A series of loud, heart-stopping bangs welcomes Vanchinad Express into Varkala. The sun has settled to the west, beneath Kerala’s ubiquitous coconut palms, and the flashes from the crackers intermittently light up the trees next to the station building - two sources of light: one constant, quiet and distant, the other schizophrenic, extremely loud and incredibly close.
The train will not terminate at this station. It will continue on for hours to the north, accompanied throughout by more deafening reports alongside the tracks. None of us will sleep much tonight.
More crackers are lit, and the bangs and flashes continue. Some pop like balloons, others boom like a shotgun. Across the street, a tiny temple has placed oil lamps around its perimeter. It seems an ineffective shield against the explosions erupting just metres away, but the priests - clad in nothing but an orange lungi and a yellowed thread - seem quite unaffected by the noise.
Passing commuters offer jasmine, rupees and prayers at the temple on the way to their cars, motorcycles, buses, and autorickshaws. There are more people out bustling than usual.
One rickshaw waits in front of the railway station with flowers strung across its windshield and a generic baby picture in the back. BE HAPPY OK, says the baby, who looks fair-skinned and confused against a photoshopped background. Siju winds up the lever with a violent pull and the engine sputters into life. Pop. Boom. And we’re away.
“Too much sound!” yells Siju over the din of another round of crackers and the rat-a-tat of the rickshaw engine, which - if you focus really hard and trick the brain a little - sounds like a musical percussion loop. The ding of a petrol pump temporarily chimes in before Siju’s lead foot leaves it behind. Men and women bark across the road at each other.
Above the road, leaves rustle quietly in the breeze as long, mottled branches wave gently against wispy clouds. The cerulean sky slowly deepens with the sun's diminishing influence. Sweat from the congested train ride dries up as wind whips through the rickshaw.
Another temple. More bangers, and some cacophonous trumpet music that sounds live but must surely be a recording, given the temple's tiny size. Chattering voices around Punnamoodu Junction, some shouting. One flower shop has run out of jasmine. One veg shop is running low on tomatoes. One small grocery has no Texma, causing much consternation. It seems one lady still wants to clean the bathroom today.
Around the corner and into the residential streets. There are lamps outside almost every home. Muffled bangs issue from far enough away that the flash can’t be seen. The sun is nearly gone, the bangers are distant; in this part of town, lamplight and the occasional fluorescent streetlight guide the rickshaw on.
A bunch of teenage kids standing around one bicycle yell in high-pitched voices as we speed past. They look and sound like they’ve been drinking rum. Their white teeth beam proudly beneath their moustaches.
The chai shop at Kurakkanni Junction is closed but the hotel remains open. The proprietor uses the heel of his hand to bash pieces of borotta dough out into a flat, roughly round shape and fries them on a griddle next to a pot of tomato fry. Men dodge bananas at the counter to buy cigarettes and tobacco pouches from the proprietor’s wife.
Two more corners and we’re home. Venu over the road is helping his daughter-in-law arrange candles along the length of his front compound wall. It’s almost completely dark now, and the oil flames reach at the black like a line of incandescent fingertips. Venu's goat bleats unhappily as another bang goes off nearby.
“Hello,” he says. “Coming temple? Sweets. Payasam.”
“Okay,” I reply.