Monday, June 27, 2005

The Middle of Nowhere - I

A left turn from NH 47 between Kollam and Trivandrum, a few hundred yards and then you can say hello to the Middle of Nowhere, folks. No, not the place Courage the Cowardly Dog lives. This is Middle of Nowhere, Kerala, India.

Where my grandparents live.

It's not even a village, really. A few houses are planted here and there amid a lot of different trees and shrubs - rubber, tapioca, pepper, coconut, cashew; you name it, it's there.

The ground is rather slopy and if you go a bit downhill from the house, you reach the paddy fields. Just before the fields is the Sarppakavu - where the Snake Gods live. I wanted to visit it. I've been roaming that place since I was born, but my grandfather still insisted on accompanying me, since it was the first time that my brother wasn't with me when I visited.

My grandfather is eighty, but he doesn't look it, since he's a farmer and has always been very fit. He has a breathing problem now and doesn't do much farming - his land mostly has tapioca plants now.

We went downhill silently. I was looking out for all the familiar spots - the big hole that my father dug when he was a bored teenager; the tree that marks the end of my grandfather's land; the big cashewnut tree that the three of us - my brother, my cousin and me - used to climb.

Finally, we reached the fields. There is a temple there, called Madan Nada. It's a basic one roomed building, overrun with vines and creepers - a very creepy and lonely place. Appooppan showed me a hidden well. The shoots of a nearby tree have almost covered it up and it's invisible unless you go inside the jungle.

Next stop was the Sarppakavu. We followed an overgrown footpath to the big dark opening in the woods that is the entrance to the kavu. Inside, muted half-light greeted us. The sounds from outside seemed muffled somehow, as if from another dimension. In contrast, the screeches of the birds inside seemed magnified.

Waist-thick vines hung from towering trees. They crisscrossed the ground and themselves. As a child, I used to think that these vines were giant snakes - still for the present, but watching the trespassers with their hooded eyes. Now, in this twilight, it was very hard to forget that image and the thrill of fear that used to accompany it.

At the far end of the kavu, just before the ground rises steeply to meet the fence that borders the rubber plantations, is the main Snake God. This one is the only one with a proper concrete block to his name. The others are just black stones on stone platforms on the ground. I saw that the remains of burned out incense sticks lay in front of the black idol, along with bird droppings, dry leaves and rain water in tiny craters. Apparently, people still visited this place for worship.

I looked up, my eyes following the trunk of a nearby tree - its girth so much that it would take more than a handful of people to surround it. The tree just went up and up and up, its leaves mingling with those of the other trees, so that my neck suddenly gave out and I had to look back down again quickly. But only for a second, because I had seen something interesting up there. It looked like a hanging nest. Suddenly, even as I was looking at it, it extended its leathery wings and gave out a sudden shriek and a shudder. My eyes widened as I realized what it was. They widened still more as they took in the scene up above, on the highest branches of the trees surrounding me.

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