Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Of Buses and Lores in Kannur

The wrought iron gates are padlocked. We peek through the slits in the gate and our eyes cannot comprehend the vast eden-esque patio which possibly ends in a promontory opening onto the Arabian Sea below. Disappointed we line up against a wall, set the digi-cam to auto shoot mode, attempted smiles lighting up our faces as the flash turns on. The touristy siege of Bekal Fort needless to say was abandoned, the attempt being prematurely fizzled out before the (now non-existent) draw-bridge itself.

About thirty hours into the our recent past we arrived at Kannur, six disheveled characters emerged from a semi-sleeper bus to be picked up by a seventh not so disheveled character who had landed in Kannur a couple of days earlier. After being deposited at a rather neat three starrer (the name of which eludes me now), express instructions given to bathe and get ready to be picked up again in a couple of hours, the seventh disappears. The former six, post critical ablutions, troop into the restaurant of the three starrer mouths salivating about plates of crispy on the sides and fluffy in the middle appams and steaming mutton stew. The drool is quickly wiped off as we are informed in not too courteous a manner that the orders will have to be restricted to poori-sagu, masala dosa and possibly if lucky (were the hens striking?) omelets. The dosa soon arrives cold and limp, the pooris look a tad more attractive, omelets thin and short of runny accompanied by grape juice which was well past its expiry date by a few months. Hunger satiated we head out onto the streets in search of Sulaimani chai, which remained as elusive as the appams and stew. (A slight aside- appams and stew were consumed with much fervour and delight a week later at the reception of the social engagement for which we had landed in Kannur-Ms. V’s marriage) After hurried baths and attempts at making ourselves socially presentable we proceed to the marriage hall.

Kannur’s sultry weather and more so movie posters for B Grade porn with titles like ‘Black Lady’, the said lady crossing her legs much like Catherine Tramell tempted Detective Nick Curran, leave us a bit hot under the collars. The air conditioned hall and liberal quantities of lime juice solve issues, at least temporarily. Soon the bride and groom arrive, immediately whisked away by young ladies (future brides in the making) brightly draped, jasmine decked, leading with flickering if not kindly lit diyas, musicians furiously blowing, drumming and clinking following them. They soon emerge on the stage of the hall, in front of thousands of eyes blinking, another dozen upfront squinting through viewfinders, flashes fulminating across the length of the stage.

After what looked like introductions of the bride and groom to the poojari, the music suddenly reaches a crescendo and the knot is tied. Garlands exchanged, we suddenly are undecided on the next course of action-what is the protocol? Senior family members were already flocking around the newly wedded couple, blessing them, hands dipping into a vessel of paddy circling the heads of the newly weds and spraying them with the sativic arsenal. Would it be sacrilegious to suddenly see seven dressed up rogues mill around Ms. V and her spouse congratulating them on their recently alt‘a’red marital status? A debate ensued on the various complexities and protocols involved. Theories floated amongst the knowledgeables- friends were relegated to the bottom of the congratulatory milieu. Factions were quickly formed and Maachas and I opposed the premise. We strode onto the stage -in spirit hitching our mundus up- awaiting our Copernican moment of proving the other theories wrong. A sudden scramble ensued and the hitherto seated couple jumped to their feet, we apologizing for broken traditions if any. Having been assured that none were, warm wishes extended, we came down the steps, smug that the others had now begun to line up at the other end. Confidence levels soaring I joined the queue again to pose for another photograph with the complete set of friends who had traveled from Bangalore to attend the wedding.

Wedding lunches always require negotiating a rather dangerous gang of famished characters. They almost have a crocodilian glint in their eye, one that anticipates a fresh gazelle between their snappers within a few moments. And they have the strange knack of assembling like vultures around carrion, only much more densely packed and they squeakingly demand- the doors of the dining hall to be opened immediately. The easiest method to negotiate the mosh-pit like crowd is to sneak in skillfully around the hulky ladies and overbearing men until you wedge yourself in-between the door and the controlled violence of the hardcores around you. Being undernourished helps to squeeze through- a handicap across my name (waist?). The downside of course is that your olfactory senses take a severe beating from being in close proximity to the toxic combination of jasmine, sweat and coconut oil. Having successfully ridden this wave of people- comparisons drawn to crowd surfing at extreme metal concerts- feasting followed.

A couple of bananas and burps later, social engagements dealt with, it is time to explore Kannur. Kannur according to legend gets its name from Kannande Ooru- Kanna’s (Krishna) place, though in all practical purpose it could be Kanathur, an ancient village which exists still as a ward in the municipality. With limited time and knowledge of the area (any tourist’s laments) we approached a localite enquiring directions to the St. Angelo Fort of him. “St. Angelo’s Fort?” a blank stare, rather many a blank stare and wild gesticulations from one old man (his hands flew like a compass gone haywire) later we stopped an autorickshaw. Quietly he excused himself mumbling about heading in another direction; we stopped another, who too refused to be employed of his services. The auto-stand quickly emptied itself of all available autos leaving us worried that the fort might after all be a figment of the tourist department’s imagination.

Finally two drivers relented and we piled in zipping through by-lanes till we reached the Cantonment area. After a short discussion with a shop keeper the auto drivers exclaim, “Kannur Kota (fort)!?, never heard of whatever fort you are mentioning” and turned, we slightly pleased that comprehension had dawned and that we were heading towards our first sight worth seeing. And quite an impressive one it was! The roughly triangularly planned fort built of solid laterite towers on top of a rocky promontory overlooking the Mapila Bay on one side and a cliff that drops into the Arabian Sea on the other. It was constructed during 1502-07, under Dom Francesco d’Almeida, the first Portuguese Viceroy to India after having won the Kolathiri Raja’s confidence. Protected by the sea on three sides the only approach was from the land side which would also be cut off when the Portuguese later built a water moat.

Colonial supremacy being the favourite European pastime from 16th C onwards, St. Angelo’s fort changed keepers from the Portuguese to the Dutch in 1663, later sold to the local Ali Rajas and finally seized by the British in 1790, transforming into the largest military base on the Malabar Coast. The architecture too reflects this colonial imperialism with the Portuguese having built the chapel, prison, administrative offices and other amenities for the officers stationed here. The Dutch added horse stables and ammunition stores. The Ali Rajas probably did not have much time to settle in to modify it to their tastes. As for the English, military affairs overrode architectural and interior designer issues. Cannons stride the bastions pointing out towards the sea. We walk along the rampart as fishing boats ply in the distance. To the east of the fort in the Cantonment a few Army jawans in shorts and vests warmed up for a session of PT. After passing the roofless chapel we stopped for water, brined pineapple and raw mangos. Refreshed we continue through the horse stables which were large enough to house elephants and reach the rocky edge dropping off into the Arabian Sea. Waves crash as crabs play hide and seek in the millions of geomorphic pockmarks created by erosion of the laterite rocks, now covered by a greenish grey carpet of lichen.

Our next port of call, Parassinikadavu Muthappan Temple, was something I had planned on the itinerary right from the start, the offerings of toddy and fish being prime reason. Having boarded a rather crowded bus, with a deranged driver at the wheel, we hung onto any area of railing offered to avoid pinning the person in front like vertical wrestling match. A quick conversation struck with the conductor revealed that Muthappan was of a fiery temper and would be cooled down with offerings of the country liquor, fish and other meats. Once when he was in the middle of his escapist sessions atop a tree he was disturbed by a localite. Muthappan with one cold stare turned the gatecrasher into stone and promptly disappeared. Later another localite sensed a divine aura around the area and having gathered forces built a temple to honour Muthappan. Muthappan has had a few lessons in anger management since and welcomes people of all castes and religions now, with the warmth inducing-barrier breaking toddy.

After enduring a drive, rocking around like a limp rag doll for about 45 minutes we arrived at Parassinikadavu. A trek down a flight of steps finally ended up in a complex of shops displaying pictures of gods and goddesses interestingly fighting for space with Comrades EMS Namboodiripad and Krishnan Pillai, various accoutrements which are generally seen around temples and blaring devotional songs later we could here muffled beats of the chenda and maddalam emanating from within the temple premises. As you enter we notice the hundreds of devotees thronging the prasadam area for their devotional quota. It reminded me strangely of the obedient throngs who line up outside the government regulated liquor shops in Kerala, the only place in all probability where queue protocols are followed with Swiss watch like precision.

The main area of the temple itself was quite packed; as devotees teemed around waiting to be blessed by Muthappan theyyam. The theyyam in a bright red costume and carrying an over sized head gear with a mask and false canines painted on the face weaved through the crowd occasionally breaking into what appeared like screams or as the devotees would take-blessings. He waved his sword and bow and arrow around in a drunken sort of way, dancing and keeping time to the now frenetically drumming musicians. As we sensed the end of the theyyam was approaching we quickly sneaked out before the mass exodus and prepared for the all-muscle-workout drive back to Kannur, this time we managed to get seats.

We had booked into a resort a little away from Kannur town for the night. After checking out of the three starrer we boarded a local bus to our destination for the night- Seashell Inn. A drunk boarded at the next stop turning many noses and heads in the opposite direction. Muttering to himself he came suddenly to life when a question from a co-passenger made him irate. Thankfully with no powers like the Muthappan he got off after a couple of stops, a stony look in his eyes indicating he was at the edge of wakefulness and exhaustion after what must have been many rounds of foul brandy.

Adikadalayil finally appeared and with it in the darkness, Mr. Haris, the proprietor of the resort. A short walk, guided by torch light, led us up a gentle slope. A turn right and we could hear the waves lolling onto the sand below hidden by coconuts and a cliff. The resort perched on the cliff, 3 houses with some more under construction. Our rooms showed, Haris took us on a tour of his property in the light of a hurricane CFL including to the bottom of the cliff where the waves were getting a bit rough. The way down reminded me of Famous Five mysteries where rotting doors would creak open revealing a smuggler’s den or an abducted child. Our door, not in the best of conditions (and that’s where the similarity ends) revealed a flight of steps cut into the rocks leading to the rocks and beach beyond. Tired and in the mood for merriment we decided to skip the beach till later and returned to the open dining garden where a grill spat quietly. Chicken, mussels, squid, potatoes in their jackets, yams awaited their turn on the last leg of their journeys to attain nirvana on our plates. The festivities were on…

Bob Marley’s strained voice, “The sun is shining” momentarily made a spiritual appearance in my ears as I stepped onto the portico the next morning. As the others emerged plans were already afoot to hurriedly do with ablutions and head down to the beach. The Famous Five look-alike path looked less mysterious in the morning. Once across the rocks at the bottom- practically empty beach stretched into eternity lined with coconuts. The sand in places was black and I reasoned it to be silt from a river at least that was my theory. The water was calm and ideal to splash around and we didn’t take much time to dive in head long, lolling in the sea, occasionally heading back to sand strip and resting, wishing for beach umbrellas and chilled beer served by earthy beauties. Water sport done we headed back to some piping hot sulaimani chai and excellent pazham pori (banana fritters). Chai washing the pazham pori down, we departed to the town for a late lunch and then our final destination for the trip-Bekal Fort.

Alighting at the Caltex Junction we strolled across to the first thattu-kada (roadside restaurant/tea-shop), neatly dropped our luggage at the cash counter and slowly decimated numerous plates of kerala parathas, succulent beef fry and a most brilliant beef biryani. At first sight the biryani looked rather queasy with a semi gravy topping the rice. The essence actually was in mixing the rice first and then wolfing it down with thick chunks of the softest beef I have had in a biryani. The full effects of the meal started settling only once we boarded the bus to Kasargod, enroute to Bekal. The heavy lunch and little sleep due to the festivities of the previous night knocked me out for about an hour on the bus. When I was jerked up and enquired if we were anywhere near Bekal, the conductor said we should take another half hour to a place where we would have to take a different bus to Kasargod and this would take us through Bekal, the current bus we were traveling in was to take a bye-pass route. “Damn!” I cursed, it was 4:00 PM already and our bus to Bangalore from Kasargod was scheduled for departure at 8:30 PM.

An hour later we boarded the other bus, this time via Bekal. Half an hour into the journey and we braked, a railway crossing, blocking our progress. The waiting time was spent in debating if we should alight and walk the rest of the distance or wait for the train to pass, as slowly the skies turned dark and birds tweeted their way back to their nests. An hour later and an enormous gate stood in our path -padlocked- and with it ending our two day campaign.

We slowly walked back to the bus stop where we had alighted a few minutes back and despondently waited to board our third bus heading to Kasargod. A common occurrence across the three legs of this slightly long distance bus journey was- the smells of the road and within the bus itself. A strong waft of atar would hit the nostrils at the least expected times knocking my senses for a few mili-seconds before the open window would provide respite. The other was of dried fish and the third most interestingly was the acrid smell of burning grass (what variety eludes me), but nonetheless interesting.

The bus stand at Kasargod loomed ominous of the end of our journey. Still a tad depressed that we couldn’t walk the ramparts like Arvind Swami did in Bombay we settle to liven up the spirits-with some appams, chicken masala and ghee rice. Spirits soldered we settle into our seats in the KSRTC Rajahamsa Semi-Sleeper. Quiet conversation ensues with each others aisle mates with a few all round laughs and curses. It’s been a while since the boys (minus Pallu) were out on a trip like this. And it all started with a call from Ms. V on a Wednesday while I was out for lunch, “Hey. I am getting married the week after next. It would be great if you could come to Kannur.”

The next day, on the local Volvo home, the only thought on my mind is, “When do we go back to Bekal?”

No comments: