Skin tone: butterscotch (and cream)

Thigh status: doughy

Location: Coimbatore , TN

Cycling in 40 degree, near noon, summer sun leaves me thinking about almost nothing but water (although sugarcane juice or coconut water cameo occasionally). Food is not a problem: a roadside thali, banana cake, a bhaji or a bag of varied fruit – all are easy to find. But water, vital but heavy and often urgently needed, tends to be the trigger for many interactions: village wells, temples, India oil service station, roadside stalls. But in more ways than this water has given a rhythm to this varied week.

 

The first few days I spent on the banks of the Kaveri river. One of the holy rivers of India (although perhaps they all are?). Its path takes you from the next state up, Karnataka, down into Tamil Nadu, past a small village with a group of kids playing a sort of tiddlywink snooker; past a Catholic ‘minor basilica’ and its solace seeking pilgrims; past boys in a school yard playing cricket with twigs as a wicket (look closely and you will see a pasty Brit attempting a shaky cover drive); past ancient cities of the Chola empire, their massive, carved temples filled with people praying, playing, eating, sleeping, chatting or gettting cash from the ATM; past flat fertile fields; and through a two-branch dam built by an Englishman, as it heads towards the sea.

But this year the Kaveri is dry.

It’s an odd sight, a dam with no water: I had lunch on the sand of the riverbed looking at this now purposeless wall, surrounded by steep banks holding nothing but the memory of water. Monsoon rains last year failed and what water remains is being held upriver by Karnataka. Two twentysomethings I met on the dam explained that the state of Tamil Nadu was on strike in protest against this. That evening I read in the paper that a farmer had committed suicide after debt financed crops withered from lack of water.

Outside of the odd hosepipe ban we rarely take note of the water stress that is affecting more and more places; If only the UK rains would fail every so often, perhaps over the bank holiday! But lack of water, food or economic wellbeing, often interrelated, can be painful…and provocative.

I then headed back towards the Western Ghats where warm winds join with some cooler breezes, mixed but each still separate, like raspberry ripple. There I climbed 2000m to a different world – Kodaikanal, a hill station – and found myself sitting by a lake, waterfalls and stream soothed valleys nearby, watching holidaying Indian families playing on pedalos and walking round rose gardens. The town drapes the forested hillsides next to this lake, artificial, built by the British to escape the heat and perhaps recreate England. It certainly has echos of England old and new: a ‘club house’ on ‘club street’ and a Dominos Pizza competing with a Papa John’s , but an overlay of makeshift maintenance and vibrant saris infuses everything. An Indian staycation to another country: monkeys with marigolds.

Next downhill for 60 km of hairpins ans giant views and on for 110kms more through past mango stalls and coconut groves. Exhilarating, though I’m not entirely sure that it compensates for the climb which left me nearly broken along with my bike which had buckled its front wheel that morning when a moped driver friendly yet sadly careless, clipped my handlebar and sent me into a ditch. As I looked at the distorted front wheel while being patted down by the sympathetic but not apologetic driver, a calm but heartfelt ’damn!’ passed through my thoughts. Luck once again smiled, sending one of her many helpers in this so very full country: a professor with that selflessness that continues to surprise, stopped and took me in hand. A tuktuk ride later and I was witnessing one of those marvellous make do and mend moments: the shack-housed mechanic balancing on the wheel and, like a surfer adjusting his weight, reforming it into a near circle. Then with two bricks and a hammer he beat it to circular. Perfect, no. But once again I was back on the road for only £1.50.

Then yesterday, with a final flourish, water upped its rhythm and crescendoed to her finale: Riding fast to the house of a man who had invited me to stay, and having just crossed the border back into Kerala (marked by customs offices checking trucks and stalls selling state lottery tickets) I was initially grateful when the first drops of rain arrived. As it became more persistent, the setting sun’s light diffused through the storm clouds and lent everything that incredible lush clarity, as though everything becomes more vibrant in contrast to the dark clouds. But, unceasing and with a tropical, hail-like force, the rain then started to send waves across the road and, drenched through, I took refuge under a bus shelter along with motorcyclists and those stranded walking to market.

There we waited as the misplaced clouds offloaded their vital water. Near and yet too far from the plains of the Kaveri.