Fishing in Vembanad lake, Kumarakom
Suparna Banerjee, Oct 07, 2010
A ride on a boat becomes a boat ride only if it is accompanied by loud renditions of a boat song. Mind you, it cannot be any song. It has to be a boat song or a fisherman song keeping pace with the rhythm of the oars. Here we go:

Thi thi thara
thi thi tara
thi thaeiy
thaga thai thai tho

Rowing to school

Children in Kumarakom did not walk to school. They rowed.

The waterways of Kumarakom provided a remarkably economical method of transport in the days of yore. Children went to school and men/women to work on boats. Now reduced to a relic of the past, most of the canals are crowded by a water hyacinth called Payal, or Afrikaan Payal, as it is better known. However, a few home-stay resorts now offer clean passages to the river that empties itself into the Kayal, or lake.

The canoe ride

We (hubby, our son and I) set off early, walking along the canal towards the wharf in one of the larger waterways of Kumarakom leading into the Vembanad lake. The canal is in turn connected to the smaller waterways of Kumarakom. Much like Venice. Only we are in …. LOCATION IN KERALA.

The boat belongs to the neighbour’s grandfather, we are informed. As if to say that it is ‘traditional’ and sturdy too, since ‘traditional’ is the operative word. We ask for an oar-driven traditional canoe and refuse all offers of a motorboat, disappointing our hosts with our choice of vehicle. We want a real experience, not a tourist one, we say. Like A Day in the Life of a Kumarakomite Fisherman. It’s another matter that the two of us – my four-year-old travelling companion and I – have never held a fishing rod before. This is, after all, a trip organised by the Accomplished for the Unaccomplished.

The ??x?? boat, or vallam, is a quiet example of elegance mainly because of the simplicity and economy of its design. Created to seat six people, its size allows it to be used even in choppy waters and can attain a speed of ?? knots. Though the boatmen look like greenhorns, we are assured they know their job. I put one tentative foot into the canoe dreading that it might sink under me. I survive. So does the boat.

Once in, we set sail with loud battle cries as we charge towards imaginary battles with BIG GAME. “How big are sharks,” asks the diminutive fisherboy on his first trip to sea. “Very BIG,” I answer, with the conviction of a seasoned fisherwoman. By then I have begun to notice fish on the boat. The greenhorns have transformed into lethal pieces of work, all sinuous muscle and grace. Every stroke of the oar is a scene out of a dance recital: brilliant synchrony that creates a brilliant rhythm. My companion nudges me to stop staring and I move my eyes to life around me – in the water and around. As we pick up chunks of flotsam, households on the river bank are waking up. A woman is cleaning dishes and occasionally lifting a fishing rod under her feet to see if it has managed to trap any fish. “There’s no harm keeping an eye out for fish. Who knows you may get a lucky catch for lunch,” informs a pair of the Sinuous Muscles (Let’s call them SM I and II for convenience’s sake.)

“People’s dependence on the river has reduced considerably,” he goes on. Earlier, even their loos opened into the river. As waste hit the water, it would be quickly consumed by waiting fish underneath. Which means… “Oh no! the fish who eat shit are not eaten,” SM II responds to my horrified look. Life on the river bank IS intrinsically linked with the river and its eco-system.

The lobster

We move into the deeper waters of the lake and land at a quiet eatery on an island. We have to order lunch before we move on, says SM II, who has become our guide by now. As we alight, we notice a lobster in the water on the bank. Though the lobster is moving, it is not swimming away. Strange lobster, I think. No survival skills. Must have been bred in captivity, I tell myself.

The owner of the kada, or shop, strolls out flicking up and folding his lungi in one sweep of his hand, revealing hairy legs underneath. When we enquire about his pet lobster, he smiles. The lobster was caught in the morning and was actually inside a net. It hasn’t swum away because it couldn’t, he said lifting the net holding the lobster. As our jaws drop, he offers to fry the lobster for us. We moved on to one side of the island and stuff our hooks with mashed tapioca – that’s a big hit with fish, we are told. The three of us dropped our lines and wait… and wait and wait. No sign of a tug. Instead, the clever fish are nudging the tapioca out of the hook and having a romp.

As I watch my umpteenth bait being hogged down there with much relish, the lobster arrives on a plate. My companions refuse my half-hearted offer to share it. How thoughtful! “How can you eat so soon after breakfast,” someone remarks. I decide no time is a bad time for lobsters. Give me lobster, anytime, anywhere. And I’ll do justice to it. There is actually very little of it. But while it lasts, it is 10 whole minutes of unadulterated pleasure.

Moving to hook-happy fish

Since the fish here are very smart, we decide to move to the other side of the island in search of foolish fish. On the way, all of us lend a hand to the oar to steer the boat faster. The new spot is a cool spot under a huge nutmeg tree. Here, the fish are slightly bigger, about 4-5 inches long. SM II assures us they are dumb with a conviction that betrayes foul play. So we begin the waiting game again. These fish are better ‘nudgers’ than the ones we’ve left behind. We keep refilling our hooks and feeding the fish till all of us get tired and want to go back. It is almost like a conspiracy. As if all the fish in Vembanad have done a course in “How to Catch the Bait Without Getting Trapped” or better still, “How to Fool Humans”. As we are leaving, SMII puts his hand into the water and comes up with a sardine. It’s that easy! Now, I am fairly certain there is a conspiracy. We bottle the sardine and go for lunch.

Lunch with the sole sardine

At the lunch shack, we deposit our sardine and gorge on spicy crabs, fish moilee and rice. Meanwhile, our catch from the lake had been cleaned and fried and waiting for its turn on the table. By the time I am done with all the crab shells on my plate, I’d been at it for about two hours. I was stuffed. I barely manage to drag myself to the vallam and off we go. Halfway down the lake, Fisherboy asks for the sardine. He had wanted to take it home to show it off to his grandmom. The sardine? Where did the sardine go? The last time I saw it, it was on the table. But, no one had picked it up. What a waste!

Weeding our way back home

On our way back, the leeward (??) wind is quite strong. We notice that we are not going back the way we had come. SM II mumbles something about the wind being difficult. But isn’t he a seasoned boatman? He isn’t, we discover. He cannot handle it. So we, or rather they, decide to take a long winded way through another rivulet. The only problem is that the rivulet is laden with weeds and has not been cleaned for years. One of the boatboys (I’ve decided they are not Sinuous Muscles after all. Mere boys!) move the payal weeds from the path while all of us oar our way out of the muddle. People around us on the banks peer at us wondering whether we are out of our minds. People in their right minds do not take this path. So it is weed a little, oar a little and then weed a little and oar again… for three whole hours. In the middle of this arduous trek, a half-dead egret lands on our boat. Its neck is turned down and it is seeking refuge in a corner under the bow or the front end. When we pluck it out of there, it doesn’t even try to fly. Something is definitely wrong. This bird is not well. It doesn’t want to move. As I peer at the bird, I realise I had the answer to one of the unanswerables shot at me by my four-year-old once: “Mama, where do birds go to die?” I had the answer finally: They find stupid boats stuck in weed jams to die in.

The true aficionado

Kerala is a divine place, that’s what we all love to say whenever the subject crops up in urban drawing rooms. The best way to find out whether you’ve been touched by the Kerala charm is with a simple test. And that is: Whether you’ve begun calling your uncle, ‘ungl’ after your trip to Kerala. And whether your roses are ‘ping’. THAT is the true mark of a Kerala aficionado.
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