AN ILLUSION OF LOVE – A DRIFTER’S TALE

Xandari Riverscapes Houseboats

Leaving behind your memory and your pain, I am in Kerala. Here, now, all around, an all pervasive calm in spite of the muted hum of a Riverscapes motorboat. Smiles, helping hands with my luggage help me board.

It really is very beautiful. Kerala, in the time of the monsoon, green, green and wet. The backwaters of Aleppey beckon. We go past paddies below sea level, palm lined bunds, through alluring canals, past dark skinned children diving into the water with squeals of laughter and admonishing mothers to arrive at our destination this afternoon, a toddy shop euphemistically called R Block.

I am captivated by your doe eyes, your bee stung lips, I am touched by your compassion. All I ever wanted was to be a beach bum, you called me a drifter. And then one day, you smiled and flew out of the window. Toddy or ‘Kallu’ hardly intoxicates when it is fresh off the palm tree. There are three kinds of toddy served; ‘madhurakalllu’- sweet toddy tapped early in the morning and leaves behind a pleasant glow, ‘andhikallu’- toddy tapped in the evening that is mildly intoxicating and ‘muttankallu’- tapped the previous day and fermented, that can deliver the kick of a mule.

The merits of the food at R Block and hospitality on board a Riverscapes boat are both legendary. Plastic chairs are laid out around a stone table overlooking the water. The smiling proprietor, a portly, bald man in a chequered singlet, arrives with a bottle of sweet toddy and glass tumblers. The clouds overhead, part for a moment to reveal the sun. A skiff goes by, loaded with bananas, another draws up to the pier. The boatman leaps out with bunches of succulent shrimp and pearl spot fish. He poses for a photograph for a pair of tourists.

You say you never loved me, did your eyes then lie? There’s someone else you say. Ah! Yes, heartbreak can make a man hungry. I take a sip of the toddy, ambrosia. Hair flowing in the gentle breath of the Vembanad, you float out of the afternoon haze over the shimmering water into my bones, flowing in my blood, divine angel draped in calico.

A couple of sips of toddy and I lick my lips. Life is indeed looking up. Shortly the food arrives. A boat dislodges a group of people who settle down at a table nearby. A gentle breeze blows in from the sea. I have decided that I am going to sample a little of everything on the menu. The meal is composed of Rose Matta rice accompanied by pumpkin in curd, a coconut based gravy, delicately spiced and flavored with turmeric and cabbage fried with spices, a chutney with raw onions in curd and diced raw mango pickle. And then, in a procession devoid of ceremony the other delights of the kitchen arrive – sautéed beef, curried sardines, roasted prawns and turtle meat, fried crab, duck roast and frog legs. Plates are laid down with an attitude bordering on reverence.

The collective soul of a people is often to be found in the food of the land. I am a backwater gourmand and the meal a symphony for my senses. There is not a moment when the senses are still, titillation follows satiation follows titillation follows satiation. Textures follow succulence, spices leap at the palate, a mingling aroma a subtle accompaniment lulled momentarily by the sweet sap.

After what seems like an eternity, after a generous helping of ice cream with a couple of bottles of toddy in hand for the ride back, I leave ‘R Block’. This has been an unforgettable experience, feasting on the fascinating cuisine of the Kuttanad region amidst the spectacular beauty of the monsoon landscape.

A drifter’s task is never done, the feet were meant to move, to search for the next horizon. I depart from R Block with my genial host waving goodbye. I carry with me the heavy burden of hope. You are the mistress of illusions, maybe this is after all yet another damask web of dreams and tomorrow, at dawn, we will after all be one. The crew on board are solicitous…and the boats luxurious. Yet, your memory is all that I bear as I travel the next leg of my journey. Xandari Riverscapes, thank you for making this journey so memorable.