Another Dimension, Another Duniya
... Kerala is where it's all at.
I have just returned from my virgin trip to the "Land of Coconuts"
-- a literal translation of Keral (coconut) and la (land).
Selfishly speaking, I should be keeping this a closely guarded
secret to be shared only by other lovers of this incredible destination.
Those of us who have been Kerala-blessed ought to enter into a
conspiracy and not distribute our joy and enthusiasm to too many
people lest Cochin/Kumarakom go the Goa way in the near future.
But such is my present blissed-out condition, I am beyond caring
as I declare ecstatically: You can keep your Bali, Pattaya, Phuket
and Goa. Kerala is where it's all at -- the absolute works.
Don't take my word for it-- Go. Just an hour and forty minutes
away and you'll find yourself in another dimension, another duniya.
Think about it. It takes longer for commuters to make it from
Versova to Nariman Point on a good day, asphyxiating all the way
on auto exhaust fumes.
Check out the option: The airport at Cochin (nobody has switched
to the state government sponsored Kochi) is 10 minutes from
the glorious Taj Malabar sitting prettily on the edge of
the world's most photogenic estuary.
Anybody who has ever sat around in the open air corridor of the
Waterfront Cafe idly watching a family of playful porpoises frolicking
in the warm waters that lap against its low parapet, will have
experienced nirvana -- at least for those all too brief moments.
This has got to be the Jewel in the Taj Crown -- if for no other
reason than by virtue of its unbeatable location.
Mohan Kumar, the ever smiling, area general manager for the region,
has just introduced a great new restaurant appropriately called
Rice Boat which serves local cuisine in a dismantled traditional
boat. Try the tiger prawns with freshly ground pepper or Kerala's
favourite fish, karimeen (pearl spot) wrapped in banana leaves.
For us, the speed boat ride to Kumarakom and the Taj Garden Retreat,
was the high point of our arrival. Barely a few hours after leaving
Mumbai, there we were climbing into this nifty water chariot, shooting
off the private jetty and flying across the backwaters only to
glide smoothly into the reception hall.
The main area of this hotel is a 150-year-old colonial bungalow
which once belonged to British missionaries and has since been
lovingly refurbished to house the smart office of general manager,
Manoj Mathew and a restaurant which serves the best fish moily
in the world (have it with appams or the large-grained
The morning after our arrival we had our first taste of the internationally famous Kerala massage. Experts, who obviously have reinforced
steel in their palms, worked on us, as five litres of ayurvedic
oil was poured over our pliant bodies and we got the pummeling
of our lives. Their brand new ayurvedic centre had opened the same morning.
The only thoughts that flew around inside our maalished
heads involved nothing more complicated than dreaming about our
next meal -- which was eaten at the Coconut Lagoon next door.
We would never have heard of this magical place had it not been
for our friend and intrepid traveller, hot-shot solicitor Bergis
Desai. As one hangs in a hammock overlooking an enormous lake
(35km x 17km), one's thoughts turn deliciously carnal -- and frankly
by this point, they are the only ones worth having.
Built in the age old tharavadu style of Kerala, the Coconut Lagoon
is functional, clean and efficient with hundreds of palm trees
dotting the 10 acre property. The best part of staying in one
of the 37 tiled cottages is being able to bathe in the open. What?
Well -- the bathrooms are cleverly located in an enclosed courtyard.
So it's possible to gaze at a starlit sky while showering lazily.
The general manager here is Nandagopal Narayanan, who along with
his very pretty wife, makes sure everything is tickety-boo on
The governor of Kerala, Kang, and his wife were on a short visit.
It was rather comical to see the couple walking around, dressed
in formals, with an entourage of 20 trailing them at a respectful
While the governor saab in his suit boot couldn't have
had much fun -- we sure did. Malayalee beauties in off-white mundus
floated around the multi-canal acreage, while firang guests timorously
tried out Kerala specialties like teyyal, kavan and avial.
By the way, they kept all their clothes on. We felt like we'd
gate crashed the Dilwale Dhulhaniya..." set with
all the "Mehendi laga ke rakh na" type honeymooners
billing and cooing under the palm trees. No Shah Rukhs and Kajols
alas -- Mumbai Gujjus in search of R&R and fresh toddy.
Since the only way to get around is via water taxis, a trek into
the nearest town from the Taj Garden Retreat is hard to resist. At an obscure tea shop on
the mainland, I found an entire wall plastered with pictures of
Lenin, Stalin and the Nehru-Gandhis. "Our leaders,"
the toothless tea shop owner informed me proudly.
On a special night, personally supervised by God himself, we drifted
out on a canteen-lit rice boat -- our bodies massaged to mush at
the ayurvedic centre, our senses slightly altered by pink champagne.
The discreet boatman punted silently through dark waters, as we
nibbled on asparagus and had naughty thoughts. Reality seemed
too far away -- and frankly, it wasn't an immediate priority.
It all struck right as we headed back to Cochin and its Jew Town.
Yet another sunset cruise -- this time to the cluster of islands
dotting the mouth of the estuary and alongside the famous Chinese
nets strung up on the narrow strip of beach and Mumbai raised
its unattractive head.
Jew Town has precisely 16 Cochin Jews left (the rest live in Israel). The antique shops still have magnificent furniture and Chinese
salt jars that look like they legitimately belong to Alladin's
Palace Road has been taken over exclusively by Gujarati spice
and tea traders. Local business men with names like "Baby"
married to women called "Shoney" live in grand style occupying
sprawling bungalows, with overhanging rain trees which are over five
Coffee and tea planters gather at the historic Cochin Club, as
gigantic bulk carriers and container ships sail out majestically
into the open sea, right past the club's fencing.
This is life, we sigh. Yeah, this is life -- but only for five days.
As we touch down in Mumbai and breathe the familiar polluted
air, we know we are home -- home to filth, ill mannered people,
traffic, crowds, ugly buildings, uglier politics.
Oh -- but it feels good. So good. One belongs.