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Two days in God's own country...

It was a bright clear Sunday morning – almost perfect. The skies were immaculate without trace of clouds, the sun shone with brio, and hawks glided high above without any obvious motive. The breeze flowed gently with a hint of chill. The sort of day I would sit home all day and read away, but today that was not to be. I had to visit Trivandrum for a conference on Monday. I was surprised at how poorly connected it is to Bangalore. Just two flights one on Jet the other on Indian Airlines. The Jet flight actually has a slightly awkward route – goes to Trivandrum via Mumbai, needless to say, despite the temptation of free air-miles, I opted for the latter. In either case I had to leave on Sunday because none of the flights get me there before noon, while my conference begins at 9:00. I always avoid our government run domestic carrier as far as possible. It might have its quaint charm but is marred by operational inefficiency, flight delays and poor regard for customer service.

I reached airport about 90 minutes before the flight and was mildly amused at the sight of Indian Airline whiteboard outside the airport entrance, with flight schedules scribbled in blank ink (all this in circa 2003).You can tell apart the difference between the private airlines and the government owned ones right from the start. I was approached by a stocky dark man in his 30s, wearing a loose khaki half-sleeved shirt that hung above his indigo colored pants, to help me with my baggage for screening. He stuck the “security cleared” stickers on my bags before they could go through the x-ray machine. I know that security tends to be a sham at most airports, but you don’t have to give it away! Got my clearance, loaded my bags on the trolley again and proceeded to check-in.

There was a family of four before me in the queue and were in the process of getting their boarding pass. There were two kids playing about, a boy and the girl, unmistakably siblings, while their parents finished the serious business. For a few moments I grew nostalgic about my own childhood days. The boy was much younger than his sister and it seemed that he had just learned to walk. The precocious sister was in complete charge of his little brother and chased him to make him wear his shoes which he had dropped carelessly. Now I might have been the elder brother, as a child I was always lost in my own train of thoughts and so it was my sis who would always took care of my bag and belongings while going to school. I am expecting her shortly (thanks to my frequent traveling I had enough miles to get her a air ticket to Bangalore – her first flight ever!) and couldn’t help reflecting on our days together as kids. I snapped back to present as my turn to get my boarding pass came, and things went off without a hitch (I was carrying a box with about 100 magazines as a give away at the meeting – never realized that they could weigh 21 Kilos!).

Shortly I heard the announcement to get on with the security checks and so I presented myself at the entrance promptly. The guards standing there however would not admit me. I made an exasperated gesture and tried my best to convince them that a security check has been announced but they just wouldn’t budge. The lack of coordination between the Indian Airline staff making announcements and the security staff is just one of many small things that irk you now and then. At last they grudgingly relented when more people going to Trivandrum poured in.

Another one of the Indian Airlines routines that irritate me is their baggage identification parade. Before they get your luggage on board, you are supposed to step out and identify your stuff otherwise it will be left back. The person in charge of the routine will make some indecipherable scrawls on your boarding pass as a proof of your having claimed your suitcases as yours. I am not quite sure what purpose this ritual serves, like every other illogical routine, this is attributed to “security”. A quick perusal of terrorist incidents that took place in recent past would clearly show the willingness of their perpetrators to die for their cause, that being the case, they would happily go on to claim the baggage even if it contains something menacing.

The flight to Trivandrum was insipid. I had been allocated seat 15F – a window seat that overlooks the right wing of the airplane, which pretty much kills your chances of getting a view (unless of course you are a keen student of aviation engineering in which case the wing is your *view*, a picturesque one at that) without significantly exercising flexibility of your neck muscles. The landing was a slightly bumpy one. Trivandrum airport for want of creative words is a “cute” one. There are small, grassy lawns on either side of the spot where the plane comes to rest. The airport is a slightly small one and I think has the smallest atrium I’ve ever seen. I collected my luggage and stepped out, a car was waiting outside.

Trivandrum weather was hot, humid and blissfully oblivious of the fact that its “winters” elsewhere in the country. The drive is picturesque and makes your re-adjust your ill-contrived, city-bred notions of “lush”. When my plane lands in Delhi, I look for trees amongst the land, its just the other way around in Trivandrum – I struggle hard to spot land amongst thousands of coconut trees! I was staying at hotel South Plaza, in the middle of the city. There are couple of interesting buildings around the hotel which are constructed in red-brick and are good specimens of Victorian architecture. The hotel room was very spacious though the rancid small of carpet spoke of neglect. These brief stays also provide me to surf what’s playing on the tele. (Don’t have a TV at home for a year). The only thing worthwhile was “Desi Toons” on Cartoon Network. You have animated versions of Indian folk tales set to animation. The quality of production of most of these toons is high, the colors very vivid and vibrant, and the voice-overs tasteful and lively. There were however some elements which were introduced to make these tales suitable for the urban, cable/internet savy kids of today. For instance the wrestlers that descend on Vijaynagara in a Tenalirama story spoke and acted like WWF wrestlers! Also came across a small promo for a program called “Mumbai Live” on NDTV’s 24x7 channel. Can't help mentioning that the signature tune for it is a straight lift from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and is a rather sorry rehash for synthesizer at that. Left a bad taste - but then I am not sure if sensitivities of Beethoven fans count in the grand scheme of things.

My hobnobbing with the tube was put to an abrupt end (I am glad it was!) by a call from Nishant. He came over and we went to a local joint to grab snacks and coffee. The coffee was nice, though very sweet. Unlike in Basirta where I decide the quantity of sugar I pour in my coffee, here the coffee was served pre-sweetened. When I stirred the contents of my cup with the spoon, I realized that there was a mound of sugar at the bottom of the cup! But coffee is coffee, and a hot cup, no matter how sweet, is always refreshing. We had about 4 hours to kill and we contemplated on how we could spend time. Delhi, where I grew up, is land-locked. So is Bangalore. Quite naturally, when Nish mentioned that Kovallam (famous for its sunny beaches) is just 40 minutes away, my excitement was obvious.

The drive from city to Kovallam is awesome! Forests of thousands and thousands of coconut trees on either side of the road. We stopped on our way over a bridge that over looks a small valley of sorts. You stand at the edge and all you see is more coconut trees – the sea of endless green. I snapped a few pictures and we resumed our journey. We went a little off our way and reached a road that would take us to one of the posh, five-star, private beaches which is something I wasn’t after. We re-traced our way back and soon found ourselves descending down a very steep road (it was so steep that I was scared that our car would go out of control and just skid downwards). I could now see the sea in the distance! Our descent finally ended at the beach where we parked the car. The beach was very clean, the color of water turquoise in places, dark blue in others (the cleanest I’ve seen in India). Strong sea-breeze flowed constantly, ridding me of fatigue totally. In the corner there was a small rocky hill with a light-house perched on top of it. The entire scenery had a very dreamy feel to it. There were spots at the beach where the life-guards had placed two crossed red-flags to warn users not to go too deep into the sea at that spot. The addition of man-made red to the shades of sand, green and blue made it all very surreal. We sauntered at the beach for an hour or so and headed back to the city.

The city also has a beach (Shangamugam beach), used mostly by the fishermen and we decided to catch sun-set there. The harsh, white glaring rays of sun gradually dimmed to golden till eventually there were no rays at all – just a glowing, orange ball that hung low in the horizon. A boat with half a dozen fisherman passed us by with unexpected alacrity (I couldn’t even compose a decent shot!). Nish drew my attention to our shadows on the sand, I was surprised to see my 6-feet frame cast a shadow that was 25 feet long, very eerie! The sun finally drowned in the sea, a purple-orange gleam hung high in the firmament and we soon found ourselves bound back to our hotel.

The next day was a very hectic one. The seminar, where I was presenting, was at Nila Technopark, about 15-20 km away from the city. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of infrastructure and other facilities, but what I saw there totally blew me away! A huge word-class campus with excellent infrastructure in the middle of nowhere! The entire area is lush with acres of sprawling, green landscape. I’ve been to other such “technical parks” or “software campuses” both in India and abroad and I can vouch for Nila being international class in every respect. All buildings at the campus are named after major Indian rivers. The building I had my presentation at (also called Nila), had this giant imposing structure outside, which looked as if the torch of Statue Of Liberty had landed by some queer accident; I was later informed that this was the water supply tank for a large part of the campus. There was a small pond outside where a delightful lotus blossomed. We also had the opportunity to visit terrace of one of the buildings and the view from there would persist in my memories for years to come. Thousands of coconut tree all around us as if the building itself was a tiny spec in a gargantuan coconut grove. Far, far away in the horizon you could see the sea water shimmer. The cafeteria at the campus served ice-creams in exotic flavors like clove, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and coconut. They only had cardamom and ginger during our visit and I enjoyed both of them thoroughly. The ginger flavor was particularly interesting because it retained the soothing stingy feel of ginger going down your throat despite it being cold!

We wanted to go out for a quick drink before dinner though Nishant warned us that the “pubs” here are quite unlike the watering holes of Bangalore that we might be used to. He was correct. We went to this place called “Orbit” and it looked more like a shady den for all the goons of the world than like a pub. The place was dimly lit, there were bulbs but they were so dim that you could clearly see the glowing filament. A flickering candle on a stormy night would have been enough to put them to shame. Every one spoke in a sotto voce. Clearly people there were not there for recreation but for addressing their vice. In the background a lone TV set blared loud Hindi film music and since we were sitting very close to it, we found ourselves straining our vocal cords. Frankly, I was glad that the affair did not last long.

Went out looking for authentic Kerala food but landed at a place that not only served standard, predictable north Indian buffet (daal, paneer) but also had live ghazals. The diction of the singer had a heavy Malayalam accent, though he had a beautiful voice that reminded me of K J Yesudas. There would be a long pause after every two ghazals and the hotel would switch on some atrocious, obscure, rap music and then suddenly the ghazals would resume again. Eventually the singer did perform a local Malayalam number, which despite my total lack of understanding of the language, sounded lot better than any of his forced attempts at ghazals. We scoured the menu for vegetarian Kerala food but could find very few dishes as most of the items listed were fish/prawn delicacies. Eventually everyone settled for Kerala parotta with paneer and vegetarian stew with appams, both of which I heartily devoured!

The third day sprang two pleasant surprises. Firstly as part of the Nila technopark tour post a meeting, I found myself outside the office of Toons India Ltd – the same place where Tenalirama toon that I mentioned earlier is produced! The folks there were very kind allowed us a tour of their facility. We started the tour from the meeting room where preliminary sketches, the storyboard of a toon is decided and went all the way to the audio/video suite. Someone for whom computers are second nature it felt a little awkward to come across cubicles with no trace of the PC! All you saw was huge drawing boards, pencils in assorted shades and people sketching away, completely ignorant of the world around them. We also saw a sneak preview of few of their upcoming productions and were very impressed – both with the quality of the work and the overall storyline. The second surprise was at the airport. There was some confusion with my Indian Airline tickets which arose because of them having overbooked the flight. I was worried that I would be dumped but instead, they upgraded me to business class! Perhaps I should be a little kinder when taking them apart on my blogs ;-).

This is probably the longest blog entry I’ve ever made, after all there is so much that I have imbibed in a short span of two days or so! I am certain that there will be addendums to this blog entry, if not words, pictures (there are quite a few of them waiting to be posted!). This has only been my second trip to Kerala (you could read about my visit to Kochi here), and have found the title of “God’s own country” that is so often given to Kerala, to be true in all respects!

posted: 23.12.03

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