A Summer in Aleppey

From a not-yet-lost memory

Sometimes a song just takes you back, way back. Especially when the song is from a movie you recently realized was shot in a place you used to visit every summer as a child.

The song’s really old, as old as my sister who can finally get a license this year. She’s quite excited, I’m apprehensive. Not because of her. Because of the concept of driving in itself. It terrifies me, having to control the movement of an entity so much bigger and heavier than me. It’s a good thing I didn’t aspire to be a pilot I think sometimes.

This time though, the song reminded me of a particular summer, eleven years ago. This place that the movie was shot in, I had a love-hate relationship with it. My mother’s ancestral home was there, so we used to go every year during our summer vacation to see our grandmother and our aunts and uncles and cousins (of which we had many, some being nice while some were unbearable). There were cousins who would relentlessly tease us, they were incredibly mean and when my cousin sister, my sister and I said something back or retaliated our grandmother tsk-tsked us. Girls are supposed to be well-behaved and classy, they have to be gracious. But that didn’t mean we were supposed to sit back and take every grenade thrown at us, did it? The three of us, sometimes four stood together because of this, and even today we’d probably rely more on the other three than any other cousin in the family.

But the worst part of Alappuzha (or Aleppey as the British ‘lovingly’ called it) were the mosquitoes. And the ants. Insects were aplenty in Alappuzha. And for some reason they loved to bite me. I would be sitting and playing in the white sand in front of my uncle’s house and then all of a sudden my whole body would start itching.

And yet, I loved the place. The area around my uncle’s house was all part of my mother’s ancestral land. They used to do farming. My mother talks of the cow she used to milk. My sisters and I would roam about the area but we were restricted to a very small muddy road. Most of the area was overgrown plants and weeds. There was a small pond by the side of the road and I remember wanting to swim in it, never mind the fact that I did not know how to. My mother used to say it used to be much bigger, the road never used to exist in her school days. She and her siblings had to wade through the water to go to school every day. I never believed her. But each year I would go back the pond would get smaller and smaller. It’s almost completely dry now.

One day - from this summer eleven years ago - we were feeling particularly brave. We decided to go further than we went before. So we walked further down the road. We ignored all the trees, the possibility of snakes. We walked slowly; all of us visibly scared.

I was expecting something ancient, maybe an old temple covered by wild trees, maybe just wild trees that expanded into a dense forest. In all the time I had spent there, I never saw any car or any person walk down the muddy road beyond my uncle’s house. So when the three of us came across a seemingly newly built house, a car and a cycle in the garage, a lady and a girl who was probably as old as me, we were taken by surprise. They saw us and we started running away. But the lady called to us.

Balante makkala? - Are you Balan’s kids?

My cousin, Paru explained only she was his daughter. Me and my sister were his sister’s kids.

Ithuvazhi nerthe kandittillallo. - I haven’t seen you this way before.

We didn’t know anyone lived here, I said.

In the coming days, we got friendly with the girl. She had a cycle with a red body and a brown seat which I loved to ride. It was, up until then, the biggest cycle I had ridden. That was the only summer I played with her though. I don’t remember seeing her after that.

After that episode, we got braver. There was an even scarier place which we decided to explore. The tharavadu (house) my mother and my uncle grew up. We braved the tree branches and shrubs that kept brushing against us.

It was scary, the house. For obvious reasons; no one had lived there in over a decade and parts of the house were torn down - although when I saw it I didn’t know it. It looked quite small to me and I wondered how my grandparents and their eight kids all grew up there. When I moved closer I could see the foundation of the torn down parts of the house.

Kandittu pediyavunnu. - The place looks scary.

I could see a picture of one of the Gods above the door and that gave me an odd sense of peace. This is where they grew up, I told my sister. Must have been creepy.

That day’s outing gave us all the creeps I think and after that we were satisfied with playing in the field in front of my uncle’s house. There was another thing I loved about my uncle’s house, something I never found in any other relative’s place. He had a treasure trove of books. A cupboard filled with them. They smelled dusty and old and I loved them. I loved going through each book one by one while I selected a bunch I figured I would finish reading by the end of my stay.

Alappuzha isn’t the ‘Venice of the East’ for me. It was the white sand, the wild flora, fighting with my cousins and even the mosquitoes. It was the tip-toeing around my cousins so they wouldn’t find another reason to make fun of me. It is the essence of childhood. The whole of Kerala is.