I’ve always felt photographs are meant to linger. Buried like your occasional moral conscience, there’s a moment when we fall back to something that feels real. Those photos and faces appear so illusory for a while as you run your hands through a face wrinkled with some wisdom. Once a young blood blushing with ignorance or that wanderer who was whisked away by a whirlwind of circumstances. Perhaps that’s the charm of a story as well, when an epilogue is revisited by a writer who’s been shadowed by yet another experience. And once again, I look back to the same old me inching my way to the roots of her homeland, it’s a promise of time that still patiently teaches.
It’s been a year, and I remember how the Palakkad trip was one of my very first trips I went on a solo project. It was exactly after the so called shy five weeks after my wedding. Settling in for my art direction project at Kairali Ayurvedic Healing Resort with Zuzana, I had such a fruitful time exploring the quiet town, Olassery. I could vividly recollect how many of staff members quizzically wondered how I took off from my new home so quickly for a trip. The only logic was the marvelous charm of being a newly married woman, something many people relished like tapped toddy*. I laughed it off saying it’s a love marriage and we’ve known each other for years. But their doe eyes coyly said, “Slow down child, you have new shoes to fill into.”
I would only say a few months later, some of those fragmented conversations slowly trickled into my mind. Palakkad beautifully taught me one thing, the art of moving slow doesn’t mean you’re losing time but letting things set into reality. Lessons came to a full circle especially with my walks through the quiet villages of Olassery. It was unprecedented but the fortunate trysts taught me to value the simplest things. A year since Palakkad, yes, my shoes were slightly tighter.
Palakkad is famously known for its stretch of verdant paddy fields, either during your strolls or a bicycle ride, you would see many women deeply entrenched in a thick layer of mud, diligently plucking rice with their arched backs facing the scorn of the sun. Most of them are clad in oversized shirts, and mismatched lungis. Their hair is lumped into buns and tied by scarves, and eyes squinted most time. While Zuzana and I were figuring how to capture something picturesque, they felt distracted. I remember there I was walking in quite clumsily in a cotton saree, with an outlandish hair style that I now gloriously regret. I reeked of being a city girl, I was clad in jewellery that barely glittered, silver has a charm of looking quite cold-blooded. And when I approached them to ask them some questions, their eyes shifted to my fingers and they lit up when they found out I was married. A few curious ones immediately asked me where my ‘Thali’ was , unabashedly I said I left it at home. They asked where my husband was, I said home. A little taken by surprise, I said we’ve known for long. They asked if I have children. I laughed retorting, “We’ve been married for month.” She was in awe, and asked me, "Molay*, where’s your gold?”
There was no fascination about that, Kerala’s fashionably known for its plague by avarice. But talking to a lot of them changed a few of my perspectives. Their job was not exactly the neatest, so much of the dirt seeped into their nails and mud clung to their feet, but their faces glimmered with speckles of gold. Commonly it would be earrings, but those were neatly tucked into scarves. What was a little different was their nose piercings. Especially one on them, worn by a slightly senior one. She commanded attention with her two huge nose rings. When I pointed to her nose she told me,“ My husband took most of gold necklaces and put it for a loan, but there’s no way he can touch this, it’s all mine.” The other one laughed in return saying she lost her nose ring. They asked when am I planning on getting one. Never, was just what flashed in my mind.
Earlier I used to be very cynical about brides who were judged by the amount of jewellery they owned, but in time I also learned that jewellery was also a women’s wealth. Was how much she wore a display of pride, or perhaps a certain level of confidence? Around the world I could not help thinking of how women toiled, but their wealth was truly never theirs. Although when I look at it from the other side, it goes both ways because traditionally men are also the ones who gift the gold. In that case who feels empowered? I let my judgement settle into the ground, but in that town and in that moment,all I know is that this woman’s assurance waswhat was beautifully pierced through her nose.
Later into the afternoon, we decided to head to the toddy shop for a late lunch. Zuzana and I easily stood out, one due to her outstanding fairness whilst I was mercilessly unkempt in a cotton saree. With hardly any tables set, a few middle aged men with fairly aged beards sat cross-legged in their tied up lungis The early evening sessions started. There’s something about toddy shops, an exclusivity for silence and an odd transparence. Unlike homes, where liquor bottles are stashed or wrapped in newspapers, there was a rack of bottles, untampered. In a corner, my eyes were guided to a kitchen unperturbed, huge cauldrons stewing up some well cooked beef. Weary towels hung in line, a well displayed effort of men cooking .At first I felt that I altered their ‘sanctum’, was this such a gentlemen’s club? But there was an air of nonchalance, everyone co-existed, among the liquor bottles, there rested quiet men, gods and goddesses, idols and two of us, women. And there the owner, in a neatly pressed shirt, sandalwood kissed forehead, found a place for us, gently poured me glass of toddy and asked if I would like some beef and Puttu. I wouldn’t know if I trespassed their comfort zone, but when I sat in to have some toddy, through a narrow a window, I saw someone.
Reaching out for a plastic mug, hung on a barrel of water, he opened a fresh bottle. At the counter, I saw very aged hands with gnarled veins requesting for a glass of toddy. And through that narrow window, I saw an aged woman quickly gulping away. I could not help but wonder when women feel they have crossed the age for not being called out for their moral responsibility. Because even then, she had to stand outside to still escape into a world of prohibited comfort. It all lay in something as discreet as a mug. But maybe I was naive, I never really knew how women felt or how they just let go. Maybe it was just one of those days, men only sat inside. Or she only truly felt complete when wasn’t obligated to anybody.
When evening came, the sun returning to darkness without the city lights made me aware how darkness grows on you quite early. As we were roaming, I loved how the houses were lit up with lamps, the roads were empty, except a few strayed bleating goats. We made it back to the fields, chafed by the dried untamed grass, it all came to rest when we settled in for the last trace of the sunset. The whole field was to ourselves and there was a strange sense of independence to feel alone in this extremely crowded world.
Home was calling us. We walked back, down the winding roads, guarded by the overwhelming presence of trees. We were guided by a few headlights of the scooters. Came to a stop, a small shop lit by a tired light bulb. Settling for the basics, I had lemon soda with peppered peanuts, sat on old log and just watched the skies blacken,
Everyone was home and safe. I imagined, the women cooking, chanting a few prayers, catching a few glimpses of TV. But the night was young to me, all I had to myself was a band of gold wound on my finger, a little fermented wine running in my blood, and finally a biting realization graciously thanks to the merciless mosquitoes.
I wonder, how would the woman with the nose piercings would feel in my town. Would she say it’s rotten or a town where women were wiser? Maybe she was blessed to stay in a place where there was a balance that we could never seem to see with our skewed views.
So I look back at my photographs
Was I out of my shoes
Or the grounds have changed its temperament
Until another circumstance.
I would like to thank Zuzana for letting me write this beautiful story and Aghil Menon who has stunningly captured the photographs.
Run parallel, meet at intersections, skip a few lines, the line of thought has journeyed across a few latitudes and longitudes. To more miles before the big sleep. Cheers, Atheena
Founder & Director of Ayurveda Trails, healing collection of (extra)ordinary people and their stories, whose experiences are transferred into various trails shared by travelers.
While he is searching for the right frame, he believes, that art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Perhaps he is lost in Pondicherry or found in Cochin.
Launched the first ayurvedic centre in New Delhi in 1989 followed by The Ayurvedic Healing Village at Palakkad, Kerala in 1999. Today the company under its umbrella has over thirty centres in India and abroad.
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