The island of crows

It was March 2017; I was planning a holiday with the family. We would fly to Kerala and surprise my mother-in-law on her 60th birthday and book a villa for a celebratory weekend. During my research, I chanced upon Kayal (backwaters) Island retreat. I wrote to the owner, Maneesha and she promptly responded. We exchanged some lively emails but sadly I decided not to book the cottage then because I wasn’t sure I could cart a four month baby from a car, flight, car and finally a boat. I promised Maneesha I’d be back, so I did.

I’m not sure what I can say about Kayal that’s not already been said before, but I’ll try. Holidays during a pandemic are more vital than ever as you’re literally risking your life for a getaway. Careful planning, checking, and re-checking the travel restrictions and ensuring that all protocols are followed. Holidays are now more deliberate and less spontaneous. We were anxious and full of trepidation about flying, about Neev (now 4.5 years) getting an RT PCR test and heading to a state that is reporting the highest number of Covid cases every day. The key word here is reporting as compared to some other states, but I won’t explain any further.

My in-laws met us outside the Kochi airport, and we took a boat to the tiny island of Kakkathuruthu (island of crows) named after its avian inhabitants The island is only 4 km long and 1 km wide. To our right, perched on the banks of lake Vembanad was our charming resort. Four little cottages that were both austere and luxurious. A deeply intimate setting for a family get-together. My photos and videos have chronicled the exclusive experience but will do no justice to the beauty and serenity.

The sound of crickets, birdsong, the chorus of the bullfrogs, the Hindu devotional songs heard in the mornings and at dusk, the muezzin’s call to prayer, all in harmony and sync with nature.  One evening, we sat to listen to a ferryman’s daughter, Anaha. A shy girl who has excelled in her studies and sings with equal aplomb.

The surround sound experience of nature. The smell of fried fish in coconut oil. The remarkably effective and earthy fragrance of the incense sticks that were lit each evening to ward off the mosquitoes. The sound of rain. Woodsmoke. The cormorants drying their wings on tree stumps. The Brahmini kites circling over the lake. The beautiful Kingfishers skimming the surface. The fireflies greeting us as the skies changed from inky blue to black.

The food, my goodness, the food. Fresh ingredients combined with age-old recipes. There are no menus. You just show up at the table (like how it was while growing up) and be prepared to be wowed by the local fare.

There was no screen time for the child that week and he had a ball. Throwing pebbles in the lake, laughing at spiders that could be mistaken for wall hooks, the darting dragonflies, the turtle in the well that appeared to sun itself. Life was at its animated best. We got time to read, connect with each other and ourselves and make memories. It felt like a journey inward. Meaningful.

It was time to leave. The sun came out to greet me as the clouds parted. The flotillas of water hyacinths sidle up to my boat, their purple flowers glisten in the morning light. They gently merge to form temporary islands as if Maneesha, Saiju, Sheeba and Vijaylakshmi were joining hands and accompanying me to the ferry point. Like me, the drifting currents will eventually carry them away. I promised Maneesha I’d return soon. And I will.

A royal princess

What better day than today to tell you a story about my friend, a princess. Janhavi was in school with me and had that easy charm that she befriended everyone she met. Janhavi was much taller than me, towering over most of us and therefore earned a nickname which has stuck over the years, Jini! In school Jini, Rupali and I became inseparable, exchanging lunch boxes, stories and alibis.

They were from more affluent homes but for some reason found my humble abode a great place for a sleepover. My dad was a government employee and we lived in “staff quarters”. I shared my room with my sister. My father was a DIY man and believed in recycling. Wooden racks doubled up as bookshelves. Iron frames were repurposed to become a bed. Comfortable but frugal. None of this mattered to my friends. Who came to study or to hang out as we talked into the night about our misfortunes and misadventures. Jini broke all records and stayed at my place for 22 days! Her mom would call on the landline (no mobile phones then) and be baffled about her daughter’s plans and whether she intended to return home at any point.

When we got to high school, I signed up for accounting tuitions from 9-11am and since the class was a fair distance from home, I would head to either Jini or Rupali’s house for lunch and then head to college which was around 1.30pm. Those were probably the best days of my student life. The best food for sure. Crushing over Channel V’s VJ Trey at Rupali’s and trying on makeup at Jini’s city apartment. By makeup I mean lipstick and she favored one shade from Revlon which was called Toast of New York. The memory imprinted forever. Two years ago I used it as my US visa application password. A closely guarded memory until now.

Both their homes were a welcome change from my regimented life.

Jini had another home. I would go there whenever my dad allowed it. It was massive with many rooms and we would run from one room to another. It was so huge that her mom would ring the extension in the bedroom to summon us for lunch. I knew she came from a  royal family. I knew there a was a title attached to her name. Visconde de Pernem in Portuguese (Viscount of Pernem in English). Somehow these things didn’t register with me and I barely gave it any thought. Much like Jini who didn’t mind my middle class upbringing and chose to live like a commoner with us.

Jini went on to study hotel management in Manipal. We stayed in touch even when Jini married an army man and moved cities every couple of years. The power of our memories ensured we never lost contact and picked up where we left off. Things got tougher for both of us but each time Jini’s perspective on life left me with hope and humour. Her cést la vie attitude remains unchanged.

We had a lovely reunion in Goa last year. The Green Rosary School trinity. Some of us had gone abroad but returned to the homeland. All of us were mothers. We had moved, morphed and evolved. Jini invited me along with my husband and son, Neev, to her palatial home and seeing it from their eyes made me realise just how grand their family home is. I got my first proper tour of the residential palace of the royal family more than 20 years after I’d first set foot in it. I walked around with disbelief, awe and reverence that history generally evokes.

Seen here is the library with the palanquin, the former courtroom, the dining room in the house of hospitality reserved to entertain their European guests and the long driveway flanked by laws and a watch tower. 

Neev couldn’t believe they have a treehouse which was the highlight for him. It then struck me that life comes full circle. Children only focus on the small joys. Happy birthday, Jini. To many more endearing moments that will become sepia toned memories to cherish.