picture courtesy – www.keralatourism.org
Imagine a place where there are no cars or buses or even roads. Only water everywhere you see – rivers, lakes, canals, ponds, wells. Yes, I am talking about Venice- not of the west, the very humble eastern sister – Alleppey. Now a picture comes to mind – backwaters, houseboats and lakeside resorts. That is one place which has remained almost the same even after twenty years.
Most of my childhood memories are entwined with water and boats of all kinds – motor, country, large, medium, small, tiny. Both my parents hail from Kuttanad*, the Holland of India (see how exotic we are – actually, the similarity begins and ends with the fact that both Holland and Kuttanad are below sea level). Those days, instead of the customary boundary wall, most of the houses there would be separated by a waterbody – a small canal like waterway. Can you believe this small canals used to be our ‘car sheds’. Instead of cars and jeeps, we used to have boats of our own – most had country boats and the more affluent had motor boats. The house boats as you see it today were not really unseen then, but instead of air conditioned bed rooms with modern furniture, they used to be filled with goods being transported from one place to another.
The main livelihood of the people was farming. As everywhere, there was the landed class and the mass who used to work for them. You might have seen fields being watered for cultivation, but have you ever seen fields being drained of water for cultivation? Well, that is what we are, a set of quite contrary people.
One day at the beginning of the last century, one particularly enterprising ‘janmi’* was travelling in his country boat through the vast expanse of water that was Kuttanad then. Oh, I forgot to tell you, we had our own version of drivers too. The person who used to drive the boat. Steering a country boat is an art in itself. When you are watching it from the banks, it looks very simple. Try directing a ,medium size boat, slightly larger than that in the above picture, with a long bamboo pole. Climbing Mount Everest might seem easier. Well, let me not digress here. The driver of this particular ‘janmi’ saw some mud sticking to the bottom of his bamboo pole and noticing something special, tasted it. Then he gave a little bit of that mud to his ‘muthalaali’* to taste. To cut a long story short, thus was born the below sea level farming in Kuttanad. This smart fellow created bunds from sand and mud around thousands of acres of water and then pumped the water out, planted paddy and created an agricultural revolution of his own. That is how you find velvet green fields wherever you look at. The plight of the original paddy fields is story for another post altogether.
Realtors in cities put a premium on waterfront apartments these days. For ordinary folks like us, water in front of our houses was taken for granted. How can I forget all those summer holidays when some 10-15 of us used to rollick in that small canal in front of our mother’s house for hours. We used to kick up so much mud that finally we had to have a proper bath in the bathroom to make ourselves presentable. Our parents never used to bother what we were doing. Come to think of it, the parents were never there. It was the grandparents and the yet to be married aunts and uncles who used to be our care takers. Then there was my great grand mother whom all of us were petrified of. The last resort for my aunt if any of us refused to get out of the water was one call, “valyammachiii…”*
Every morning my grandmother used to go to church in the mini version of today’s house boats. It was called a ‘valavarayan vallam’. Medium sized, with a roof over half its length, high enough for a grown up to sit and a toddler to stand, this and the vallakkaaran – the driver – was a symbol of affluence those days. The vallakkaaran was the Man Friday to the master and mistress of the house.
I don’t remember the last time I got into a country boat. Somehow, as you grow old, all the charm seem to disappear or we turn a blind eye to it. It takes a child to make you see again. That is just what my son and nieces did last December. They were after my brother to take them on a boat ride and I am still not sure who enjoyed it more, the kids or their mothers. While writing this, so many childhood memories come rushing in to mind. I think I’ll have to dedicate a post on each one of those.
p.s. edited to add Kerala Tourism pictures on request 🙂
kuttanad – an area between Alleppey and Kottayam districts in Kerala, mainly known for its beautiful backwaters, paddy fields and houseboats
janmi – land owner
muthalaali – master
valyammachi – grand mother