Xavier doesn’t remember when he made his first boat . He says he was probably a teenager when he learnt the craft from his father more than four decades ago .“ In those days, every family in Chellanam used to make boats “ he reminisces , looking wistfully into the small canal that borders his house and flows along the village. Small wooden boats float aimlessly in the waters, tossed by the winds. But Xavier’s Kerala has changed over the many decades. Now there are just a handful of people eking a livelihood through this small scale industry in Chellanam, a small hamlet located close to Kochi.
Synonymous with boats and backwaters, no picture post card from this part of the country is ever complete without the quintessential portrait of the fisherman in the backwaters . These country boats or vanjis have been the lifeline of the locals living here. Kids going to school, vegetable vendors selling their fares on the boats, fishermen with their nets , almost every house had a boat .” It is not the same anymore, “ says Xavier.” Only fishermen come to us these days, most villagers have left for towns, hardly anyone needs them anymore , “ he adds . Xavier makes about four to five boats a month and manages to earn just a few thousands from them .
A parakeet screeches close by as bright orchids light up his shed. Planks of wood, coir threads are scattered around unfinished structures of boats . Only one of them is almost ready and is waiting to be polished with “ fish ghee” which keeps it water proof. The remaining small boats are in various stages of completion.
Xavier explains that an average boat is about 12 feet long with a width of three feet and he shows me the hull . Planks of local wood called Aanjili” or Artocarpus hirsutus are tied together with coir and coconut fibre , which are stuffed in between to prevent water from coming inside. He says that the boat would take about a month to be ready .
A few houses away from his shed is John’s unit which specializes in making large boats based on orders .There are more hands here as John proudly shows his biggest boat, a 40 feet long with a width of nine feet . Nestling inside is a very tiny boat.” Just a showpiece, do you like it , I can sell it for Rs 3000,” he says. I politely decline as John explains that the bigger boat will fetch him two and a half lakhs, but the costs he says are fairly expensive.
Elsewhere John’s grandchild is wailing, as his daughter distracts the child by showing him around the unit. “ It is our family tradition and we will continue to make boats ,” sums up John as his grandson picks up a small plank. As we drive past Chellanam, a group of kids wave out to us while they sail away on their boats.
This story was published in my column Inside Story in The Hindu.