikkel likes swimming and has travelled through Japan and China, and his hot take on Southern India is “Yeah, they’re so much darker here than in the North”.

Perhaps an objectively true observation, but why, of all the country’s cultural, political, culinary and architectural contrasts, is this the titbit wheeled out to discuss with strangers? I can only assume that ever since the Brexit vote people now just assume that casual racism is every Brit’s favourite topic of conversation.

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