Monday, June 7, 2010

Damselflies in the wind

My dad grew up in a village called Kainakery in Kerala. Its in the coastal district of Alappuzha and is situated on the banks of the Pamba river. The back waters of Kerala is spoken off as a must see tourist destination. My dad was born there and my grandparents still live there. We used to visit them every year and spend at least a week there before we proceeded east to the hills where my mom had her house.
Its a small house, right on the bank of the river. A small lane separates the river from the mass of branches that serves as a compound wall. What an urban concept - a compound wall. Its just a line of sticks of a certain plant that are thrust into the ground. Give it a few months and you get a sturdy green fence. I forgot the name of the plant though grandpa told us about it. What I do remember is that the fence was the best place to catch damselflies.

Until a few years back, the only way to get there was by boat. We get down at the Alappuzha railway station and take a taxi to the main jetty. Then we take a boat from there to the Kainakary Panchayat jetty. If I remember correctly, the tickets cost Rs 6 each. Its a big boat and the pilot sits in a small cabin on top. I used to love those trips. My sister and I used to sit right in front and pretend we were the pilots. My parents used to have a hard time keeping us in our seats and out of the water while keeping an eye on the luggage at the same time. Grandpa would always be there on the jetty, waiting to welcome us.

More often than not my uncles used to join us and it seemed the tiny house would burst at the seams with the number of people trampling about inside. All of us kids would used to get together and tramp off to the river and grandpa used to accompany us to make sure we never jumped in. Every house situated on the bank has individual access to the river by a set of stone steps that lead down into the river. Since my grandparents never used it.. It lay crumbling and the stones were covered with algae, making them very slippery.

Please appacha, I'm just wetting my legs. I wont jump in.
No! The rocks are slippery and you'll fall in!
, can I wet my legs too? Appu is doing it. I want to stand in the water too!!!

Boy, did my grandpa have a tough time keeping us out of trouble. We were noisy, mischievous and found the most devious of ways to irritate the adults. But every time it was time to leave, he used to fight hard to keep his tears to himself. Grandma always cried when she kissed us goodbye, but not him. He would stay aloof the whole time we packed and then accompany as to the jetty and wait till we were safely onto the boat and wait there till the boat was out of sight.

Kainakary has changed a lot the last few years. Most of the first families that set up the village by battling the very river that is their life blood have moved on. Most of the houses, like our ancestral home, lie deserted and lifeless. (The ancestral home is where my grandpa grew up) The residents have either died out and their children, like my father, had migrated elsewhere, or they have moved to towns like Changenachery and Alleppuzha. The houses stand like empty shells reluctant to let go of their lost splendour or has been turned into tourist resorts by enterprising locals and large hospitality chains, their walls now adorned with cheap imitations of old artifacts, all to give an 'authentic' feel of course.

My father used to tell me stories of his childhood, of the colourful characters who made up the core of village life. They have all but disappeared now, those that are still alive sit around the small tea stalls recounting stories that no one else wants to know about. (Except people like my dad). My dad told me once that they never used to carry water bottles to school.... who would be stupid enough to do that? The school was right on the bank of the river.. (Right across from our home by the way). Now, the first thing we do when we reach Alleppuzha is buy two crates of Bislery drinking water. Today, you are more likely to see a bakpacker from Europe on the banks of the Pampa than a fisherman readying his nets. Of course, the only people who actually take to fishing in the river are old fishermen who know no other way to make a living or fraud mallus like me and my cousins who play-act with a hook tied to a dried stick.

When dad is feeling nostalgic or right after his best friend Sunny Kappankal or grandpa calls up to tell him about the demise of another one of Kainakary's residents, he tells me about the giant cat that used to live in the loft above the house, about his grandfather and his house, of the intense political debates that took place in the comfy environs of the local tea shop, about the magician priest who blessed my great grandfather's fields to get rid of vermin and of late night fishing trips on a borrowed vallam with his best friends for company. He never misses the Nehru Trophy Boat Race on TV. He sits down in front of the TV on the second Saturday of every August and relives his college days when he himself was the captain of a boat that took part in the minor races (without his parents knowledge of course). His excitement is infectious, like a boy with his favourite toy. He went to Alleppuzha last year to watch the races and for the next two months the music system in our car played a CD of vallam paattukal which he had brought back with him.

Its been a long time
since I've seen a damselfly. Every time I see one though or at least think of one, I remember the times I used to run across the mittam with my sister, chasing damselflies in the wind.