Memories are strange creatures. It pounces up on you like lightning at times, shocking you out of your self imposed reverie. The thunder that follows shakes you up, the accompanying rain then leaving you in a safe, cool cocoon. Some of them are like naughty children, tantalizing you with their pranks and leaves a stupid grin on your face. Yet others are like those nasty relatives and bosses, never letting you forget, opening up wounds the moment they start healing and the blood keeps dripping. Some float in, as gentle as a breeze, ephemeral, fleeting moments of rapture and peace. Then there are those, deeply ingrained in your souls, the very core of what you are and have been, always. Do memories define us? The ones that we keep going back to, those that leave a languid smile on our face, where we go hiding from the world, the shelters where we feel as safe as a mother’s womb….those must be the real us. Where we are shorn of our masks, where we dance in abandon and pure joy. Yes, they speak about us, more than a million words or zillion gestures ever could.
Samanth Subramanian is an author who I discovered recently. His second book came to me first – This Divided Island : Stories from the Sri Lankan War‘ is a collection of heart wrenching stories of a race battered and bruised by a useless war . He had written about an old bungalow with open verandas and where sea breeze came gentle, cool and unhurried. Suddenly, I was transported back to Alleppey, the place I grew up in. The recreation ground, the old Rest House watching over kids and grown ups playing cricket and the road that led to the beach. The old ‘kadal paalam‘* and its broken wooden planks, the countless packets of ground nuts roasted in sand, and the sea, sometimes calm, sometimes serious and then at times black with anger during the rains. Memories, they are strange , popping up at the most unexpected of times. The lines in the book are now long forgotten, the feeling of connect, still as fresh as the time the words passed through my eyes and into my soul.
Falling in love is not easy for me. But if I do, it is all encompassing. And there is this deep longing to know everything about my love. And I was in love, with this Tamilian boy and his writing. Alas, there was only one more book to know him. The moment I read the title, it was epiphany. This was a love for life. To the Kuttanaadan spirit in me, it is the food of the gods. Ambrosia. ‘Following Fish,’ did you say, Samanth? Oh yes, I will, to the end of the world. Starting from Kolkata and its Devi like Hilsa, on to Hyderabad and its miraculous fish-y asthma cure, to the Tamil Nadu village of St. Francis Xavier, he finally reached Kerala. To be precise, Alleppey. We started feeling like a ménage-a-trios. Alleppey, Samanth and me. Sounds quite romantic, doesn’t it? Yes, fish does that to me. Give me a pot full of fresh kallu, a plate of translucent, steaming kappa and some blood red mathi* curry any day. I would gladly trade that for anything. Well, almost anything.
A boat full of memories. Of worms unearthed, ponds, canals and rivers, of fishes caught, broken metal buckets that leaked like love from a grandmother’s heart, of country boats that capsized, floods that cried into the courtyards, of earthen pots and brick stoves, fire wood and chimney smoke….. of childhood, happy and free.
The lone coconut trunk lay supine, its youth spent, days of glory gone. The young feet took a few tentative steps, as if to make itself sure that the bridge would hold and not turn her over midway. Not that she minded. A splash in the water would have been a welcome break from the warm summer. To call it a shop would be stretching even the imagination too far. A corner in a room, a few glass bottles over a table, half filled with mithais* in yellow, orange and white. The eyes never rested long on the colours, though. The fingers drummed on the metal lids and the old man smiled with a knowing twinkle in his eyes, as he tried to shake the drawers open. A few hooks and two rolls of tungsten. And at times a tiny plastic packet of salty lemon pickle. Just like that.
The tungsten tied expertly to long and sturdy stick, hook in place at the end, a coconut shell with muddy sand in it, the search would begin. Patiently , delicately poking the sand with a twig at first. Then at a frantic pace, unearthing those wriggly, slimy pink forms, their rings glazing in the sun. Squirm they would, even after being chopped into two or three pieces. Everything was matter of fact. Being kind to animals stopped at feeding the hens, ducks, cows and calves. Worms were for fishes. Life was so simple, straight. It couldn’t but be, for we were the ones who would outrun the chickens, catch them and watch in pretended horror as someone slit their throats with an expert nick of their knives.
The rod held firmly in the right hand, the left hand tests the worm on the hook. A perfect arc and the bait would land safely in the river. And the wait begins. The breath was baited, as the hands longed to be pulled in. The trick was never to pull the line in at the first bite. Let the fish test its food, taste it and get hooked. A swift movement of the hand and a fish danced in the air. The grip had to be gentle but firm. The hook slowly taken out, the catch would go into a ‘puttu kudam‘ half filled with water. Why was it always this narrow necked container, I wonder. Must be the neck. No scope for escape. Did the fish know it was us kids who caught them? The big ones never came to us. It was always the smaller ones. Did they think they were being invited to play with us?
There were others who went after the fish. Not the hard working ones with an oily sheen of sweat on their half naked bodies. These were the languid ones. A small net, or better still a hand made bow and arrow. They would come by at any time of the day. With eyes as sharp as Arjuna’s , they would stare into the water, seeing things we could never find, sensing movements we could only imagine. Whoosh! The arrow would fly. It was never free though, the poor thing. Always tied to the end of the bow, the arrow would be dragged in along with the fish. No sympathy, for the heart that was pierced. That was life.
The river flowed past, basking lazily in the sun in the mornings and rushing past in a huff as the summer showers slashed it mercilessly in the evenings. Water was everywhere, in all forms. The river, the small canals, a pond in the backyard, a well at the side and the remains of the rains in pools everywhere. And the fish. The huge karimeens that were delivered to order, the tiny ones that played with our feet and bit us as we kept still in the water, the yellow ones that frolicked in the pond, the red ones that rushed up as we threw them rice, the fierce looking kaari, the slimy koori, the tiny pallathi, the ones we caught between the ends of a thorthu, the njandus that walked liked drunkards and disappeared under the huge cauldrons. Shards of childhood, covered in mist. Like the melodious ‘kooiiii’ of the men casting nets as they fade away into the distant night.
Thank you Samanth, for bringing them a little closer , before they disappeared altogether.
* (‘Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast’ written by Samanth Subramanian is an anthology of real life observations as he travels along the coastline of India. A chapter on Alleppey took me back home, to memories of long ago)
kadal paalam – bridge over sea
mathi – sardines
mithais – candies
puttu kudam – a pot with narrow neck used to make the traditional Kerala breakfast puttu
karimeen – pearl spot
kaari – cat fish
koori – mystus
pallathi – young pearl spot
thorthu – towel made of hand spun cotton
njandu – fresh water crab
(Image courtesy – manoramaonline.com)