On through the roads that stretch endlessly, soaked in sweat, songs humming in the background I reached the edges of a state scattered like a ribbon all along the eastern coast of India. Here resides a family strangely clinging to its traditions and beliefs, much distinct as it would be like anywhere in the country; yet organized and bonded by blood alone. My task was to accompany a small group of individuals, friends from a near past, to be part of an event that precedes a wedding and to be part of the wedding. I was going to be an onlooker to a process which would ultimately bind two souls.
Prasad and I were part of a small group of students who stuck to each other for a period of two long years. Prasad took the call to keep in touch and we met and talked and shared our thoughts for more than five years now. The group was delighted each time we met and we went on a rampage to explore ourselves during these short meetings. In fact, I felt that we matured each time and has now been left at amazing heights of achievements as far as the level of our common beliefs were concerned.
When a month back I received a call from Prasad, I never expected that I would indeed be prepared to travel several miles to see and understand people and culture in a strange land. Much to my satisfaction, it was a blend of the known and unknown, the expected and the surprises that waited me.
Palakollu, situated in West Godawari district resembles Palakadu district of north Kerala. Not with the name. They match in terrain; lush green fields, lots of ponds, cultivated land and even people, save for the language. It was an overnight journey by train from Hyderabad. The district was much closer but for the route that the train takes. We boarded the train at 10 pm and reached Palakollu by 8:15 am. The Krishna River flowed below us at some point which we completely missed. When you are extremely tired; when a lot of conversation has flowed for a couple of hours; and later when you have nothing left to do, I believe an upper berth in a second class compartment would slowly transform to a comfy couch. We stretched and stretched till sleep did its part; not without certain discomforts; Prasad found it hard to fit himself in that space and for my part, I kept on waking up for all the screeches and jerks of the train. Prasad had warned and indeed people woke up pretty early; I wouldn’t say as the day broke, rather, well two hours much before the sun found its way. By 4:30 am, I could see all lights on, people were chatting and loitering through the compartment with the toothbrush stuck inside their mouths. I felt irritated at first and then without second thoughts succumbed to what fate had to offer. Unlike in the north of the country, trains in the south were pretty clean. People maintained some sort of order as if an invisible hand was at work. I never heard them shout at each other nor was there a fight for berth. Maybe the terrain worked on the minds of these folks; by the time I climbed down from my berth I could see green all around. It was so soothing from all the mad rush and crowd of the cities.
Tea in Andhra is a delight and I jumped with joy at the very sight of it. There is a lot of difference with the way it is prepared and served in Kerala. We have large tumblers serving light, smooth and watery tea, while in Andhra they are served in cups the size of our little finger well concocted with milk, strong and tasty. I was going to have a lot more of Andhra tea; the first cup I had was when it was served hot in the train. By the time Prasad woke up, it was nearing seven; he too had a brush stuck in his mouth. We stood near the door and looked at the numerous ponds and fields. These ponds were meant for prawn cultivation; quick dividend, less trying than paddy and easier to maintain. And this was more to prompt a shift in occupation. Once, a few years back, Andhra was indeed the rice bowl of the south. Things have started changing; agriculture no more stirs the same interest with these folks. In a single year prawns would make you richer by a few hundred thousands; so what was the use of paddy. Prawns could make you lazy too; physically you need to tire no more; and when profits were huge, men found it naturally interesting to shift to the cities. Most of these farms now remain badly maintained. I saw the difference. There were ponds which were huge and netted (blue ropes tied across the entire length of the water to ward of birds – maybe the Indian Roller, the state bird was indeed a threat to prawns). There were motor powered wooded and round paddles half immersed in water to fan and generate oxygen. But all these maintenance was restricted to very few of the ponds. The rest of them wore a deserted look.
Palakollu was an extension to these sights; but here there were less of ponds and more of canals and paddy. Godawari was mightier than I imagined. The breeze that blew carried a lot of moisture. It was flooding in much of the state and the humid atmosphere was growing intensely as we neared the coast. Palakollu was very close to the Bay of Bengal.
Old cycle rickshaws, rusted and coated with layers of dirt, stood in straight lines in front of Palakollu station. The sight reminded me of Delhi; I never spotted one in Hyderabad. I looked on as the rickshaws took turn to carry people from the station. In a few minutes, the last one left. We waited fifteen minutes for the car to arrive. The station had a rustic look to it, the kind of milieu which would set frame to an R K Narayan episode. Buildings which house railway staff looked as if they would collapse any moment. We had a twenty kilometer journey from the station to Lakkavaram village. Prasad’s house was set in this very green and rustic part of the state. I should give the village a few credits for the way it has been maintained. The order of the day was built on necessities; there were all those features which could classify Lakkavaram as a self sufficient unit. There were petrol bunks, a cinema theatre, schools, shops clustered at all junctions, a major dispensary, markets, well tarred roads, and crops. Majority of these belonged to one or the other relative of Prasad. The family had been here, well established, for quiet a long while. Prasad’s grandfather was politically involved and had won from his constituency; his father was actively involved in reforms, social, political as well as economic, in Lakkavaram. Prasad’s father tied up with the Congress and comfortably established himself as a tough competitor even when the rest of the family opted to support a popular film star.
Prasad’s house was built in early 1980’s. In features that were unique, the family houses stood apart from the rest of the buildings in Lakkavaram. While the winds of modern palatial bungalows or micro units like flats were yet to venture, the village, it seemed, had started experimenting and borrowing styles from the city. Houses which were newly built were quick to be landmarks in introducing new ideas. Most of them were cuboids shaped with less of the traditional and more of a modernistic design; modern amenities and with a lot of color. As I was saying, the family houses were unique in more than one ways. For one, they were constructed in straight lines, side by side each other, in such a way that one house had a side door opening into the other. For a different reason, each houses held the same form of construction, with kitchens separated from the main building and huge courtyards behind them. These courtyards had black rock floors which easily got heated and cooled depending on the weather. Behind the courtyards was a huge mango grove; the trees here were twelve to fifteen years old and quiet big. What it did was to make these courtyards cool at night.
From Lakkavaram to Amalapuram was approximately 45 kilometers. We were heading to meet a cousin of Prasad’s who was bed ridden with fever. The journey proved comfortable as the roads were well paved. Unlike in Kerala, people in Andhra ensured that their representatives provided them with the best infrastructure. There were constant pressure from the population and votes were assured only if it got something in return. At Amalapuram, I saw that the family houses bore striking resemblance to the ones in Lakkavaram. The only difference was that these were older and hence has retained a lot of elements of traditional construction. Prasad showed me two unique features. One was a central dome like structure with the top of the structure having glass panes. This ensured that the foyer was well lit naturally during the day. There was also a pipe at the top of the dome to harvest rain water. It seemed that the entire house was build on top of a huge tank which collected and stored rain water. I have seen this in some parts of my state too. But what made these features unique in Amalapuram was probably its age. These structures seemed far too old and elite; maybe in a way to define the status of the owners from the rest of the neighbors.
Popular culture in Andhra owes a lot to popular films. One such imbibed style that you notice is the unprecedented increase in pilgrimage to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. I say ‘style’ with a purpose. It’s not the pilgrimage that was adopted by the people of Andhra because of a movie but rather the numerous ways in which it was made unique, the black shirt and lungi that you are supposed to wear, the way in which you have to maintain a long beard, walk without slippers and so on. A hugely popular actor in this part of the country changed the pilgrimage into a stylish expedition into the self; this was unique, the way someone could just change lives. The trend of black started a decade back. Thanks to the film, Kerala now has its largest share of revenue coming from state owned temples; people flock in millions each year in hunger and desperation for salvation; many are neglected and a few are in fact saved by the almighty.
Black and black is just one feature; I noticed something a new and emerging trend. Prasad and I took the car to Narsapuram late in the evening. The absence of streetlights struck me. It was all darkness around and not a soul could be spotted at certain points; pedestrians never bothered to carry torches. I never figured out why; Prasad too couldn’t give a genuine explanation. The feature I was saying was not this but the hundreds of cycles that thronged the road that had no lights. It was pretty difficult to spot them and at times these men in cycles were in groups, often falling to the middle of the road and chatting to each other at a their own convenient pace. I was not surprised to hear that this too was popularized by our master film star. Indeed, this made the journey by roads very difficult; pedestrians and cyclists alike were least concerned that a four wheeler was right behind them and as I mentioned, they always took their sweet time. I drove cautiously all the way from Lakkavaram to Narsapuram.
At Narsapuram, I witnessed parts and features of an Andhra wedding. It was a lengthy process, influenced by a lot of factors including the community one is from. This wedding which we attended was spread over three hours. We reached early, much before the final ceremony and hence had a lot of time to move around. The wedding was at a hall in the heart of the city; all different from the rustic shades of Lakkavaram. We took a walk to one of the banks of Godawari. They had a ferry service which ran late into the evening. It was dark due to a power cut and we used light from our mobile phones to lead us. The river bank resembled a tourist centre; there were lots of small shops selling a variety of goods. In the dark, I could hardly see all that. There were steps down to the river for commuters of the ferry. We stood on top and saw the boat slowly pacing into the huge river. In the dark, the mighty Godawari appeared like a giant monster; sighing at moments when its soft ripples touched the banks. There was a soft breeze from the river; the motorized ferry service faded slowly into the dark.
Marriages too were unique. People celebrated more, ate less. To make the gala ripe and packed with energy, men and women sang at the top of their voices through microphones. The entire scene appeared more to be a pandemonium and the cacophony was unbearable. Each time I passed in front of the main entrance I had to plug my ears. There stood two large loud speakers to amplify the rock hard voices of the singers. The pain of the process was unbearable; what would have been otherwise good Telugu music was destroyed by all those amateurs in a very crude manner. We walked through all the noise and saw that the ceremony was closing in on its climax. This was the point where the bride and the groom would place a wet mixture of jaggery with some other stuff on each others head. They would hold it there, each doing it on the others head, and wait till the priest performed all the rites. Once that is done, they are ritually wedded. There were vacant seats in the hall which indicated that it was time for food. People were thronging the exit and vigorously pacing up to the first floor. The food was being served there. We sat for a while; Prasad went and greeted his friend, stood for a snap and returned. It was time for us to have a taste of Andhra food.
Traditionally, the wedding dinner would have one sweet prepared at the grooms place. The rest was all as usual. The quality of a wedding dinner was judged by the curry served. There were special preparations using cashew and at times more that one sweet dish. There was rice and curd, supposed to be taken after having fried rice and curry. It was a vegetarian episode. But frankly speaking, even for a hard core non vegetarian like me, I should say that the food was a treat. It was very delicious and I took a second serving of one of the dishes. They were serving ice cream, but we politely abstained. There was a thirty kilometer drive back home and we couldn’t spend time devouring these delights.
At six in the morning I was up from bed; long time back I lost my sleep. At around four in the morning I heard someone sweeping the courtyard. The theory held that people in this part of the country woke up quiet early. The broom made a rhythmic sound which never allowed me to sleep. I turned in my bed and tossed all its length for a few minutes and then finally gave up all efforts to sleep. By six, I knew it wouldn’t help any more. By eight, we were again close to the railway station. This time we were going to pick Venky.
Venky looked all the same from the last time I saw him five years back although a bit weak and frailer. He, along with Prasad, was among the few among us who immediately took up a job after our post graduation; and they fared well. They had a whole lot of experience in their kitty and were now in a position to make choices. Apparently those of us who struck on to the stream of academics and those who drifted further were constrained by a hundred different hurdles.
Soon after Venky arrived we decided on our itinerary. Someone else from our past, an old friend from the University, too joined us. Matta Srinivas was a person worth admiring for his simple manners and silent nature. He was the same and grew a lot more saintly over the last five years. Here was a person who is still stuck with the idea of a job in the government sector. The world moved on and Matta still held tight to his determination. Maybe his is the right choice; time will tell. Matta arrived after we finished our breakfast. Our schedule for the day was to start with a visit to Prasad’s paddy fields. It was close to his house.
These fields were maintained amazingly well through intense labour; all spread between man, machine and animals. We could see huge buffalos in the ponds taking a dip from the heat. It was warm and muggy and we were sweating profusely as if competing with each other. From where our car stood, both sides of the narrow strip of land which formed the road were property that belonged to Prasad’s family. While on the one side, the paddy stood amidst fewer weeds, the other side had a field filled with weeds. The crop wouldn’t last long and even in harvest there would be little to take back. The field which was lush green filled with rice plants and very few weeds was owned and maintained by Prasad’s father. Around the field, spread over 15 acres, was a small canal. For rice to grow, water was a prerequisite. We jumped across the canal – Matta after a long hesitation – and crossed over to the area marked for coconut plantation. We watched as men climbed the trees that bore numbers inside yellow circles. We had three tender coconuts each and felt hugely relieved from the high humidity that had by then almost drained us.
Reddy’s marriage was to be held at Ravulapalam; this was approximately forty kilometers from where we stayed. Soon after lunch and a small siesta, we started our journey. It took sometime to find the hall. Things were made slightly difficult with a number of halls scattered across the place and the songs and hoardings of the bride and groom in front of each. We were desperately looking to find Reddy in one of those hoardings. Finally, someone among us noticed Reddy’s hoarding in an auto. A huge picture of Reddy and his would be bride was standing tall in the vehicle. Things were made easy; we trailed behind the three-wheeler through to the wedding hall.
There were very few people at the hall and we presumed that we were a bit too early to have reached the place; as it grew darker people started flocking in groups. We were led to a room where Reddy was, well groomed and fancifully dressed to suit the occasion. In Kerala, men would wear white dhoti and shirt; women on the other hand bore all the pain of wearing expensive and glittering clothes and ornaments. Here in Andhra it seemed that the bride and the groom were equally tortured. In terms of gold, Andhrites were much more sensible. Keralites always exhibited an obsession for gold; the more you wore, the greater was your wealth exhibited. Moreover, gold was a good way to disguise the actual amount paid as dowry. Love for the metal has taken crude shapes of intense gluttony that people show panic and seems stressed out when they are unable to keep pace with the new fashions and trends.
In an hours chat with Reddy our small crowd slowly grew. More friends from the University joined us including our classmates Trinadh and Bharat. Then it was time for the ceremony; and before long the length of the process gave us a good time to sneak out and have food. This too was a bit different from all the marriages I have seen in Kerala. Food and the ceremony remained separated. People never left the hall until the knot was tied for a Hindu wedding. Then they would jostle past each other in a frantic effort to catch their place in the dining halls. In Andhra, I understood there were no hard and fast rules. The wedding rituals started along with food being served outside. It was the same like in the previous night. Traditional sweet dish, a special curry made from cashew, rice and curd and an additional sweet. This time too we avoided the ice cream. In comparison, a typical Hindu marriage in South Kerala, where I come from, was distinguished in the way food was served. Rice would be served with seven to eight curries and three to four pickles. There would be chips made from banana and a sweet dish made from banana and jaggery. The entire food is filled in nicely cleaned and spread plantain leaves. It starts with rice and sambar, dal, rasam and curd. Then in between comes the various payasams; sweet and flavored depending on what it is made from. Usually the minimum number of payasams served is three. I have seen men and woman passionately devouring all the items in this several-coarse meal. They eat huge quantities of rice effortlessly and belch noisily creating an atmosphere of disgusting satisfactions.
Luckily I missed all that in Andhra; luckily, people appeared much more sensible; luckily it was a cold evening and luckily we were all engaged in different periods of our past. We laughed our hearts out for all trifle jokes, made fun of each other and enjoyed each others presence. Reddy was too engrossed in smearing his wife’s head with jaggery; he himself was being subjected to the same treatment. We went in to see the last part of the ritual and in a short while met him to wish and say goodbye. Another night drew to a close; in quick succession I witnessed two Andhra weddings.
Two weddings in two consecutive days and hectic schedules of travel had made us a lot weaker than what we were at the start. But Antarvedi rejuvenated us to garner our scattered bits of passion and continue to explore this world which always held surprises.
From the lighthouse till where the river Godawari meets the Bay of Bengal, the road, if there was any, was a mere sand track. It was traced and marked by tracks left by vehicles which had passed through it earlier. We were sweating profusely and constantly complained to each other, comparing this land to the ones down south. It is the same in Chennai and for that reason in the extreme south. These were places close to the sea and were as muggy as it could ever get. You would sweat and sweat till the last drop of fluid would be drained out of you. Over time, the climate has changed so much that one would be left wondering whether all those protests against climate change activist was indeed a hoax. Maybe the world was truly under the threat of a climatic catastrophe. Amidst these thoughts, it rang through my mind that our car might slide into a sand pit. These fears were short lived and soon faded once the sea started becoming visible.
The lighthouse at Antarvedi Venky and Me at Antarvedi temple
What greeted us was the mouth of the mighty river and its tensed departure into the sea. It created waves, one foot high, which kept on easing itself more into the shores. By the time we left, it had encroached territories which were initially far away. The estuary was a good two kilometers from the Antarvedi temple. What defined it was a lengthy stretch of pine trees. To reach the beach we were supposed to cross the pine forest. We took a path littered with paper plates and plastic cups, strewn all over the place. Yes, these are all possible indications of groups that have been here before and further indications of how much we could spoil a wonderful piece of land; a perfect holiday spot and a perfect place to get robbed if you are traveling all by yourself. It seemed spooky and mysterious that we could spot none around us; save for a group of women and small kids at a distance near the sea and a group of pilgrims taking a dip in the river. As we reached closer to the sea, we noticed one unique feature of Antarvedi – red crabs. There were schools and shawls and crowds of them spread like flowers on a designer carpet across the beach. This I read was a common phenomenon of this beach. I had earlier heard about the red crabs of Christmas Islands; this was the first time that I got to witness such a huge number of them so close to me. It was useless attempting to take a snap; for that you would require a digital SLR, with a powerful lens. These crustaceans hate the sight of people; any small sound would make them run into small holes dug everywhere on the beach. They would pop up once they were sure we were at a safe distance from them.
We watched the mighty river and the powerful sea in awe; imagined all the depths that it held and the strong current that would awaken its spirits late that noon. A few snaps captured the moments; we washed our legs and started walking back. A poor man, seemingly peaceful, followed us till the car. He acted as an amateur guide, who struck gold midway our voyage and kept muttering in Telugu things which we could easily see and understand. I knew where this was leading him too. The moment we crossed the pine forest and reached our car the man was already asking for money. I asked Prasad and parted with a worn five rupee note. I was not sure, but the old man was extremely happy. In this part of the country you would get country liquor in plastic pouches for less than that amount.
Antarvedi looked barren, hit endlessly by the sun and made to warm and boil. The sea was just the opposite; we never felt that we were soaked in sweat when the waves graced past out feet. Once you move farther from the water, the sun strikes you again, harder than before. The pines were a comfort but not for long; as the shades fall, there would be men looming in the shadows. Antarvedi was just waking up; it would be long before the day ends in this beach.
In quick succession the days passed; we saw in haste all those bits of life spread around us in Lakkavaram. We met people, we visited temples, we pined moss filled unpaved territories, and saw life beating at its own pace in all of them. Like a paperback, the end seemed to hold too much in too short a time. Lakkavaram, and for that reason anyone and anything, cannot be understood in a day; the people here might have a different story to tell than what I have just understood. What they had with them in plenty and what we held in short was sweet time.
We reached Palakollu railway station an hour and a half before the train arrived. The station seemed deserted at first but started swelling with time. There were a large number of children volunteering to collect flood relief contributions from people. It seemed a good effort at first but later when the same faces appeared again and again in front of us we felt irritated. I had my doubts where the money would actually reach. By the time the train reached the station I saw that there was a significant presence of villagers leaving to the city. Hyderabad was one of the nodal points of Andhra. The city has grown and developed with time. Baring the infrastructure which has had literally no contributions from the present government, Hyderabad had been able to attract major business ventures. In addition some of the educational institutions in Hyderabad were now recognized as the best in the country.
It was hence no surprise that people found the place attractive. In our compartment there were a lot of them without a berth. We waited till all slept just to avoid the confusion over berths. There were people sleeping on the floor. There were women crouching with their babies in spaces that could merely hold one. Everything was justified in the game for survival.
Torrential rain in Andhra had severely affected many districts. As we passed over River Krishna I visualized the effect such a huge river might have had when it started flooding. The banks of both the major rivers in the state were the worst affected; many villages were submerged. The train moved slowly through the bridge; Krishna River flowed below creating huge ripples and shocks in the water. I had a vivid image of Godawari, which I saw two days back becoming clear in front of me. The very sight creates uneasiness; a macabre feeling of the unknown. Venky was chanting his prayers; and Prasad and I looked out of the window to the flowing river. In a short while we crossed the bridge; and it seemed that all the rustic charm I had carried till would now be left behind. From then on it was the city that awaited us. Life would be much different; people never the same.
There are ways in which any place would greet us. Hyderabad wakes up very early to the noise and chaos that are mandatory to term you as a city. Hyderabad held on to these efforts very somberly. The contrast is evident; I mean for places; whether it be the mystic charm of New Delhi, the hugely humid Chennai or for that reason utterly cosmopolitan Bangalore. We are greeted by these places as any host would; testing us with our patience, making us endure the heated surprises; allowing us to converse in unfamiliar languages and above all granting us the freedom to loosen ourselves. There is a lot of time for you in the beginning; you could roam the streets, you could meet and greet people and places, you could try out the specialties and when done with all this, start the vicious circle once again. As time goes by, you feel that the place has changed, grown old with you, and lost its sheen. The charm is held only by those who have considered staying there for ever. For the rest of us who travel once in a while these great places offer the kind of hospitality that makes you long to stay. Yet, you know that the short lived tie would be severed; the spirit of adventure would fade and you know that the smell of their charm would constantly disturb you in your sleeps; and yet ...
About the Author:
After completing my Undergraduate Studies form Kerala University and Masters in Economics from Hyderabad Central University, I pursued MPhil at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, New Delhi. During my MPhil I had the opportunity to teach under-privileged children at the Salaam Balak Trust, Delhi. I also worked as a Research Analyst at International SOS New Delhi and for over the same period was freelancing for Infinity e Search, Delhi, as a content developer. Currently I am a Content developer with Ernst & Young, in Trivandrum, Kerala. Writing and especially writing poetry provides me with the space to not only to invoke thought through words and expressions but also to contemplate and reflect upon life and society at large.