Manu (Unien - Little Brother)
It took 4 buses to go inter-state to reach Manathavady, on the edge of the Kerala district of Wayanad and a fifth to get to the capital of the region, Kalpetta though I was told there was a direct bus originally. Lesson to learn: never trust someone's knowledge of the bus timetable. Either the bus doesn't exist or the timings are irrelevant here!
Still, the journey between the two picturesque regions of Coorg and Wayanad was itself bursting with beauty. Tired as I was, I was amazingly awake the entire time while sitting by the open doorways and windows of the bus or standing amidst the mass of passengers struggling for room.
I wanted to spend a night away from a bustling town but it was inescapable on this journey, as one bus led me on to the next and the next to eventually reach Kalpetta. Searching for a cheap place to stay in was difficult. It took me only about 7 or so ventures to "Hotel" establishments to realise that Hotel here means restaurants! After the 4th go, I just assumed it was because they were advertising a nearby hotel so I continued asking. Such is the language barrier I have here. A kind couple eventually directed me to a place under 300 rupees, my budget for the day and the friendly staff helped me to find the cheapest meal to eat nearby. The stay was not altogether unpleasant. But I got out of the town as soon as possible the next day for my planned destination of Soochipara Waterfalls where I was hoping to spend the night and escape the city vibe.
Two buses later and I'm faced with a 2km walk through the village of Soochipara with my heavy backpack. I failed to find a sub 250-rupee stay and was sitting forlorn on the side of the road before a slog up the hill when Manu found me.
22-year old sweet Manu works for the Forest Department in charge of the falls. He was kind, cheerful and always helpful. His broken English made it difficult for us to fully communicate but our interactions became very close nonetheless. He eventually received the title of my little brother in the family that I came to have. He gave me a tour of the waterfalls on that first day and decided to be the cameraman whenever he was with me. He provided me with a SIM card when my own became somewhat defunct and took care of me in so many other ways.
George (Acha - Father)
Manu brought me to dear George who brought me to my home for the next 5 days (a guest house with attached restaurant run by his cousin). I was to be his guest, not a tourist, so payment was not necessary I was told. One of his first sentences to me was: "Look at me as your father" which he duly became, looking after me and showing me the sights.
One such sight was Chembra Peak, at 2100m above sea level, and took around 6hrs+ to hike up and down. The climb was so steep in many places, I felt like I was rock-climbing. 59-year-old-George put me to shame! He raced up the path with the local guide while I struggled to move my feet. I had to make regular stops, even as George carried my bag. On one such stop for water, George took the bottle from me and took a big sip, then promptly used his spitting skills to blast out a mass of water on my face. Shocked as I was, I realised how familiar we were becoming to each other.
The view from the top was of course spectacular. Clouds came and went around us, obscuring and revealing the mountains around and hills and valleys below. We stayed there for a good while before racing down. I had to force myself to jog down to keep up with him. My journey was no longer accompanied by the pounding heart but the shaking legs as each step came with a fear that I might indeed collapse this time. But all was well in the end and we reached Meppady, the nearby town, for a hearty meal. George insisted on paying for most things, saying: "You need your money to go around the world. I only have to stay here." I was touched by his generosity, and in fact the generosity of everyone I've met who do not hesitate to give what they could.
Shaji and Siju (Chettah - Older Brother)
My first night with the 'family' was spent with Doice, who owns the guesthouse (and is George's cousin). I was taken to his home, a long drive away from Soochipara and questioned myself my decision to take such a risk. I had reasoned with myself that these people were well known in their community, that surely any harm to me would not benefit them but I still scolded myself for the move nonetheless. I didn't know the family that I would come to inherit. Doice's family was caring and generous. I talked mostly to the wife, Smitha, in her broken English. The family took a day off the next day to show me around and though it was a good day, I asked to be back to the warmth of Soochipara nevertheless and was glad for the decision.
Siju came that first night back, providing a SIM card prior to Manu (a very big deal for me because it's almost impossible to get a SIM card with a permanent address here!). Manu, George, Siju and I sat on the porch the whole evening and talked and laughed. I felt so at ease in that warmth! The 3 worked together at the falls and jointly came to embrace me as their own, declaring our family status the next day at the bonfire - father, brother and sister). In the afternoon, they also came round with a birthday present: colourful bangles that I still treasure now. The thought was so touching. I wished so much that I could speak their language. In another life, I would learn it and claim Malayalam as my own.
Shaji is the chef of the attached restaurant. His training in Bangalore taught him an array of cuisines, from North to South Indian to Chinese. I often stood in the kitchen area to watch the process, taking photo-logues in the hope of learning how to cook these dishes. I came to see how the enormous Paper Masala Dosa was made and generally had the pleasure of eating great home-cooked meals made fresh everyday. Shaji took me under his wings and made it his mission to feed me well. On learning it was to be my birthday soon, and to celebrate Lucy (George's wife)'s birthday, he decided to build a bonfire that night and we all had a great time around the campfire, singing, dancing and eating. Happy memories.
Daniel is a neighbour of George. He works for the charity World Vision, and has been dispatched to CSI (the Church of South India) to run the Christian projects there. He's evangelical in his mission to save the children of the area.
The CSI project provides a free after school and weekend club for the local children, targeting those living in poverty and/or from broken families. Programmes provided enable the holistic development of children, educationally, culturally, physically and spiritually. Extra subject classes are provided, music and dance lessons are taught, healthy meals are served and crucially, rather controversially for me, Christian lessons are taught. Children dance and sing to Christian music, learn about Jesus and pray to him, despite Christian, Hindu or Muslim backgrounds. For Daniel, all the other developments are useless unless they learn about the true God.
This is my 3rd Christian school setting. Already, I feel like I can't escape it wherever I go! Though I applaud the efforts of Father William in Mysore, the Sisters in Madikeri and here Daniel in providing free or low-cost, good quality education, there's always an uncomfortable feeling attached to seeing children of all religions learning church hymns and prayers. In the two prior school experiences, children are at least allowed to express their own non-Catholic religions. There were pictures of Hindu faiths here and there and in the big celebrations, children of other faiths would stand up to pray in the words of their religion. Here, however, there doesn't seem to be an acknowledgement.
The above is an observation and a feeling in me and definitely not a criticism. Shouldn't I be doing the same apostolate work for those around me? What this has shown me at least is the need to develop children on a wholesome level. I've always thought of development in terms of meeting the basic needs - food, shelter, education. But there's so much more to expose children to in order to give them the rounded experience to become individuals for society. I must think on a grander scale.
Another little taster to THE dream Indian wedding that I can't seem to go to. The bride's brother invited me and I readily accepted. The Muslim wedding was on a small scale, celebrations wise. The wedding day itself didn't even have music and fanfare! I had delayed my journey to the next town just for that quiet ambiance (!).
The real celebration was the night before, when the bride anticipated her next day. People were invited round and given food, tasty and home-cooked. I was amazed at the family's ability to effortlessly cater for such a big crowd. There's no fuss or fear here at cooking for such huge numbers - it seemed so easy. I can't imagine such an accomplishment in the West, where the cook would fret at a dinner party for 5. Sure, expectations and food was entirely different but still, I admire the more laid back style here.
While men ate outside, the women busied themselves with applying Mehendi to each other. I had a design done on my left (non-eating) hand. Once the men finished, the women poured out for their meals. There were no strict rules. I could have chosen to eat with George and the other men but the unwritten code provided the separation. There's a certain sweetness in it that I can't describe. There's an understated modesty that's pure and right. It's traditional. It makes sense somehow.
One highlight of the evening for me was to finally wear the full, beautiful sari, courtesy of Shaji's wife, with blouse and all (unlike in the convent). The blouse fitted perfectly! Lucy expertly wrapped me in the sari fabric and pulled my hair neatly back. Wearing the sari is such an intricate process, I wonder if I'll ever be able to learn. I didn't want to take it off in the end. It's so beautiful!
The real draw of the night for everyone was the "Opener" (from what I can make of their pronunciation). It's a showcase of various performances from family and friends: singing, dancing and the likes followed by general dancing into the early hours. For the first time, I can start to see the excitement in the arrange-marriage setting that Arunima was talking about. The bride was surrounded by her nearest and dearest, preparing to send her off into the unknown in a big celebration. The air was filled with anticipation.
I was of course asked to perform. By now, I'm used to it and ended up singing "Under the Sea", a Disney favourite for me. This is one of the things I find endearing about the Indian culture - the readiness and expectation to sing, dance and celebrate. Even in the smallest villages, you can find Hindi or local music blaring out of the system. People sang at the top of their voices in churches and schools, good voice or not.
The evening ended without me dancing. My family left at 1am before the general dancing began. I lay in bed imagining the scene as the music blared out from the house and filled my room. One day... I shall see the whole, full wedding...