Driving uphill is always a refreshing experience; hills and valleys in Kerala look like cradles of ancient trees, thickets, shrubs and creepers. They refuse to leave the safety that Mother Earth gives them. Still the thickness of woods that had once made people call them forests and the black boulders jutting out from them at a distance elephants has already thinned by greedy human interventions. This place is called Thenmala, one of the eastern mountain ranges that separate Kerala from Tamil Nadu. We take this route for two reasons; one, we had already taken this route on two previous other occasions and two, from our town, Attingal this is the closest route to border. Shibu is at the wheel and from his right sun rays seep through the foliages and we feel refreshed. The sensation of receiving cool sun rays in the morning is quite unsettling an experience especially when there is a cold wind swirling around and at times making a rash passage through our half rolled down window panes. Sun shines our dark skins as it does the millions of leaves around us happily attached to the trees; I remember one of my articles written in 2015, describing leaves in a park as a thousand natural solar panels.
Along the way to Thenkashi (South Kashi), one of the prominent abodes of Lord Shiva, we also see the drying up springs up there in the hills leaving white patches along the total height of the rocks as if the three dimensional water falls have been now turned to two dimensional paintings that create an uncanny backdrop for the die hard lushness of the forest cover. Same is the case with the small rivulets in the valleys; they too have gone dry. Kerala in the recent past has been undergoing an unprecedented heat wave and drought situation though the government has not officially declared the state to be a drought affected one. "Do you remember those films shot here?" I ask Shibu. Without taking eyes off from the winding road ahead Shibu smiles and nods his head. That smile sums it all. In 1980s when Malayalam film industry was going through a crisis a set of film makers decided to make some quick bucks by producing certain quick movies with a heroine who was willing to go nude on screen (often they hailed from other states to protect the modesty of Malayali women) and some out of work heroes with stories moving around a romance between a forest girl and a city boy or vice versa. All those films were shot in these forests, hills and valleys. Most of those films could generate a lot of money as the Malayali males were desperate for gazing at the naked bodies of some fat women who kept on taking bath in the streams or wandering in the forest trails looking for some fun until she was shaken upto reality by a rape attempt and the subsequent rescuing of her by an urban hero and the eventual endless love making between them. Sooner than later these films had given way to much bolder pornographic renditions with the arrival of the video tapes and video cassette players.
Both of us, as a part of our growing up had gone through those kinds of films before graduating ourselves into art house movies and the finer renditions of human bodies and relationships depicted in the classical movies. As we drive along we pay silent tribute to those film crews that dared the adverse climates to film those hopeless movies just to keep the audience as well as the producers entertained with different outcomes. "It's time for a cup of tea," Shibu tells me and at the next way side tea shop he pulls 'Murugan' over. We jump out of it and feel the nip in the air. The tea shop from where we have tea is one of the fast dying breeds of shops with the arrival of the branded tea and coffee shops. In this shop we see three 'virakaduppu' (stoves run on fire wood) and in all three there are pots boiling water, milk and tea respectively. A boy in his early teens with baby fat still refusing to go from his cheeks, stomach and forearms looks after the shop while a woman in her thirties make tea for us. There are couple of local elders sitting on the bench more for self entertainment of talking to people than having tea. Soon we come to know that both the boy and woman are bad at calculating as who ever present in the shop together act to give us a kilogram of banana and then take money from us.
At some point the road narrows down and across the road we see an old time bridge getting repaired. This is one of the key railway bridges built by the British and was decommissioned a few years back citing the weakening support. The bridge went into a tunnel and the narrow gauge railway line that ran over the bridge was one important railway link between Kollam and Senkottai in Tamil Nadu. One of the heritage lines in India, this line after a few years of its closure is said to be revived soon for making it tourism friendly than for commutation purposes. The renovation of the bridge with its ten huge arches has caused the narrowing of the road and the people who drive in this way seem to respect stillness of the forest around. None hunks horns. Traffic is smooth. We are happy but suddenly at the next turn we see a crushed white car a few feet down towards the valley lying tilted against an ancient tree. It looks as if the car was flown over the ledge after the collision with another speeding vehicle and landed at the foot of a tree preventing its further rolling down into the gorge. A few kilometres further up where the road forks into East and north west we see a huge charred truck with its hay load completely burnt down with smoke emitting from the embers still.
Shibu reminds me of our breakfast. I am at the wheel and I know the place where we are going to have our breakfast. Exactly at the same point where we had parked the vehicle in our last visit, I pull it over and park. We go into the shop. When we are together, I tend to do almost all what Shibu does except painting. If he wears a cap I too take out mine. If he wears his shades, I follow the suit. Like two identical beings we walk into the small restaurant which in fact is run by two identical old men; one sits at the counter and the other doing the errands. Then we see two identical guys walking in. We have already started eating out identical breakfast; three appams each and two bowls of vegetables. The guys who have just seated at the next table ask the old man whether he got beef fry to go with appams. I look at my watch and then at Shibu who interestingly has done the same. It's 8.15 am. Only Malayalis could ask for beef in the morning. The old man with a naked upper torso answers in negative. The guys finally settles for appam and duck egg curry. A sleepy family walks in. This is the last post in Kerala. "Eat well," Shibu tells me, "because we are not going to get this for many days to come." We eat with relish. Out there the hill has just ended and the plain has started. Shibu takes the wheel and myself the navigator's seat. We feel that we had done the same trip together centuries back, perhaps by a bullock cart.