Vaidyar: Naturalist, Xandari Pearl

We are seated in the restaurant at Xandari Pearl, Vaidyar and I, looking out at the swimming pool. The afternoon is languid, humid, even the usually vociferous birds have submitted to the heat. We hear the throb of the ocean. Vaidyar is swarthy and weather worn, a substantial moustache frames his upper lip, his hair thick and black, cut short, a joyous smile punctuates his conversation often. He is the resort’s naturalist, nurturing the lush 18 acre property.

Exquisitely landscaped with fruit trees, flowering and medicinal plants segueing in symphonic harmony, Xandari Pearl is a unique ecosystem populated by 80 species of butterflies, more than 350 species of endemic

plants, and about ten frog species. Little Sunbirds flit over bunches of flowers, Owls have been spotted often. Kingfishers precision dive into a large pond stocked with fish, even as Woodpeckers strike up a rhythmic staccato somewhere up in the trees that look on benignly. Outside, a gentle breeze has begun to blow in from the sea. On the beach, sea turtles ponderously come ashore followed by troops of crustaceans.

Vaidyar fondly reminisces “My family, has over generations, worked with nature, we are children of the soil, farmers once.” I notice that his hands are the colour of fecund earth, his fingers trace delicate patterns in the air as he speaks.

 

A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.

– LIBERTY HYDE BAILEY

“As a species we do not listen sir, human beings are bad listeners. We may be missing a lot of what’s going on. Sir, plants release attractive chemicals to pollinators, attracting species that eat pests, removing them from roots. Sir, I tell you plants listen too, to each other, unlike you and me….nature, sir.”

Vaidyar leans towards me, the texture on his facial skin is accentuated in the slanting late afternoon light. “I have been hearing insect-chewed tomato plants since when I was born. I have also heard other plants sing with joy and lament their moments of sorrow too. They rejuvenate when they start increasing production of compounds that upset insect digestion. And plants can recognise each other and their kin.” And then as the sun begins its descent into the ocean and shadows lengthen, the realisation dawns on me that Vaidyar is one of those blessed with a rare gift, the ability to converse in the secret language of plants.

Arjun – Caretaker

Ammu was delivered on a bed of straw one summer night. Lulled by the sound of the sea roil the shore and warmed by her mother’s breath, she slept soundly.

Ammu has grown into a good natured cow who unfortunately has been unable to give birth to calves. Instead, she lies next to a cow that had just calved, earnestly trying to claim it as her own. The other in the herd, most of whom have gotten fond of Ammu, indulge this particular eccentricity of hers.

Ammu and her friends, Kunju and Pandi are Vechur cows, a rare breed, smallest in the world in terms of size and valued for the prodigious quantities of milk that they produce. Vechur cows once lived in sizeable populations in Kerala until the 1960s, but started to become rare when native cattle were crossbred with exotic varieties, until, at a point in time they were faced with imminent extinction. The milk and clarified butter from a Vechur cow contains anti-microbial properties and are used in the Ayurveda spa at Xandari Pearl.

“Don’t be taken in by her calm exterior.” Arjun, in charge of animal husbandry, says, pointing to Ammu, contently nibbling grass under a tree nearby. “Underneath, there is a boiling mass of emotions? Now, this Kunju, she can be tiresome at times. She will deliberately do things to annoy me, swinging her tail in my face when I milk her. She does it on purpose: and looks at me out of the corner of a large eye when I scold her. She has beautiful eyes. Now, I keep a twig nearby.”

Arjun smiles indulgently at Kunju, who rubs her snout against his arm. “We were toddy tappers once,” he continues, “I have climbed trees since I was a kid, I have fallen five times and injured myself, now, my children do not want me to go up anymore, even though I want to. I came to work here….and found the cows and goats in my care today, in a mess.”

A goat butts him in the stomach, demanding attention, to which he laughs indulgently, pushing back against its horns –“Meet Kurumban.”

 

“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.”

– JAMES HERRIOT

A cow with a speckled hide, large patches of black and white, purposefully strides towards us…..and Arjun says “Ah, this is Pandi, a dominant woman, one who will push her way to the front of the queue, bully and intimidate her demure friends.”

Scratching the back of Pandi’s ears in turn, Arjun continues “I love it here. My children have their own lives. These cows and goats are my children now, we often talk to each other. We have a couple of dogs too, that have made their home here. All these animals live in peace. The management at Xandari has built this amazing space, and they are supportive of every demand that I make. I clean the pens, disinfect, bathe the animals….feed them, until they retire for the night. My entire day is spent caring for these animals, who otherwise would have no voice.”

Cancer, the mere word sends chills down spines and a prayer to God begging to be spared. If only wishes were horses! More often than not, this Goliath has devoured many and has had the last laugh. Time and again it has demanded an answer to the looming question: What is bigger- the fear or the will to overcome it?

Once every month, the picturesque Restaurant 51 at Xandari Harbour at Kochi basks in the presence of fortitude, fearlessness and determination courtesy Premi Matthew, the founder of Hair for Hope, India and Protect Your Mom International.

There are people, who after being diagnosed of cancer refused to cocoon themselves with misery and decided to battle it out. Leena Joseph, Megha Kuriakose, Shirley Santhosh, Preetha Menon & Yogi Salin- these women stand proof to J.R.R.Tolkien’s words- “Great heart will not be denied”. They attributed their victory over the ordeal to a downright will to live and an unflinching family support. Talking about their battle, they laid constant emphasis on how ‘coming out’ was not just important but vital. Teaching the people to address the sufferer with empathy and normalcy is the need of the hour. They feel it is the attitude that gets you first and it is imperative to keep it positive.

Leena Joseph, who won the battle against cancer twice, unfortunately died in an accident.

‘Accepting’ is half the battle won. The other half depends on the response. Cancer is rank with sympathy. Instead of helping them overcome, people shove the sufferers into the bottomless abyss of pity and melancholy- killing them emotionally first. It is this poison that demands the antidote sooner. Hence the need for positive support system. Just spreading the awareness will not do the trick: creating a rock-solid support system would be the booster dose.

Premi Matthew along with Ms.Veena Mahesh, former Asst Producer Mazhavil Manorama and Thushara Arun, Premi’s sister in law have taken the initiative of holding a monthly meet for the patients and survivors. The objective of the meet is to connect with others who are battling the disease and discuss problems which are special to cancer patients and help them beat the disease. Small sessions on yoga, meditation etc. will be subsequently added. The sole purpose is to debunk the myths surrounding cancer and rid the miserable ambience that is associated with it. It is entirely a labour of love and everyone and anyone is welcome to this do.

It is said that relationships with teachers extend far beyond the classroom. Exemplifying this is Mr.George Muthoot, Chairman Muthoot Group and the student of Ms. Premi Matthews- an anchor to this noble endeavor. Mr. Muthoot is the hospitality sponsor to this cause pledging his support and offering his premises, the tranquil Xandari Harbor in Kochi.

Support groups exist in the world over, but not in Kerala. Do tag anyone you know and spread the word. It is time to light their dark tunnel. It is time to find more Davids to this Goliath. It is time to spread HOPE.

Please join hands towards this initiative: WhatsApp 00971507149457, Contact-09526249600 or Email: [email protected] No Charges whatsoever.

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.

Mohan – The Paper Craftsman at Cardamom County. Mohan works with paper craft at Xandari Cardamom County in Thekkady. In addition to making paper bags for the Xandari group of hotels and resorts, Mohan teaches paper craft to children and adult guests who visit Cardamom County.

His eyes gleam and there is a visible joy on his face as Mohan’ss deft fingers fold and glue sheets of paper, tweak contours and shapes that magically turn into vividly coloured leaping frogs, stationery holders and pens, a swan poised to take flight, a boat afloat in the imagination. He belongs to one of the numerous tribes that live in and around the Periyar Tiger Reserve and feels the primal pulse of the forest and its denizens.

“I was born here, my home is a couple of kilometres away. My ancestors were born here as well. When I was a kid, elephants and leopards roamed at will in the area. Nevertheless when the Tiger Reserve was planned and its area mapped out, I was the chairman of an EDC and my duties involved sending reports of traditional farmers in the area who were going to surrender their lands to the wildlife reserve and were entitled to compensation. I started with that and then realised that the changes that were to happen would have far reaching consequences. I was trained by a forest officer in paper craft.

paper craft

Mohan speaks earnestly to anybody that will listen, about the need to avoid the use of plastics and shift to paper and organic biodegradable material. I appeal to everyone that I meet, please avoid using plastics as much as possible, otherwise we will not have an eco – system to live in. I have been working with Xandari Cardamom County for four years now. Our chairman and everyone here supports me. Children come here and sometimes their parents as well.
They appreciate what I do and listen to me when I spread the message of environmental protection. If you’re looking for a way to change and be responsible to the environment, I challenge you to go through an entire day striving to produce zero plastic waste.”

Affable and soft spoken, Executive Chef Rajesh at Xandari’s Cardamom County conducts a demonstration of how Fish Molee is cooked. Fish Molee is a curry that is, in the popular imagination, synonymous with the non- vegetarian cuisine of Kerala. Fried fish, mostly Seer, cooked in coconut milk, Fish Molee is essentially a mild stew.

A group of voluble American guests, watch as Rajesh’s hands move deftly over the table, dipping into the array of ingredients before him, spatula turning over frying onions, curry leaves, garlic and ginger. Gently handling slivers of pink Seer fish. The women in the audience ask questions, some taking notes. They are interested in the ingredients, the sources of food. Some step up to the table to watch.

Rajesh speaks softly, pacing his words with his actions, at times rapid, at times ponderous –“Wash the fish fillets thoroughly and then marinate with turmeric powder, powdered chillies and salt. And then, heat oil and fry the fish fillets until they turn light golden brown in colour. Now, add sliced green chilies and continue frying for a while before adding water, lemon juice, pepper powder and salt. Boil on a low flame adding coconut milk. Simmer until the gravy thickens. Add the fried fish fillets. Cook the mixture for a while on a gentle flame…… and…. ah! ladies……. here, you have Fish Molee.”

Rajesh chef Xandari cardamom county

Rajesh was born in Chennai, grew up and was educated in the city. He began working with a group of hotels there. “My turning point was working with Taj Flight Kitchen, that’s where I learnt my job working with Chef Satish Arora to start with.” Rajesh recollects, “Later, I worked in Vancouver, in a leading Indian restaurant named Salam Bombay. I have been with Cardamom County for six months now and I love what I do here.”

Orders for food arrive. Rajesh assumes his station at a counter, and like a conductor orchestrating a symphony, he directs his team. Exotic spices, meats and succulent vegetables are turned into delicious meals. The kitchen functions like clockwork. Wafting trails of fragrances titillate as the team of chefs conjure their culinary magic amid the murmur of muted conversations, the sounds of knives at work, of cutlery and plates being moved. Guests at the All Spice Restaurant will dine sumptuously tonight.