Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 10 - On the Backwaters

Chapter 10


On the way from my village in Kidangannoor to Chengannur from where I would board a bus to Alleppy, a man comes unusually close and peers into the rickshaw that I am travelling. He is unshaven and has a foolish smile on his lips.

“What do you want?” The rickshaw driver asks.

“Just wanted to know who this person is,” he says, and turning to me asks, “Which family do you belong, saar?”

I am rather taken aback. The man is a total stranger, yet he assumes a familiarity that confounds me. Every time I speak to a Malayali some connection emerges. Everyone knows everyone, at least, another member of ones family, none of the anonymity of a big city such as Bombay. It can happen only in Kerala.

“He is not from these parts. He is from far away,” the rickshaw driver says and shoos him away. He reluctantly walks away. Perhaps he expected something from me, a perfume, a tee shirt, or, may be, money.

I was full of doubts about this trip when I started. Should I go for a cruise on the backwaters? Wasn’t the package my friend Mathew Chacko offered a bit high? Mathew is a friend from Bombay. Should I spend the money on a luxury only foreigners can afford? My aim was to check out the backwaters around Alleppy where the Arabian Sea meets with the Vembanad Lake in a maze of criss-crossing canals which are the lifelines of the people around this area. These canals called backwaters for some vague reason are at the same time the trading routes to the port town of Alleppy, which is also called the Venice of the East.

On the way to Alleppy I pass over Pampa and Achenkovil rivers. Pampa is greenish, tranquil, and I remember the various times I had waded through it on my way to the annual religious convention at Kozhencherry. Achenkovil is brackish, seething within and flowing swiftly towards the Arabian Sea.

Sitting beside me inside the state-run transport bus is Manikuttan who, incidentally, has been trained by the Kerala Tourism Development Board (KTDC) as a professional guide. He is dressed in a loudly checked shirt and a white dhoti and carries a bag which contains his lunch. Checked shirts are accepted formal wear in Kerala, even fashionable. I look at him in amazement as he second guesses my every intention. He has guessed that I am a tourist, and that I am headed towards Alleppy for a cruise on the backwaters. Perhaps the nervous look at the guide book, the anxiety, the palpitation, well, gave me away. He tells me that he has worked as a guide for some time and, obviously, could read intentions of people such as me.

We make acquaintance. Right now he works for the Rubber Board and is on his way to work. He tells me not to trust the private tour operators but to go straight to the KTDC which will offer me a better rate. What luck, I think, to be able to sit with a professional and helpful guide on the way to a tour of the backwaters! We also talk about the prices of rubber which is hitting a high of Rs 109 a kilogram.

We pass through Kuttanad – the rice bowl of Kerala – the vast rice fields that stretch towards the horizon, lying on the verge of the backwaters. Recently planted the fields are a velvety green as seen from the bus.

At Alleppy I find that my friend Mathew Chacko has gone to Trivandrum for urgent business. Instead I meet his partner Johnny. I also find that Manikuttan was wrong; the KTDC rate is much higher than what Johnny has to offer me. So I stick to my original plan. 

Alleppy – the Venice of the East – because of its maze of canals, is a trading centre for pepper, coconut, rice and other agricultural produce. This merchandise comes down the river Pampa and Achenkovil which I had passed a few hours ago and ends in the canals, or, backwaters, around Alleppy. The backwaters are a body of water that is partly sea and partly river and stretches all the way into the giant Vembanad Lake.

Johnny tells me that the government is not doing enough to promote tourism. His view. He has a reason. Once he had arranged for a tourist couple to stay at the luxurious Bolgatty palace in Cochin, managed by the government. But they refused. The reason? The carpet in the bedroom wasn’t clean and gave off a musty odour.

He is well connected. Very modestly he tells me that his brother-in-law is a famous politician and was a member of the Indian law-making body, the parliament. Dressed simply in a checked half-sleeved shirt and polyester trousers and leather slip-ons he owns tea estates and this is only one of his businesses. That way in Kerala it is very difficult to predict who is a tycoon and who is a pretender. He seemed to me, with his connections, and businesses, a tycoon, a very unassuming one. He and my friend Mathew Chacko were in school together.

Johnny leaves me at the pier called Rajiv Jetty where I get my first view of the boat that will be my home for the next twenty-four hours. I immediately fall in love with the boat. It is sturdy and must be about a hundred years old. From the outside it looks like a traditional “kettuvallom.” “Kettuvallom” means a boat made from wood tied with ropes, in the making of which no nails are used. 

The English word Catamaran originated from “Kettu Maram” which is a raft made from tying wooden planks together. I guess, “Kettuvallom” is also of the same family. Ancient boats in Kerala were constructed that way and treated with an extract of cashew kernels that toughened the wood and made it water proof. On top of the boat is a canopy made of bamboo mats, sturdily woven with coir ropes.

I had seen such boats in my childhood, in its deglamourised version plying through the river Pampa, its majestically curved bow in the shape of a palisade inlaid with brass motifs. There is something very Kerala-like about its wooden construction. Very ordinarily it is named, “M.K.” I would have preferred something like “Kayaloram,” but anyway that doesn’t diminish its beauty.

This house-boat is a luxurious sight with rattan chairs in the small deck, a parlour-like ambience, with the captain of the ship, Rajesh, sitting right in front, towards the bow. He is the captain of this ship, and his only crew member, Sojan doubles as the cook, officer, boatswain, and everything else. They hail from these parts and everyone along the route is their friend. So there is light banter and witticisms passed throughout the stretch that we navigate.

Johnny shows me the bedroom which has a double bed, a mosquito net above it that can be pulled down, an attached toilet and bathroom, and a coir carpet. For all ye environment activists, such as me, the toilet effluents don’t discharge into the backwaters, which is the bathtub of those living on either sides of it. The effluents go into a bio-tank which is emptied elsewhere. That cleared, I could happily use the bathroom without guilt.

The boat is mine and only mine for the next twenty-four hours. I feel like a king aboard my medieval luxury boat. I pinch myself to see if it isn’t some sort of dream, or, a mistake, perhaps. But, no, I am wide awake, as I sit and watch Rajesh manoeuvre the boat skilfully in the canal crowded with such Kettuvalloms, some of them bigger, and wider enough to have four bedrooms such as mine. The stanza of an old Malayalam Vanchi Pattu (boat song) passed through my mind.

Kandeda ninte achane jyan,

Vembanadu Kayalil vechu,

Ettu muttum kazhukolum,


I will translate this song towards the end of this chapter. Or, at least try. But right now the backwaters, this body of placid waters over which my boat is moving so smoothly is of more interest to me. This very boat must have done that for perhaps a hundred years, bringing hot peppers, unpolished rice, coconuts, rubber, handcrafts to be shipped to the world.

On either sides of the canal on which my boat (pardon my egotism, I am a bit proprietorial about this boat) is moving are houses opening right into the waters, just as a house would open into a street. There are women washing clothes, household utensils, even taking a bath there. My captain and navigator Ramesh is a local and seems to know most of the folk who live along the banks of the canal. They seem a friendly and tolerant lot and children wave to us. I become hyperactive with excitement and keep clicking photographs on my digital camera and making notes.

A local ferry boat passes us and Rajesh slows down to let it pass. Not that he was going very fast in the first place. But that is the spirit of this place. Everything is politeness personified. An old man with a growth of a few days’ beard misunderstands Ramesh’s signal, and both my giant boat and his puny one-man boat come to a dead stop. A polite argument ensues which is resolved quickly when Ramesh, using great charm persuades the pernickety old man that I am a writer and am writing about the backwaters. Seemingly pacified, he rows away as I click a picture of him. Too late, I only get a portion of his disappearing back.

We pass Kainakary where there is a majestic church on the banks of the canal. Sojan, the cook, takes over the wheel from Ramesh. Sojan has finished cooking my lunch and says I can have it whenever I am ready. He is Christian, and tells me that the church we passed was where a famous saint was baptised. Ramesh is tired of sitting in the sun on the deck and needs a break. They take turns to row, sorry, drive my boat. In ancient days a man with a long pole would propel the boat forward by planting the pole into the canal floor’s soft mud and then would use this as a lever to push the boat forward. He would expertly walk on the narrow gangway on the side of the boat, from the bow all the way back to the stern as he virtually pushed the boat ahead. But these days boats have motors and propellers.

We dock on one side of the canal for lunch, away from the busy main lane where there is a steady troll of boats. The sky grew dark and it started to rain. Ramesh and Sojan brought down the orange coloured tarpaulin and lashed them to avoid the deck getting wet. In the eerie glow of the orange tarpaulin, with the rain beating against them I ate lunch of boiled rice, sambhar, avial, curd, fried karimeen fish, pappadam and salads.

It was quite tastefully cooked and only later did I realize that I had overeaten. I rested a while in the compact but spacious bedroom, over clean sheets. The latticed glass window overlooked a house in which nothing stirred to indicate human presence. But it showed the signs of occupation, there was a chicken coop, and a boat tied to a tree.

Feeling restless I went for a walk along the embankment of the canal, walking gingerly, lest I slip and fall into the canal, which would be fatal, as I didn’t know swimming. I stared at the deserted house some more and took pictures of the house-boat. Then I saw the Kuttanad rice field that formed the backdrop of the house. Perhaps the residents had gone to tend to their rice fields. That explained the eerie silence around the haunted house.

The sky had cleared, though the sun was nowhere to be seen, and in the serenity of the canal, there was peace and tranquillity as I had never known in Bombay. Across me, on the opposite bank, a man sat fishing, making whistling sounds to attract fish. He seemed content, poor man, though he didn’t catch anything as long as I was there.

Around 3 p.m. Ramesh starts the boat again and we cruise on the way to the Vembanad Lake. The tarpaulin is raised and folded neatly into rolls. The Vembanad Lake is a huge water body that extends from Alleppy in the south to Cochin in the north, and the backwaters connect it to the sea in a maze of canals. Though the sea is quite near, the water in the canal is quite placid and calm and the people here have preserved the delicate environmental balance. Never did I see a plastic bag or, a piece of garbage float on its surface. I guess this could serve as a role model for rivers and canals around India, river Ganga for example, which are facing severe pollution from wanton deposition of plastic and industrial waste.

For that matter, the monster of industrial waste is very rare in Kerala, as, mercifully, or otherwise, there aren’t many industries. That could also be the reason for the pristine greenery that surrounded me everywhere I went.

It is here that I feel the urge to navigate my boat. So I take the wheels while Sojan photographs me from the bow. Navigating the boat is quite tricky. I kept turning the wheel over and over and the boat kept weaving like a drunken man. Rajesh tells me that the period from November to December is the peak season when tourists from the cold countries come for backwater cruises. This is the off-season, or slack season, so business is slow. No wonder I was favoured by such a hefty discount.

As we neared Chembakulam the afternoon sun burst gently on the cool waters and there is a soothing wind as we proceed towards Vembanad Lake. Luxury can also get a bit boring after some time. So Rajesh and Sojan kept a spiel of local news and folklore to keep me amused, “The church we have just passed was where a prominent priest was ordained, those boats there belongs to the tycoon who owns ten schools in the Persian Gulf, also, a very generous man; there that is a famous temple, there, that is a famous Masjid, that is where the famous Telugu movie was shot.”

Typical of a state over-awed by the majesty of God – this being God’s country – people build massive churches, temples and masjids around every corner. This is another defining character of Kerala. Every few kilometres there is a “Kurishumoodu,” which is a tall square-shaped tower featuring a cross at the top. At its foot is a small receptacle for depositing money pledged for favours asked and received from God. Surely, Godliness and holiness is sacrosanct in this most tranquil part of Kerala.

Rajesh has studied up to secondary school and Sojan has passed two years of study before admission to a degree college. Sojan has a passport and is looking for a job as a cook in the Persian Gulf, but regrets that the bribes for this passage are unaffordable.

As we cross Arupangu on the way to Vembanad Lake the wind grows stronger. The canal has changed from a placid mirror to a shiny silken sheet. In the haze ahead I can see the reflection of the sun on the water, like several million lights blinking at the same time. To one side I could see the neat rectangular rice fields of Kuttanad just planted with paddy. Curiously, the rice fields are at a lower level than the canal and I wonder what would happen if there is a breach.

Sojan says it is a common occurrence during heavy rains and, when a breach in the canal occurs, usually in the night, he has heard the loud wails of women in the houses skirting the canal. His house is on a higher level. For most part of the canal the public works department has erected concrete walls to avoid breaches from washing away the houses on the banks. According to him life is tough and unpredictable for people living here.

As our boat enters the Vembanad Lake I can see several hulking forms of house-boats similar to ours ponderously gliding on the water towards Cochin in the north. Compared to the placidity of the backwaters, Vembanad Lake is turbulent, choppy waves rocking the boat, in a strong wind. Sojan tells me that a boat had overturned once and the people in it had to be rescued by another. The construction of bedrooms and canopies has made these sturdy boats unsteady.

Rajesh said it is unsafe to navigate in the Vembanad Lake for too long, particularly since some dark clouds were hovering in the sky and the sun was a patch of grey overhead. A thunderstorm would complicate matters. Therefore he swung the boat in a wide arc back towards the canals once again.

We dock at a place called Kuppapuram for the night. Thankachen is the third crew member of the boat, who is now on leave. We dock right in front of his house for the night, as it is safe in case there are heavy rains. Thankachen is a stout man with the swollen eyes of one who has a drink every night. He offers to fetch me freshly tapped toddy, which I decline, as I need my senses around me if I have to make notes.

I watch the fish flitting below the clear water. Sojan has an idea. He goes inside the boat and brings a fishing rod and hands it to me. Well, I have fished before but unfortunately have never caught fish in my life. The fish seem to outwit me, eat my bait and glide away. To this complaint Sojan promises to teach me to fish. I remember having read, “Don’t give them fish, teach them to fish,” and all that, and agree.

He brings some rice which I use as bait. These backwater fishes are smart. They nibble the rice and swim away. Sojan has another idea. He disappears into his kitchen and brings a handful of kneaded flour. He attaches a small portion to the hook as bait. I dip the line into the water. Nothing happens.

“Pull,” Sojan says. I pull.

There’s a writhing snakehead fish dangling on the line. My first catch! Ever!

A bit overwhelmed I prepare the bait and insert the line again. Again, nothing happens.

“Pull,” Sojan cries. I pull but not hard enough and a writhing fish leaves the bait and jumps back into the canal. It starts drizzling. Sojan says he can fry the snakehead for dinner, and, “Freshly caught fish is supposed to be very tasty.” But I decide against it and let the snakehead go. At least, I could sacrifice the tingling of my taste buds, for the lifelong gratitude of a snakehead.

I shoot some beautiful sunset pictures. The light dazzles over the shimmering canal and I am satisfied that I have an eye for framing pictures. Dinner is a subdued affair with me eating in the wan light of the deck. Rajesh has gone to his nearby home to spend the night. Sojan has prepared chapattis, rice, lentil soup, and fried Karimeen fish. Fish and rice are the staple foods of these parts.

Sojan tells me about life on the banks of the canal. It is hard. But people are simple and co-operative. In times of emergencies they work together. And, emergencies are a constant, such as the breaches of the canals mentioned above during heavy rains. The water from the canals then storm into the rice fields, – which are at a lower level – with such force that it even washes away entire houses. Sometimes people don’t sleep for weeks afraid there would be a breach. Life for them is precarious.

A bit inquisitively I ask Sojan what he is paid. I was in for the shock of my life. For a job that requires him to be on the boat in twenty-four hour shifts he is paid rupees two thousand a month, which is around US $ 45, a month! Rajesh gets a little more. But I tell him that he can get twice that amount as a casual labourer, who earns Rupees one hundred and seventy-five a day in Kidangannoor. But he says jobs are difficult to obtain in these parts and most rice farmers can’t afford to keep labourers. It’s a difficult situation. Farm labour is progressively expensive and unproductive because of the demands of the unions and unemployment is a growing menace, leading to several social ills.

However Sojan is optimistic. His passport is ready and he would be going to the Persian Gulf if he gets a proper cook’s job, and if the bribe to be paid to the agent is a bit more reasonable. True to every Malayali’s dream, he wants to escape to the Golden land of Arabia.

After a fruitful day, when I had put all my apprehensions of the morning to rest, I retired to my bedroom. I assume mosquitoes those whiny creatures are omnipresent. As already mentioned there is a mosquito net above the bed and a mosquito repellent liquid, the sort that is plugged to the electric socket. I switch on the latter and go to sleep listening to the lapping of water against the sides of the wooden boat. At times another boat would pass and our boat would rock gently. I had seen some wonderful scenery and met some very simple and hardworking people. I was a bit tired, but I happen to sleep well when I am tired.

I wake up in the morning completely energised and eager to experience the backwaters once again. I could hear the sound of boats passing and the gentle lapping of water against the sides of the boat. As expected, I had slept soundly.

I had a bath, changed clothes and went for a walk along the embankment of the canal. The concrete part of the embankment was so narrow that I had to be careful lest my foot slipped. To one side of me were the backwaters, and to the other side, on a much lower level, the rice fields of Kuttanad. There was a drizzle and the water dimpled nicely.

A private boat named Kalayil drew close to the embankment and the occupants got out. There were four men of whom the man driving the boat seemed the boss and talked in a loud, clearly no-nonsense voice. Kalayil Cheriankutty, his brother Jose, and a few workers had come to inspect the rice fields.

Jose tells me that Cheriankutty owns around seventy-five acres of fields that stretched towards the horizon to our east. That is a large holding by Kerala standards and Cheriankutty must be a rich man, judging by his confident voice. In the recent past his father had owned three-hundred-and-fifty acres of fields. Cheriankutty went as far as the beginning of the clays bunds that divides the fields and came back.

“If I fall I might hurt myself and the rest of the day is wasted,” he says as he walks to where Jose and I stand. He sends on of his men to inspect the fields. He asks Jose in a voice that rings over the waters, “Ingeru Evidathetha?” “Where is this man from?”

I drop some famous names from my family, just to establish that I am from these parts. He nods. As I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, in Kerala everyone knows everyone. A connection is made. Remember the man who had peered inside the rickshaw I was travelling? Well, he thought he knew me. He actually might.

Cheriankutty asks me what I am doing. I say I write for a living in Bombay.

“Oh, a sahityakaran from the big city? What a boring life sitting inside an office every day, and then going to a flat? I enjoy the wide expanses,” he said indicating the fields. Sahityakaran is a reverential term for a man of literature.

“We also enjoy the wide expanse, that’s why I am here,” I said indicating the rice fields planted with the second crop of the year.

“I was only joking. Even this land can get boring after some time,” he said, loudly clearing his throat and spitting. The vagaries of nature are the cause of his discontent. He runs his farm like a business and has an office and employees. He seems content except that the weather is a little unpredictable. He invests a lot of money on planting paddy and along comes the rain and washes it all away.

“Just one breach of this canal is enough. That’s why I make these periodic visits to my fields. There is no joy in it now. My children aren’t interested in farming. They are all living abroad. One is in Bombay, my daughter, in Goregaon.”

“I know Goregaon,” I reply. I know Goregaon in the western suburbs of Bombay, but not too well. He has the loud and authoritative nature of Kerala patriarchs, and, naturally, I am awed.

By the usual Kerala standards he is a rich man, a prosperous farmer and a notable individual in society. And according to the Indian government’s tax laws his agricultural income is not taxed. He has inherited the lands from his father who in turn was contracted the land by a prominent newspaper group of Kerala with whom my family has had associations. That further reinforces my theory that Kerala is like a small close-knit village where everyone knows everyone.

Rajesh takes the wheel and we are ready to resume our return journey back to Alleppy. Sojan busies himself, preparing breakfast. The day is clear and the water is placid. A few clouds float in the sky, no, nothing menacing.

The boat, glides into the canal that leads into Alleppy town. There are a long row of boats moored along the entrance to the town. I marvel at the beauty of these sturdy boats that are painted a uniform black, with bamboo mats as canopy, which was my palace on water for a day. Rajesh suggests that I should visit during Onam festival when the famed boat races of Kerala are conducted. In these races, long, slim snake boats with typically pointed bows and towering sterns are deployed. I make a mental note of this and tell them that I would try.

Considering their wages, low by standards anywhere, I tip Rajesh and Sojan generously, an amount equal to a day’s pay in Kerala. They perk up, and, smiling broadly, help me into a rickshaw which would take me back to Alleppy bus station. I am taken aback by their friendliness, hospitality and sincerity as I went through an important part of my Kerala experience, which I never have had a chance to savour earlier. We shake hands and they say, “If you come again, we would like to be of service,” or something to that effect. I am touched.

Then the “vanchi pattu,” the old boat song of my childhood, again came back to me. I neither know the exact words nor its meaning – language purists might scoff – but it goes something as follows:

Hey you, I saw your father,

Rowing on Vembanad Lake,

As he rendered eight oars,

And a long pole useless, rowing!

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