The Boatman on the Backwaters

The dark brown boat wobbled like a village drunk as I stepped into it. My husband, still on land, gripped my left hand (the right instantly flew up in search of balance). Our boatman laughed. He stood a little away, one hand resting on his waist, the other on a pole. Unlike the resort staff, he was dressed informally, in a once-white tee shirt and a yellow-blue folded-up lungi. As he caught my eye, he dropped his arm and in heavily accented English asked me not to worry. His hand now pointed at the (dirty fraying) rope holding the boat in place; maybe he thought this would be reassuring. I dug my nails deeper into my husband’s hand. The boat continued to sway.

He waited for us to settled down on the red cushioned wooden seat and once we were done, he swung into action. His movements were swift and well rehearse.  He kept one foot on the quay and the other in the boat as he untied the rope. With his right foot he pushed against the concrete, propelling the boat into the water. He swung the long wooden oar around his body and in sharp fluid movements that defied his age, steered the boat away from the uncontrolled sprawl of water hyacinths. We watched in awe as he effortlessly led us through the backwaters.

Drifting along the Backwaters

He took us through a never ending expanse of water before hitting up on a cluster of tiny villages, past broken bicycles and drying laundry, past temples, churches and shacks. Kids playing along the water waved at us and we waved back. Everything was dense and green and humid and muddy. The silence magnified every tiny sound. The water parting under the force of the oar; insect and bird sounds punctured by intervals of clanging pots or a lone scooter puffing along the little road beyond the water.

He wore a crooked smile as he explained the history and socio-economic reality of the region to us. As we crossed an underconstruction houseboat – it was all wood and tarpaulin; the constant drilling, hammering and sawing on the water seemed oddly appropriate- he told us it would take  at least four more months before the boat could be used commercially, which meant it would make money only in the next season. But apparently the owner was well-off and the wait wouldn’t be hard on him. That right there was Arundhati Roy’s village. It wore no frills, no plaques. And this was the home of the richest man in the region (he lives in the Gulf, only comes here during Christmas. See all the decorations they’ve put up. He will be here soon).

Then he twisted the boat into a tiny stream and with pride he added, “This is my village.” It was a mass of small homes hidden under thick dark green foliage, protecting the village from prying eyes. The only visible sign of activity was a middle aged woman, in a purple housecoat, crouched by the water not a few feet away from us. She was cleaning a pair of traditional Indian brass lamps in a forceful 1-2-3 scrubbing action. She didn’t look up. The boatman powered on.