Yesterday I had passed some rocky hills on my way to Kanyakumari. The place looked like a nice place for a short hike.
‘What place is this?’ I asked the bus conductor.
‘Achankulam,’ he replied.
I took note of it and I am here today at Achankulam. The name is clearly from Malayalam, kulam standing for a pond. The pond here is more like a lake or a reservoir. In all likelihood, the water is used to irrigate the fields around here. The reservoir is weed-covered. In this expanse of floating green, colourful lilies and pink lotuses bloom in abandon. It is a pretty scene.
The village has a church but I skip it. I take to a dirt track and walk to the hills. I cross a canal where a group of ducks wade away noisily, alarmed by my sudden approach. In summer, this area would be hot and dry. Not at this time of the year. A few pastures flanking my path are home to a handful of grazing cows. Small coconut trees and thorny plants nicely disguise barb-wire fences. I am keeping my eyes open for village dogs that can sometimes get unfriendly in such quiet locations.
For a village, there are a number of decent houses of concrete and cement. Maybe it is the promixity to Kanyakumari and the highway that has brought development to this village. I sit by the lake and watch the hills beyond. A cluster of tall palm trees stand reflected at the water’s edge. Other palms line the paths going around the lake. Mounds of gravel lie neatly by the track. I wonder how long they will lie here before becoming the promised road.
I watch the hills from the distance. Village men and women pass me by. I must be strange sight to them. They have never seen anyone sit on gravel and stare blankly at the hills. I take out my notebook and make a sketch. It is a difficult business. Nature sometimes looks simple but it isn’t. Each rock is different. Each tree has its own shape and shade. Each blade of grass sways differently. The purpose of a sketch in this context is not to make a work of art but merely to understand and learn to look.
I walk around the lake until I come across thick fumes of white smoke. In this beautiful countryside, so removed from road traffic and noisy townships, this pollution comes as an intrusion. I bring out handkerchief and cover my nose and mouth. The smoke is coming from a brick kiln. Two men are busy adding dried stems of the coconut tree or dried husks that are the fuel to this kiln. A woman stands nearby watching silently. These workers work without protection under this constant billowing of nasty fumes. To them, present survival is more important.
‘How long will this burn?’ I ask one of them. His shirt is torn in many places. It even has burnt away in parts.
‘About four days,’ he replies in village Tamil. ‘We started it on Tuesday. It will burn till Friday.’
‘How many bricks will you get in a batch?’
‘What about the materials?’
‘The sand comes from a place 12 kms from here.’
The workers look at me strangely. No one has asked them such questions before. As is common in many parts of India, they simply assume that I am a journalist. They are happy to give these answers, they are happy to pose for pictures in the hope of appearing in the local newspaper.
I return to the highway by a different route. I pass a simple village temple. It is just a thatched enclosure built in the same manner as rural residential huts. That is all they can afford but their piety is probably greater. The temple is humble and I am sure God doesn’t mind.