For many a middle class Malayali family with roots in the Palakkad district, the word Walayar evokes bittersweet emotions. There’s the thrill of crossing the checkpoint from the Tamil Nadu side to Kerala and seeing the vast greenery of the Palakkad district and immediately getting lost in nostalgia for times gone by. Then there’s the feeling of crossing it from the Kerala side, most probably en route to the Coimbatore airport, with the pain of once again being separated from the motherland.
For this writer, childhood memories of the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border on the Palakkad Gap bring up images of a brown and semi-barren Tamil Nadu and a lush and green Kerala. Apparently for some reasons the monsoon rains magically stopped just on the western side of the border. Recent trips have shown an equal amount of beauty and greenery on both sides, so either the memories are false or the weather pattern has changed.
While driving towards the cloud-kissed Western Ghats from Kerala the left side of the road is thickly forested. It was the British, who carved out the roads and railway lines that connect O V Vijayan’s Palakkad with the “Tamil Country,” as he described it in his Legands of Khasak.
When a train crosses the Palakkad Gap and into Tamil Nadu, one simply cannot help thinking of a long-forgotten train driver from Britain who died on the call of duty in the 19th century. John Wilson’s story is passed down from many a father to a curious son or daughter when crossing the Palakkad Gap.
The tale passed down through the generations is on the lines of an English train driver in the 1860s driving his locomotive from Palghat (as it was then called) to Podanur, near Coimbatore. A tiger leaped into the engine and mauled him to death, we are told. A tombstone near Podanur mentions the date of the tiger attack - April 10, 1868. Very little is known of the man who drove that train on that fateful summer day. The only mention of the incident on the internet is an article on The Kovai Post that was on a news aggregator.
The Walayar story is similar to incidents that happened on the Uganda-Mombasa Railway in 1898. Two man-eating lions were responsible for the deaths of several workers when the line was being constructed. The 1996 American film The Ghost and the Darkness provides a fictionalised account of these incidents.
What was common between the attack in India and those in East Africa was that the British Empire destroyed forests in both places to build railway lines in order to transport looted natural resources. The Kenya attacks claimed 135 victims, many of whom were Indian labourers taken there by the British. We have no idea if the tigers or other wild animals of Walayar killed any workers who constructed the railway line on the Palakkad Gap.
Prolonged man-animal conflict
In 2017, locals in Walayar were reminded of the tragic end of Wilson’s life when an image circulated of a tiger crossing the railway line. The tiger could have come to the area from Parambikulam (67 kilometres away) or Nelliyampathi (around 75 kilometres away).
There have been similar stories from other parts of India. In the 1990s, lions walked from Gujarat’s Gir National Park to the Junagadh Zoo, a distance of more than 75 kilometres, to answer mating calls from captive lions. Around the same period, some other Gir lions walked 110 kilometres south to Diu and were spotted on a beach one morning!
The tiger that reached Walayar in 2017 managed to avoid getting killed by a speeding train on the track, but several elephants, wild boars and other animals have not been so lucky. With ‘development’ being on the agenda of authorities everywhere, more forests are likely to be destroyed for coalmines, freight corridors and other ‘shining examples of progress.’
There is also a danger of an even more rapid urbanisation spree that may turn Coimbatore and Palakkad into an urban agglomeration on the lines of the National Capital Region. How horrific would it be if these tranquil areas turn into a chaotic and endless line of poorly planned skyscrapers and commercial areas? The first losers would indeed be the wild animals that are at the bottom of the hierarchy and then the rural population and finally the rest of India. If 2020 has taught the world anything; it is that nature strikes back hard when attacked by human beings under the guise of development.
We also owe it to the younger generations of Malayalis and Tamils to protect the forests and countryside by the Palakkad Gap. It is an integral part of the heritage of southern India.
(The writer is the author of ’Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)