Right now, a miracle is happening off the shore of Kerala.
The winds and current, swirled up by the heat of the sun, have created a shallow, calm shoal in the Arabian Sea. This has attracted breeding fish. It will, later, give a rich silvery harvest for Kerala’s fishermen. But, that is not the only bonanza given by the gathering storm of the monsoon. Its soil-heavy waves also deposit long strips of earth parallel to Kerala shore. The waters also bring those packaged seafaring fruits – coconuts – and deposit them on these strips of new earth. The dimpled ‘eyes’ atop the coconut sense a favourable environment. A long-dormant biological system is awakened. The coconut strikes root, binding the embryonic coast. Others drift in, creating a new palm-fringed coastline. It encloses a stretch of inland water, joining a growing network of rivers, lakes, shimmering wetlands, and then, canals. Families settle on these virgin sea-gifted lands. A new backwater community has been born.
We have cruised through their fairy-tale water world often, and recall the collective experience with nostalgia. Here, then, are our many vivid memories distilled into a single cruise. All our backwater discoveries are made in traditional rice-boats, converted into small houseboats by one of India’s most creative tourism entrepreneurs: Jose Dominic. Very attentive crews handle the boat and its logistics. All we do is to loll back on cushioned cane chairs and let the backwaters unreel unhurriedly.
And it is timeless. No clock can record the feather-light shadows of palm fronds stroking our bodies as we drift below them. The soft perfume of incense reaches out from a church. It blends with the sugary chimes of bells, which were first heard in Kerala after the visit of Thomas Didymus, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ. We recall that the Government of India had issued a postage stamp to commemorate his visit.
Our mid-morning browse through history is interrupted by a great quacking chorus of ducks. Duck breeding is a backwaters profession catering to the non-vegetarian Malayalis. The welcoming Malayalis cheerfully celebrate the festivals of their many communities. Easter and Christmas are enthusiastically non-veg. Onam is strictly vegetarian. Everyone takes part in everyone’s festivities, and formal dietary prohibitions are honoured more in their breach than observance. What does a good, divide-and-rule practitioner do when an entire state celebrates the return, from the underworld, of Mahabali at Onam? Clearly, one size does not fit all our myriad communities!
Though these thoughts drift through our minds, we do not allow them to disturb us. There is time enough for analysis and anxiety later. This is the time to relax, unwind and let the impressions flow in, effortlessly.
Dawn settles gently, like a dream, on the backwaters of Kerala. At breakfast, there is the gentle tingle of appams and stew savoured with fresh palm toddy drawn before the sun has touched it. As the crew casts off the boat from its moorings, we see that the backwaters are awake with plunging bathers. A motorboat races past, carrying loads of newspapers to their eternally politically-savvy readers. Women, neck-deep in the flowing water, feel with their bare toes for the shy karimeen (the pearl spot fish) hidden in the sandy bottom of the backwater. They pluck them out and pop them into their floating earthen pots. We ask for fried fish and tapioca chips for lunch.
An eagle-eyed man spearfishes from the banks. A pre-teen boy lies at the edge of the backwater with his hands under the surface. He is, apparently, a reputed crab-catcher and has many scars on his fingers to vouch for his skill. Just as we sail past him, we hear a loud shout. He has either caught a crab, or a crab’s caught him!
We enter a huge, blue lake. And our backwater cruise is nearly over. We pack up our cameras and notebooks. Our urbane manager says, “The sunset from here is worth seeing.” The sky behind the palms becomes an angry red, tinged with gold. And then, it flares into an eye-aching scarlet shot with spears of molten brass. The backwaters have staged a spectacular finale for us.
Dawn emerges like a dream, but the sun goes down like thunder, on the storm-crafted backwaters of Kerala.