The focal point in in laid-back Kollam is the Asthamudi Lake. You can also watch coir ropes being made, as well as cashew nuts being processed, and spend time on an elephant farm.
By Shevlin Sebastian
Driver Biju sends the speedboat hurtling through the waters of the Asthamudi Lake, at 45 kms per hour, causing large foamy waves to be formed in its wake. Biju heads towards the nearby Monroe Islands. Named after a British resident, Colonel John Munro, the islands measures 13 square kilometres.
When I reach there I get onto a country boat, moved manually by a man, Raghu, using an oar, through the lagoons. It is soothing and refreshing. One who is also taking a ride, in another boat, is Gaiko, who has come from Tokyo. “I am enjoying myself,” she says, with a smile. “This is a novel experience for me.”
Raghu has a sense of fun. He leads the boat towards a narrow bridge, but there seems to be little place underneath for the boat to pass through. Just near the bridge, he stops and tells me, “Lie down.” I look at him puzzled and say, “Are you sure?” He smiles and says, “Please.” And so I lie down on the floor and watch, with a sense of amazement, as the boat passes through. When the next bridge comes up, I laugh and lie down. And Raghu also bends his head towards his knees, but not before giving a strong push with his oar. We pass four bridges like this and it brings a smile to my face.
And then suddenly, there is a stunning sight. A red and blue kingfisher swoops down, and, with unerring accuracy, spears a fish from the waters and flies away. Sadly, at one side, there are a few bobbing plastic bottles and empty tetra-packs. Raghu says that the District Tourism Promotion Council has specially appointed a man to collect these waste materials. “Looks like he is absconding,” he says.
We then step off on an island, where there are numerous coconut trees. Sreelakshmi Mohan, a thirty-year-old housewife, shows me how to make coir ropes, by using the husk of the coconut and a weaving wheel. Soon, a green coconut is cut open and the fresh juice provides a soothing feeling to the stomach.
Next on the itinerary is a visit to a cashew factory. Cashew is the economic mainstay of Kollam. And the factory owner, Raju Vasant Kumar, talks about how he began, nervously, with a bank loan of Rs 50 lakh a few years ago to start his first factory and now he is booming, with six factories. “I am exporting to the USA, UK and all the European countries,” he says.
In the factory, Kerala's labour irony becomes evident. While the Malayalis have gone to the Middle East to eke out a living, Raju's workforce comprises, apart from local women, a large batch of Assamese and Bengalis. “They are hard-working,” says Raju, with a satisfied smile, as the workers peel off the shells with quiet efficiency.
Thereafter, I set out to see an elephant farm. It abounds in wildly growing grass and plants, but the elephants are placed on a raised concrete platform, with chains tied around their legs. A hungry elephant, with pleading eyes, makes a trumpeting sound.
In response, a bare-bodied boy thrusts a coconut branch at him. The mammal pulls out the leaves, with the help of its trunk, and pokes it quickly into his mouth. “No masala, oil or spices needed,” says the mahout, with a sly grin.
Back at the five-star Hotel Raviz, where I am staying, the industrialist-owner Ravi Pillai is in a good mood. He has just been told that Rafia Sheikh from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia had made a miraculous recovery. Rafia had been in a wheelchair for the past three years. Apparently, she had been seeking treatment in many places. But thanks to the hotel’s Ayurvdea treatment – a mix of massage, medicines and a proper diet – Rafia has been able to walk. “Rafia was suffering from a compression of nerves,” says Pillai. “I feel good about what happened.”
Outside, at one side, is an ancient 250-year-old cottage, which has been translocated from a nearby village. Inside, the gleaming ceilings are low, and the walls, beds, floors and windows are all made of burnished wood. “Foreigners love to stay here,” says Pillai. “They want to live in touch with nature.”
(The New Indian Express, Delhi and Kochi)