I glance at the Fringe Ford website while leaving, and the one thing that leaps off the screen to warm the eye is their hardy insistence that the name Wayanad comes from an ancient word for marshes. As one addicted to place-names, I have always been irritated by the neatness with which some etymologists put the Malayalam words vayal and nadu together to declare Wayanad the ‘land of paddy fields’. The conjecture I find interesting is that ‘vayal’ may have something of an older tribal sense, that it may refer to the water-logging that marshes and paddy fields have in common.
There is a two-in-one-ness here, or perhaps a tussle between two ways of using language and recognising terrain that staid word-history misses altogether.
As Gireesh and I dig in for the seven-hour drive from Bangalore, I wonder absently if I run the risk of succumbing to the inflections of strangeness and distance by which people with roots in southern Kerala render Wayanad. When we cross the border, I find myself in a zone of the half-familiar, rather like a dream misremembered: houses roofed in almost the same way as they are back home, a language given over to new rhythms, and food that knocks together familiar ingredients and yet manages an unusual shape on the tongue. As we begin the drive up a dirt road to Fringe Ford, the landscape far below releases strange fragrances that combine dangerously with our sense of uninterrupted night. My appetite awakens and flaps buzzard wings around my head, a state that persists for the duration of the trip.
At dawn, I catch my first glimpse of the valley in which Fringe Ford sits; a comma that curves extravagantly among the hills. The property was originally a sprawling 4,000-acre, set up by an Englishman in the early 1900s for the cultivation of cardamom, tea and coffee. When the original estate was divided into three, the 1,000-acre cardamom section continued to bear that name. The Vesting and Assignment Act of 1971 reduced it to about half that size. The estate has always been well-wooded since cardamom grows best in the shade provided by tall trees. The family that now runs the property has been in ownership since the mid-1990s — and if you are persistent enough, Ahmed, the current owner, will tell you about the afternoon epiphany by which his father discovered the estate. A few years later, rising labour costs and concern over the consequences of plunging fertilisers and pesticides everywhere to produce that perfect pod of green cardamom compelled him to explore the idea of turning the estate house into a homestay and allowing the forests and the wildlife to return.
The first thing I notice about my room is a coaster that urges me to get off my ass. This message is reiterated over the next few hours. There are no cupboards, meaning that you will have to live out of a bag and like it. I am instantly charmed. The next day, when I find an anguished note in the Visitors’ Book from some woman who arrived with many bags and found no shelves, I can’t help hooting. Even though the mercury can knock at the thirties, there are no gestures towards air-conditioning. Instead, the ceiling is panelled in rich, dark wood — the combination of tiled roof and timbered ceiling is an adequate match for the heat.
The location ensures a very effective sort of marooning. My cell phone fell silent when we left Thalapoya and came back to buzzing, angry life just once, but that was only after I had trekked to a hilltop some eight kilometres away. They are resolute about not jumping around to ensure fun and games: no television, no Internet, no newspapers and no goddamn board games. The only game that is played regularly is the Date Game — where everybody clutches their forehead and says ‘what is the date?’ The sole concession made to public entertainment is a bookshelf teeming with Bill Bryson titles and sundry wildlife classics.
The emphasis is thus on heading outdoors and pottering around. At 5am, I answer the rap at my door and am handed a cup of kattan chai and something that the invisible speaker describes as ‘potation socks’ — they lace at the knee to protect the wearer against leeches and ticks. The first trek is a leisurely amble — you gawk at trees bearded by moss, at strange birds and at the rivulets that punctuate this route till you hear a crashing in the distance and a waterfall is announced. In summer, the waterfall is a ghost of its monsoon self but it is still quite a sight. I am told that otters frequent this place as do fish that climb the slippery rocks in little twitches and I peer into every gap among the rocks hopefully. When we head back, we find our path transformed by a sun that arrives in tentative, probing fingers.
The second trek is punishing. I scramble for about two hours to reach the nearest hilltop while the terrain changes rapidly from dirt track, to jungle path fashioned by elephants, to rock, to slippery grass, all at a constant 80-degree incline. Analogies drawn from punctuation continue to be useful when I look back on Fringe Ford at various points on this route — it sits on a hillside ledge like an emphatic question mark. I managed to hoist my wheezing self all the way up and the smiles of sweaty achievement I then cast upon the landscape are certainly the reason for our never coming across anything large and wild — here I discount big-cat scat and elephant turds deposited in careful cannonball patterns. The route back took us down a leaf-lined path where we spotted a Malabar Trogon, after which we squelched through a waterhole trodden into viscous sawdust by the morning enthusiasm of various animals.
The third trek is an all-day affair where you follow the fire-line that separates the property from the forests that surround it. The treks are unstructured in that you can do them at your own pace and choose your own route — at various points, Gireesh chooses the tougher climb and I am quite happy to plod along behind him — or even your own destination. As Ahmed puts it, “If a guest wants to trek to Coorg, we’ll take him there.” The treks work by what seems like a homeopathic principle. After the effort of each morning, I am immune to the heat.
The rest of the morning is best given over to sitting around and simply looking — on a completely different scale from that of the treks. There is no shortage of vantage points — bamboo chairs under a sprawling mango tree, stumps piled around the house, the picture windows in and around the rooms, the steps that lead to the nearby stream, and a tree-house that is a short walk from the house. The inner eye receives a flood of images: hills that respond to each new whiplash of heat by sinking deeper into dreams that fill the air and tame the sun in no time at all, poovan trees that burst out of the landscape in red leaves, the reptiles that come visiting and goggle back at you, the almost incommunicable pleasure of turning over a dead leaf to find an insect you have never seen before, and the realisation that the first bit of green to return to fire-scorched terrain is a fern that unfolds like a rude finger.
There is my appetite, but Asma and Muthu who man the kitchen are more than equal to the challenge. Their exertions result in a solid Kerala breakfast each day — appam, pathiri, puttu and idiappam, accompanied by curries and stews. Having eaten like a prince, I accompany the Namboodiri hills in a morning reverie interrupted only by many glasses of nimbupani.
Mammooty, the manager, insists that the cuisine, a variation on the Malabari, is unique to Fringe Ford. Asma provides the Malabari mainstay and Muthu brings in Andhra and Tamil elements. Mammooty himself turns an arm at the kitchen when required. The menu has been put together with some imagination — the variations of Malabar cuisine are adroitly exploited to ensure that nothing is repeated within the week. I consume large quantities of churuli, the local fern served up as greens, and a rather unusual serving of chicken fried in bite-sized morsels. Mammooty tells us, with evident pride, that everything that goes into the kitchen is procured locally, and that everything served is made in traditional ways. This also means that mealtimes are fixed — since breakfast, lunch and dinner have to be consumed while still hot — and that everybody comes together under the thatched roof of the dining area for conversation several times a day.
The place seems geared to getting everyone to shoot the breeze and I find myself joining easily. One evening, Ahmed begins a bonfire and tells us about his dream of setting up cameras that will surveil wildlife activity and offer live feed both to guests at the estate and to others on the internet. As the light fades, the potatoes that have been buried among the embers are excavated and demolished, and the conversation grows more bonhomous. We find ourselves chattering away about the Pink Chaddi movement, about interactions with insect authority, and about Ahmed’s passionate belief in the idea that buffer zones around protected forests must be privately managed. Mammooty, an autodidact whose wiry frame compacts the separate talents of artisanry, bonsai and orchid-growing, holds us with his stories of the many agricultural disasters that have befallen Wayanad, the lives of the five tribes of Wayanad, and what the cry of the Nilgiris Langur signifies. Shaji, the trek guide, plies us with stories, and thus we know that the ubiquitous water boatman prevents mosquitoes from taking over, that some streams on the property are perennial because they are fed by tree-roots which continually exude water, that wild dogs have a rather savage sense of humour and that the only views of a self-respecting tiger vouchsafed to human eye are those of its disappearing behind.
The place draws deep from whatever it is that makes Wayanad special — this explains why everything associated with the place positively bursts with personality. To substantiate, I call upon the fig tree that threw one of its boughs clean across the house to announce the monsoon, the money plant that woke up one day and decided to become a tree, and the dog Ranga whose appetite for life has seen him through brawls with gaur, leopards and elephants. My private test for whether I want to return anywhere is to ask if there is anything else I could then do. What comes to mind immediately is the desire to tramp up and down the 27 streams that originate here and flow on to become the Thalapoya and the Mananthavadi and finally the Kabini. Fringe Ford compels the imagination if you have one.