Everyone's cup of tea

Soaking up the beauty and energy of Kerala from a luxury boat is as good as tourism gets. But for Juliet Clough the hill-top tea plantation at Munnar held a more particular fascination - her grandfather's pith helmet still hangs in the club he ran under the Raj

A trio of novels, pages curling in the sun, lies neglected on the foredeck. Read when they came out, they have promised companionship as good as any guidebook on southern India, but are proving no match for the mesmerising scene spooling slowly along the river-banks.

A trio of novels, pages curling in the sun, lies neglected on the foredeck. Read when they came out, they have promised companionship as good as any guidebook on southern India, but are proving no match for the mesmerising scene spooling slowly along the river-banks.

"So so," says the British couple at the Taj Garden Retreat in Kumarakom when we ask how they have enjoyed their cruise along the Keralan backwaters. "Poverty," they explain darkly, "and mosquitoes."

Arundhati Roy's Booker prize-winning masterpiece, The God of Small Things, offers a sharp corrective to any easy romanticising about the coastal backwaters that mesh the alluvial plain between Kollam in south-west India to Kochi, 75km to the north.

Certainly, the Taj Group has little cause to put the novel on the guest bookshelves of its handsome hotel. The palatial colonial bungalow at its core, an old and beautifully restored plantation house, stars in the novel as its imaginary older self, the History House, the Heart of Darkness, a scene of devastating tragedy.

The "God's Own Country" mantra adopted by the local tourist board disguises, says Roy, "a smelly paradise ... for rich tourists to play in", its once free river waters reduced to a choked and sludgy drain by a saltwater barrage built across the adjoining lake to boost the harvest potential of the rice fields.

But, once aboard our kettu vallam, a rice-barge lookalike ambling from Kumarakom to Alappuzha, even a salutary dose of Western angst can do nothing to dispel the enchantment of the scene. Purpose built for a thriving tourist business, a few of the newest even boast an air-conditioned cabin. My husband and I have the boat, plus the services of its obliging crew of three, to ourselves for almost 24 hours. How lucky can you get? We pass the real thing all the time, being poled along under loads of rice or timber: country boats, light on the water as crumpled leaves, their brass-studded hulls sheltered under woven, palm leaf canopies. Our captain sits under a much-faded black umbrella, steering with a languid toe. As the banks slide past, vivid with life, our own stasis feels increasingly dreamlike. Snatches of film music, hymns and kindergarten chanting float from villages half hidden among the palm and mango groves that crowd above their own reflections along the water's edge. Buffaloes wallow; women fish with bamboo poles or soap their children in sluggish eddies, choked with water hyacinth or African moss.

Overuse of fertilisers is just one of the ecological disasters to have overtaken these waters, the result of huge areas having been reclaimed as rice paddies. Along the bunds that separate them, narrow ridges just wide enough to provide perches for a house, a boat and a fringe of coconuts, we watch the fishing birds on patrol: eagles overhead, cormorants hanging out tattered wings to dry, kingfishers set like jewels on gnarled stumps.

As the afternoon light grows dense and luminous, toddy tappers and coir weavers hang up their ropes and pedal off to play chess under the trees. Country craft shoot out of side channels, ferrying shoppers and visiting grannies home; a school bus-boat swishes upstream, two nuns in floating wimples standing in the prow.

If I had 10 rupees for every time I have seen Amir Khusrao quoted in Indian visitors' books, I'd be on the way to affording another cruise. Here he is again, in the Taj boat's guest book: "Be there a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this..." How patronising is that? Life among these labyrinthine, often litter-strewn waterways plainly isn't anything like heaven for anyone but the floating few, privileged to survey it from the vantage point of running water, hotel meals and Jungle Formula.

Nevertheless, the beauty and energy of rural Kerala have seduced many better qualified to report on them. In Kochi, I meet the south Indian author David Davidar and rejoice to hear that he is writing a second novel. His unputdownable The House of Blue Mangoes casts a searching light on the unforgiving social history of a Keralan family in the run-up to India's independence.

As we head for Munnar, the chapter about a young Indian planter's doomed attempt to make a career in a British tea company here in the Western Ghats makes uncomfortable reading. A product of the Raj - various members of my family have worked in India on and off over nearly 200 years - I am used to the mortification which lurks in ambush between the pages of colonial period pieces.

Davidar's Pulimed sounds suspiciously like Munnar, where my grandfather managed 33 tea estates for a Scottish-based company during the war. Oh please, let his ghastly, fictional Brits be caricatures! Their fortress mentality, buttressed by appalling snobbery, sounds nothing like my grandparents, who loved - and spent the rest of their lives missing - everything about this country, especially their lifelong Indian friends.

Tata Tea, today Indian owned and managed, spreads the welcome mat for us both with a generous hand. But you don't need connections to enjoy the sensational scenery of the Cardamom Hills, their contours sponge-painted in orderly emerald tea below naked summits patched with virgin jungle. We climb 1,500m up the Ghats to Munnar from Madurai. Another dazzling ride brings visitors 110m up from Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

There are undemanding things to do: boating on a trout-filled lake by a dam amid scenery reminiscent of The Trossachs, spotting sambar, macaque and giant squirrels in the steamy thickets of Eravikulam National Park, or well-fed cows in the open meadows of the Indo-Swiss cattle-breeding project.

Hiking is taking off around Munnar, where you can take your pick from a gentle, tea-garden ramble to a serious peak or a three-day trek to Kodaikanal. Once every 12 years, the rare kurinji (Strobilanthes) plant flowers, drenching the mountainsides around the 2,000m-high Top Station in a flood of lilac colour.

Far from binning the remaining traces of the British teaocracy, today's planters seem to be preserving it in aspic. Done over by my grandfather during his secretaryship in about 1925, the High Range Club can hardly have changed since. Fumed blackwood panelling decorates a bar (men only) hung with moth-eaten trophies of the chase and the pith helmets of members of more than 30 years' standing. The sola topis, initialled and dated, go back to 1894 and include my grandfather's own. Not for the first time, I feel touched to be handed a hatful of family memories in this friendly place.

There can be few cities where the hot breath of commercial history seizes you so literally by the throat as in Kochi (formerly Cochin). It wafts in pepper and ginger-scented gusts from the warehouses that line the Mattancherry waterfront. It hangs like a cloud over the straits where Vasco da Gama sailed in to write India's first chapter of European colonialism, pursuing a commodity which had already brought Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs to these shores and helped to bankrupt the Roman empire.

The early pages of Salman Rushdie's sex, sleaze and sorcery-fuelled extravaganza The Moor's Last Sigh have coloured my determination to visit Kochi. Here is the evocative Pardesi Synagogue with its 1,100 hand-painted Canton tiles, out of whose subtle variations Rushdie conjures an infinitely shifting universe. But no amount of magical realism can match the true drama of the Cochin Jews, dwindled today to the handful of elders who worship under the dusty chandeliers of this mournful building.

Outside, in Jew Town, between Nepalese antique shop windows weirdly piled with the wooden hands of dismembered Portuguese saints, I find Sarah's Embroidery. Lace doilies, cross-stitched runners and embroidered sandwich cases sound a fluttering, elegiac note from the counter, time-lapsed reminders of what was once a thriving business community.

The first Jews came in 587BC, fleeing Nebuchadnezzar's occupation of Jerusalem; or perhaps even earlier, say some historians, with King Solomon's fleet in search of peacocks, ivory and spices. While the so-called "Black Jews" disappeared through marriage into the local community, the "White Jews", given a parcel of land by the Hindu ruler of Cochin, flourished for centuries as a separate group, many thousands strong. Today, I was told, there are only 14 of the latter left in old Cochin, plus 12 more in the modern city; intermarriage has all but finished what free passage to Israel started.

This is a city of gaudy narratives, its Portuguese and Dutch chapters written in the crowstepped gables and rusting cannons of the Fort Cochin area, its 21st-century sequel flickering on the computer screens of the noisy spice-auction floor.

In the end, my novels go home almost unopened. I shall return to them with pleasure. But you can't beat the real thing.

The Facts

Getting there

Juliet Clough travelled courtesy of Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com) and of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces (0800 282699; www.tajhotels.com).

Greaves Travel itineraries are tailor-made. A 13-day tour, taking in a Kumarakom-Alappuzha houseboat cruise, Munnar, Lake Periyar, Cochin, a beach resort and Mumbai, costs from £1,489 each, based on two sharing. English-speaking guides as necessary. High Range Club (0091 0486 530253; fax (0091 0486 530333).

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