I got ready to use my passport again, after two and a half years. This was the longest gap I had without travelling international since 2001. When my Europe trip got cancelled in 2020, there were clear feelings of disappointments, but the passage that Covid-19 took convinced me that this is a time to reflect on my previous travels, stay safe and spend more time reading.
When India reopened international flights on 27 March, I was at least 80% sure I could make it there during June holidays. I was in anticipation of this, and confidently booked my tickets as early as February. By that time, Singapore Airlines had started flying to Kochi on a reciprocative arrangement with the Indian government. The flight that I had booked was a Boeing 737-Max 8 jet, my first on board. Yes, the killer aircraft that took hundreds of lives in the last 2-3 years. After the crashes of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airline, I had vowed not to fly Max. During the peak of the pandemic Boeing managed to get the ban on its ultra-modern medium-sized aircraft lifted. Some articles claimed that the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System) which was faulty in the cases of the two crashed airlines was fixed and the problem solved. Slowly, airlines the world over started reinstating the aircraft. Singapore Airline being one of the most trustworthy players in the industry wouldn’t do any nonsense to jeopardise the flight of its loyal passengers. So I was convinced. Then flew for two dinners over the Bay of Bengal. Home at last.
India is an open country now. It’s the same Kochi airport I had seen and gone through in the winter of 2019, shortly before Covid struck. Except that everyone was wearing a mask. I was curious to see my countrymen wearing masks as it is not something people are used to there. In South-East Asia, people (not everyone) wear masks to schools and offices when they have cough or cold. I was one of those chosen ones to undergo RT-PCR test upon arrival after handing over my documents from Air Suvidha portal. The nurse told me that they would inform me of the results over phone in two days. There has been no news about it, so I guess they will only contact the Covid positive passengers.
Outside the airport, life was back to nomral. Hardly anyone was wearing masks, people going about their business as usual. Drivers and local people sipping tea, juice, biting bajji, vada. Taxi drivers waiting in anticipation of customers; their eyes telling stories of the jobless days that are past. Against the usual one-night sojourn in Kochi, I decided to head straight to my hometown, Palakkad, in central Kerala after landing at about 10 pm. Passed through the never-ending road work on the highway though was happy to use the tunnel under Kuthiran hills. The tunnel work had started some years ago, and is still in the finishing stages.
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Every time I am in Palakkad, the developments I notice are in the forms of new shops, restaurants and all sorts of private establishments mimicking India’s metro vibes. Public places and utilities either remain the same or get even worse. The municipal bus stand is a case in point. It lies like a no man’s land where buses make a round and use the space for a U-turn. Upon seeing that, I felt the old one was better. It at least had an outward look of a bus station with a courtyard full of snacks shops and magazine and newspaper sellers. The condition at KSRTC bus station occupied by state-operated buses is no better. And the same thing could be said about the streets where pedestrians have a hard time walking along, often brushing with vehicles that pass precariously. Shops and other business establishments galore and space gets consistently congested.
The Palakkad fort and its surroundings are always in my itinerary when I am back in my hometown. It’s a place for joggers, temple-goers and people who use it as their rendezvous. I like to watch people’s determination here. Ladies and gentlemen in their middle ages with plumpy backs and bulging bellies exerting tremendous efforts to walk as fast as possible in a routine project. My foreigner wife was once amused to watch ladies wearing bulky churidars and saris while doing the walking. She was awed by their ability to do this and compared it to Indian film heroines dancing in saris. The fort is in good condition, and so are its surroundings. The grass around the moat and the pathway in the middle are kept clean. This is probably the reason that the best public place where people can feel comfortable in Palakkad is the fort. After all, it is a heritage site under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). And, yes, I have several times photographed the cranes that sit on the lawns and the cormorants that hide under the moat’s water.
I am an alumnus of Government Victoria College, one of the best in the state of Kerala with more than hundred years in existence. It’s a campus where many generations have created unforgettable memories to carry with them wherever they are in the world. It’s a place of achievements and a place that has given birth to statesmen and eminent politicians. This is another place I visit without fail during my visits. Unfortunately, till 2019, like any other public place, it had been left uncared for. Flag posts and decorations of student political wings, dirty wall writings, unpruned grass in the corners and the smelly toilet (same as it was in the 90s and probably before that. We nicknamed it the concentration camp) greeted me every time I visited my alma mater. But this time, there were some changes. The flag posts were gone. Wall writings mostly disappeared. The garden presented itself in a more orderly manner. I forgot to go to the toilet side, so can’t say anything about it. All the more, it is in a very presentable state, and I wish that the authorities keep it that way forever, and even better.
Eating Indian food in Indonesia is an expensive affair. For the price of one masala dosa you pay in downtown Jakarta or Bali you could eat three to four in Palakkad. That is why homecoming has a delicious and gastronomical purpose. Over the past few years, Palakkad’s food scene has undergone vast changes. Names like London Bakes & Grill, Uptown Grill, NMR and many other north-Indian, Chinese and Arabic cuisine joints have popped up and have a carved a niche in the town’s gourmet world. Not to mention the entry of western entrepreneurs like KFC, Pizza Hut and Dominos Pizza. I grew up as a teenager in a Palakkad where people used to brag about just a handful of places where they had dined and made the most of their evenings. These names were Kalpaka (not sure if it’s still there), Kalyan, Nalanda, Ashok Bhavan and Hari Hara Putra. These were in the early and mid 1990s. And the dishes were the most conventional and pretty basic mixed variety of south and north Indian delicacies. Like you name it – paratha and chicken curry, chappathi and beef curry, or butter chicken, biryani, pulau, and if it’s veggie, dosa, idli, vada, uppuma, blah, blah, blah (as the waiter in Ashok Bhavan would spit it out). Before my trip, I stumbled upon a food vlog on Youtube that showed a dinner in one of the modern restos in the town. The video mentions ‘Hari Mirchi tika’ that confirms the transition Palakkad has made and also the filtering of more sophisticated north Indian varieties downward south. The very name reminded me of Amitabh Bacchan’s film where he teaches a Brit chef to pronounce a difficult sounding Indian dish! I don’t think this kind of innovative north Indian variety entered the Palakkad menu any time before 2015 or even 2010.
Anyway, I didn’t miss going to New Ashok Bhavan (name changed after after having a new owner) for Ghee roast, to Hari Hara Putra for bajji and sweets. And, to Indian Coffe House which is more of an ordinary restaurant these days compared to the evening meeting place for the town’s literati.
Right now in Jakarta, I am enjoying the gulab jamun and the pakoda that made its way here over the Bay of Bengal. Both will run out by tomorrow afternoon, I believe.