She came to my life five years after my wife did, and it was love at fist sight.
As a low-flying made-in-India Avro flew barely metres above millions of dark green coconut palms – it was long before they turned into a shade of melancholy yellow – the first-time visitor to the God’s own country was stunned by her gorgeous beauty. And the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, turned out to be equally beautiful. Clean undulating roads, picturesque tiled bungalows framed in lovely croton filled gardens …. The landscape was unusually green for a city, and was not blighted by multi-storeyed structures except for a few institutional buildings. Everyone on the roads looked healthy and well-nourished, including the mongrels. Every man and woman was in sparkling white, as if it was decreed by law. And everyone carried an umbrella, whether it rained or not.
And it did rain in abundance, with not one, but two monsoons sweeping the sky every year. I recall it began raining punctually on the first day of June, 1991. And it didn’t stop – at least while we were awake – for 60 days. But surprisingly, water never “logged” Thiruvananthapuram. It was so because wherever you might be in the city, there is a place below.
Besides natural drainage, what kept the city clean was its people. Rarely do you come across a community in India with a better sense of personal hygiene and cleanliness. (This of course is true for Kerala as a whole.) Garbage used to be dumped in a pit in the backyard, and burnt periodically. Once, on a visit to the cancer ward of the Medical College Hospital, I saw a man vigorously wiping an already spotlessly clean floor. Such punctilious cleanliness in a government hospital would surprise any visitor from outside, but was nothing unusual there. Almost all the houses in the city were freshly painted.
The men in Thiruvananthapuram (and Kerala) have a matter-of-fact approach to life. It is best demonstrated by their half-mast dhotis. How convenient it is in a place where it rains thirteen months a year. When I first went there in 1975, one would hardly come across anyone in trousers outside offices. And it was dangerous to go to the fringes of the city in the sahib’s attire after sundown. One ran the risk of being chased by stray dogs.
I had brought an expensive trouser length from Kolkata. As I went round the downtown, half a dozen tailors said they didn’t have the technical know-how to stitch pants. Finally, I found a stately elderly Muslim with a flowing mehendified beard who not only stitched trousers, but also spoke Hindustani. He had gathered the technology in no less a place than Lahore, the home of a dandy named Dev Anand.
As he took measurement, I was thoroughly impressed. He studied the lower part of my anatomy with a scientist’s thoroughness, stopping at every three inches with his tape and jotting down a figure. He assured me that there was no need for a trial; he would deliver the finished product after a fortnight.
On the appointed day, when I put the trousers on, I found it was a cross between a parachute and a pyjama. And the wrong side of the cloth was outside.
On a serious note, the practical mind of its inhabitants shows in the architecture of their houses. They are so well ventilated and cool even in summer! No wonder, an unconventional and innovative architect like Laurie Baker found so many ardent followers in Thiruvananthapuram. The city has some lovely churches and temples too.
I am an agnostic and Arundhati is mildly religious. Often, we used to walk round the Chengallur Temple in the evening, feel the crisp sand beneath our feet, and sit down in front of the temple tank. As the diyas were being lit, peace would descend upon the silent temple compound like invisible fog from the sky above ... we would sit there, silent ... and try to rediscover each other ... When the konna tree opposite the temple began spouting gorgeous yellow flowers, we knew spring had arrived in the tropical, evergreen city.
Even the acne on a woman’s cheek seems beautiful to her young lover. Unfortunately, I am too old to be a young lover. I know, Thiruvananthapuram, like life, is not uninterrupted bliss. No account of the city would be complete without a mention of its terrible political culture, arrogant shop-keepers (who love to say “illey”), and the signboard in front of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple barring entry to those who do not profess Hinduism. But even with these minor quirks, it is easily one of the loveliest places in the world.
This love story will continue till death do us part.