Synonymous with boats and backwaters, no picture postcard from Kerala is ever complete without the quintessential portrait of fishermen in country boats smiling at the unknown tourist. Little villages huddle on the banks of the backwaters, strung by tall coconut trees, forming the backdrop of these picturesque postcards.
I have often wondered what rustic Kerala is like, bereft of the touristy traps. So, on a wet morning, I land in one of those idyllic villages hoping to meet some people who design the very lifeline of the locals living here – the country boats. And that is how I met Xavier in Chellanam.
Xavier does not remember when he made his first boat. He says he was probably a teenager when he learnt the craft from his father over four decades ago. “ In those days, every family in Chellanam used to make boats,” he reminisces, looking wistfully into the small canal that borders his house and flows along the village. Small wooden boats float aimlessly in the waters, tossed by the winds. But Xavier’s Kerala has changed over the many decades. Now there are just a handful of people eking a livelihood through this small-scale industry in Chellanam, a small hamlet located close to Kochi.
These country boats, or vanchis, are a part and parcel of every household. Kids going to school, vegetable vendors selling their fares on the boats, fishermen with their nets, almost every house had a boat. “It is not the same anymore,” says Xavier. “Only fishermen come to us these days. As most villagers have left for towns, hardly anyone needs them anymore,” he adds.
A parakeet screeches close by. Bright orchids light up his garden. We walk through a long, lush corridor filled with various shades of green. Planks of wood and coir threads are scattered around unfinished structures of boats. Only one of them is almost ready and is waiting to be polished with “fish ghee,” which keeps it waterproof. The remaining small boats are in various stages of completion. Xavier makes about four to five boats a month and earns just a few thousands from them.
A local customer walks in to meet Xavier and there is a heated negotiation between them. Some men walk in and start chiseling the wood to carve it to a boat. Soon the deal is struck and Xavier joins me and explains the process . He explains that an average boat is about 12 feet long with a width of three feet. He shows me the hull. Planks of local wood called Aanjili (Artocarpus hirsutus) are tied together with coir and coconut fibre, which are stuffed in between to prevent water from getting in. He says the boat would take about a month to complete.
I leave Xavier and his men to their work and wander around Chellanam. A few houses away from his shed is John’s unit, which specializes in making large boats on order. There are more hands here as John proudly shows his biggest boat, 40-feet long and nine feet wide. Nestling inside is a very tiny boat. “Just a showpiece,” he says. “Do you like it? I can sell it for Rs 3000.”
I politely decline as John explains that the bigger boat will fetch him two and a half lakh rupees, but the making costs, he says, are fairly expensive.
Elsewhere John’s grandchild is wailing. His daughter distracts the child by showing him around the unit. “It is our family tradition and we will continue to make boats,” John sums up as his grandson picks up a small plank and waves to me.
The backwaters has always been the symbol of Kerala. While the tourist enjoys a pleasant cruise on it, for the villagers it is their way of life. Be it fishing or farming, the water has been the source of their livelihoods. They have to sail across the vast expanse of blue, navigate from one canal to another to attend school or mass. And it is these boats that take them from one bank to another as they cruise through life.