As I look in dismay at the news and TV images of the Delhi anti-Muslim riots, my mind reflects on a trip I am just returning from, in another part of the same country, a tour so uplifting and liberating that you feel the essence of humanity pulsating at every turn. It was the south-western part, starting from Cochin going down the coast all the way to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the land.
Along the way, I witnessed the 620 kilometers long human chain, forgetting all sociocultural boundaries, gently but firmly protesting the same bill passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has triggered the police brutality and deaths in the north. There, the State Minister, politicians, academics and the fishermen -- all held hands to establish human rights.
We were on a two-week long tour of the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Some of the lessons that this region can teach the world are rootedness in the midst of flux, humility in the face of arrogance and a strong sense of responsibility towards the greater humanity, free of malice and prejudice. This has been the right place to wrap up my other travel experiences through the marvels of history or geography or architecture.
Here, after a long journey, one does not step into a large hotel, check in, and the first impulse is to flop down on the bed. Here you reach cottage like structures in the woods and a lotus filled pond in front of the reception. An urvashi comes down the steps, holding on her palm a plate containing an oil lamp or deep, small bowls of henna and sandalwood paste and flowers. She places a jot of chandan on your forehead and leads you to the reception desk with a large bowl of floating rose petals on the side.
This Puja style welcome gesture is almost an enactment of the traditional Indian acceptance of guest as a god, atithi deva bhavo. As the checking in process is done, we sit in the lobby around a sculptured wooden table and glasses of mint flavoured fresh pomegranate juice are passed. The exotic wood carvings of the table remind me of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn -- the smiling baby will smile on, never to be separated from its mother’s arm, or the deer will never die of the hunter’s gun.” We go to our assigned rooms and my balcony opens up to a mountain stream, colourful slopes and the sound of gurgling water. Here, life is in complete harmony with its surrounding with nothing to disrupt it.
This tour came about when my cousins, with whom I had spent my childhood years in different parts of Bihar, were on a family tour in the south and I tagged along for these two weeks break on my way to Bangladesh from the States. I travelled to Kolkata and from there we flew down to Cochin and the agency took charge with a potpourri of local experiences -- natural, cultural, and traditional.
We drive up, down or level along the mountain road from Cochin to Munnar, the dense forests of eucalyptus, bamboo and palm flanking the mountains on one side, offering a close range view of the passing land. But the other side opens up the vision to a Zen experience.
Vast stretches of tea gardens spread out endlessly along the slopes, reaching down to the towns of colourful houses in the valley and beyond that vast mountain ranges merging into the Nilgiris, with their different shades of blue, blending with the blue sky. In some places the mists roll down their side, mystifying the surrounding, creating the illusion of the sky coming down to us. In Cochin we go with a spectrum of contrasts, radiating through layers of life.
We enter the natural habitat of the spices we have so far been buying from supermarket shelves as we walk through the fragrant forests of Aleppi with their hundreds of varieties of spices, herbs, medicinal fruits and plants. In the Periyar jungle safari, the deer family and friends pause to watch us pass by, the peacocks cross the path in their colourful glory, though thankfully the snoozing bear, lazing lion, loitering tigers remain indifferent to the passing vehicle. But there was a real skirmish at the Lake Periyar boating when the decadent descendants of the vanar sena of the Ramayana descended on us. We were waiting in the ferry for passengers to assemble and a large number of monkeys came down prodding and coaxing everyone for some snacks. My resistance weakened and I handed one individual the packet of crisps I was munching from. I think it was a she, for she immediately leapt on the bank, possibly planning to share it with her mate. The so-called mate nonchalantly took the packet, finished the contents, putting his long fingers in to check the remnants, under the doleful eyes of the partner.
Time runs at an easy pace when you are travelling with my cousins, who are fifty-fifty tourists and loiterers. One sleeps late, has to be impeccably outfitted and cannot emerge from his room until the clothes are freshly laundered and ironed. The other is out early but needs tea or coffee or snack breaks every ten minutes of sightseeing. Still, we managed abundant tourism experience. My sisters-in-law and I were more into soaking in the ambience, enjoying the scenic surrounding. My bhabi, being an expert photographer, was taking wonderful pictures of the surrounding and I kept begging her to share those with me and she obliged. Though I did take pictures, neither my camera nor my artistic angles were that sophisticated. My younger cousin’s wife was better than me in photography, but sympathized with my mediocrity and that made it alright.
Being from nature rich Bangladesh, I would not indulge in lavish accounts of Kerala’s natural beauty, which, of course is extraordinary. But the difference is, while Kerala has settled down to its own identity through the modest sublime, the impression I got on arriving in Bangladesh is its under-construction aspect, it’s true identity besmeared by an investment hungry, unsettled infrastructure.
But then, this tour has taught me that contrast is integral to life, in nature, in the very structure of things. In a traditional Kerala dance performance, Kathakali, two dancers gave an amazing demonstration of such contrasts. Their elaborate makeups, headgears and costumes give them a larger than life appearance on the stage. What is amazing is their muscle control. In seconds they were changing their expressions, representing love-hate, courage-cowardice, victory-defeat, peace-chaos, affection-revulsion -- 36 such pairs, in sync with the fast beat of the drum, to conclude with the final Namaskaram and we, the audience returned the greeting.
We do need to return to humanity at the end, again and again, with humility and grace, a concept that has been embodied in that human chain in Kerala.