Asia

The Backwaters of Kerala (Travels in India, Chapter 9)

kerala-backwaters

I was feeling super relaxed as the ferry pulled out from its mooring.

We had arrived the previous day in Kollam, a small town at the southernmost end of Kerala’s “backwaters”, and had begun our usual search for accommodation. At the train station there was a small wooden booth with a crookedly hung sign on it, with the words “Tourist Information” painted on by hand. Being tourists, and in need of information, we had approached the booth where a most helpful young woman asked if we would like to stay at the Kollam Tourist Bungalow. She told us that this state-owned facility is usually reserved for visiting Indian politicians and dignitaries, but was currently empty and so could provide us with a room for a night.

[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. I tried at the time (unsuccessfully) to see them published, and they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Recently, a friend suggested I “publish” my India tales via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].

The “bungalow” turned out to be a glorious palatial building, the former residence of a wealthy British governor. Today, of course, it is completely run-down. There are cracks in the walls, and everything could use a fresh coat of paint and a thorough spring-cleaning. The leftover odds and ends of period furnishing seemed lonely and isolated, set against barren walls and deserted corridors. Outside the expansive gardens had gone to seed, but they still had enough order and lushness to hint at their former opulence.

In fact, the whole place almost dripped with faded, raj-era charm. From the sweeping solid wood spiral staircase, to the formal dining room, to the wrap-around timber balconies, this was one of those wonderful throw-backs to colonial times that pop up almost everywhere in India, usually when least expected.

On check-in, the resident caretaker met us at the front door and led us up the staircase, ushering us into our room, although a suite of rooms would be a more accurate description. The main room was a cavernous double bedroom, which looked all the bigger for its lack of furnishing – there was nothing but a massive wooden bed, standing alone in the centre of the room. Leading off from the bedroom was an equally sparsely furnished sitting room, sunlight streaming in through floor-to-ceiling plantation blinds. We opened a pair of heavy wooden doors and stepped onto a private balcony, with wonderful views over the gardens that stretched down a hill, to the property’s lake.

And then there was the bathroom. In it, the fixtures and fittings were totally untouched, original pieces from a bygone era. A freestanding tub, elevated on four ornate metal lion paws, was the bathroom’s centrepiece. The floor and walls were covered in white tiles – old, hand-made and hand-fired – that had discoloured with age but still had that special patina which mass-produced machine products always seem to lack. The wash-basin was made of delicate china, and the tap handles were made of heavy iron. Even the cracked toilet seat was so obviously an antique that I almost felt guilty sitting down and doing, well, doing what one does in that situation.

For Camilla the discovery of the bathtub was an excuse to splash around for a few hours. I, on the other hand, rustled up from the depths of my backpack a worn-out pair of linen trousers and an even worse for wear cream linen shirt. Decked out in my newly assembled “lounge suit”, I took a seat on a bench outside on the lawn, and read a book. We were the only people staying in the Kollam Tourist Bungalow that day, so it felt like the whole place belonged to me. Every few minutes I would stop to survey my domain, soaking up the building’s almost tangible colonial atmosphere. It was not hard to imagine a little Hubert, running to greet his daddy as the automobile pulled up into the semi-circular drive; or to smell a lamb roast in the kitchen, being prepared by a team of house-servants; or to hear the dogs barking in the gardens, as they chased the birds.

Later we had afternoon tea on our private balcony, the resident caretaker doing an admirable moonlighting job as butler. The next morning, he donned a pair of white gloves to serve us breakfast in the formal dining room, where he had laid the twelve-seat table with a white cloth and polished silverware. Let’s skip for a moment the fact that breakfast itself was fairly limited: milky tea, flat Indian bread and tinned jam. In the realm of my imagination, at least, it is the big picture that counts.

All in all, the Kollam Tourist Bungalow turned out to be a wonderful place to spend a night, and after such a glorious start a long and languorous “Kerala backwater cruise” seemed to be just the ticket for the rest of that day. Our plan was pretty simple: to travel from Kollam to Allaphuza (or Allepy as the British used to call it) in a weather-beaten, rickety wooden ferry. The guy we bought the tickets from said the total journey time would be eight hours, maybe ten, almost certainly no more than twelve. And that was just fine by me – like I said, I was feeling super relaxed as the boat pulled out from the mooring.

kerala-backwater-images

The Kerala backwaters comprise an intricate network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals, dotted with narrow strips of land, on which people eke out a subsistence living growing coconuts and cashews, and raising pigs and chickens. The backwaters are a natural marvel, not to mention postcard perfect, with languid palms and thick tropical vegetation lining the water fringe. But, the backwaters are working waterways too, used extensively by the local population who move around them in a motley assortment of vessels: small motor-boats, long wooden canoes, larger traditional boats with enormous sails, and dithering old ferries such as the one we were on.

The most iconic feature of the backwaters, however, are the Chinese fishing nets, which, as the name suggests are a kind of fishing net originally introduced into the area by Chinese traders. They are built in the shallows, and essentially consist of a wooden platform on which a pair of twenty metre long wooden poles are mounted, joined at the base and then spreading upwards into a V. Between the two poles a piece of mesh is loosely hung, to form the fishing net. The whole contraption is operated by lowering the poles and the net into the water and then yanking them out suddenly, so that fish are caught in the pocket formed by the net.

This may all sound a little bit mundane, but trust me, the Chinese fishing nets are a visual wonder. In some parts of the backwaters there can be a dozen or more of them lined up in a row, and they look like the ranks of some strange extra-terrestrial army, standing to attention on the water.

Chinese Fishing Nets 1

Periodically throughout the day, the ferry we were on would pull ashore and moor at some godforsaken spot, for what the ferry captain described as a “rest-break”. Given we were puttering along at 5km an hour and doing absolutely nothing, I am not entirely sure what it was that we needed a break from. Still, these rest stops gave us an excuse to go ashore and see how the local people live. Which, in summary, was pretty primatively: a backwater “village” is typically not much more than a few ramshackle timber houses, dirt paths, and flocks of grubby looking chickens pecking in the dirt.

Oh, and men selling coconuts. Every time we stepped ashore, a brigade of coconut-wallahs would appear from nowhere, and immediately spring into action. Men would scramble up the nearest coconut tree at lightning speed, knock off a coconut, and once back on the ground they would hack the top off with large rusty machetes, turning the coconut into a cup. We would drink the sweet coconut milk, then hand the coconut back to the coconut-wallah who would proceed to smash it into bits, fashion a scoop from a shard of the husk, and hand us the coconut flesh to eat. It was the backwaters version of a soup-and-sandwich lunch, I guess.

As we puttered along, the sun beat down on us, and it began to feel as if we were moving across the backwaters in slow motion. Time just floated past us, and looking back, it is now hard to recall any specific incidents from that day. It is like all of my individual memories of that backwater trip melted in the fierce South Indian heat, and later recombined into a singular although entirely non-specific sense of the place, an overwhelming recollection of feeling content and serene, but not much else.

Although there is one specific incident that does still linger in my mind, and quite vividly at that. It involves pens.

Almost every guidebook to any third world country will warn you not to give money to children who beg, lest you inadvertently foster a culture of dependency. Instead, the well-meaning guidebook authors will very often suggest that rather than giving children dollars you give them pens. A pen, after all, is an important implement used in most schools, and thus when you give a child a pen, in a way you are helping them get an education, right? Plus, as a bonus you then get to feel all warm and fuzzy as you place a fifty cent Biro in a starving child’s outstretched hand – “here, this is for you, now promise me, go to school and study hard, rise up from poverty and claim a better life, and all because of my gift to you of this pen“.

It is first-world arrogance at its worst, really, and not surprisingly, word has got out. These days, no matter where you go in Asia, Africa or South America, at some point almost inevitably you are going to encounter the mantra of: “hello mister, one pen, one pen, one pen“. The kids aren’t stupid though, and it is most unlikely your pen will be gracing any schoolroom any time soon: any pens provided are just converted into cash at the nearest market.

We had been motoring across the backwaters for roughly half an hour when, for the first time that day, we passed a settlement that consisted of a few scrawny huts and a fenced off field. A young boy standing on the shore smiled and waved at us. We all waved back. Immediately, a cry went up: “one pen one pen one pen one pen“.

Now, there was a kindly middle-aged German woman on board the ferry who had obviously read her guidebook and come prepared, because she was toting a plastic bag filled with cheap blue ball-points. So when the little fellow on the shore began calling out for a pen, she gleefully obliged. She fished a pen from out of her bag, and threw it towards the shore. Only her throw was not very strong, and the pen fell short, dropping into the water.

The young boy did not hesitate. In a flash he launched himself into the water, grasping at the pen as if it were a slippery eel that would otherwise escape. A few seconds later he scrambled ashore, triumphantly holding the pen in his hand, and grinning from ear to ear.

Knowing now that he was onto a good thing, the boy began running alongside the ferry, all the while shouting out: “one pen one pen one pen one pen one pen“. Like the Pied Piper, his cries brought out other children – God knows where they were all coming from – and within two minutes there were about a dozen children also running alongside the boat, all of them pleading loudly for “one pen“.

From time to time the German woman would throw another pen towards the children, and several members of their group would peel off, with near military precision, and fight it out for the pen. Then, once they had settled on who was the pen’s rightful owner, they would sprint and catch up with the rest of the group, who had in the meantime steadfastly maintained the chase.

It was a sickening spectacle, really – Western tourists tossing pens to a group of Indian children and watching them fight over them, in much the same way that one might throw titbits of meat to a pack of hungry dogs. But the other passengers on the boat seemed to be enjoying it immensely, with each new pen provided yet another photo opportunity. This could be pure coincidence, of course, but did I forget to mention that apart from Camilla and me every passenger on the ferry that day was either French or German?

Whilst I found the whole pen tossing spectacle to be awful, watching the children run alongside our ferry was, on the other hand, genuinely fascinating. These kids are reared on tiny spits of land not more than a few metres wide, and as a result they appeared to have a phenomenal sixth-sense awareness of the space around them.

They instinctively knew to run in single file, one after the other in perfect sync, and without even the slightest hint of a stumble or trip. I watched in awe as the children ran over narrow dirt paths, or along the top edge of thin walls, or on exposed pipes protruding above the waterline, and they did so as comfortably as if they were running through a vast open meadow. It was extraordinary to see their little feet in action, as they sprinted along on surfaces often no more than five inches wide. They had the same grace normally seen during an Olympic gymnast’s bar routine.

I had thought that the various spits of land were not contiguous to one another, but it soon became apparent that they all somehow linked up. The children would at times disappear for a few seconds, only to emerge from the undergrowth moments later on a spit of land I had assumed was not at all connected to the previous one. Sometimes the children would leap across a finger of water separating two pieces of land, or where that was too wide, they would simply wade through the shallows.

And they were tireless. The group of children kept running alongside our ferry at full pace for the better part of fifteen minutes. Eventually the German woman exhausted her supply of pens, and only then did the children, one by one, begin to drop off.

There was one very small boy, however, who refused to quit. Not satisfied with a haul of three pens which he was clutching tightly in his little hand, he kept on running and calling out for “one pen“, long after all the other children had given up. He didn’t take his eyes off of us for a moment, ducking under overhanging branches and navigating his way across the interconnected pieces of land, as if guided by radar. He continued running until finally the ferry entered a large open expanse of water, and the thin strips of land that had been alongside us for the past several kilometres narrowed, and then dropped away completely.

The little boy could run no further. We all looked back and waved to him.

But he could go no further. The boy had reached the finite end of his physical world – the very edge of the very last piece of land jutting out into the water. So he just watched us go, clutching his pens. All the while he kept up a chant of “one pen one pen one pen“, even though our boat was sailing away into the distance. His oversized shorts hung down below his knees, and were held in place by a cord of rope around his waist. Standing there he looked so small and lost, and innocent. It is an image that I will never forget.

Finally, when we were out of earshot, the little boy turned his back on us, and began the long walk back to his home, somewhere in the backwaters.

Chinese Finshing Net 3

[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 10: A Visit to Bangalore and Mysore]

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