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Drifters, or business tycoons?

July 08, 2006 15:33 IST

It seemed strange, talking to a man sitting on the prow of a giant houseboat on a plastic chair, who was steering the boat with one hand and holding a ratty umbrella with the other. He was telling me about kettuvallams, which is what these boats are called in Kerala.

"These used to be made by tying together pieces of wood with coconut fibre ropes. Traditionally, not a single nail was hammered into these sturdy vessels, which transported rice and people across the backwaters," said he. I looked dubiously at the floor when he said that. "Now, of course," he added grinning, "we cheat a bit.

Instead of cane lattices walls, we use iron bars, painted to look like cane. And we certainly use nails now, it makes the boats last longer!"

As we passed the main pier at Kumarakom, there were houseboats parked everywhere. At last count, apparently, there were as many as 250 houseboats offering backwaters cruises there.

"Looking at this," said Kannan, "it's difficult to imagine that not so long ago, kettuvallams had almost gotten lost in history!" Once, they were the only means to reach some of the remote villages on the backwaters.

"But with the advent of more modern means of transport, nobody wanted to travel in these slow moving boats any more," said Kannan.

It was when Kerala caught the fancy of tourists across the world that these exotic looking boats with cane verandahs and cozy cabins got a new lease of life. And the kettuvallams that once carried rice, coconut and poor local villagers, now carry tourists with fat wallets instead.

Kannan hummed a few bars of a local sailing song, which he translated with practiced ease. "Tourists like to hear our local songs," he shrugged, when I commented at his fluent translation. One of the crew members appeared with a plate of steaming banana fritters and some tender coconut water.

"We have found that visitors, especially foreigners, enjoy the local delicacies that we cook," said he. That's when I discovered that Kannan and the remaining crew of three, collectively owned this boat.

"Two years ago, five of us got together and purchased this boat. We run it jointly, and share the profits. I steer, while the others maintain the boat and cook for the guests," he explained. This boat, with two air-conditioned, fully-fitted staterooms, cost them upwards of Rs 50 lakh. But the returns have been good.

For people like Kannan, who live and work in the backwaters, tourism now means big money. A two-hour cruise on the backwaters, with tea and snacks cooked on board, costs Rs 3,000, sometimes even more.

An overnight stay, with all meals, could cost as much as Rs 30,000 in season. "In peak season, sometimes we entertain 30-35 people on the boat during daytime, and our two staterooms enjoy 100 per cent occupancy at night," said he complacently.

We meandered along, and I looked around drowsily. All we had around us by the way of traffic were a couple of lazy egrets and herons, too lulled by the afternoon sun to even look for food.

After a while, Kannan invited me to steer the boat. I took his place, and felt the fine spray of rain on my face and the rhythm of the sea under me. Another kettuvallam passed us, with passengers who looked as blissed out as we did.

"They all take pictures," shrugged Kannan, "all tourists enjoy being aboard kettuvallams." It occurred to me that these exotic boats were probably wasted in their earlier avatars, drifting along with traditional passengers as prosaic as rice and coconuts.
Geetanjali Krishna
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