The most obvious sign that Varkala is not quite the same place it was three years ago is happening right across the road from my house, right now. On this acre of land stretching back into the greenery stood a traditional home, with walls crafted from the earth and a roof of coconut leaves. It had no glass windows, just wide vents to allow air flow from near the ceiling. The house is surrounded by coconut palms and unkept grass blooming in the monsoon rains.
Today, this house will disappear. A gang of labourers are tearing it apart, piece by piece; in the three hours since they started, the roof and half the walls have become rubble in a heap. Some of the discarded wood is already being incinerated. This traditional home will likely be replaced by a large, two-storey villa – just like the one next door, in fact, with its high compound wall, imposing steel gate and impeccably tiled courtyard. The times are changing.
Lots of things have changed since I first moved here. I've moved house twice: the first one because it would be demolished; the second one because renovations and expansions would transform it, which began before I even left it. Nothing spells development like a jackhammer alarm clock on your roof at eight in the morning, followed by a breakfast comprised of the dust that fills your house in its wake.
The main road near my house underwent major works last year. In fact, most of the roads in Varkala did, transitioning from potholed deathtraps into smooth asphalt in a rare burst of municipal activity. (Far from making the roads safer, instead the flat surface has turned them into tropical bobsled tracks. Pedestrians are always in peril. But that's another story.)
The way I get to work has also changed. Admittedly, the morning and evening commuter trains remain mostly the same, from boyish graffiti carved into peeling paint, to the same shocked faces staring in my direction. However, 2011 has seen the addition of several new daily air-conditioned bus services all the way from Varkala to Thiruvananthupuram, and then on to Kovalam further south. These buses are not the red-and-yellow behemoths of old, with KSRTC stencilled in the corner of the windshield. These are bright orange, streamlined, modern pieces of machinery, with KSRTC subtly placed on the side in a white minimalist typeface.
On that morning commute, Varkala railway station has seen a few upgrades. There are more detailed announcements, more advertising space and a 'veg light refreshment room'. On the train itself, like anywhere else in the world, the ubiquitous mobile phones are bigger and flashier than they were back in 2008. I dare say that the journey to work has become a little quieter as more people read the news on their mobile device, or listen to music via headphones. Not to say that the good old cellphone loudspeaker is out of use. It still gets plenty of mileage out of teenage boys.
Contrast all these overt developments with the things that haven't changed, and an interesting clash between conservativeness and progress emerges. Those same teenage boys all wear pretty much the same clothes they did when I first got here: checked dress shirts with lots of pockets and Engrish slogans, with tight-fitting jeans and big, unselfconscious smiles to round off the ensemble. The saip still hold them in gleeful thrall. As for the women on the train, virtually the only ones who aren't in saris are wearing a nun's habit.
Particularly with regard to the role of women, Kerala – and especially Thiruvananthapuram district in which Varkala is located – remains a relatively conservative society. The few technological advancements I've noted here, as well as most of the myriad others that won't fit into a short article, are much more for accessible to men than they are to women. Men comprise the majority of the workforce, so men control the flow of money and what it's spent on – and men carry out most of the work in developing that infrastructure.
I'll be interested to see how Varkala develops over the next three years, the next decade, the next half-century. Will women be assimilated into more and more areas of society than they are now? Will fashion catch up with Mumbai, and then Tokyo? And will Varkala railway station also get a 'non-veg light refreshment room'? Only time will tell. I'm sad that I won't be around to watch the pace of development, but I'll remain a keen observer and (hopefully) frequent visitor for the rest of my life.