IN the preface of his best selling book The Tao of Physics, author Fritjof Capra talks of his experiences on the beach at Kovalam, of witnessing first hand Shiva’s dance, of atoms falling on earth in cascades of energy, some getting born and others decaying. This, before Kovalam was sniffed out by the backpackers. Or maybe Capra, at that point of time, was one of them.
Today Kovalam, apart from being a fort-nightly or weekly host to the charter client looking for a cheap holiday, is also developing into a home away from home for many westerners. Though it isn’t the tan-dav that hooked them, it’s a peculiar mixture of love for India, the scenery of the place, their bullish home currency, even self-employment of a kind that allows these people to live in aesthetic splendour at envious locales.
Vicky and Wayne Miller, both 52, first came to India in 1983. They live in Idaho in the US where Wayne is a practicing psychiatrist and Vicky is an antiques-dealer. Wayne, in his own words, “teaches people how to live with pain that isn’t going to go away”, and Vicky has been besotted with India since she was six years old. For the past five years they have been coming and staying at Kovalam for four to six months at a stretch. They like being in a country that’s not just Christian. The Millers have seen Kovalam change as a destination, or, as Vicky says, “seen the yuppies drive off the hippies”. They have also seen the beaches get busier. “Earlier the Indians came only during the weekends. Now there are some all the time.”
While Vicky and Wayne are happy just looking out half the time and being plain lazy, they have to restart their lives once they get back and find the initial adjustment back in Idaho difficult.
Last year, they built a penthouse for themselves on top of Hotel Rockholm for $20,000. Says Roger Oscar Christian, owner of Rockholm: “I have basically leased out the top floor to them for five years. But they can stay as long as they want.”
Just opposite the Millers, within shouting distance, stays Heiner Siegelman, 51. Of German nationality, he has been living in Kovalam for six months a year. Aa writer by profession, he has translated about a dozen Indian philosophy books into German and lives with his wife whom he, incidentally, met at Kovalam seven years ago. His latest translation into German was of a book called ConsciousnessSpeaks, Conversations with Ramesh S. Balsekhar. The book sold 5,000 copies in seven months in Germany and Heiner finds that very promising.
For the past six years, Heiner has been organising seminars at Kovalam with his guru Balsekhar. However, this year he doesn’t plan to because hotel reservations aren’t reliable anymore as a result of pressure from the international charter operators on hotel accommodation. Says he:”Kovalam isn’t a place for something like that anymore. There’s a certain feeling of a gold rush here.” Heiner hasn’t taken kindly to the developments related to the charter business either. “It was much quieter earlier. Now there’s more of everything. The charter tourists don’t mix with the locals. The hoteliers also are making a lot of money right now but nobody is spending on infrastructure. It’s a very short-sighted business policy.”
While Heiner relaxes by playing volleyball in the evenings, he doesn’t particularly let his translation work bother him. He’s also working on a film script set in Kovalam and though candid about many personal things, he gets cagey when you question him about the kind of money he spent on his penthouse, on top of Hotel Aparna. An architect by profession, Heiner designed the place himself and his labour is evident in the simple aesthetics of the apartment with a wide open sea view.
Another writer staying close by is Ellen U. Allen, 51, also German. While Ellen is currently working on a book of short stories about her experiences in Kovalam where she has been stay-ing since 1992, life for her down in Kerala has not exactly been a bed of roses. She first arrived in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, in 1991 to teach pot pourri manufacturing to 80 workers of a company. A job, she says, she never got paid for. At Kovalam she got involved in a property dispute with a local when she found out that the land she had built her Rhapsody Villa on belonged to someone else. The dispute dragged on for 18 long months and though she lost money she got the property registered in her name. Her victory made her a minor celebrity on the beach and nearly all the local restaurateurs know her by name.
Ellen has seen property prices in Kovalam rise from Rs 25,000 per 40 sq m to Rs 2 lakh. And though, according to her, the coming of the charters has destroyed the Indian atmosphere on the beach, she finds it much cleaner now. She also plans to stick around in Kovalam till she finishes her book.
However, the person who presents a unique contrast in terms to what he came to India as and what he is now is Klaus Schleusener, managing director of Surya Samudra Holiday Resort Pvt Ltd. Schleusener came to India in 1978 to teach German literature at IIT, Madras. He left Madras for Kovalam in 1985 and built a small house for himself about 8 km from Kovalam. Since his friends loved to come and stay with him, he got quite taken up with the idea of opening a resort and built one over 8.5 acres. Fired by the urge to do something unique, Schleusener picked up 15 old houses from rural Kerala and had them reassembled on site. None of the units have any music, carpets or television. While 60 per cent of the clientele is German, Schleusener has seen the number of Indians coming to his resort rise from a minimal 2-3 per cent to nearly 10 per cent. The property itself is now valued at more than Rs 10 crore and though demand from his loyal clientele in Europe has gone up tremendously, Schleusener doesn’t plan to increase the number of units as it will clutter the place. Says Schleusener: “We plan to remain small. Our guests enjoy the private atmosphere.”
The resort even pays Rs 1 lakh in sales tax and Schleusener is busy buying up land adjoining his resort for the simple reason that he doesn’t want cheap tourism to arrive next door to him. Says he: “India should not be allowed to sell cheap holidays for poor foreigners.” He is also very proud about helping in the economic development of the adjacent village. A place where you could get just one egg on demand five years back, but now, thanks to the resort, even 100 eggs are less. Says Schleusener: “The villagers hadn’t seen a crisp currency note before I came in. They thought I had a printing machine in my house. And even though the BJP holds a meeting every now and then in the village crying murder about a foreigner buying up land, not 10 villagers ever assemble to listen to them.”
While nearly all the foreigners making Kovalam a second home are in their 50s, there’s an Italian who people say is young but whom nobody has quite seen and whose address nobody quite knows but who, with common consent, has built the most lovely villa in the interiors of Kovalam. There is also an old Englishman who keeps appearing every now and then but hasn’t for a few months now and nobody quite knows what has become of him. There are sad tales too of a couple of Germans buying property in somebody else’s name and being duped in the end.
However, by and large, in the autumn of their lives, Kovalam seems to be giving something to these westerners which is close to, in the words of the Millers, “something like timelessness. A very Kerala thing.”