Thursday, 18 September 2008
The slow misty curtain that was a prelude to the monsoon drenched month of July stopped dubiously for a second before it slowly proceeded to clear the air for the first break of light of the day. Squinting at the sharp glare, we tried to grab an extra bit of sleep but were rudely woken up by a tired looking guide who in his eagerness to make an extra penny had urged us, a team of travel writers to pen Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary as the last of the ‘101 things to do in Kerala’ in our itinerary.
“Laksmi is still sleeping but she will be up in a while and then we can play with her,” said Girish, our enthusiastic guide.
Lying on the southern bank of Periyar and cradled among the high ranges, Kodanad was once one of the largest elephant-capturing centres of South India. After the law banned elephant capturing in 1977, the elephant kraal and training centre remained intact and today six elephants inhabit the sanctuary with three of them adept at entertaining tourists. Two-year-old Lakshmi was the youngest and was already famed as a wild child of sorts.
Enticing us with stories of Lakshmi and her troubled past for most of the two-hour journey, we had scarcely noticed the deep rumblings from our empty stomachs. Now as we proceeded to walk towards the sanctuary, an unmistakeable aroma of freshly steamed Puttu and Kadala(steamed rice cakes and chickpeas curry) strongly beckoned us from the roadside.
We located the origin of the aroma to a dilapidated hut that doubled up as a tea stall and looked like it could whip up breakfast for three hungry people. The dark insides of the tea stall had all the bearings of a typical teashop shown in Malayalam movies. Two men were bending low over the morning newspaper; with one of them occasionally reading the highlights aloud well above the old Malayalam film song that filled the small room.
With the only light in the room coming from the window, we could barely make out the silhouette of a lanky frame pouring something noisily from one container to the other. The efficiency was unmistakeable. Caught by a child like curiosity we grabbed our cameras and almost scared Hari out of his concentration.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Perumbavoor(a nearby town), Hari’s father owned the teashop and passed it on to him after his death. While the elder son handled the cash, 32-year-old Hari helped his mother and wife in the kitchen.
The Malayalee’s affinity to tea and teashops are legendary. Jokes like Neil Armstrong reaching the moon jubilantly and being crestfallen on discovering a ‘Kunjappan(common Malayalee name) tea stall’ already there for years, have made the rounds a zillion times.
Despite all the political brouhahas, flashes of globalisation, high literacy rates, cultural facelifts and communal riots, the common man’s teashop have stood time tested and proud. The delicacies and the environment are a rarity. A cantankerous radio, the local gossip, the ever crowing cock behind the shop all in the background of a general laidback air that has this delectable aroma of delicacies unknown to a world of Starbucks, Costa and Café Coffee Day.
A small glass cupboard will boast plates of uzhunuvada, parippuvada, motta baji, ethakka appam(snacks of Kerala)and the like. The teashop owner expects you to ask when it was made so don’t think you might offend him. A passer-by is forgiven for asking as well for the glass cabinet looks antique and unwashed but the wares are mostly fresh.
The average teashop owner expects you to know the requisites before ordering your famous Kerala tea aka One Metre Tea. Our guide shouts “Randu strong with, Oru without”which was unscrambled for us to mean two strongly brewed cups of tea with sugar and one cup without sugar. With a lazy nonchalance, Hari then took the brew from the broiler and stretching two containers as humanly far as possible from each other, he performed a sheer act of brilliance, as the concoction poured in a highly disciplined fashion from container to the other.
All we saw were flashes of the steel containers, which moved effortlessly from one direction to the other and to some strange rhythm without a drop spilling out from them. An impressive and bulbous layer of froth bubbled at the top of the teacup threatening to spill but stayed solemn after a while.
A friend once lamented, “Kerala tea is just froth and nothing else” but the charm lies not in the quantity but in the quality which makes the global Malayalee all the more nostalgic. His down the memory lanes are incomplete without the sweet, thick well brewed and steaming cups of tea that promises to give you a definite high.
We said goodbye to Hari and his teashop, took pictures, played with the elephants,pampered Lakshmi and almost got killed in her loving embrace before we packed bags and proceeded to hit the road back to Cochin.
On our way we passed by Hari again who stood outside his shop for a smoke.Seeing us, he rushed to our side and said,”Chechi Chai ready” (Sister,tea is ready)