Kerala is known for three kinds of water: coconut water, backwater and kallu. The first one requires a labour union-backed, literate, highly fit climber of Cocos nucifera to procure, and brings a sense of cool that no other drink will ever match. The second requires a kettuvallam (houseboat) to enjoy, and brings in the tourists. The third, palm toddy, requires a sense of adventure, and brings in excise revenue for the state. But when it comes to the fourth kind of water, the one which has a tendency to get into one’s underpants and cause all manner of discomfort, it’s Goa which gets all the attention, despite Kerala’s long embrace of the Arabian Sea.
Poor Kerala has only two well-known beaches. One is Bekal Fort beach, where the song Tu hi re from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was shot, and so the only thing any Indian male from that generation remembers is Manisha Koirala running around. In slow motion. No one paid attention to the utterly spectacular fort and beach that formed the background for her running around. In slow motion.
The only beach that does get some amount of tourist action is Kovalam, a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram. Located about 13km south of Thiruvananthapuram’s um... central business district (or downtown, if you will), Kovalam is at that nexus of coconut water, backwater and kallu. It has three crescent-shaped beaches separated by rocky outcroppings and the sea itself is shallow for hundreds of metres, making it quite ideal for non-swimmers to clumsily wade through while pretending to swim. The sand is a curious shade of black and brown, thanks to the presence of thorium- and titanium-rich minerals, and the coconut palms lining the headlands of the beach complete the picture of a tropical paradise.
Interestingly, one of the beaches (Hawah beach) used to be known for topless European women who used to frequent the place during the hippie era, but the government of Kerala has put its foot down and banned toplessness, insisting that only temple sculptures can portray female nudity.
Bucket list: (clockwise from top) One of Kovalam’s three crescent-shaped beaches(Mark E Dyer/Flickr.com/Photos/Markedyer); the seafood comes recommended by the locals(Sangeetha Subhash/Kothiyavunu.com); and the nude mermaid statue at Shanghumugham(Midhun Manmadhan/Flickr.com/Photos/Midhunam).
Thiruvananthapuram has changed as a city in the last decade. From being the temple-infested, hartal (strikes)-crazy Communist capital of Kerala, it has slowly morphed into an IT hub of sorts. Several large Indian software companies have set up shop in Kariavattom, a suburb to the north of the city, and with that, for the first time in the city’s history, large numbers of people from north of Hebbal flyover arrived. These weren’t families. These were college freshers with jobs in IT companies.
Until then, north Indian men knew Kerala for one reason alone. Shakeela. The legendary starlet of a thousand B-grade movies from the only film industry that was mature enough to separate soft pornography from mainstream cinema (a distinction Bollywood does not make even today), Shakeela was Kerala’s brand ambassador. The arty types knew Adoor Gopalakrishnan and his brand of depressing movies, and the rich knew Kerala as a tourist destination. But this middle-class, 23-year-old engineering graduate from Roorkee, knew Shakeela. So when this chap got off the train at Thampanoor station after a 187,465-hour journey from Delhi, the first thing he wanted to do was watch a Mallu adult movie at the nearest theatre.
Once that was ticked off from his bucket list, he took off to the disappointingly Juhu-like Shanghumugham beach near the airport. Not to experience the beach, because there isn’t one for the most part. There is, however, a large statue of a mermaid, and to a visitor from the north, it’s the first secular nude sculpture he has seen in his life. Gaping at a temple nude tends to be detrimental to one’s health. But at Shanghumugham, the gang will ignore the sea and boldly indulge in Patel poses involving several parts of the mermaid’s anatomy, and with that, the young north Indian male’s immediate expectations (as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) of Kerala are met.
Beach bums: A crowded Hawah beach at sunset in Kovalam( Peter Fristedt/Wikimedia Commons); and (right) toddy in an earthen pot(Vinay Kudithipudi/Wikimedia Commons).
And that’s when a local will suggest that they go visit Kovalam (sniggering a little under his breath, he may also recommend the local seafood).
Kovalam, unlike Goa, does not feel like an auditorium with several seats reserved for VIPs. The big five-star hotels do have their own private stretches of sand but the wide, crescent-shaped beach that’s open to everyone feels like the real deal.
In Goa, I always got the feeling that the posh hotels fenced off the best bits, but not in Communist Kerala. There would have been a hartal outside the secretariat in Palayam if any greedy capitalist had attempted to exploit Karl Marx’s own sand. Our northern ingénues will have the whole beach to explore.
The state transport bus from Thampanoor will deposit them a little away from the beach, and when this assorted gang of Hindi-speakers, frustrated by the lack of mother-quality rotis and grandmother-quality dals, find themselves standing in front of pristine sand followed by endless water, there is a pause. No words are spoken, but the faces ring out a loud “Abeyaar, itna zyaada paani!” when the boys, who’ve lived all their lives in a part of India that’s at least 1,000km from the nearest sea, realize for the first time the implications of the geography books that told them that earth was 71% water.
Some get shaken so much that they find it impossible to go anywhere near the water. The bolder ones grow younger by 10 years at that moment, take off their shirts, roll up their pants and joyfully wade into the sea. Several hours (and lot of itchy underpants) later, the gang is ravenous and will take up the local’s advice to try eating species they have never eaten before.
The highway from Thiruvananthapuram to Kovalam is dotted with numerous kallu shops (yes, the ones that bring in excise revenue), and so obtaining something to wash the seafood down is easily done. It’s heady and intense, and goes well with a side of fish fry.
That’s when, emboldened by the sea and the kallu, they will try the crab. Shellfish are a handful for even the most iron-clad stomachs, and to the dal-makhni softened innards of these north Indians, the shellfish might as well have been fired from a cannon. The next two days will be spent crafting leave letters to their companies, explaining that due to severe shellfish-induced gastrointestinal problems, they might find it difficult to make it to work.
But Kovalam, they will never forget. They will, armed with an H-1B visa, visit more beaches in their lives, beaches in Florida, California and the Gulf Coast, but that “Abeyaar” moment will stay with them all their lives. And that mental note to avoid crab.
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