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Backwater bliss

July 2010 News James Mathew -

The skies were ominous but the mind was clear. The entire family was together after several years and the rain had no right to take the fun out of a Kerala vacation. Both brothers and their respective wives were eager to explore the state's waterways, and I was only too willing to join. The sister signed up too, and it didn't take long to book a houseboat over the phone.

At 10 am, all six of us piled into a Maruti Alto and headed for Kumarakom, about 20 km from our residence in Kottayam. We reached our appointed spot after half an hour, where our contact man turned up. He accepted the payment in cash, made a short phone call and told us to wait. We were on the banks of what looks like a river, with some canoes in the distance paddled by village folk. A breeze swayed the rain-swept coconut palms, showering a fine spray of water on us. Ducks and herons squawked from behind bushes and the bank. We couldn't wait for the cruise.

There was a low-pitched honk around the canal and soon a houseboat made a stately entry, sliding gently into view. She pulled slowly over to the bank, when the deputy captain of the ship hopped out and secured the boat to a coconut tree with a rope. The boat gently rocked against the banks, heavy tyres fixed on its sides protecting it from impact. The engine powered down and soon, the captain appeared at the starboard, welcoming us inside. Each houseboat has a name, and ours was Puthuveedan. All Keralites, rich or poor, have a family name all of their own, inherited from father to son. Puthuveedan, the family name emblazoned on the boat's flanks, translates to 'the-one-with-a-new-house'.

In the olden days, houseboats (called kettuvallam in Malayalam) used to be part of a well-oiled inland waterway cargo transport system. They used to ferry large amounts of farm produce, including coconuts, paddy and vegetables from the backwaters' islands to faraway markets, navigated by expert oarsmen. Many old Malayalam movies are set in the backdrop of the calm backwaters, with several romantic songs pictured on houseboats. Songs sung by oarsmen as they commandeered the bulky boats across distances, sometimes over several days, became part of the state's folk history. 


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