Traveling the Backwaters of Kerala

06/01/2014 11:11 GMT | Updated 04/03/2014 10:59 GMT

Just before the unfortunate business with the monastery, we take to the back waters of Kerala.

At a price equivalent to around twenty English pounds each, we have rented a house boat. It's made of wood and bamboo, has a bathroom with tiles, a bedroom with a wicker floor on the upper deck, a kitchen, a dining room, and a lower deck with hanging chairs that swing gently as the boat rocks. It also has a crew to steer it, moor it, cook dinners, make the tea, and set up the tarpaulin when it monsoons in the evening.

We hire the boat from a man named Johnson. He lives the life of an elderly cat lady, except for the slight discontinuities in gender and age. He lives in an outrageous mansion with a brown stallion tied to his front gate, a mongrel of imposing size named Rastaman and a hundred or so cats, the urine of which lines the decaying walls of almost every room. Hot stink; like a bailiff's crotch. He has long, subtly greyed hair which is scraped back and Hollywood, and he says "hey man" and "check it out" in a sleazy half-American half-European drone.

The backwaters of Kerala maintain their lurid greenness despite the overhanging grey, Soviet sky of monsoon season. They are deathly still, like a bath that has been run and then forgotten. Our boat - a sort of floating Family Robinson tree house - leaves little trace behind it as it ambles down river. Some people are bathing in the waters as we coast past. Others are washing their pet elephants.

The book that I am reading has a habit of telling its tale from wherever I am in India. I crash into my swinging bamboo chair and begin reading to find the protagonist now sitting in an armchair in a house overlooking the backwaters I am currently drifting down. I recall the same feeling at having opened Death and The Penguin when traveling from Lviv to Kiev in Ukraine, only to discover that the protagonist was also on my train, in the same class, and getting off at the same stop.

We moor up in what looks like a large puddle. The skies are already shot with all different colours of storm. A tiny road cuts through the vast marsh landscape, water creeping in on it from both angles. From here it looks as if people, motorbikes, rickshaws are walking on water.

That evening the tarpaulins are raised and the crew clunk five extra-song Kingfishers down on the table. The boat rocks weightily under the thunder, and every now and then the lights ping out, throwing our game of Rummy into darkness.

The crew stoke up the engines early the next morning in order to wake us up. I don't entirely remember ever going to sleep. We crawl downstairs to find an old man in a canoe eager to take us back out on the waters.

The monsoon has now thoroughly rained itself out, giving way to potent jungle heat. We all grab a paddle and scrub relentlessly at the water in the direction of the old man's pointing arm. Georgina eyes up our chaperone with some degree of worry; once or twice he orders us to pull into the banks to allow him to stretch his legs and back. His knees are bent, and his upper body is wrenched backwards as if he were leaning on an invisible wall, and yet his shoulders are hunched forward with his neck craning outwards. The man is a perfect 'S' shape. The man should really spend less time in the canoe.

We make the mistake of asking him what is in the box of his shirt pocket. He sits down, presently joined by a nearby bullock which stops next to us, feigning interest. Out of the box come one or two ripped up banana leaves. He tips his fingers in a white, powdery curd in the lid of the box and rubs it onto the leaves, before adding a brittle, coal-like substance in the centre and wrapping up like parcels. He offers them to us to eat, yet we rub our bellies to signify our already being too full from breakfast to possibly consider another mouthful. He sourly swallows the leaves instead with some difficulty, providing us with no evidence that we made the wrong decision.

The canoe leads us down waterways far too narrow for our houseboat. Palm trees lean precariously over the water, sometimes letting slip coconuts which dive-bomb ka-plonk around the boat. A year living in the Indian Ocean has taught me never to underestimate the coconut tree; I have been told enough tales of death-by-coconut, paralysis-by-coconut, dumb-by-coconut to know to cross my arms above my head when I run underneath one.

All the Grandmas of the village are out doing the washing on the banks. They soap each garment before bringing it crashing down on a stone, spraying our canoe with foam. Some like us there, and smile as the children yell at us from windows. One points out a small temple to us. Others hate us there, and yell obscenities in Malayam at the 'S'-shaped old man at the back of the boat. Some of the women in their seventies and eighties have flowing, thick grey hair down to their hips. They are wearing tiny, brightly coloured crop-tops with their midriffs proudly displayed. I imagine what my own Grandma would look like in a similar get-up, and the stir that it would cause when grocery shopping or at the dentist's.

One of the most striking features of these mysterious backwaters is the abundance of inflated dead animals. More than a few times my oar worries a surfacing form in the water, which turns out to be a vole, a rat or otter which has died before, the Good Lord only knows how, inflating like a Birthday balloon. The tiny hands and feet retain all of their previous features, with daintily formed claws and palms and forearms, yet their torsos are cartoon fat; like the punchlines of jokes or the one out of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory who eats blueberry bubble-gum and blows up like a blueberry. The faces of these unfortunate ballooned rodents display the pain of death with frozen side glances of baffled horror.

When we are later handed finishing rods, it is a common thought left unsaid that we might actually try not to catch anything.