Manvi’s late and both Shweta and I knew she would be. Dammit Manvi, you’re closest to the airport as well. It’s 5:30am and Delhi is awash with the first real rain of the season…there’s actually something akin to ‘crispness’ in the air and suddenly leaving seems unnecessary. But we haven’t seen real rain, not yet. Or so he says on the phone when we tell him. “Yeah what you call rain we call light drizzle. See you in a few hours.” A few weeks ago Mushtaq said we could all come visit him in Kerala and I was obviously the first to raise my hand hysterically. Despite all the hob-knobbing of the coasts of India I’ve done, I’ve somehow skipped this most celebrated star of the south. So here we were, three girls with “the golden ticket” and some scattered wanderlust in our city eyes. We make the flight despite reaching the ‘names-being-announced’ precipice of lateness, Shweta asking, “Is there still time for Starbucks?” as we become the last people to clumsily enter the plane. It flies us to Mangalore where we lose a laptop (and find it again – hurrah!), buy the world’s largest bag of banana chips (it lasts us the next four days) and just about manage to hop on a train that heads to Kannur.
Mushtaq’s family has kindly booked us first AC but we plonk ourselves, luggage lunch and all into the first empty box we see because it’s raining and this, this is rain like we have never seen before. The only air-conditioners in these compartments are the ones God made at the start of the world and we shiver as the rain spills onto our thighs and shoulders as we press up against the bars at the windows. A whistle blows and then the breeze hits you in the face like pleasure itself and we’re off. You think that whistle is calling for a train to start, but it’s calling out to life itself, signaling it to slow down, which it does. We eat slippery, rich homemade mutton stew and red masala chicken off paper plates, delivered to us at the station courtesy Mushtaq’s Mangalore side of the family (his entire family we soon figure are basically all Michelin level chefs). Then we swing from the train doors, faces wet, world zipping by, wolf howling and laughter fresh. The world is a cool green chlorophyll bubble and we dip our fingers into packets of newly sliced mangoes, so thick they’re like pieces of meat, so orange our nails are painted, so sweet we’re hysterical from the happiness of escape.
Like this three mad girls arrive to the cacophony of Kannur and yet we manage to drown it out. Tattoos, Toms shoes, leather bags, headphones and jangly earrings we clutter out the tiny railway station past a slew of hijabs and checked shirts and we are deposited upon the entrance like some wayward children, giggling, and then he rides up, tan and lean, glasses and guns and he hoists our bags into the car, shoos our hugs away and herds us in like school girls because that is what we’ve turned into and miaow…we’re bouncing through the streets watching Mushtaq point out things that could be poignant memory or completely made up. “My first gym,” he says and gestures to a tiny pink square with lurid muscles painted on the walls. Kannur, or Cannanore – Land of Lord Krishna is home to the loom industry, spotless stretches of beach and sexy Delhi lawyer boy Mushtaq Salim. Now he tells us to close our eyes and all three of us comply. Two minutes later the car abruptly comes to halt and he says, “Alright open them,” and we do and there in front of us, twisting and turning, endless and oblivious, lies the Arabian Sea. And so our trip begins.
I’m not sure what we expected (houseboats? Tropic thunder?), but the essential elegance of this state shows up in the lines and slants of the old houses, the crumbly violet earth and the tossing water. Everything fits into each other and than the rain comes down to meld the pieces together. Thus the land touches so closely the water and the water so smoothly the sky. Everything rises into each other like lovers who never tire of one another. Does such a thing exist in humans?
Mushtaq likes to eat and he feeds us like we’re his pups – often, irritably and enthusiastically. There are brownies freshly baked by his cousin Niza, soft and chewy, molten yet firm. Tiny chicken filled French pies the likes of which we’ve never had before. Flaky, frilly edged textbook perfection all created just for us. Breakfast time rolls in dosas, idlis, vadas, puris, appam, stew. Soon after there is fish curry, ghee rice, prawn biryani, mutton biryani, spicy roast chicken, parotas, parotas, parotas, “mallu” shawarmas dipped in garlic sauces, onions everywhere…we eat endlessly and then lie around as the mosquitos (that Mushtaq calls ‘local pigeons’) flutter around for blood and we let them have it, swatting too sleepily at bites. In the evening there’s honey pepper vodka and dark rum and Sri Lankan arrack and stories and lies that act like sweet lullaby.
In the day we bathe with cold water and sit by the sea for hours. Clouds pass and perched on the edges of cliffs we barely talk. Music is played then isn’t. Books are read then aren’t. Coconuts come down from trees and we drink from them. We disperse, come back together. Silent then silly. Watch the storm, watch it pass. The air is damp and cool. We tug mattresses out to the long tiled porch and lie under the sloping tiled roof. Sheets wear thin under the graze of our skin. Write, stare at the water, forget time exists, stand strong against the rain then become one with it. What to say about this rain? That it is cold and bold and bone drenching. That it comes down when you most need it. When your insides are collapsing from sadness or you realize the star you were wishing on just burnt out. In the afternoon and at night or early in the morning, whenever it is you most need to cry your tears the rain comes down to give them company. The hibiscus and birds of paradise growing wanton across the front lawn bow down alongside the palms. Caterpillars crawl out, vivid in their wetness. We footprint every bedroom and soundtrack our steps with the call of the sea. What echoes it has left in me. It surges, we sigh. It sighs, we surge.
At the beach our pockets fill with sand and we leave it there to take back some of this land. We drive to Tellicherry where we have the heavenly fortune of staying at Ayisha Manzil, a heritage homestay complete with Malabari cooking classes, outdoor meals and unfair views. It is high ceilinged, cool and vast. Tall antique beds skimmed by mosquito nets, swinging old fans and the creak of old wood. Laughter cracks the air as we try yoga moves and photo shoots. The afternoon storm breaks, welcomes us, and we dip our warm bodies into a swimming pool filled with rainwater, displacing leaves long dead. “Check for snakes!” someone shouts and everyone splashes about in a mess of squeals soon silenced by lightning. We eat boxes and boxes of date and walnut cake and collapse into naptime only to wake from gossamer dreams at twilight. We walk around this ancient mansion looking for each other and meet over fried bananas and stuffed mussels. “And then what about massages?” we nag, having heard so much. So Mushtaq and his charming brother Sayeed pack us off to the Ayurveda centre. The Kerala massage is no jasmine scented white robed affair. It is robust, vigorous and rough handed…dung scented, medicinal and healing. When you are done, the oil is so slick and thick upon your body, if you were an ocean, small dead ducks would float upon your surface. I leave bruised but certain some demon has been beaten out of me. And that eventually is the trip as a whole. When you are warned a place has ‘nothing to do’, rest assured, it has everything to find. Against the dreamscape of a southern sky, something within is restored.