The fearless Biju sends the speedboat hurtling through the waters of the Asthamudi Lake, at 45 km per hour, leaving large frothy waves scything in its wake. He steers towards the nearby Monroe Islands. Named after a British officer who lived there before the sun set upon the empire, Colonel John Munro, the islands measures 13 sq km.
When I reach, I get onto a country boat, and Raghu rows me through the calm lagoons. The ride is soothing and refreshing. Also taking a ride with me is Gaiko from Tokyo. “I am enjoying myself,” she says, with a smile. “This is a novel experience.”
Raghu has a sense of fun. He leads the boat towards a narrow bridge, but there seems to be little place underneath for the craft to pass. When we reach almost next to the bridge, he stops rowing and asks us to lie down. I look at him puzzled and say, “Are you sure?” He smiles and says, “Please.” And so I lie down on the boat’s wet floor and watch with a sense of amazement, as the boat passes under the bridge intact. When the next bridge comes up, I laugh and lie down. Raghu, too, bends his head down towards his locked knees, but not before giving the boar a strong push with his oar. We pass under four bridges like this.
Suddenly, the surface of the lake is broken by a red and blue kingfisher which swoops down into the water, and, with unerring accuracy, spears a fish from the waters and flies away.
Disgustingly, along the lakeside in places, a few plastic bottles and empty tetra-packs bob in the eater. Raghu says that the District Tourism Promotion Council has specially appointed a worker to collect waste materials. “Looks like he is absconding,” he says.
We step off the boat on to an island, which is dense with coconut trees. Sreelakshmi Mohan, a 30-year-old housewife, shows me how to make coir ropes with the husk of the coconut and then passing in through a weaving wheel. Soon, a green coconut is cut opened and its clear, fresh water is invigorating. Next on the itinerary is a visit to a cashew factory. Cashew is the economic mainstay of Kollam. The factory owner, Raju Vasant Kumar, talks about how he started his first factory nervously, with a bank loan a few years ago. Now he has six. “I am exporting to the US, UK and all the European countries,” he says.
In the factory, Kerala’s labour irony becomes evident. While thousands of Malayalis have gone to the Middle East to eke out a living, Raju’s workforce comprises, apart from local women, a large batch of Assamese and Bengalis. “They are hard-working,” says a satisfied Raju, watching the workers peel off the shells with quiet efficiency.
Thereafter, I set out to see an elephant farm. It abounds with wildly growing grass and plants, but the elephants are kept on a raised concrete platform, with iron chains clanking around their legs. A hungry beast, with pleading eyes, makes a trumpeting sound.
In response, a bare bodied boy thrusts a coconut branch at him. The animal pulls out the leaves with its trunk, and stuffs it quickly into his mouth. “No masala, oil or spices needed,” says the mahout, with a sly grin.
Back at the hotel, the owner of the Raviz Hotel, Ravi Pillai, is in a good mood. He has just been told that Rafia Sheikh from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia had made a miraculous recovery. She had been in a wheelchair for the past three years. She had been seeking a cure in many places. Thanks to the Ayurvdea treatment available at the Raviz—a mix of massage, medicines and a proper diet, Rafia has been able to walk. “Rafia was suffering from a compression of nerves,” says Pillai. Outside, the centuries wait somnolently in the shape of a 250-year-old house, which has been translocated from a nearby village. Inside, the gleaming ceilings are low, and the walls, beds, floors and windows are made of burnished wood. “Foreigners love to stay here,” says Pillai. “They want to live in touch with nature.” In Kollam, it’s just natural.
(The writer was a guest at the Raviz Hotel. The views are his own.)