"Glory lies in the attempt to reach one's goal and not in reaching it" ~ Mahatma Gandhi


Kerala Backwaters

Nishit Rawat is an IT professional based in Bangalore who enjoys reading, writing and travel. In sharing his travel tales of the backwaters of Kerala, he reveals the mind and senses that enjoyed the experience.
Nishit Rawat's blog.

Palakkad Junction, deep inside southern India, is on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Virgin land, untouched by modernity, it has a rustic charm.

I was scared that I might oversleep and miss my station, and so kept awake all night on the train. There was nothing to see from my window seat. The open fields that in the day were filled with dancing greens and grazing cows now merged seamlessly with the sky in a broad swathe of black. The compartment was full of people. All berths were taken. More people lay on their bundles of cloth near the toilets, where the caged yellow bulbs burned dimly. It was a cold night, and not all windows had glass.

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beachThe train slowed for the station, and the sounds of vendors selling morning snacks dissolved into the chaos of songs that devotees, travelling further south to Sabarimala, sang in the general compartment. At four in the morning the sky was still dark. Those who had woken up early rushed to taps on the platform to wash their faces and brush their teeth. I was getting off here. I dragged myself out of the compartment, my shoes untied, hair crumpled, eyes half asleep.

I waited on the platform until the engine whistled into gradual start; the station master waving the green flag. All the hectic morning activity of the platform came to a grinding halt. The next train would arrive five hours later.

It was colder than I had expected. Wind blew from the scarlet skies behind the mountains covered with descending mist. The orange halogen lamps on the platform made me feel dizzy. This was my first destination in Kerala.

The town erupted into activity by ten. Cycles and cycle rickshaws drove by in the narrow brick streets. Crowds gathered in the marketplace with its slippery floor and the smell of freshly caught fish. By the time the sun shone in all its brightness most people were back indoors, in the shady comfort of their slanted-roofed-houses. It was only in the evening that the town came alive again.


This was a strange place. Palakkad's extremes of activity and inactivity seemed to be matched only by its extremes of temperatures. Without a hint, the afternoon heat quickly transformed into an evening chill. When the sky was dark again, the shop lights came on and suddenly there were people all around again. I meandered through some more lanes in the night and returned late to the hotel.

Early next morning I was on my way to Allapuzha or Aleppey, a six hour journey. They call this place the Venice of the East. Tourists come here to see the backwaters of Kerala. They have two options: stay at a resort by the side of the backwaters and take a boat to see the interiors; or take a house boat, and spend the night there. After some hard bargaining (this doesn't come cheap, it cost me two and a half thousand rupees) I was off to a nearby bank from where I would board my houseboat. Surprised faces greeted me, it wasn't often that somebody came alone to stay on a houseboat.

AllepeyThe journey began well enough. I'd missed lunch so I was glad food was served quickly. As we moved on, I began to wonder whether choosing the houseboat over a resort had been wise. The houseboat's appeal was its wooden deck and the cane structure that covered the room but it wasn't exactly luxurious. No lights for one. At least not the ones powered by electricity although there were some kerosene lanterns. And the houseboat had no motor. It was to be rowed all along. After all that bargaining I decided to view it as a completely natural experience.


Despite my new outlook, the murkiness of the water and all the weeds floating around disturbed me. I was reminded of my trip to Sunderbans. Vivid pictures of its green-blue waters and untouched beauty flashed in front of my eyes. I felt that I was missing something. The first few hours of the trip were spent in comparing the two, looking for that something exceptional; something special. But as it happens with all things special in life, I wouldn't find it until I stopped looking. Speeches over, we went out into the maddening heat, crowds, and stalls.

The sky was cloudy and the palm groves across the waters looked black in the shadows of a setting sun. The colours were melting into each other like a watercolour, with the mist providing the halo of a dream. The oars were splashing the waters, the birds were flying home. When we passed an island, there were children playing cricket, and young girls in their finery going somewhere with their mothers. And then there was nothing: just the water, the boat, the islands, the trees, and the sky.


There were three other people on the boat: Babu and Shivdas, boatmen both. And Manoj, the chef. Shivdas was about 50 years old, his age betrayed by his grey hair. He wore a light pink shirt, a green lungi and a white turban; and every bit of cloth looked striking on his chocolate brown skin. Babu looked similar, only with a more angelic smile, as his eyes shrank when his teeth showed. Both Babu and Shivdas were from nearby villages and spoke only Malayalam. Manoj knew a little of both Hindi and English. He had worked in Bombay for a couple of years as an AC mechanic. He would get three thousand rupees a month there, but that wasn't enough to meet his expenses. So, here he was, doing a job that gave him thirty rupees a day plus tips from the tourists. Tips, I was made to believe, that were generous.

In this state of Kerala, God's Own Country, there was little development beyond tourism which flourished here attracting tourists from far and wide. Most locals worked on farms, cultivating paddy, bananas and coconut, otherwise they worked for tour operators. The wages were low.

The sun had almost sunk below the horizon, and clouds covered a half moon. Resort lights shone on the distant banks, reflecting in the water underneath. There was silence all around. Only the stray sounds of a passing motor boat filtered through once in a while. November usually heralds winters, but the air betrayed no sign of it. Indeed, a mild breeze brought some comfort from the humidity and the ripples it created swayed the boat in gentle rhythm. I lay on the deck watching the clouds pass over the moon, allowing an occasional glimpse.

backwatersI loved the quiet and I loved the dim light of the lanterns, but I hated my loneliness and I hated my mind for its racing thoughts. Thinking too much sometimes seems like an affliction with me. To wonder why I live, to wonder if life is just passing me by, sometimes leaves me all too disturbed. I wish I could just stop thinking so much some day. But such thoughts kept me occupied until dinner was served on the deck. Keralite food turned out to be more delicious than I had expected.

I lay on the deck until late that night. Manoj saw my Walkman and wanted to hear songs. He sat by my side while Babu and Shivdas chatted away at the other end of the boat. Late in the night I went into the boat-room and tried to sleep there. Manoj had warned me about fishermen from nearby villages who would come in the night to see if they could pick up anything. Consequently, only one window could be kept open. The night was spent battling the humidity and the mosquitoes. I hardly slept. Each time I would drift into a dream a mosquito would buzz in my ear. The mosquitoes ensured that I was awake before dawn. I walked out on the deck to much chillier temperatures. The clouds still covered the sky and there was no view of the sunrise to the east. But the view around was beautiful. Serene. The freshness of the air, the rippling of the waves - it was as it had been the evening before; and yet it was different. My senses seemed to melt away into the beauty that surrounded me. Something within me reminded me that I was part of this creation, this beauty all around, what I saw was part of me too. Like the mosquitoes, all my disturbing thoughts had suddenly vanished.

For a while, I lay on the deck with eyes wide open. I didn't even realise when sleep took over. Manoj woke me for breakfast after the most refreshing nap I have had in a long time. It was about eight in the morning and time to move on. Time to explore the backwaters of Kerala in greater depth.

All around was green. There were palm groves, banana trees and paddy fields. As we moved on I saw birds and flowers, mostly crimson red flowers. There were stray islands, small ones, dense with trees growing into each other, climbers hanging out into waters. There were small huts in the passing villages. Fishermen in their boats with nets under the water, were working for their daily catch. And there were these thin small boats, Vallum, similar to canoes.

We moved on to a boat repair yard - just a tin shed by the side of a smallish house. Here I finally found someone willing to lend us their Vallum. Manoj and I drifted off in one. It was scary to start with: a slight shift in weight on either side and we would both be in the water. Soon, however, we settled into the boat and were one with the lake. I was actually sitting below the water level. I could reach out and trail my hand through the water. We moved through the water lilies and I plucked one. This was the clearest water I had seen in the entire place yet; clear enough to be able to spot the small black fish.

Half an hour of rowing left us tired, but it also left me wanting more. The lake was calling out to tell me that I wanted more of it. That it wanted more of me. It urged me to take a plunge, to feel its water on my skin, to unravel its beauty, deep inside. The lake had a strange charm, mysterious and sublime; a charm that I just could not resist. In those waters I swam like fish. I saw the pebbles at the bottom and the moss that grew on them. I saw the small black fish float by me. And, when I swam facing the sky, I saw the towering palms bowing to me, and paying obeisance to the lake. I saw the clouds filter the light enough so that it would not hurt my eyes. Every splash that I made broke the silence, and yet it was the rhythm to which my soul danced.

This lake was what life was about. About getting deep inside, about taking what came along, about absorbing the richness of the moment in its entirety. Like swimming, like flying, like dancing, like meditation. I had to dip myself in it, surrender to it. Completely. There were no boundaries, no limits.

When my body could take no more, I returned to the deck. I lay on the polished wood, warmed by a now blazing sun. My eyelids battled exhaustion for a while, unwilling to miss any glimpse of the beauty around, but sleep gently took over yet again.

Soon Manoj, Babu and Shivdas, the sky and the palm trees, the water lilies, the paddy fields, the dimly lit lanterns in the quiet of the night and the rippling, charming waters would all be part of memory; etched in a corner of my heart. I would be on a bus to Cochin; my skin a deeper shade of chocolate brown.

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