Home In The Hills

My favourite place is a place from my memories. Actually, that place still exists, and I visit that place every year on my vacation to India. But it isn’t the same as it was 10-15 years ago. My memories of how that place used to be are marked with profound sensory experiences that I would like to recount here.

I am talking about my paternal native place, Irumbupalam (which roughly translates to Iron Bridge, named after an iron bridge built there during the British colonialist period). It is located near one of the many hillstations in the southern Indian state of Kerala. 

Summer vacations were always spent in this place. Growing up in Kuwait, I had very little access to greenery or nature in its thriving form. So those two months spent here were like the proverbial rain in a desert. 

My typical vacation would start off with a very queasy ride from the airport to Irumbupalam. The long winding trip uphill would make me carsick, and elevation pressure would block my ears. Nevertheless once we approach the hills, the scenery would have me spellbound. The thickets of forests that we would pass through, the gushing waterfalls, the mindlessly steep cliffsides would send my heart racing. Too much stimulation for the eyes of a nine-year old.

Once we reach our house, I would race to the toilet. The sudden cold weather makes my skin tingle, and my bladders weak. While I do my duty, I cant help but notice that scary looking spider as big as my palm walk casually across the bathroom floor. That would be only the beginning of endless species of (mostly icky) flora and fauna that I will find in my home.

After a few initial slow days, vehicle after vehicle carrying my aunts, uncles and cousins would gradually find place in our car porch. 

Finally when everyone has arrived, my house would become a carnival ground. Little children playing in the mud. The big boys huddled in the front verandah bragging about themselves. The big girls circle up in corners, sharing the latest in gossips.

At mealtimes, a boisterous group of men, women and children would form in and around the kitchen. Laughing, jeering, huffing and puffing.. All of us would put together the trademark meal of Kerala’s mountain men: Tapioca cooked with meat and hot spices. Spicy as it is, my tender tongue would yearn to eat as much as I could. To cool down the heat, there would be baskets of sectioned jackfruits thay await us. After the heavy meal, the elders would engage in sluggish talk while we kids wouldn’t spare a minute.

My house is home to, as I found out gradually, a variety of living beings. They were always in their element; be it the slugs and the snails on our window panes or the praying mantis in our prayer room. Once I saw a scorpion ambling away under the dining table. From butterflies to rat snakes, you could find a whole bevy of questionable items lying here and there. My elder brother once sneaked a black beetle into my palm. Imagine my horror. So much for a sensory experience.

Then there was the lush greenery. The hills in the distance were a beautiful night green. The grass and shrubs shone goblin green in the bright sunlight. The brownish green of the moss. I have to say even the symbols of imminent decay like in the dead leaves added to my pleasure.

Rains – huge, heavy and fantastic ones – were a regular part of my vacations. The sound of it beating down at the earth, particularly at manmade structures, would give me the chills. In my tiny mind, it would stir up imaginations of God and His retribution.

After each rain, there would be waves of croaking from frogs from the stream banks. So clamourous was that sound that to this day I can’t think of anything more annoying. My cousin once told me that it was the sound of frogs emiting mating calls. I’m still not sure if I’m actually disgusted at the sound or at the picture of frogs mating.

When the rains subside momentarily, there was a particularly enticing activity I would engage in. Among the wild grass and shrubs that grew around my house, there were these long-leaved plantlets. At the end of each leaf, a droplet of water would hang. The droplet hung so resolutely at each grass tip that even shaking it wouldn’t splash it away. It seemed like a light film had formed outside the droplet to protect it. What was required of such a droplet to stay so firmly? My cousin would pluck out the grass shoot and ask me to ever so slightly bite into the droplet. Even if it was for a second, I tasted pure water. Water so pristine that it tasted sweet. She even suggested to apply it in my eyes; a daily dose of plant tears was the secret to her beautiful eyes, she would say.

After each trek, we children would come back to a delicious treat of melt-in-the-mouth cashew balls, made under the supervision of our grandma. My aunts would personally pluck out robust cashews from the cashew trees that grew in our backyard. Then they would roast them on burning charcoal, scoop out the nuts with bare hands and grind it in the traditional mortar and pestle. Then they would mix it with roasted rice powder and jaggery and roll balls out of the mix. 

In fact, everything boils down to these cashew balls. The smoky-nutty-sweet delight in our mouths. The smell of charcoal. The feeling of soot on our hands after the nut extraction. The sounds of smacking lips. The look of sheer satisfaction and happiness on everyone’s face. What a well-rounded representation of what it means for me to be in my favorite place!

Alas, we have come a long way since then. No more creepy-crawlies. No more plants crying tears. No more clamour in the kitchen. I have even begun to forget the taste of those cashew balls

I guess in the fight between man and nature, man has finally begun to win. Fifteen years ago, I could see nature actively invade every nook and cranny of our house with moss and insects. I don’t see that anymore. I see more houses, more roads, more people. More human presence, but less nature. 

As for my memories, I find them lying hither and tither in the back of my mind. And in the far-off eyes of my grandmother, who is slowly sinking into oblivion.