The sun beats down on the earth, and not a puddle remains. The waters of the sea feel warm as we run in and out of the waves, happily soaking in the family time. A fisherman’s son watches us curiously, and smiles back at us when he sees us watching him. He’s resting on the side of an upturned boat.
“Paniya. Aduthu varenda kaetto,” he calls out to us. The poor child is having fever, and he’s concerned we might get it too if we go near him. For him, there is nothing new on the beach. He’s been here, done this. So seeing us do it like it was the most exciting thing in the world is strange for him.
When we return back to the bungalow for lunch, Sharada chechy has finished packing our bags.
“Where going Daddy?” a curious Vidya asks me.
“On a road trip for two days, Vids.”
A big smile comes on her face, and I can tell she’s excited. After lunch, she’s the first one to run toward the car. We put our bags in the back of the Qualis and start on our way. Sharada chechy is coming with us too.
As we travel from through the city, we can see the change. From the calmer, more divine ambience of the seaside, to the more crowded streets here, everything seems to be happening more quickly. Buses go zooming past, more vehicles on the street, and more people around as well. Old houses with tiled roofs, some apartment buildings, bakeries with striped awnings, supermarkets and schools, not to forget the temples… there’s a splash of color now adding to the mostly serene green nature. But it’s the greenery that makes the land look like heaven on earth, God’s own country.
As we go back to the highway, it becomes more prominent. The traffic reduces, giving us ample opportunity to enjoy the journey. We pass by what seem like countless paddy fields, but I can tell that Vidya is keeping an approximate count. She’s not counting the fields, but the scarecrows that seem to be in every field. Sticks criss-crossed and planted into the soil, with an old clay pot as the head, and a face drawn on it with chalk possibly. Vidya laughs at them and points whenever she sees. What she cannot count are the coconut palms, tall and gracefully reaching for the clouds, for there are too many to keep track of as we drive past.
The highlight of our travel though comes a little later. We cross a backwater, its waters blue-green like the reflection of coconut trees and the sky above. When we stop at the toll booth for crossing the bridge, Vidya, sitting near the window seat, spots an elephant at a timber yard on the backwater’s banks. She sits up and watches eagerly as the tusker hauls a log of wood and throws a tantrum asking us to stop the car, just as we finish paying the toll and move away. When she doesn’t get her way, she sits with her hands folded and looking aghast. I laugh, remembering how scared I had been when I first saw an elephant. I tell her the story, and her huff vanishes in an instant and she’s laughing at my silliness. I also let her in on a secret, and that makes her sit up in excitement again.
We reach our destination just in time for tea, and we have that from a small hotel, just as another spell of summer rain drifts in. Hot tea and parippu vadas, warm and displayed in a glass case, make a wonderful tea. We drive into the town and memories flood through easily. No town would have that devotional ambience as this one. But Guruvayoor is more than just a temple town to me. It is where I studied, where I first met Aarthi my college sweetheart and it is where Vidya was born. This place has more memories than any other I know of, and it is where we knew we would have to go right from the time we decided on this long due trip back home.
We check in at our hotel, freshen up and head to the temple. If the temple near our home was calm in its aura, Guruvayoor is just the opposite. It is a hub of devotees. As we enter, there are a thousand lamps lit around the temple premises for the Deeparadhana puja. We get a proper darshanam of the Lord, and go for a pradakshinam around the premises, something that Vidya has been waiting for.
On one side of the temple, there are two elephants standing majestically, moving their ears to the sound of the music. Kids of her age watch the two tuskers with a mix of fear and awe, but Vidya has only excitement written on her face. I take her into my arms, and approach one of the elephants. I give some money to the mahout, who commands the elephant to bless the child. The elephant puts the tip of his trunk on a disbelieving Vidya’s head, who says, “Daddy, that was wet. Elephant has cold?” Aarthi and I laugh as we don’t know how to quite explain that to her. She says bye to the elephant too, and he winks happily.
As we head out, I realize how big a shopping centre this town is. Aarthi stops at handicraft stores, buying trinkets for taking back to Manchester, and one of them is a painting of an elephant done on jute. I buy Vidya a bracelet, one very similar to what I once had. I buy one for me too, telling Vids that we’ll have a matching set now. We buy some pappad packets, the big fluffy ones that you only get in Guruvayoor. I buy two audio CDs and so does Sharada chechy. By the time we are done and heading back to the hotel, each of us are holding three bags. We are so tired that we fall asleep in no time at all.
Leaving this place of memories was never going to be easy, but that’s what we have to do. It’s 9 in the morning when we begin the next part of our journey, leaving behind the songs of Lord Krishna. On the way, I show Vidya a big building with brown walls, and tell her, “Daddy studied here. So did Mommy”. Much to our surprise, she tells, “I want to, too.” Never in a million years did I think she’d be ready and willing to leave her school back in Manchester.
Many more coconut trees and paddy fields, backwaters and a few elephants pass by in the next three hours as we reach the city of Kochi, the Queen of the Arabian Sea, and the hometown of my queen as well. It is noon, but none of us are exactly hungry.
“Where to, oh Queen of the Queen of the Arabian Sea?” I tease Aarthi, but she’s not sure either. For the first time, she feels like she is a tourist. And it shows on her face. Our driver, Cherian, takes the cue and drives us to The Dutch Palace, a historical place that seems to be more Keralite than Dutch, with white walls and the almost trademark tiled roof and lush green lawns as well. We visit the Jewish Synagogue after, and marvel at the chandeliers there, something I’ve never seen before. The blue tiles make it feel like we’re walking on water. When we are done, it’s nearly evening, and we realize we’ve forgotten lunch, and we make up for it by having masala dosas at a small hotel nearby. Taking Cherian’s suggestion, we take two rooms at the Bolgatty Palace hotel and spend the night there. Sharada chechy takes one room with Vidya, and Aarthi and I take another. As we stand at our window, the moonlight falling on us, I take her into my arms and hold her close.
“The moon is beautiful tonight, but not as beautiful as you,” I tell her, and clichéd as it seems, she laughs and hugs me back. We’re tired, but we sit near the window, talking. I keep an eye on the clock, waiting for the minute hand to move to midnight. When it does, I kiss her. Looking into her eyes, I smile.
“Together we have traveled,
A minute and seven years;
Of happiness were our smiles,
Of happiness all the tears.
After a minute and seven years,
Tonight, this little rhyme I do,
I’m sure in this journey of life,
I’d have only traveled with you.”
“Happy anniversary, dear,” I tell her, wiping the tears in her eyes. In that moment I’m back at the pandal. I can hear us repeating the prayers the priest chants, smiling as we hold hands and take the steps around the fire. I can feel the flower petals and grains of rice touch my head, and I know now these seven years feel like just seven minutes.
An hour passes by, but I can’t sleep. Looking at Aarthi sleeping, I wonder what it is that keeps me awake.
Something feels missing, a void I can’t see. It’s something that’s taking a lot out of me.
(12 Dec, 2013)