My first memory of Kerala is the hypnotizing smell that accompanies the first showers falling on the bright red ground. The rain keeps falling, not stopping for even a second, as if enchanted by the ground. It’s as if the water is drawn towards the soil – once it touches down, it keeps streaming and flowing unabated, as if searching for something mysterious – a search it never seems to tire of.
It was in this season of relentless rain that I visited Wayanad, Kerala’s hidden district. Being on the road there is an adventure in itself – the road winds and slithers along the hills, slippery as a snake due to the showers. One second, you’re quietly enjoying the greenery all around you; the next, your heart skips a beat as the car swerves to negotiate a tricky turn. The valleys to the sides extend deep down to the jungles, and I wonder how much scarier they would’ve been if the foliage didn’t block the view down.
The road slowly stops twisting and turning as you reach a town. Although the road has stopped being frightening, the forests haven’t. Apparently, wild elephants from the jungles frequently visit the nearby area. I practise playing dead, just in case.
The houses don’t seem so different, until I glance upon, from a vantage point, the out-of-place huts dotting the town. I direct my befuddlement at the driver. He smiles, takes out a small wooden piece in the shape of some symbol.
“There live the adivasis,” he says. He puts the symbol back in his pocket. “I am one myself.”
There’s a look of intense sadness on his face. The native adivasis have been all but forgotten, he conveys. Not knowing what to say, I fidget as a moment of deep silence is observed in the car.
The hotel, although small, is homely. The view from the room is breathtaking. It’s as if the whole view is painted with only two colors – green and blue. The greenery extends to the horizon and when it rains, it seems as if an invisible curtain connects the land and the sky; if there is a paradise on Earth, I say to myself, this is it.
Before I get to take it all in, my uncle decides to visit someone in town, and I get dragged along. The streets are small and narrow. The town hasn’t seen much development, I observe. There are a few shops, but they too, are small and restricted to the inner area.
The fringes, though, are exactly as you’d expect a rural hinterland to be. Forests dominate, but a few patches of farming break the uniformity. Settlements are few and far apart.
‘I wonder how these people survive,’ I tell my uncle.
‘City brat,’ he says. I scowl.
We reach a fork in the road. To the right, we have a narrow, muddy path. We park the car to a side and walk along the path.
The house at its end is small, with brick walls. There’s a mud well right next to the entrance, which is a crudely made wooden door. A man walks out and welcomes us with a big smile. He’s dressed well, wearing a clean shirt and trousers.
My uncle is a Vasthu consultant and there’s nothing special about what the man wants – he wants to build a better house for his family. As my uncle goes about his business, I talk to him about the place.
It turns out he hails from an adivasi family. He’d grown up in this small hut, studying at a local government school. Despite his limited means, he had cleared the Civil Services exam and become an IRS officer.
I felt warm and fuzzy within, happy about our system and how fair it was. ‘You must be really proud now, right?’
He looks at me, bemused. ‘Maybe, one day, when we’re remembered once again,’ he says and smiles at me.
There’s still nothing special about him – like the other half of India, he’s fighting adversity. But he leaves a mark on my mind, just like Wayanad, hidden, yet alive.
I grudgingly leave town the next day. Experiences like Wayanad are few and far between for a city brat.