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Friday, September 28, 2007  

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T r a v e l


Arundhati’s Ayemenem

As we cruised in the backwaters around Ayemenem, the lush imagery of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel, kept coming back to mind, writes Partha S Banerjee



As we cruised in the backwaters around Ayemenem, the lush imagery of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel, kept coming back to mind, writes Partha S Banerjee

Ayemenem. Immodestly green, with grey-green backwaters and Kari Saipu’s old colonial bungalow. Where Estha and Rahel, the "two-egg twins", wandered through the magic and mystery of childhood. Where Mammachi ran her pickles factory and the twins loved - by day - the man their mother loved by night. Clandestinely.

Arundhati Roy’s Ayemenem. Of The God of Small Things. In God’s Own Country.

We couldn’t wait to reread the novel after getting back home. We had spent three days in Kerala, not far from the village of Ayemenem, boating down the meandering Meenachal and up the backwaters, suffusing our senses with the sights and smells of the languid palm-clustered countryside. Watching lone men in their valloms, the small boats, drifting with the current, ferrying supplies, fishing. Houses with tiled roofs that arched up at either end in that style peculiar to the Malabar. The "mossgreen" walls, the dense clumps of yellow bamboo, the rubber trees, the men in mundu.

It was easy, after a while, to slip into the pages of The God of Small Things, to visualise Chacko driving the family in the old Plymouth to Cochin along the riverside road, to imagine Velutha, the low-caste carpenter, his body fashioned "by the wood he fashioned," floating on his back in the river. Awaiting his "uncertain" tryst. And the devastating turn of events.

Ayemenem village adjoins Kumarakom, one of Kerala’s top tourist attractions on the Vembanad Lake, and home for over a century to the Bakers, a British family that until 1962 lived and worked in the marshy, forested lakeside. The locals called Baker ‘Kari Saipu’; in The God of Small Things, Kari Saipu's house, abandoned now but haunted by his ghost, is "History House" to the twins Estha and Rahel, where police, as the story nears its tragic climax, pummel Velutha to near death.

Today, Baker House is a tourist resort, the centrepiece of the Taj Garden Retreat on the lakeside. A few other luxury resort hotels peep out of the palm fronds and mangroves fringing the Vembanad Lake but if it is the backwaters that you really want to experience, try Golden Waters, as we did. A cluster of 28 luxury cottages on a bend in the Kavanar river some miles before it drains into the Vembanad Lake, the Golden Waters resort is situated in true backwaters country, so evocative of The God of Small Things. Just sit at the resort’s waterside and watch the valloms sail by even as swarms of ducklings create patterns in the drifting current; spot migratory birds and soak in the all-pervading languor.

And within the resort itself, there are the little canals between the cottages, giving that Venetian touch, and those mesmerising Kathakali performances in the evening. Like much else in the Kumarakom area, Golden Waters once formed part of the Bakers’ 1,600-acre estate of paddy fields and rubber and coconut plantations. Once a mangrove swamp, much of Kumarakom lies below sea level; how the Bakers came to reclaim and clear it is a story by itself.

The story goes back to 1818 when 25-year-old Henry Baker, a recently ordained priest from Essex in eastern England, joins a mission in Tanjore (Thanjavur). Within a year, after marrying Amelia Dorothea, he moves to Kottayam in Kerala to run a new mission. They live here for the rest of their lives, devoting themselves primarily to education (their pioneering efforts contributing in no small measure to Kerala's subsequent high literacy level). George Baker, the third of their 11 children, takes over the mission after his parents’ death but he is more than just an evangelist; visiting the mangrove swamps on the Vembanad lake shores not far from the mission outpost of Olasha, six miles from Kottayam, he often contemplates clearing the area for a coconut plantation.

Ayemenem But it wasn’t until he was 50, after his second marriage in 1878 (he had lost his first wife 17 years earlier), that he set about realising his dream. Clearing the forests and planting took years of hard work even as the impressive two-storied bungalow, with its encircling verandah and high Kerala-style tiled roof, came up on the Comorote (as they then called Kumarakom) lakeside. Four generations of the Bakers lived in the splendid isolation of that bungalow, becoming part of the region's folklore, speaking Malyalam, even wearing the mundu.

We looked in at the Taj Garden Retreat on the last day of our stay to see Baker House (lovingly restored by the hotel chain) and breakfast in its verandah. Earlier in the morning we had gone for a hike in the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary on the eastern shores of the Vembanad Lake. It was drizzling and overcast but we did manage, with help from our guide, to spot a whole host of birds: egrets, Siberian storks, black snakebirds with S-shaped necks, herons and colourful kingfishers.

We had of course spotted some of those species, though not in such great numbers, the day before in the backwaters and in the lake. The Vembanad Lake is some five miles wide at Kumarakom and scores of strange birds perch on weeds near its shores. Fringed by swaying palms and dense mangroves, this sprawling lagoon has an awe-inspiring beauty. Its vastness amazes you, especially if your hotel is not on its shores and your first view of it is from a boat as it approaches the lake from a narrow river. The largest lagoon in India, it stretches as far north as Cochin, 70 km away, where it opens into the Arabian Sea. Sunsets on the lake are dramatic, the sinking orange disk setting aflame the shimmering waters; our hotel boat took us deep into the waters in the evening and we watched in wonder as the spectacle unfolded.

On the eastern bank of the lake, not far from the Bird Sanctuary, is a stretch of rainforest called the R-Block that is well below sea level and has dykes protecting it. We sailed to its shores next morning and stopped by a hut for sweet coconut water and fried karimeen fish. There was a gentle breeze, not enough to sway the palms. Weeds floated on the grey-green waters, birds drifted with the weeds and in the distance someone paddled a dugout canoe. We ate our karimeen in silence, savouring the serenity.

That afternoon we asked for a motorboat to visit Ayemenem. The cruise took us through paddy-fields, past bamboo forests and coconut groves and clumps of bright red hibiscus, across little hamlets. Presently we were on the Meenachal river, Meenachal with "the sky and trees in it. And at night, the broken yellow moon in it." In Ayemenem, everybody knows Arundhati Roy's name; an autorickshaw takes us to Ayemenem House, "grand old house…but aloof-looking" where, like Estha and Rahel, she spent part of her childhood. Nobody lives here now, said the unfriendly caretaker. We moved on to visit the village's famous temple. Next afternoon, on the drive back to Cochin, we took in the more famous Vaikom temple, with its unusual pyramidal dome, and the grand 16th century Kottayam churches of Valiapally and Cheriapally (a blend of Portuguese and Malabar architecture). The Gods here, we thought, were not of Small Things.

                             Access Kumarakom is 16 km west of Kottayam, where most trains to Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari (like the Thiruvananthapuram Mail from Chennai and the KanyaKumari Expresses from Mumbai and Bangalore) reach by mid-morning. Taxis from the station to Kumarakom cost around Rs 250. The nearest airport is Kochi, 90 km away.
                      Accommodation On the Vembanad lakeside are several plush resorts: the Taj Garden Retreat, Coconut Lagoon, the expensive Kumarakom Lake Resort and Waterscapes among them. But if it's in the backwaters that you want to stay, the Golden Waters resort (0481-2525826;, could be your best bet. Most of these resorts offer two-night three-day stays for between Rs 10-14,000 per couple; cheaper lodgings with rooms for around Rs 1000 or less are available at several "home stay" establishments in the area.