On the toddy trail
The toddy man looked solemn. Every lunghi skirt wearing man in the place looked solemn. The only guy smiling was our sixteen year old guide, thrilled to have presented two such specimens at the toddy altar. I didn't need to look at my hubby Ryan to know he was pondering the same concept; were the three of us (me, him, and smiley teen) going to leave this place less a kidney each?
Our suspicions should have been aroused long before we fronted the toddy shack. I guess, truth be told, they were, but we we're curious sods with a penchant for the dodgy and absurd. This interest was only piqued by the wrinkled old codger squatting at the front of the shack, wearing the eponymous lunghi and, rather incongruously in the tropical heat, a woolen ski mask. He giggled and waved a stick at us, before being shooed back inside by one of the toddy tappers. The lone tooth that had proudly gleamed from the yawning chasm of his mouth was now firmly nestled behind the grim line of his pursed lips. Here was a man who clearly took his toddy drinking seriously.
We'd been very active in trying to arrange a tipple of toddy, repeatedly asking the captain of the backwater vessel on which we were currently ensconsed, the chef, the porter, our juvenile guide, and, indirectly, the coconut guru. We were after an authentic liquid accompaniment to the endless green palms and meandering canals of Kerala's backwater district. However, the southern state, India's first democratically elected communist government, tightly controls the sale of liquor. You can purchase grog in three ways: a visit to a govt. liquor store, which involves a visit to a dusty counter covered by a metal screen on the highway outta town, where you whisper your poison and recieve the goods through a small hole along with a disapproving grunt; from certain tourist oriented establishments where ordering a 'special tea' gets you watered down beer in a teapot; or, you visit the toddy shack.
I want to stress that we're not lager swilling goons looking for a cheap accompaniment to boorish acts of gluttony. On the contrary, we're true afficiandos of the grape and the grain. Lush troubadours with a romantic and wildly misguided nostalgia for the more hedonistic practices of the colonialists -- that is to say, we longed for G&T's on the deck of a thatched boat that silently drifted past swaying greenery. We were also keen to immerse ourselves in all forms of local culture, culinary and otherwise.
To this end, we fronted up at the pier in Kollam, the less touristed end of the backwaters, with some locally produced gin in a plastic bottle, and a clinking sack of tonic water (quinine is still used as a malaria prophylactic I'll have you know). The boys sported lunghis and thick bushy moustaches -- a must have fashion accessory across the entire subcontinent.
The crew onboard the houseboat were thrilled to see the moustaches and the lunghis, quickly stowing our luggage and engaging our menfolk in an enthusiastic lunghi tying lesson. A lunghi is essentially a sarong type sheet that brothers wear long, or folded and tied up. The effect is mini skirt at the back and nappy at the front. They continually fiddle with them, folding and refolding, letting them drop down and gathering them back up. I believe it's some sort of state sanctioned past-time.
I left the lunghi tiers and checked out our floating pad. Keralan housboats have long wooden hulls and a thatched roof that has a rounded shape and rounded window eaves. The two rooms were decked outin 70's beach house deco and at the front of the boat there were comfy deck-chairs and a mattress known officially as the 'sunbathing deck.' I also found a kitchen and in it, another guy fiddling with his lunghi.
It began blissfully, us chugging away across the wide waters that marked the place where backwater meets sea, turning down a narrower inlet and marvelling at life on the banks. Women beat wet clothes against stones, a man bottle fed a tiny calf. Sand was dragged from the riverbank by lean, dark men, who then hauled it onto flimsy canoes that sank right up to their lip under the weight. Manovering these canoes involved pushing a big stick to the river bed at one end, running along with the stick to the other end of the canoe.
And now this! In a few short hours, we'd gone from lazing about sipping gin and listening to Ryan's idle strumming, to being locked in a grimy room, replete with bare lightbulb dangling from a cord - long enough to be used as some sort of garrotte I noted as I took a furtive sniff of toddy. Aromas of coconut, vinegar, and lunghi sweat hit the back of my throat. I fought the urge to cry out something like 'For the love of God, no!' Ryan's stare spoke to me directly. 'This was your idea punk, now DRINK!' Thankfully, the boss man grunted in his direction, a clear indication that around here, it was a man's perogative to drink first. 'Skull Andy skull' I sang cheerfully, raising my glass to him. He death stared me till he tipped his head back and drained the glass with the sort of gulp only a guy sporting a Magnum P.I mo AND a skirt can.
There was no wild round of applause. Not even one hint of a broad Keralan smile. Instead, a sort of grim satisfaction rippled through the group before they settled their steely stares on the wanton woman in their midst.
What was I thinking? This stuff was always destined to be undrinkable, but my reckless and persistent thirst for authenticity (and liquor) had led us into a moderately threatening situation, simply to imbibe the fermented sap of a coconut palm, sap that had clearly been left out in the sun for too long.
The point of no return had presented itself with some fanfare well before we arrived at the shack. It was the coconut guru. He had sealed our fate. We were the last coconuts on the chopping board as far as he was concerned.
After a sublime lunch of Kerala fish fry, coconut chutney, beetroot sambal, and of course, generous G&T's, we piled into a small canoe to take in the back-backwaters.
We were punted down narrow canals, passing locals whose faces quite clearly indicated disbelief that we would want to tour through the very waterways they deposited their sewerage and god knows what else in. It was a fascinating ride past settlements, fish farms, tangled wet jungle and remote huts. After a time, we pulled up at the coconut village. Dried coconut dealers, coir (coconut fibre) manufacturers, coconut tree climbers, the whole place fairly buzzed with tropical fervour. Our guide lead us to a shabby hut, pointed and intoned in a rather ominous fashion 'coconut guru.' I nodded and said 'toddy?' He nodded in a slow and serious way. Whatever. We bounded up, inadvertently frightening the guru's tethered goat. It gave a short, fearful bleat and began savagely buffeting our female companion. A wiry, beat-up old brother wearing T-shirt that proclaimed 'My Dad's an ATM' hobbled over and yanked her out of harm's way, before reassuringly stroking the angry goat. The beast calmed immediately and went back to devouring a pair of child's panties.
The guru went back to his post by a large pile of coconuts. He picked one up, held it in one spindly hand and hacked it open with a machete he gripped in the other. Our young guide actually gulped audibly and began speaking machine gun Mayalayam. The guru kept chopping coconuts, but I swear an added ferocity crept into each hacking motion. I made out the word 'toddy' a half dozen times. The guide nodded studiously. Then the goaty old bloke dropped the machete, hurled it more like, into the ground beside his foot and picked up a stick. He drew a detailed diagram in the dust, speaking rapidly and aggressively poking one particular spot. When he was finished, our guide gulped audibly again and made to scurry off. Ryan held out a 20 rupee note. the guru snatched it, and then grabbed Ryan's forearm, drawing him close. He picked up the machete and slaughtered another coconut, spilling the liquid in the dust around Ryan's feet. He pointed to the wet patterns and spoke in wild, gutteral tones. He pointed at Ryan and then me, and then stalked off.
Back on the boat, we asked the guide what the hell that had been all about. He said 'Future..you..future.' The whole thing was becoming unsettling, truth be told. He furiously punted us back to the houseboat, dropped our two companions off, saying firmly 'only you two.'
It was a good 45 minute walk. It was getting dark. There was little idle chatter. At one point, we passed a billboard, a corner of the huge tattered poster flapping in the breeze. It read 'Men's Planet - terrorists of fashion! and gave the nearest locations. We had a good giggle at that one, till junior joined in, clapping his hands and shrieking 'terror, terror!' Feelings of mirth plummeted faster than an express elevator.
Set back in the palms, adjacent to a rubbish pile teeming with unseen beasties that moved under the top layer of rubbish, was the shack. Once, it would have been an attractive example of colonial/Keralan architecture with its peaked red tile roof and wood slatted walls. The walls acted as a screen, shielding those inside while allowing those inside to see out. A painted sign said 'Toddy' in both Mayalayam and roman scripts. The stick-toting ski mask man squatted and cackled. We had arrived. There was nothing else for it but to get the hell in, then get the hell out.
Past the cashier we go, him leaping up and slamming the door behind us. Past the wooden benches crowded with cloudy bottles. Under a covered walkway and into a room, its floor smeared and sticky with something brown and copious....curry I hope, but
I'm not too confident. Through a metal door to the bare bulbed, metal barred holding pen.
They seemed to want my success, but their eyes seem to bay silently for my failure, and whatever sinister ritual might follow such a transgression. I sigh imperceptibly and quickly recount the laws of yard-glass drinking imparted to my by my brother many years ago. Epiglottis stop to the trachea. Open that gullet wide. Don't breathe. I skull the glass, smashing it back on the table and grinding my nails into the rough underside of the bench as the coconutty, vinegary sludge hits my insides. Truly rank stuff.
Grunts. A chorus of them at different pitches. A flurry of lunghi tying and re-tying. Set back in the crowd, one gleaming tooth shines from the inside of a yawning chasm once more. We pay our few meagre rupees and stumble out the door with our guide, now beaming and clapping his hands again. We're clutching two fresh bottles of toddy wrapped in newspaper, presented as a gift from the toddy man.