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Traveling cross country reinforces a definite impression that the South at least has got its act together. Kerala in particular. Kochy – Munnar – Thekkady –Thiruvanthapuram – Alappuzha – mile upon mile of forest, plantation – sparse population (relatively). The education hurdle was crossed way back in the sixties closing at 100% literacy. Mass emigration followed leading to the Gulf rush & new found prosperity, visible everywhere. Notice the flamboyant houses – size, hue & colour. Infrastructure & super highways that offer zero chance of knocking down stray cattle in this, our very own beef country.

From smog filled Delhi to clear blue Munnar skies & a state wide ‘bandh’ against the entry of women into Sabrimala. It is a fairly peaceful affair with complete business shut down, people – traffic off the roads & driving a pleasure. Going past tea gardens, spice – rubber plantations, forests, dams, waterfalls, river Periyar & the quiet serenity of the backwaters.

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Renji our driver & guide, barely communicates but he is pleasant, well informed & an ex army man to boot.

The State has a large reserve of ex servicemen & they are of two kinds. The Bacchus brigade that believes it has earned the right to endlessly imbibe & the ‘Diehards.’ Veterans putting skills to use, earning a tidy packet. Selvi, the owner of the houseboat we hired was all of that. Through dint of hard work he had acquired a fleet of 6 houseboats. Considering that each cost over Rs 90 lakhs, this was no mean achievement. He sat us down to banana chips, drinks & a wistful chat making sure his boat departed on time & everything was in order. The Captain was directed to cruise to a certain spot for us to select from the catch of the day. Our sea food dinner, prepared on board. A splendid meal on all counts after which we retired to the comfort of air conditioned rooms, experiencing the backwaters ‘neath star spangled skies. Our boat anchored near paddy fields we were in the company of fire flies, crickets & tadpoles. It was a night to remember. As was the golden dawn.

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Sabrimala devotee

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Mattupetti dam

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Munnar,rolling hills

The days went swiftly by soaking oil massages, cuisine to die for & the arts – Bharatnatyam, Kalari etc – so intrinsic to this land.

There was a shopping list of sorts. Ayurvedic herbs, oils, exotic spices & ‘halwa’, the famous fruit- dry fruit- molasses combine.

Hence, off to the legendary spice markets……

Fort Cochin area has elegance & charm. Also, the aroma of whole & freshly ground spices. Our hike through spice country had been an experience but this was something else. An array of spices greeted the eye. Cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, cumin seeds, star anise, vanilla, cloves, ginger, nutmeg & peppers. Peppers, round & elongated. Peppers red, white, black or green. Had no idea such a vast variety existed or that there were 2 kinds of cinnamon. The soft – light variety used in sweets & the thick, hard, dark kind that spiced up curries. Deliciously exhilarating, I could easily have swooned.

The shop keeper, a pro fished out jars full of spice for us to touch, feel & examine. Dive our nose into & inhale. The perfect seller – buyer quid pro quos.

Ahhh! Ahhh!! No word to describe it.

While settling the bill it was like “…..17000? Is it gold I’m buying? Or spices?”

Sudden comprehension dawned in the realisation that this was what had brought the world to our shores & us to our knees. The English, Dutch, French & Portuguese, who  arrived from around the Cape of Good Hope. Who conquered, made quick fortunes & disappeared – into the dust bins of history. With new found culinary skills & a rudimentary knowledge of spices one would hope. Or were they merely after that pot of gold?

On this my 4th visit I had once again missed the spectacle of the flowering Neelakurinji. A once-in-12 year occurence, when a carpet of violet- pinky blue covers entire hillsides for the shortest duration – 2 months to be exact. The next flowering would be in 2030 & I may not even be around. In response as if, a tiny little floweret caught the eye. The last of the season. Bidding a lingering farewell.

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The Neelakurinji

Change happens everywhere, all the time. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  An ordinary break in continuity, like a change of place names can disorient & bring on a wave of nostalgia. Alas, for the cadence of soft sounding names: Cochin, Trivandrum, Calicut, Alleppy, Quilon. Forever gone. Like the bare breasted old women & little girls in long skirts – half saris. Mundu clad men too, a breed of the past.

If only there was a way of turning back the clock.

PS: Old/ New Kerala hands. Your comments please!

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GallipoliTurkey…

May 17,2012

My Gallipoli tour was organized by ‘Crowded House’, Eceabat. It was a day trip – 5 hours to be exact, at Euro 25 & included AC transport, lunch, entrances & the services of a qualified guide. We started at 12.30 after a delicious lunch of Turkish soup, spicy chicken wings, potatoes, vegetable & jelly. It had  rained through the night & the day was cold & wet  but that did not deter us at all.  These are about the last rains before summer sets in with temperatures of above 45 C. Also, the rains are good for the crops. We were a  small group  of 3 Aussies, 2 New Zealanders & an Indian – Me – . The Aussies were  kind of  curious about my Gallipoli connection. Why was I here  at all ?. ‘We are an ignorant lot’ said Michael, shaking his head good naturedly.

The Gallipoli campaign of WW1  was the brain child of Sir Winston Churchill, then 1st lord of the Admiralty. He  planned to capture Constantinople / Istanbul via the Dardanelles in order to open a sea route to Russia. The British & the French were joined by the Anzacs (Australians & New Zealanders ) The Turks resisted fiercely & won a famous victory. Mustafa Kemal  their commander, was to describe it as   “ where the battle was defeated”

Gallipoli today is a peaceful wooded war site. About 40000 hectares  covered with sea pine. It was not always so. The landscape then was more shrub & dune than tree. It is a Peace park today, incredibly beautiful & serene with the all pervasive presence of Ataturk & the millions killed or maimed.

The Sphinx
Our tour began with Brighton beach where the Allies were supposed to land but did not, because of a fatal error of judgement. They landed at Anzac cove instead, a pretty beach head  further up along the curve of the sea. There is a museum & the cemetery at  Ari Burnu. More on that later. We walk past Johnstons Jolly, the Anzac trenches,  Shrapnel valley, the Nek & Walkers ridge. The ‘Sphinx ‘ is a distinctive  landmark of the area. Mute spectator to the  many battles fought  between April 25,1915 –  January 9,1916.

WW1 has  been described as the last gentleman’s war. The soldiers suffered from a shortage of  drinking water, with little to bathe & clean. During the long stalemate they were  to  endure  heat, mosquitoes, vomit, odour & the stench  of the  trenches. Bodies infested with lice & racked by disease  several died of dysentery –  the ‘Gallipoli gallop’  as they called it. The Bully beef supplied to the Anzacs smelled so foul at times that they tossed it as gifts across no mans land.  The adversaries developing a strange camaraderie tossed it back with a message : ‘ Any thing else will do. Like biscuits & sweets’. Hence,’Johnstons  Jolly’.

We visit the  Australian graves  at Lone Pine, the graves  of the  Turkish soldiers of the 57 Infantry regiment  & Chunuk Bair which has the graves of  soldiers from New Zealand. This is the  tallest hill feature offering a breath taking view of  both the Dardanelles & the Aegean. Its capture  was a strategic aim of the campaign.

Our guide Bulent Yilmaz Korkmaz or Bill as he likes to be called narrates it all  with a rare lack of  emotion, bias or favor. He is the best there is in the trade. Has all the facts as if he were  living witness to the horror that maimed & killed over half million nearly a century ago. He is a Turk but  sounds  Australian – almost.The result perhaps of showing so many Anzacs around  each year. Unlike them however Bill understands  the presence of a lone Indian in the group. He sidles up to me & whispers : “There are 3 Indian graves too. At Ari Burnu. Come let me show them ”.  The graves are  separate, placed just a little away from the others. The stones clearly marked. My countrymen. Here they lie in  another land having fought anothers’ war. Finally at  peace. Tranquil beside the waves. A  flowering rose bush & a field of poppies at the head.

( 21 Kohat Indian Mountain Battery was  present in the theatre of war through out. They  were never used  however  because the British feared they  would not fight  their co religionists.)