The Backwater Memories
My father’s elder brother lived in Cochin. We called him Achan. He worked with Volkart Brothers, a Swiss Company and used to live in Lilly Street in Fort Cochin in a house which my Great Grandfather had bought. This had a design developed by the Dutch, a two-storey building with stores, a kitchen etc., on the lower part and living quarters with a wooden floor on the upper floor. The house had walls at least 4 feet thick. We used to listen in horror to the stories told by the servants that the thick walls had ‘kappiris’, negroes buried in them.
My brothers and I would be packed off for a short stay in Cochin during the summer vacation. We accompanied Achan and his family on these trips. The boat trip through the backwaters (Kayal in Malayalam) was an experience out of this world!
Boat trips had a romance, which still has not faded. I have distinct memories of the mannerisms of the ‘serang’, the chug-chug of the boat, and the smell of kerosene mixed with the stench of the backwaters. The trip takes the whole night, leaving the Kottayam boat jetty late evening and reaching Cochin early morning. The boat stops at places with evocative names like Pathiramanal, the mid-night sands and Thanneermukkam, the place of water. Pathiramanal is reached at midnight and is a place for refreshments.
The Kayal stretches from Paravur in the north to Kainakary near Alleppy in the south. It connects to the Arabian sea in Cochin. The Vembanad Lake, located in the low-lying area in the Central Travancore region, was originally a part of the shallow coastal area of the Arabian Sea. The geological uplift had formed a shallow bay in the area, and the rivers were draining into it. The bay ultimately transformed into a brackish water lagoon. National Geographic Magazine declared Vembanadu Lake “one of the fifty destinations to be visited in one’s life time”. Kottayam, where I live, and the nearby Kumarakom are situated by the backwaters.
Vembanad is a victim of many human interventions. The earliest was the dredging of a natural harbour at Kochi and creating a new island for harbour port facilities. Thanneermukkam barrier was constructed in 1976 across Vembanad lake to prevent salinity intrusion to the south during dry seasons. Interventions in the river basins of the wetland system include three completed irrigation projects and nine hydel projects. All these have adversely affected the ecological health of the lake.
My earliest memory of the ‘kayal’ was a long trip in a ‘Kettuvallam’, a large boat made of planks tied together by ropes. The construction creates an ample belly for people to sit. The short platforms at both ends have men standing propelling the boat by pushing against the river’s floor with long bamboo poles. My family was travelling to Kumarakom to participate in a wedding in the family. The destination was a house in Kumarakom, not reachable easily by road.
Before the construction of the Thanneermukkam bund, the people who live by the ‘Kayal’ would face the problem of how to find drinking water in the summer. Their solution was to fill their canoes with pots and reach the landing in our compound, where there was a well with perennial sweet water. For us, the process of the people drawing up water and loading the canoes with the pots and their skilful manoeuvring of the canoes gave great excitement. Our hero was one of the water seekers who would land with a canoe and fill it with water up to the rim. Then, he would row away, crouching on the board in the canoe.
Much later, there were many trips through the backwaters to Kumarakom, Alleppy and Cochin by boats. The annual boat race in the Meenachil River also would give us opportunities to frolic in those waters. Through my father’s generosity, our ‘kara’ would be the proud sponsor of a boat. Occasionally, the children would be allowed to climb onto the boats.
In the seventies, when I worked at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, I had to host Prof Charles Wharton from Cornell University. We were collaborators on a National Science Foundation-funded project in Plasma Physics. I thought the best way to introduce him to the cultural uniqueness of Kerala was to take him there physically. Among the things we enjoyed was an exploration of the Kumarakom backwaters by renting a boat and meandering around the area, occasionally stopping at small shops by the water selling toddy, coffee and snacks.
The lunch at the Taj Kumarakom was memorable. This place region has a slice of history. The hotel used to be the home of an English missionary Henry Baker in the late 19th century. The hotel carries the traditional name of Baker’s house. The resort with 28 luxurious cottages was originally a family estate spread over 15 lush acres.
A poem I wrote about the boat trips in the night to Cochin is given below:
As a recurring summer rite, there was nothing to beat
the vacation trip to Cochin after the schools closed.
Young and old, we all gather together at the jetty
waiting for the journey and a night of sheer delight
The boat, we joked, belonged to the ancient mariner
showing off our English skills to the less endowed
who were, many, with their pots and sacks;
merchants, we were told, in the Mattancherry shops
The boat surges and sways in baby steps
as the serrang deftly manoeuvres it back and forth
to lie by the jetty, urchins jump down to tie it to the post
the boat shall leave in half an hour, someone said
A final siren and the serang climbs down
making his way to the toddy shop for a fix
an indefinable smell of kerosene fumes fills the air
and the stench of the backwaters through which it plies
unmindful of which, we jump in and look for the best seat
An hour is gone, and we finally start the journey
the boat now complete, pots and stacks dumped in a place
faces pushed against the railing, we stare into the water
the jetty lights dissolved in the waves move apart and rejoin
We are now in the river and entering the backwaters
black ink shimmering against the distant palms
The conversations around us wax and wane
The elders slowly nod off to a tired sleep
We speak in hushed tones about the denizens of the deep
And the Yakshis who dwell on the tall trees on the shore
Satiated in dread, we, too drop off to sleep
to dream of distant shores and the streets of Cochin