Being someone born and brought up in Kerala, I seldom got an opportunity to explore other parts of India. Yes, there had been trips during school and college tours with friends and after marriage, we had explored places as both of us love to travel. Still, I was not much familiar with the Tamil culture or places over there. The only connection I could draw out from the pages of memory would be the Tamilian classmates in school who used to bring spicy red pickles and crunchy pappads in various shapes much to the awe of little me who had just seen the round pappads which we usually get over here. They used to call those some other name. I guess I forgot that.
Recently, I got an opportunity to explore Tirunelveli, also known as Nellai, one of the major cities in the Southern parts of Tamilnadu. I had this set of colleagues who went on to become great friends over there and hence I decided to make a trip and meet all of them as I never really got a chance to see all of them. I work from home and just used to interact with them online. Besides being excited about the fact that I get to see all of them, another point that made me look forward to the trip was the fact that I get to explore one of the places I have never set my foot on. I have never been to this part of the South Western Ghats and I was really looking forward to the trip for more than one or two reasons.
The trip had a rocky start as our train was delayed for about 3.5 hours. I had this sinking feeling that whether this trip plan will all end in jeopardy as I had just one day for the trip. The next day by noon I had to return back. To top it all, traveling with 2 small kids is not a piece of cake! Never! We looked for alternative options and even thought of taking the bus, but later dropped the idea as traveling with 2 small babies for such a long distance, not to forget our luggage and 3 cakes we were carrying all the way to Nellai. The cakes will be fully spoilt if we took the bus. Also, the kids will also be tired out as they are not used to such long travels in a bus. So, we dropped the idea and decided to go as decided, by train even if the train was late by 3.5 hours.
We reached the railway station way before the changed timings, roamed there and had breakfast from the railway canteen before boarding the train. I guess I boarded the train by 6.30 am. Being someone who loves to gaze outside the windows while traveling long distances, I immediately made the kiddos sleep and squeezed myself some space near the windows in midst of 2 sleeping kids. 2 little heads were on my lap sleeping soundly.
The train seemed to move at a snail pace. It seemed to halt at all sorts of unknown places. At one point, I wondered whether I will reach Nellai by noon only. Nevertheless, I kept gazing outside and soon started noticing Tamil written all over on the billboards, railway stations, and shops. Even the change in the language written on boards seemed interesting for me. I tried to look at the English version of the station name and compare it with the Tamil version trying to make out the language at least a bit. Well, I couldn’t succeed much and soon dropped the idea. Then I began noticing the change in the topography of the area. There was so much greenery all around. There were farms, fields, cattle grazing around lazily under the hot beams of the sun and those little birds who sat comfortably over the cattle as it was rightfully their abode. Neither the cattle nor the birds seemed to be disturbed by the long hoot of the train. They were happy and content in their own world. The sun rays grew stronger and stronger and the beams began to peek inside through the windows and the kids began to twitch and turn visibly disturbed by the aubade rays that seeped over the little faces. I quickly pulled the blinds on their side anticipating a hue and cry over the sun rays which were to be cross-questioned by two angry sleepy heads for its heinous crime of waking them up. They stopped turning and again drifted to deep slumber much to my relief. I heaved a sigh of relief and again gazed back through the glasses tinted by dust and dew. The outside view had now started to change. It was a complete transformation, I must say. There were no more paddy fields and greenery. There were more barren lands which lay around like abandoned lands of a recluse. There were tiny patches of greenery, which looked more like little green warriors which fought with drought-stricken abandoned lands and still managed to stand tall in their little spaces. There were some little yellow blooms here and there which smiled proudly at the scorching rays of sol and waved their tiny heads as the train hooted across.
There were again some delays as the train seemed to halt at each and every stop making me again wonder if the trip will be worth it as I would spend half the time traveling alone. I was asked to look out for a river as that was supposed to be an indication that we are nearing our stop. I started looking for this river and then saw a small water body. I couldn’t call it a river exactly as I was more used with the large rivers back home. This one had just a scarce amount of water and more rocks. So, to confirm whether this is the river they mean, I clicked a picture and send it across. It was confirmed that this was indeed the river they were speaking about. So, the stop was nearing and I started to gather the bags and waking up the kiddos. Both were now hungry and started asking for food. Vendors were walking all around shouting ‘ Tirunelveli Halwa’. The place was well known for their halwa and the vendors were making maximum use of the popularity. Everyone had the halwa in their hands. I decided not to buy from them as we had already planned to visit the exact halwa shop over there. Another thing that put me off was that all these halwa vendors smelled too bad that I had to move away when they passed across hollering at the top of their voices. I wondered how people can even buy anything from them. Get a soap first, I muttered rolling my eyes.
So, we reached the railway station and my boss, sk as promised was waiting there for us. It is always good when we see a familiar face first when we reach a totally unknown place. It makes us feel at home and removes that unfamiliarity away. I took a look at the railway station. It looked almost the same as the railway stations back in Kerala. Just the name boards written in Tamil was the only difference I could find. We started walking towards the entrance with my hubby and sk chatting away and me following with the kids. My son was explaining everything he could spot in the railway station right from an old woman who crossed our paths to the crow which flew across. My daughter didn’t speak much, as she was half asleep and more hungry. We soon got an auto and went to check-in at our hotel rooms. The hotel was small but nice. I loved the pastel interiors but what caught my attention was the surprisingly small lifts. There was just enough space for us to stand in a single row. I was thinking what will they do if a bulky man enters the lift. Yes, I do have such weird thoughts at the most unnecessary times!
We reached our room which was a nice, spacious room with clean interiors. The kids soon started to jump over the beds and Renny soon ordered food for them as they were damn hungry. I looked around the room and found the windows. I always look for windows when I enter any room. Whether or not I like the room is partly decided by the view I get to see from the windows. The blinds unfurled to reveal the azure skies smiling at me reassuringly and some green foliages which seemed to prance around in the breeze. Now, that was good! And, I immediately nodded my head in approval of the room. We rested a bit and then I headed to the office with sk who again came back to pick me. As we traveled through the busy streets, I kept looking at the streets which seemed to be cluttered in a mad maze. The streets seemed to narrow down and looked tightly packed up with small street-side shops. There were baskets of flowers all over, sugar canes were tied up here and there may be for the Pongal celebrations coming up. Yellow blooms were being tied up in strings and sk continued to explain the significance of the Pongal celebration coming up. I guess I only heard half of it as I was busy scanning the streets and watching the locales.
Now the bike turned to an, even narrower street which seemed to be bordered by buildings that resembled old temples. One thing I noticed about Nellai was that Temples were seen here and there. All seemed to be standing there since time immemorial with paints that seemed to tear away unable to withstand the test of time and nature. He parked the bike and we were greeted by stray dogs which hovered around us. But, they seemed harmless as they quickly moved away allowing us to walk past. They didn’t even bark at me, much to my surprise.
Soon we reached the office which was the boss’s home downstairs and office upstairs. I was greeted by the ever smiling Priya, one of the sweetest people I had ever met. I was meeting her in person for the first time. And, i must say i was completely blown over by this pretty lady. She looked even more beautiful than in pictures. She had the cutest smile ever. She wore a yellow salwar which suited her pleasing personality and made her look even more gorgeous. Their little girl was running around and she refused to come near me as obviously, I was the intruder who invaded her house without a warning notice. I was seeing this little girl also for the first time though we used to watch many videos and pictures of little Harini through our watsapp groups. She was a cute little girl, certainly tall for her age. Maybe she inherited her father’s genes. She inherited her mom’s cute smile too. She had dark black curls, round face and a naughty grin. She wore a visibly loose pants and kept on pulling it up much to our amusement. When we laugh she would run to another room and try to pull the pants up. Soon, we were in splits seeing her futile attempts to pull the pants up. At last priya called her and went inside to change her pants to a skirt. A skirt which stood in place, of course!
The house had a nostalgic aura all around it with yellow mosaic floors. It helped me to drift back to my childhood days when I lived in a home with mosaic floors. I used to lie down on the floors and write like crazy on every small piece of paper I could get my hands on. Soon I climbed upstairs and went into the office. The stairs were narrow and I took extra care to not stumble and fall down. As we stepped inside the office, I must admit I was impressed with the dedication in which people were working there. I had to go and poke each one of them to make them talk to me as everyone was sitting still with their eyes glued on the laptop screens. I walked across them and went to the terrace area. There Praveen was walking around conducting an interview over the phone. As he is one of my dearest friends and since I love pulling his legs more than anything I began walking behind him as he tried to remain serious and conduct the interview. Poor thing was strugglig hard to keep his composure and sound serious as he was supposed to be the senior lead who is interviewing a poor newbie girl. Praveen is well known for his hitler strict training and he just couldn’t let his hitler image drop by laughing in midst of the interview. So, he tried his best by walking in midst of plants to somehow stop me from following. But, i was equally determined to pester him and continued following him. Sk stood laughing at the visibly hilarious scene and took our video. Soon, he had to stop the interview due to persistent disturbance by me. I’m sure the lady on the other side would have thanked her stars for stopping the interview at last. Thank me lady!
Praveen, sk and priya asked me to eat some yellow flower bud from their garden. Praveen kept on asking me to chew it well. I was skeptical at first as these two guys, praveen and sk are well known pranksters. Anyways, i ate it to check what is there in it. It had some queer tingling sensation. That is all. They asked me to speak and i could speak properly much to their disappointment. In short, it didn’t have much effect on me as much as they expected.
Soon, we took out one of the cakes I had brought for the whole office and cut it together with everyone. I suggested that we cut thr cake together and they were asking how can we cut one cake with one knife together. I asked everyone to hold the knife from sides and cut it. I guess Jebaraj took the video. But, i have not yet got that video yet. I express my protest against that publicly here! By that time, Harini and I had become friends even though we both didn’t know each other’s language, hence proving that language is not really a barrier to make friends. I also have this special liking towards little kiddos and will always make them friends no matter what the language or nature of the kid. Renny would say that is because i myself is nothing less of a kid. He often says that he has 3 kids altogether. 2 are our kids and 1 is me! Even when he buys chocolates, he always gets 3 as i will also run to him shouting chocolate along with the kids.
After the cake cutting and distribution, I was soon directed downstairs as they got a hint that I was not going to allow anyone to do their jobs in peace. We went inside the home and I was a bit surprised to see a house that stretched out lengthwise only. Standing at the entrance you can see up to the end of the house. There was no twists or turns. It was a straight line. I played around with Harini on the swings in the living room. Praveen came down to have lunch with us and that is when i caught a glimpse of this guy’s pants. For a moment i wondered whether this guy raided his sister’s wardrobe. The bottom portion of the pants near the feet was exactly like how a gal’s leggings would be. I asked him to pose for a picture and he happily posed with the most weirdest expression. So typical of him!
Soon lunch was served on banana leaves much to my surprise. Praveen said he needs food on plate and also needs a spoon. He could have asked for a fork too! He poured the whole sambar all over the rice and mixed it all up with the spoon. Then he began his slow motion eating. For one spoon rice to reach his mouth, minimum 5 minutes is mandatory. And, then another 10 minutes for chewing it. Guess, he took his primary school lessons to chew food properly too seriously! After the lunch, which obviously took hours to complete as you could imagine how much time this guy would have taken to complete the whole plate; we sat down to talk. Then we sat chatting nonstop and pulling each other’s legs. Praveen conducted my mock interview which covered almost all topics we could possibly imagine. Priya sat as a mute spectator to the interview with an expression that made me laugh and Praveen turn back his face nervously. Whenever Praveen looked at her, he flinched asking her why she is looking so suspiciously at him.
Harini came and sat on my lap and made me complete all her homeworks within that short time. Smart little girl! Praveen finally concluded the interview and declared that he rejected me. I was expecting the same verdict! Sk had disappeared indoors maybe unable to withstand our nonstop chatter. Soon, coffee was served and sk too returned back to join us. Sk asked praveen to serve me coffee and praveen with so much extra care lifted up the tray with fingers that kept trembling as if he was this 20 something girl asked to serve tea to the guy and family who had come to see her for a marriage proposal. We were in splits seeing his hands shivering and asked him to take it as a practice session to serve coffee to his would-be wife later.
Later by evening, we went upstairs to the terrace.The terrace was one of the spots I loved the most in this house. It was so serene and we could watch the dusk unfurling through crimson strokes in the midst of peppery clouds which hushed about the impending twilights. We had a great time clicking pictures of the aubade in its full glory hidden in the midst of charcoal-hued leaflets. The breeze was blowing softly and now when I rewind those moments I would love to go back to that terrace once again. It was so beautiful. Praveen tried teaching me to click pictures by adjusting the settings and I tried to listen and understand like a good student. We had a great time clicking pictures and sk left downstairs to attend some call.
It was nearing dusk and we had to go to the famous Iruttu Kadai halwa shop. Before that, I needed to go back to the hotel and get the kids ready. I told them i would leave now as i had to get the kids ready. But they asked me to wait a bit more. They kept excusing about some work which needs to be completed and about some lady who was going to come for an interview in the office. After sometime sk came and told me to check the girl who came for the interview. He said that the lady resembled jk, one of my besties at the office. I was surprised and went downstairs to take a look. And, it was indeed jk herself! I was literally stunned to see jk, her hubby and little kiddo standing there. I had spoken to her even the day before about the trip and had asked her many times whether she can come to meet me. She had told it would be difficult for her as travelling from Chennai to nellai was a strenuous journey that too with a little kid. It was indeed true. And, i had told her i will get her halwa from tirunelveli and send it to her. I had even asked her address to send the halwa and noted it down on a piece of paper to send her the halwa without fail. Hence, seeing her at nellai after all these was a huge surprise. I never expected her to be there. This was why they kept making my trip back to hotel. They were all waiting for jk while i was completely clueless what was happening. It was a surprise they had planned for me and I was really happy to see and know she had traveled all the way from Chennai to meet us. We took pics together and jk whispered in my ears that Praveen was handsome. I dashed to Praveen as soon as i heard that and told him, da Jk told you are handsome! Jk will now kill me when she reads this! Soon, after a quick chat, I headed back to the hotel to pick Renny and kids along with sk on his bike. Bike rides through nellai streets were fun as i could get a glimpse of the locales up close. I saw some devotees with their tongues pierced with shoolam. Wonder how they walk around like that.
Soon i reached back at hotel, bathed the kiddos and got them ready. By dusk, we all headed out to the famous Iruttu Kadai halwa shop and yes! 1 slice of that melt in mouth delight and I could make out why everyone was so crazy over Tirunelveli halwa. It was indeed too good to be true. It was so delicious and we immediately got some to take back home. The huge rush and queue in front of this small shop itself was enough proof that the halwa was one of the most loved delicacies of Tirunelveli. We ended the day on a happy note with dinner at a rooftop restaurant with a play area where the kids had a gala time. There Praveen again came up with an interesting idea much to the horror of Priya. He suggested that we should try dipping mushroom fries in coffee. I was all up for it. Inspite of continous exclamations and protests by Priya, we both proceeded to dip mushrooms in coffee and ate it. Then Praveen suggested that we should try the same with onion rings too. Poor Priya kept on protesting and lamenting that i also got spoiled by being friends with Praveen. We dipped onions in coffee and ate. It was yum. Do try it guys! Then we decided to experiment with tea and looked around for a cup of tea. Sk’s tea was there untouched. We jumped on the opportunity as sk was not noticing what we were up to. We dipped onions in his tea and ate it. Later when sk came back we informed him gleefully that we used his tea for dipping onions. He had the most horrified expression on his face whereas we were laughing around.
While at the hotel, I could catch a glimpse of a monumental piece of architecture towering up above the twilights and they told it was one of the biggest and oldest temples around there. We planned to visit the temple the next day morning.
The morning after a sumptuous breakfast again at sk’s and Priya’s home we headed to the famous temple, the Nellaiappar temple which was really a marvelous piece of architecture, centuries old and still standing tall across a fourteen and a half acres of land. The concentric rectangular walls and shrines enclosed within it were breathtaking. Each nook and corner of the temple seemed to whisper tales of centuries and we could only stand awestruck at its beauty, completely enthralled at the architectural works done to perfection by skilled craftsmen. Praveen donned the cap of a perfect guide and explained to me the story behind each pillar, each monumental piece, each architectural work, and each deity. There were even pillars which echoed the musical notes in perfect compilation once struck on it, much to our awe.
It was time for our train to return back to Kerala and soon after the temple visit we headed back to the railway station with a heart full of memories of time well-spent with friends who turned to be more of a family within that 2 days. Sk and Praveen followed us on their bike whereas we travelled in jk’s car upto the railway station. Jk dropped us there and headed back while praveen and sk stayed back with us. They waited with us till our train came and we bid good bye to them and to countless memories collected within 2 days.
This write-up is also a token of thanks to all my friends who played the role of a perfect host and ensured we had a great time there at Nellai. Thanks a ton, Sk, Priya, Praveen, Lakshmi, little Harini, JK and family and to all my colleagues at Nellai office. You all were so sweet and we had a lovely time with you all!