As Kerala’s Palm-Lined Beaches and Backwaters Call You Again, Stop by My Panamanna

The much-needed COVID vaccine is almost within reach for the masses. In a few months, the roads, seas, and skies will open, providing the lifeline that the global tourism industry, decimated by COVID 19 and sputtering on life support, desperately needs. This is also one instance where patience does not fall under virtues. The industry, understandably, is impatient to welcome customers with open arms, and with little to no restrictions. Their wish is about to be granted. The demand for business and leisure travel has never been higher. While the pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of millions, there are several sectors that have been relatively left unharmed, and people associated with those sectors have not really seen a dip in their earnings. Add in the wanderlust that is encoded in human DNA, the proverbial floodgates are about to open. There is no time like now to start planning for the next adventure, and with that, comes the biggest question: What should be my first travel destination in 2021? For me, it is a small village in Kerala.

Panamanna – My Home in Kerala

The decision, quite frankly, surprised me. Until ten months ago, I was a proud member of the frequent flier community, thanks to my profession. My job allowed me to fly on a weekly basis, to some of the world’s most popular cities. Then COVID19 happened, and like everyone else, I was grounded. Since the news of an approved vaccine broke out last month, my excitement to fly again has been building up. I vividly remember the giddiness during my maiden flight from Delhi to Chennai 21 years ago. Something tells me, my first flight of 2021 will invoke similar emotions. Since last week, I have been making a mental list of all the places that I want to fly back to, once normalcy resumes. Some have the best food and breweries. Others are known for their architecture, skyline, or beaches. As I was making this list, one place kept pulling me harder than any other. My village of Panamanna under Ottapalam Taluk in Palakkad district of Kerala.   The reasons are amazingly simple. Pure nostalgia, being frozen in time, and a sense of being one with mother nature. I guess, one must be from Panamanna to get these feelings. If I add the number of days that I have spent in Panamanna, from the time I started remembering things. it still would not be enough to make two full years. Even then, I am unable to resist that strong pull. Not that I want to try.

A view from author’s front gate. A wide stairway built with laterite stones, and lined by coconut and betelnut trees, leads to a narrow pathway to the rice fields. A similar stairway on the opposite side leads to the pathway to the village.

How the Gods Designed Kerala

Kerala has over 600 kilometers of shoreline with many famous beaches and backwaters. Panamanna, however, is inland. It is a part of Palakkad District, which is known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala. The entire district is full of lush green rice fields and family-owned plantations that grow rubber, coconut, betelnut, mango, spices and Teak among other things. There is no shortage of water bodies, or rain for that matter, to meet the needs of this farmland, and Panamanna is no exception. A Thodu (local word for a river tributary) slithers across this village, like a gigantic snake, eager to merge with the Bhartappuzha river. In the dry summer months, this thodu is a harmless stream with ankle deep water that is pristine and clear. Most villagers now have a two-wheeler or a car but just until recently, the entire village used to walk through the rice fields and cross the thodu to get to Ottapalam, the nearest town which is a few kilometers away. This shortcut shaved off over five kilometers between the village and the town, so it was a well-travelled route during day or night. The only other option for the residents was to wait for one of the three private buses that came at specific times during the day. If you missed one, you had to wait a few hours for the next. Another option was to hop on an occasional autorickshaw that was heading back to town after dropping a passenger. Those were also rare back in those days. Most people just walked. As teenagers, my cousin and I used this shortcut to sneak into the town, to buy and smoke cigarettes since smoking in the village where everyone knows everyone would be foolhardy!

The wet months create a whole different set of challenges. Monsoon lasts for almost six months in Kerala. It gradually builds up before tapering off. During the first couple of months, the stream is still shallow enough to cross. I remember, all someone had to do, was fold their Lungi or Mundu (reserved for formal occasions), lift their Saree or Pavada (worn by younger girls), hold their leather sandals in one hand, umbrella in the other, and walk across! It was a true skill to be able to do all this while crossing the stream and trying to stay dry! As I type this, I can picture the cold muddy water running past my legs, the undercurrent trying to trip me, as I attempt to cross. Growing up in the north, I was used to shorts and jeans. Wearing mundu was a novelty, one that I truly embraced. Even today, when I fly to Kerala, I only pack two pairs of Jeans. Mundu is my outfit of choice for the duration of my stay. The first few years, I struggled with the whole process of folding my mundu, holding my sandals and umbrella while trying to cross that stream. As the years went by, I became skilled at this whole process.

Floods and Floodgates of Emotions

Some years, as the rains continue to pummel the region, this once shallow stream, suddenly and with no warning, transforms into a nasty raging force that breaks its banks and floods the entire village. Acres of crops are destroyed. The whole valley looks like a giant muddy lake. Thankfully, most of the houses in the village are built on hills that surround the rice fields, or on elevation, so the damage from flood to the houses is minimal. It is usually the incessant rains that destroy the tiled roofs. Animals and even humans sometimes, do not understand the deceptive forces of nature. The narrow embankments and even the main road that was visible to human eyes just a few minutes ago, become blurrier or worse invisible during sudden flash floods. Next thing you know, you are being swept away. There is not a single family among the original settlers in Panamanna, that has not lost a bovine, a pet, or a human, to this deception in the past few hundred years.

My mother, as the only kid in the family who could not swim, was one of the lucky ones who survived and lived to tell the tale. An infamous village drunk, who by sheer luck, happened to see her getting swept away, quickly dove in to pull her out and saved her from a certain death. I never met him, and he had been dead for decades, when I first heard this story, but the legend had lived on in the village. Every now and then, someone in the extended family would bring the story up during our stay, and my mother would laugh it off. I do know that she is grateful to that old drunk to this day, and probably says a silent prayer for him each morning.

Kolams and the Feudal Era

When I think of water bodies, I cannot skip mentioning the Kolam. Kolam, the Malayalam word for pond, is a staple of rural Kerala. Every major temple has one for the devotees to bathe before the Darshanam, and so do most of the older Nallukettu Veedu (traditional Nair and Namboodiri Brahmin homes built with Laterite stone and wood, with a courtyard in the middle). The oldest properties have two ponds. One built indoors, was usually well maintained for the family’s private use, and the second one was built closer to the fields for use by the farm animals and farmhands, a reminder of the feudal era when the Nairs and Namboodiris controlled every aspect of social life in Kerala. This was also used for washing clothes. I distinctly remember, waking up as a lazy teenager, to the sound of wet clothes being banged against one of the rocks installed next to the pond and specifically flattened out for washing clothes. Many of these ponds, now largely unused since the introduction of farm machinery and washing machines, have been run over by an overgrowth of water lilies and lotuses. Surrounded by tall and slender coconut and betel nut trees, these ponds with their flowers in full blossom, further enhance the already beautiful landscape. The entire Palakkad district is abundant with these beautiful properties. Therefore, so many Malayalam movies from the eighties and nineties were shot in these villages. These movies focused on Natumpuram Jeevitham (life in the countryside) and Pazhankalam (medieval glory days), and these properties offered the perfect setting for the story that the director wished to capture through his lenses. The annual maintenance cost of these houses, some of which are now hundreds of years old, is not cheap. The current homeowners, descendants of the feudal lords who had been stripped of their vast lands, wealth and status during the Sixties’ Land Reform acts enacted by the first Communist government of Kerala, were only happy to lease these houses to movie producers for what was considered as lucrative sums in those days. Some of these houses have now been permanently rented out to movie studios.

Food and Alliances

Panamanna is certainly not a melting pot of global cultures or cuisine. The place, however, has the best food in my humble opinion. There is no shortage of family recipes that are unique to the village and passed down the generations. Most of the original families living here, have been neighbors for over a century, perhaps more! Nairs of Kerala and the Khasis of Meghalaya are the only two matriarchal societies in India. Traditionally, in the Nair community, a woman inherited her family’s wealth and lands, and became the landlady. Additionally, Nairs also practiced the now almost extinct custom of Morapennu (wherein a Nair boy married his maternal uncle’s daughter and the couple lived and raised their family in her ancestral house). There are many theories proposed by modern historians and anthropologists regarding the traditional Nair society. One theory is that the custom of women inheriting her ancestral property, was practiced because the Nairs were a warrior clan, where the men were always fighting or waging wars with other kingdoms, and women needed to not only run the household but also supervise the domestic staff and farmhands that either worked as free, or indentured labour.

With regards to the practice of Morapennu, the theory proposed suggests that this custom of marrying first cousins was established simply to ensure that the family wealth and assets stayed intact in the family, and that the bloodline stayed pure. Whatever the reasons may have been, these customs contributed to women empowerment and women camaraderie that has been fostered over centuries in the Nair community. I tend to believe that this bond shared between women across the village is what has led to the creation of a few dishes and recipes that are utterly unique to this village. As someone who has traveled a lot, and has tried authentic cuisine from every continent, I can confidently say that a simple dish like Karapara (a crepe made from left over rice battered and mixed with various lentils and spices and served with onion chutney)tastes better than any dosa that I have ever eaten. These dishes always, without fail, get me to gastronomical heaven. What makes it even better is that these recipes are so uniform across the village, that I could try the same dish prepared by my mother, an aunt, or a neighbor living on the other side of the village, and still could not tell the difference!

Speaking of differences, something that I am absolutely craving, is a bottle of Nadan Kallu which loosely translates to country liquor. Yup, as the connoisseurs of adult beverages reading this would attest, the best destinations are those that have good alcohol! I am a lover of scotch. Single malt scotch from the Highlands to be specific. I will drink anything in a social setting but when I am by myself, and wish to unwind, it is always a glass of scotch that gets the job done. That being said, I am a sucker for a good nadan kallu, or Toddy to be precise. The kallu is unlike any alcohol that you will ever drink. I credit my grandfather for getting me hooked on this, even though the poor guy had no idea that he unknowingly introduced me to Toddy. He was the only man who has left indelible impressions on me, and one of those impressions was his habit of drinking toddy. Making toddy from palm tree sap, is a centuries old skill that is a dying art. When I was a kid, I used to watch this local farmer sell fresh toddy to my grandpa. I always emulated him and wanted to be like him when I grew up. One day, when he was not around, I got my chance to take a sip from his toddy pot. Let me tell you, it is an acquired taste. The initial disgust at that moment has turned into a lifelong love for the taste. While some licensed liquor stores do serve toddy, the real deal is found only in the village, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a bottle!

I have so many fond memories of my summers spent in Panamanna. Living in a town where coal was abundantly available to generate power, I was spoilt. We rarely lost power where I grew up. On the other hand, electricity had not reached Panamanna in the early nineties, even though the electric poles had been installed on all streets, and wiring was completed to all houses in the early eighties. They just “forgot to turn the power on” for over ten years. There is a shining (pun intended) example of corrupt and careless governance for you! Folks in the village relied on Vallakku, which in Malayalam means lantern. There are many types of vallakku. Petromax was the most popular and trendy brand of pressurized paraffin lanterns. Some families also used the regular vallakku, which was a kerosene wick lamp. Then there was the original Vellakku. These have been used in Kerala for centuries to illuminate homes as well as temples. Fueled by sesame seed oil, called Nella Enna which means good oil in Malayalam, this vallakku is considered Shudham (pure).

Lack of streetlights meant that while walking through the fields and plantations, villagers used either a battery-operated flashlight or a homemade Choottu, a type of torch made from burning dried coconut leaves tied together like a broom and soaked in oil, another one of the many uses of the coconut tree. Like the Neem tree in the north, the coconut tree is a gift of nature that keeps on giving! The mud embankments that separate the fields, and used as walkways, are also a fertile ecosystem for snails, crabs, frogs, and their predators, the snakes, many of whom are highly venomous. People back then, traveled with both a torch, and a stick, that they used to tap on the embankments to scare away any unwanted reptiles. On moonless nights when it was pitch dark outside, I could see these traveling lights from a distance. Looking back, I wonder if the local ghost stories about flying lanterns suddenly disappearing in the farms, were simply the product of someone’s imagination!

Memories and an Invitation that Never Expires

Summer nights can be brutal in Kerala even though the temperature cools down a little. It can still be unbearable at times. I somehow became immune to the heat because of the people I got to spend time with. Back in the nineties, joint families were the norm in Panamanna. There was no shortage of cousins to fight and play with. An icing on the cake was neighbors showing up for dinner and drinks with my grandfather. There was always extra food for an unexpected visitor or two. The village was going through a spike in crimes those days due to rising unemployment. Burglaries were common, so all the men slept outside, armed with Vadi, a type of homemade baton and Arivalu, a sickle used in farming, Sometimes, the neighbors joined us, which turned into one big sleepover. Occasionally, we would hear a loud whistle, almost like a howling, a unique sound invented by the villagers called Olli. This was everyone’s cue to quickly get out of the beds and pick up their vadi and arivalu and run towards the sound! The hills surrounding the fields in Panamanna create a natural echo chamber which acts as a sound amplifier. Someone who thought their house was being robbed, or someone who feared that they had heard unwanted footsteps or noise in their yard, would make those howling sounds and everyone else from the neighborhood would run towards that sound. Most times, it was a false alarm but at least on three separate occasions during my stay, we hit the jackpot! While no one dared used the sickle, villagers did not mind meting out their own form of justice to the robbers with the vadi. The person(s) caught was tied to a tree or a pillar and was given a good beating. The elders ensured that the mob did not get out of control before the authorities showed up. Imagine my excitement as a teenager running with my cousins and uncles to catch a robber! Where else could I find that thrill?

Every house in Panamanna now has power, modern facilities, electronic gadgets, smartphones and vehicles. All the streets are now well lit. Numerous new families have moved in, so each time I go back, I see new faces and make new acquaintances. A lot has changed over the years, but some things have stayed the same, the most important one being my love for the characters and stories that shaped my early years and youth. I spent most of those years in the east, and consider myself a proud product of that environment, but sprinkled, somewhere in there, are a few traits, that I acquired during my short stays each year in Panamanna. 

I think of it as a short documentary that still leaves a lasting mark on you. Most of the live characters from my documentary have either gotten old or passed away, but their memories and my time spent with them, will forever be etched in my heart. I get to go to Panamanna every few years, sometimes every couple of years if I am lucky. The last time I was there, was in 2018. A trip is long overdue! Usually, someone is there to pick me at the airport, but sometimes I arrive at odd hours and just get a cab. The ride from the airport to Panamanna is over three hours and on roads that take no pity on your back. It does not matter if I am exhausted from the long journey, or if am in a stranger’s vehicle, or driving with my folks sitting next to me, the moment the vehicle makes its first turn towards the road that leads to my village, there is this inexplicable feeling of bliss that washes over me. All the fond memories come bubbling out to the surface. My heart rate goes up, and a smile comes to my face that stays for days, and only fades when it is time to say goodbye. I honestly do not know if it’s just separation anxiety, or the child within me, trying to relive the glory days. I do hope that I never find out the answer. Why ruin magic?

Cover Image: Image by ejakob from Pixabay
Article Images: Shashi Nair

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Sunil Mishra’s Transit Lounge

A lot of us who are bitten by the bug of wanderlust, often envy those who are privileged to travel across the skies, as a part of their job. So, it goes without saying how green I was with envy when I read the blurb of Sunil Mishra’s ‘Transit Lounge’. It reads, – “An Indian’s account of travelling to thirty countries across six continents”. The envy turns into a smile as he explains how International travel from India has drastically changed in the last 20 years.

Sunil begins the book with a disclaimer that the book is a “non-expert’s account of capturing the world-view from personal experiences of travelling” and that his observations could be “partial, in pockets and non-exhaustive”. I think it was very thoughtful of him to mention that because as Roman Payne says “Depending on the city and on the traveller, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”

Sunil is an IT professional and has been travelling on business to various parts of the world. While some of his travels have been short stays, there are places he had revisited, some even multiple times over many years. So, while some accounts have limited information owing to the short stay, there are others that let you peek into these cities through various times and understand how they have changed. When you are a traveller, few of the first things that help make an impression of the place and its people are the airports, the taxis, the taxi drivers, the roads, the rails, the traffic on these and finally, the hospitality at the place of your stay. Sunil invariably talks about most of these in all his travel accounts giving you a taste of these places.

It is interesting to learn how some countries have evolved rather too quickly, while some have conveniently remained stagnant in their glorious past and some have shattered beyond recognition thanks to political turmoil and extremism. Sunil also talks about the various stereotyping that exists, how the dominant media paints an incorrect picture of the other parts of the world and how travel has made him see them all in a different light. You will also find the author constantly comparing the place that he is visiting with the state-of-affairs back at home, in India. He also records the appalling disparity in the standards of living among various countries.

The book is a mixed bag of travel tales. While few stories will introduce you to the culture or historical significance of the place, some of his stories will surely help you prepare for international travels especially to those countries with stringent and difficult immigration processes. There are stories that warn you of the fraudulent elements and there are stories that reassure you that the world is a better place than you thought. You might even get to relive the anxiety of your first travel and all those times when things went wrong with your travel plan and also those times when you got lucky.

The language of the book is free-flowing. It is an interesting and light-hearted read. While I empathize with the author’s trouble in getting a publisher, I feel the book could have used another round of editing. For a travelogue, the book is lacking in photographs, but then you must remember that some writers give you better stories than any picture will ever give you. That is true for this book as well. Also add to it, the fact that some of these stories are from before the mobile camera/DSLR era. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The learnings that Sunil talks about, at the end of his book proves how true those words are. After finishing the book, I am left with just one question – When is Sunil planning to cover the seventh continent?