In kalari, cat postures are not just a matter of arching your spine and breathing, but an entire theatrical performance. Omesh leaped, all feline shoulders and glittering eyes. As a cobra he was as serpentine as a human can be. Then he was an elephant, peering out over an outstretched elbow. Then an angry lion full of pent-up energy. Meanwhile, I was a less-accurate safari. “Anna means elephant in Malayalam,” he told me, frowning at my unbalanced arms. “You must really work harder on your elephant.”
Before he would teach me how to kill a man by swiping at a pressure point in his neck, I obediently went in search of elephants on the Periyar Lake, a body of water created by the British while building Mullaperiyar Dam in 1895. It’s full of sunburnt tree stumps stretching from the water in the shapes of totem poles, fork-tongued sea monsters and alphabet letters. We were told by fellow travelers that the most widely offered excursion — the boat trips — were crowded, so we chose a day trip hiking and bamboo rafting on the lake, guided by former poachers who have been persuaded to guide rather than hunt.
We coasted over the lake on roped bamboo branches, watching red kites rolling over the apocalyptic drowned forest. Tourists rarely see any of the 35 tigers thought to be living in the 925 square kilometer reserve, but the guides pointed out giant squirrels in the cotton trees surrounded by huge pink flowers, bison in the distance — and I concentrated hard on the movements of a cobra slicing through the lake in front of us, raising its neck out on to the bank like a yoga master. Although the landscape was stunning we only saw one elephant from our raft, from too far away to study properly.
The next day we toured a spice plantation with a farmer named Taj, who had a vast gash on his upper arm from a kalaripayattu fight gone wrong. He told us that even though the tourist boats are noisy, they’re the best way to see elephants. Indeed, over the crowds of orange life vests that afternoon we saw a mother elephant and her baby, cormorants nesting in the burnt trees and then a whole herd of elephants, including big-tusked daddies swinging their trunks in the water. I watched how they lollopped, memorising their plodding shoulders and elegant trunks to show Omesh.
He never did teach me to kill a man with a single blow to his neck, but on my last day in Periyar he was impressed enough by my studied elephant posture to let me try and fight him. For a morning, my shoulders were loose as a cobra, my body powerful as an elephant. I had animal powers and did not care about my email inbox. Searching for inner peace on a backwater farm is all very well, but there is something to be said for the stress relief of drop-kicking and punching a martial arts expert for an hour, roaring like an elephant.