Land of contradictions
Author Anita Nair likes to wax lyrical about her homeland in India. 'Kerala gets into your blood in an amazing way because everything here - the landscape, the food and the culture - is so wonderful,' she says, sitting beneath a shady tree on the lawns of Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, scene of the state's recent Hay Festival of literature and the arts.
But its citizens, say Nair, are a disgruntled bunch who froth at the mouth about all and sundry. So while her home state inspires her writing, she sighs and laughs at the same time. 'Oh, the contradictions.'
Indeed, Kerala is full of inconsistencies. Its teeming cities never sleep, its streets filled with colourfully clothed citizens and punctuated by the sound of traffic horns.
Yet there is serenity, too. The state's exclusive network of canals and lakes present a scenic backdrop for quiet backwater tours. The canals also offer sustenance to those busily fishing for seafood or mining sand to sell, most of the time illegally.
It's this curious mix that makes Kerala such an intriguing discovery. Every visitor to this area near the southernmost tip of India is confronted by a cacophony of clashing cultures and colours.
That may come as a surprise to some. Kerala is known for its healing Ayurvedic treatments, those balmy backwater cruises and its meditative yoga. Such escape routes are necessary after the state's all-out assault on the senses. These relaxing activities are why Kerala is officially promoted as the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destination. But again, a contradiction: to discover Kerala's essence, you also have to experience its noise.
A good way to understand Kerala is to talk to some of its many writers. The Hay Festival offers such an opportunity. These literary masters have somehow managed to solve the conundrums and contradictions of this fascinating place.
Kerala's most eminent writer - fondly referred to as 'MT', Madathil Thekkepaattu Vasudevan Nair - was born in Kudallur. 'I grew up in this place, watching the river and playing in the fields,' he says, adding that it is only logical for nature to influence his work. Everyone has a geographical space that they keep returning to, says Vasudevan. This writer's space is his village, by the banks of the River Nila.
He weaves tales recalling the romantic pathos of village life in many of his works. His sensitive portrayals symbolise the changing family structure, the crumbling of the extended family and the matrilineal system, and the end of feudalism.
The lush Keralan landscape plays a significant role in its literature. Farmers, fishermen and spice growers carry on trades that first brought the seafaring Portuguese to this coastal haven in the 15th century. Poets' musings evoke the mist-topped mountains and rolling hills. Novelists dissect and debate the disintegration of village life and the eroding social fabric they once knew. Ecologists agonise as nature is reduced to an ornament, displaced from its prime position by the many new buildings.
Anita Nair holds the southern state in special regard. A world-renowned author, her books have been translated into 30 languages. She is also editor of Where the Rain Is Born, a wide-ranging anthology featuring writings about Kerala. 'There's something about the fabric of this place, its greenery and textures and its peculiar Malayali-ness,' says Nair, referring to the native Keralan language Malayalam.
'The kind of Malayali-ness that I try to capture is basically a cynical, sardonic way of looking at life,' she says. The workings of the Malayali psyche constantly intrigue her.
What is the key to understanding this place? Keralan literature, both in Malayalam and English, she says. This is steeped in the society's culture. Writers return again and again to their villages, to the people they know. They also draw influences from the state's enthusiastic politics. Nair advises visitors to Kerala to delve first into its literature and food.
'They are impressive. And I believe it is always best to begin with something that is going to excite you, rather than be disappointed by the evils of Kerala, which include its very bad roads.'
Keralan cuisine is a fusion of dishes made by Hindu, Christian and Muslim believers. It has been influenced by foreign trade and by the intermingling of various communities. From vegetarian meals to the coconut-flavoured dishes of the Spice Coast, it has absorbed flavours from all those who have settled here. The extremely popular appam and stew meal, for instance, is a variation of the Dutch pancake with coconut milk.
M. Mukundan, a pioneer of modern Keralan literature, has lived in New Delhi for more than four decades. But he returns to Kerala every chance he gets to enjoy its natural wonders. What he likes most is the elephants.
His writing draws on the state's disenchanted youth and their place in society. His 1974 novel On the Banks of the River Mayyazhi received many national awards, and the French government bestowed on him the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1998.
Although village life figures largely in his early work, he says cities are where he longs to be, in the midst of vibrant life.
'Even when I visit other countries, I would rather go to towns and meet people. That is interesting to me, and that is where I find life,' he says. 'We always find fault with Malayalis for being too political, but we are actually very nice and friendly.'
He also advises visitors to search out the noisy cities: 'It is beautiful here, but you can find trees and water everywhere else, too.'
Mukundan recommends Kochi as a great introduction to Kerala. It's a port city and a commercial hub for the state. It's a coastal island entity that straddles its past and present with a grace honed by centuries.
At one of the festival sessions, titled The Inner Courtyard: Women's Fiction in Malayalam, two feisty writers proved unstoppable.
K.R. Meera is an award-winning independent journalist and author who is the rising star of the Malayalam literary scene. Dr Chandrika Balan is an academic who has written more than 20 books and numerous critical reviews. Both protest vehemently against the use of the term 'women writers' to describe and categorise their work and that of their fellow countrywomen.
Meera, who says she is always happy to read something new, recommends the remote Gavi for visitors to Kerala. Located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Gavi is a quiet and pristine forest haven. It offers nature-loving, birdwatching and eco-lodging with fine views of Gavi Lake and its adjoining woodlands.
Located between Kottayam and Kollam, this part of the forest reserve, proclaims Meera, liberates the soul: 'It is where you should go to rest for a night or two after seeing the rest of Kerala.'
Chandrika adds that Kerala's waterways are ideal places to recuperate. 'Gods and goddesses, we are told, walk on water, but none of them ever got to sleep on water.' For her, nothing beats floating lazily in a houseboat on a lake or backwater canal.
Beyond the backwaters
How to get there
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. However, Singapore Airlines, Air India and Jet Star offer a range of options with different stopovers. www.singaporeair.com; www.airindia.in.com; www.jetstar.com
Where to stay
The Malabar House, Kochi
Located in the heart of Fort Cochin, this 1755 heritage boutique hotel is a functional work of art, where tradition is preserved in a chic, contemporary style.
Green Mansions, Gavi
With stunning views of the Gavi Lake this eco-lodge in the Periyar Tiger Reserve offers a comfortable reprieve from the wilderness surrounding it.
Where to eat
Kashi Art Cafe, Kochi
This tropical garden cafe in an art gallery serves light sandwiches, soups and salads, divine cakes and coffee.
Malabar Cafe, Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam
Renowned for its excellent seafood.
Panchali Restaurant (Hotel Panchali), Rajadhani Buildings, East Fort, Thiruvananthapuram
Although the lighting in the dining room could be brighter, the wide selection of Keralan dishes more than makes up for it. Don't miss the biryani.
History Restaurant, The Brunton Boatyard, Kochi
Age-old Keralan recipes are deliciously updated. Unique cuisine combines Dutch, Portuguese, Syrian Christian and Anglo-Indian influences.
What to see
Kerala's main attractions are its backwater tours, national parks, spice gardens and hill stations.
Kochi - iconic Chinese fishing nets by the harbour, Jewish colony in Mattancherry, Hill Palace Museum and the Dutch Fort
Thiruvananthapuram - Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the city, Kuthiramalika Palace, and Kovalam Beach
Munnar - eucalyptus plantations and tea gardens near Anamudi, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Thrissur - the cultural capital of Kerala is home to Vadakkunnathan Temple for the Thrissur Pooram Festival, Peechi Dam and Chimmini Wildlife Sanctuary
Alappuzha- the most popular starting point for the 900 kilometres of backwater canals in Kerala, the waterway stretches through several towns and villages. Catch the Nehru Trophy Boat Race if you can, annually on the second Saturday of August.
Kumarakom - water cruises on the Vembanad Lake and houseboat homestays
For details: www.keralatourism.org