Floating Thru Time

It may be that the backwaters of Kerala are indescribable.  Certainly the question of "How do you describe this to someone who has never been here" came up repeatedly over the weekend.

My traveling companions for the trip were my friend from The Theatre School, Gary Mills, of Bookwallah fame here on the blog, and Nicole who lucked out with a bed since Gary’s friend and co-worker fell ill and had to bail out on the trip at the last minute.

Keralan houseboats originated as rice barges. They are fairly low slung affairs, flat bottomed, with beautiful curved bows. Most have open deck living rooms in the front behind where the captain sits on the most forward deck steering by a largish wheel. Behind the living room are a series of bedrooms, anywhere from one to four. All have bathrooms attached. In the back is a galley that borders the aft of the boat where the crew hangs their laundry and cleans up. Some boats, not ours, have roof top decks, or even another row of bedrooms on a second story deck. All the boats are covered with palm thatch roofs, beautifully woven. The thatch also covers the sides, so one feels like they are in a sort of river basket turned upside down.

The backwaters themselves are a series of canals and riverlets weaving through rice paddies. Edging the crimson green patties are narrow strips of solid ground usually no wider than one room and a sidewalk created by centuries of foot traffic, on which rows of houses are built. Imagine a city neighborhood where the houses were fronted by water and where the alley would be is a vast expanse of bright green rice grass. On the far side of the patty field is another strip of land. Palm trees highlight all the land bits.

Upon occasion canals open into voluptuous lakes, with little islands of plants and purple flowers that give purchase for small egrets and herons to rest on when they aren’t dancing in flying formation down the center of the river or taking up residence in the trees.

What makes the backwaters baffling to relate is the way that humans interact with them. There are whole villages spread out in little rows, one room thick.

Homes nestle next to shops, which keep company with churches or Hindu temples. People live and work and pray shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. In the morning you can see lines of women walking single file past houses, aluminum lunch pails in hand, to work in the rice fields. Children ride bikes on precariously thin dirt trails. Groups of men or women gossip on the edge of the water.

People don’t stay on the land, of course. They commute by boat. They carry goods like sacks of grain, kerosene, even cement for building houses, via long canoes.

Some attend floating churches in the evening. This is an extravagant affair. First comes a small boat that sets off intermittent fireworks. Second is the boat carrying the creche adorned with marigold colored fairy lights. Last comes the boat blasting devotional music sung in Malayalam, also adorned in bright lights.

People fish from the shore, from boats, even from round bamboo or palm leaf woven disks that are big enough for two people to sit in. Husbands and wives work together throwing nets from the disk and systematically pulling it in. The way they toss the net and the way they gather it in pulls them around and around wily nily, but it also allows them a way to get back to shore. The first bit of net is thrown out near the land then slowly laid down, much like breadcrumbs through a forest of underwater underbrush, so when they want to go in for the evening they simply retrace their steps pulling in the net, thereby drawing themselves to dry land.

Not that the backwater folks are afraid of the water or getting wet. They do all their washing at the water’s edge: clothes, bodies, teeth, hair, dishes all get soaped up and scrubbed out in the brown watered canals. I began to feel a little bit like the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five who watched Billy Pilgrim go through his daily ablutions in the extra-terrestrial zoo on Trafalmador. I took loads of pictures of people washing up on the riverbanks because it was so breathtakingly beautiful, but I also felt guilty. Would I want strangers watching and documenting me as I lathered up and rinsed off, as I washed my hair, bathed my baby? These are such intimate, sensual, quietly held experiences in a person’s daily life, but for those in the backwaters they are shared with a host of foreigners who float by, a constant stream of prying eyes.

For the most part, the people on shore seemed oblivious to our intrusion. One time, however, I saw a woman bathing her baby. I started to take a picture and the woman caught sight of me and she picked up her baby and ran inside. Another time, a young girl walking with an umbrella home from school, noticed me noticing her and she shifted her umbrella so that it blocked her face.

We weren’t merely observers, however. On the Friday evening we stopped at an ayurvedic center to get massages. Touching down, setting foot in that strange land, despite the fact that we were there to be pampered, was somewhat exhilarating. I played peek-a-boo with a young girl in a house and walked as far as I was allowed down a narrow path, trying to get a feel for what it must be like to live in a place where you must always walk forward to get to where you are going, because if you veer to the right or left you are apt to end up in the drink or in someone else’s front yard.

On Saturday morning we went for a longer walk. At one break in the houses we were able to watch women work in the rice patties behind the narrow strip of land. Nicole, who is a cook back home is fascinated with rice and how it’s grown so she decided to go into the bog and talk to the women.

Pretty soon she had Gary and I trudging into the mud and muck and carrying bundles of rice stalks for the ladies. We were helping to redistribute plants that were getting too clumped up, much like you might thin out irises once a year and redistribute the bulbs to empty patches in your garden.

In another village we met Vishnu, a young engineer. Calling out over his garden wall for us to stop, Vishnu wanted us to see his house and to meet his family. Pictures were taken.

Vishnu’s grandmother didn’t seem pleased at the intrusion. I asked her if I might take her picture. Surprisingly she said yes.

When I showed her the picture, her scowl turned into a bright, beautiful smile. She laughed and grabbed my arm, much the way Randa had done back in Fort Cochin. Once again I was reminded of the overwhelming beauty in an Indian smile.

All through the villages, we met kids who wanted pens; if we didn’t have pens they wanted rupies. One group of girls wanted to try out taking pictures with my camera.

I had a conversation with a lady gutting a fish on the edge of the canal. She told me how much she liked Barack Obama. She had watched him on the TV when he visited Mumbai and she had been impressed with his dancing. Imagine a young Indian woman kneeling in the water, a large knife in one hand, a fish head on the step in front of her, a fresh filet in the other hand, and she is doing an impersonation with her head and shoulders of Barack Obama dancing. Priceless.

Gary and I talked to a group of kids playing cricket.

When their ball fell in the canal they calmly started gathering rocks to throw into the water just past the ball. The ripples created by the rocks sent the ball back towards shore. It was a humbling moment. I would have jumped frantically into the water, making a fool of myself, if it had been my ball that had gone AWOL from the shore.

Of course, our small forays onto solid land were just larks, small moments of connection. For the most part we sat in our little floating haven of luxury with a private cook and captain, a.c., and flushing toilets watching the mysterious world of backwater Kerala float by, marveling at a way of life that seems be stoically trying to preserve it’s integrity while being flooded with gawkers and interlopers who are watching them like organisms under a microscope.

At one point, Koshi, our captain, pointed out a man up ahead of our boat who seemed to be fishing in a large mass of water vegetation. Koshi indicated, by waving his elbows, wing-like and quacking that the man was doing something with a duck. As we got closer, Gary, Nicole and I realized that what we thought were plants were actually thousands of ducks. The man was herding them, like a sheepherder would corral sheep: one man in a canoe with one paddle, making thousands of ducks go where he wanted them to go.

We certainly weren’t the only ones doing the observing. Its not like we were hidden behind a mirrored glass window. One time a young girl of 5 or 6 caught sight of me and started waving. She and I happened to be wearing the same color, a deep pink that was almost purple; it felt a little like two parts of the same whole reaching out across the water. As my boat sped along the girl decided to run to try and keep up with me, waving the whole way. At one point I lost her when she stopped at a bridge to wait for her mother. Soon, though, she appeared over the bridge, yelling and waving. We kept up like that for several minutes until she finally had to turn off into a yard.

During the two days Gary, Nicole and I were on the houseboat, it was if we floated between the veils of time. It was easy to imagine the days of the Raj as we lounged in our high-back Victorian armchairs drinking Lime sodas brought by the cook. We looked out on a way of life that is, by more western standards, from a bygone, simpler era. If I hadn’t seen so many satellite dishes, and heard so many cell phones ringing, it would be easy to visualize people living exactly the same way in the Backwaters 100 years ago as they do now.

Gary and I, too, were stretching across time. There was a moment when we caught each other’s eyes, I don’t’ remember why, but I could palpably feel each of the 22 years we’ve known each other bridging our gaze like a ladder through time and we existed both here in India in 2011 and simultaneously in a rehearsal room in Chicago in 1989. Much like Billy Pilgrim living all the moments of his life concurrently.

All these years Gary and I have been in our own round bamboo boats, laying down nets, catching our dreams, letting others slip through, the current buoying us hither and thither. We bump into each other from time to time. We have drifted apart when we needed to fish somewhere else.

Nicole has been bobbing too, her raft finding us a few days ago, floating off only a few days after that. Then there’s Koshi, our captain, Minosh, the cook, each in their rafts, traveling together for work, bumping into us for a few days. On the shore of the backwaters, bob hundreds of souls in their bamboo rafts, creating ripples that shift the trajectory of our rafts.

All of you reading this also float, cast nets, catch dreams, bob and weave, twist and turn through time.

It’s difficult, sometimes, making peace with how the water and the wake of other rafts and bigger boats can send our raft spinning when we want to stay still, but I’m making peace with the current. I’m learning to trust that if I take care of my net and grasp it gently in my hands, what I need to hold onto will be hauled into my raft and what I need to let go of will flow on through. If I want to try and change course, it’s as easy as throwing rocks just past my boat to push me in the right direction. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get a few moments of stillness, before eventually making it back to shore.