Returning home to Kerala, my home state in India, is as exhilarating today as it was the first time when my parents brought our young family from America. I was five years old. I remember incessantly pestering my mother, asking, “Are we there yet?” Annoyed, she handed me a brochure with pictures of Kerala that captivated me. The greenery and the lakes were a stark contrast to what I witnessed in Atlanta. Instead of the brochure keeping me pacified for some time, like my mother hoped it would, it evoked more questions than answers: “Does this place have a school where they don’t give homework?” and my personal favorite, “Why is it called God’s Own Country?” Finally, my mother found something she could quiet me with. She asked me to close my eyes and believe that we were indeed going to God’s Own Country. Even now, every flight home carries with it the same evergreen brochure highlighting Kerala’s natural splendor and tourist attractions along with our grandiose slogan in big proud letters, “God’s Own Country.” (Tourism accounts for 10% of its revenue but 24% of the state’s total employment). It always brings a smile to my face, as I may not believe in God anymore but I do believe in God’s Own Country.
The first striking thing about Kerala is its peculiar color of green that dominates our coconut trees. I can’t claim that I’ve traveled the world extensively, but having seen most of India I can claim that no other place has our green. Kerala, geographically, is just north of the equator, but it’s in the peninsular part of India bordered by the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea creating an optimal climate I sorely miss at times in the cold of Ann Arbor. It would seem that the sunlight and the moisture — much like the ebony and ivory in a piano creating a symphony — interacted to create a sunkissed green that shimmers with dew drops. Every Thursday in school, I had the best view to witness our gifts of nature.
My school was built prior to stringent ecological laws passing in Kerala. So, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of our relatively big city, there’s an expansive forest accompanied by a lake that offers a spellbinding view from the school library on the top floor. Every Thursday, we’d have to sit in the library for an hour, but no book in the library quite interested me like the view outside the window. I was captivated by it. I remember towards the end of tenth grade, on a particularly melancholy day, I was making my way to the library. I had just become aware of the fact that I’d be leaving Kerala for the last two years of high school. I knew that soon I’d have to say goodbye to friends who I’d met in the third grade and who knew me inside and out. I’d have to say goodbye to teachers who watched me grow up and, more importantly, helped me grow up. And so I made my way to the library — which was empty at the time — so that I could collect my thoughts. A wave of nostalgia hit me. The normally stern librarian saw something serious was going on in the back of my mind and let me in as long as I kept quiet. I sat in the same spot I had for years, but on a Friday and in the evening when the sun was setting. The sunset that day was captivating. An eclectic combination of different colors layered upon one another. There was yellow light emanating from the sun that gave way to orange that gave way to a neon-like pink capped off by a sky blue trying its hardest to stave off the night. The lake was more than happy to become the sky’s canvas, and the green of the forest had an orange sheen that seemed to make the light bounce off of it. I remember trying to create a save file of that image in my head, Alok don’t forget this, Alok don’t forget this. It was the second time in my life that I implored myself to never forget what I was witnessing.
The first time was earlier in 10th grade when I visited my ancestral home in Thodupuzha, which directly translates to “the touch of a river.” A huge district in Kerala, Thodupuzha is a compilation of uninhabited forested hills, streams, lakes and a sleepy town which makes it a trekker’s paradise. It was on visits there that I interacted with nature in its rawest form without a defined path and numerous dilemmas along the way with no phone signal to bail us out. While hanging out with my cousins and their friends, we got wind of a cool place we hadn’t yet explored. Apparently, there was a waterfall at the start of a stream that joined the river that was secluded and set to become our spot. I continuously relented against visiting it, not trusting my ability to swim and anxious of dying from a waterfall fall. Huh, waterfall fall would get me on the news, I thought (and it’s a fun thing to say). Armed with a sudden stoicism about impending death, we made our way to the stream. Tarred roads gave way to concrete ones which gave way to mud roads that made the car rattle. Finally, we reached the point where we couldn’t continue on, as there was no pathway. So we got out of the car and made our way through a forested area with an inviting canopy. I call it inviting as it let just enough light so we could see each other, and it brought a coolness along with it that made me want to snuggle in a warm blanket.
The acned, frail dude who suggested the location assured us that we’d find the spot just around two corners. He wasn’t lying when he said two corners, but he didn’t do us any favors by omitting how long the two corners were. To our shock, we found a relatively flat terrain getting steeper, and we realized we were at the foot of a hill which nearly depleted our morale and would have made us consider going back had we not looked back and realized that the way back was long as well. We persevered and got to the bottom of the hill, and we realized we would have to walk upstream before we got to the waterfall. The once-formidable stream had lulled in the summertime as it glided along in no rush to meet its river. We could now see the waterfall in its entirety, and it was microscopic compared to the stock image in my brain (of Niagara Falls), but it was still big enough to make us question the sanity in our plans to get near it. Our guide assured us there was a spot behind the waterfall that we could stand behind where it would be perfectly safe. So, we made our way through the bushy coast of the stream until we reached a point where we had to get into the water. Eventually, we got around the side of the waterfall. There was a sizable gap between the rest of the stream and the waterfall due to the rock structure. I joined the audacious members of the group who were standing under the plunge, and the water felt like a cold compress massage, or as if the shower had a 50% spike in its water pressure. With great trepidation, we made our way to the front of the waterfall, and I was asked to look up. The water here seemed to be devoid of any constraints or concerns. I was taught in elementary school that water is colorless and that it takes the shape of the container it’s housed in. Yet, in a moment seared in my mind forever, I remember that water under a waterfall looks like pearls and that the falling water resembles pearl necklaces falling in bunches.
And so, as I look at the brochure for God’s Own Country and play “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, I know that there’s an unforgettable experience yet to be had.
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