Mornings start early in Rettanai, a small agricultural village about four hours south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Cows begin to rustle and roosters start to crow by 4 am. “That’s the village alarm clock,” jokes a local.
Agricultural life in Rettanai.
If the animals don’t wake you, the temples surely will. By 4:30 the main temples in and around the village are competing to see which can blare prayer music the loudest. The old speakers can hardly take it and emit a mix of crackles and garbled chants.
But a quieter awakening takes place at Mohan’s tea stall. Farmers, eager to get into the fields early and finish their work before the oppressive late morning heat sets in, gather around one of Rettanai’s oldest tea shops at dawn and wake up with Mohan’s milky chai. For forty years, men (and the occasional woman) have gathered at the stall to discuss village matters, read the newspaper and prepare for the day ahead over a cup of hot tea.
Mohan and his early morning customers.
Mohan’s daily routine begins at 3 am when he milks his cows – “it is the first thing I do before I even brush my teeth,” he says. Mohan will go through about ten liters over the course of the day to serve his regular customers.
We visited Mohan on Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival. We wondered if the village tea shops might shut for the holiday, but Mohan opened his stand even earlier than usual, explaining the importance of starting the year on the right foot. “We wake up especially early on this day. Some people might open their shops early and then close them to handle their Pongal festivities, but we stay open all day to start the year right. If we were to close, it could mean that business will be bad the rest of the year.”
The sleepy backwaters of Kerala provide a tranquil escape to a simpler world. On quiet waterways under sunny skies, fishermen let their lines hang from small wooden canoes and birds swoop down occasionally to see what fish might be swimming close to the surface. Towering coconut palms line the water banks and rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see.
A kettuvallam, or traditional houseboat, floats down Vembanad Lake in Kerala’s backwaters.
Drawn by this idyllic setting, tourists come from around the globe to float down the backwaters in kettuvallam, traditional houseboats with thatched roofs covering wooden hulls. With tourism comes an infusion of money into a part of the world where most residents practice small-scale fishing and agriculture. It would not be India if there were not eager entrepreneurs setting up businesses to get a piece of the action.
To get a glimpse of life in the backwaters, tourists hire small canoes to take them “rounding” – exploring narrow canals that snake off the main waterways. They glide past women in hiked-up saris beating their laundry against stones in the water and wave to children running home along the banks after being dropped off from school by a motorboat. It is a relaxing ride, but tourists must remain alert, ducking their heads under low-lying pedestrian bridges and swerving from side to side to avoid getting smacked in the face by jutting palm fronds and drooping vines.
A woman does her laundry in Kerala’s backwaters.
Amid the thick foliage in the backwater village of Kainakary hangs a tire brightly painted with the words “Coffee Hut.” A sign next to the tire promises visitors “spicy tea” and “homely lunch.” This is the work of Preejith Lal, a 22-year-old Keralite who proves the Indian entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well even in the remote backwaters.