Every month in the Itinerant Writers Club we write a 500 word essay on a given theme. This month it was “a place I know well”.
Our boat is safely tucked up in a marina on tiny Mulavukad Island, where a garden of tropical trees acts as a natural windbreak. Jamie and I made Bolgatty (the island’s local name) our home when we sailed to Kochi in May 2010. To the north, a utilitarian concrete bridge flies down from the mainland onto Bolgatty’s eastern shore, races across to the other side, then takes off towards neighbouring Vypeen island. All day and night the parched roadside and weary pedestrians are sprayed by a relentless choking mist of dust from belligerent lorries and whining auto-rickshaws.
Kochi is Kerala’s largest city, also its economic capital, and the state’s most trodden tourist destination. Bounded by a capricious Arabian Sea to the west and gentle rural backwaters on its eastern side, this ancient port floats on the slow-moving waters of enormous Lake Vembanad. Bolgatty, along with elegant Fort Cochin and historic Mattancherry, is one of several smaller districts which have proliferated across the many islands and promontories that make up Kochi. A community of Harijans (aka ‘Untouchables’) has made its home under the bridge on Bolgatty, leaning bits of corrugated metal up against the bridge’s concrete piles, covering them with plastic sheets and old rags. The families migrated here from Bangalore in the hope that the government of Kerala (known for its beneficence) would give them aid. They were here when we arrived, and are still here. Fishing is their only source of income. Every day their catch is on sale from the pavement on the mainland, neatly spread out on old newspapers.
I’m up around 6.00am most mornings, the coolest and quietest time of the day. If the tide is slack I’ll gather together an old rod and line, a lump of sweet white Indian bread, and my cat. We like to do a little fishing, Millie and I. Sitting on a box, at the back of our boat, I’ll scatter a few pieces of bread onto the surface to attract the fish’s attention, then sit back and wait. Millie, who has lived on the water since she was a kitten, knows the score. With enviable balance she leans over the side, her x-ray eyes following the fish long before I can see anything. Sometimes I’ll catch two or three, enough to satiate my greedy little cat, but most mornings she eats Whiskas.
A little after dawn I hear the Harijans before I see them, their voices carrying across the water. They pass by the marina in coracles, saucer-shaped rafts woven from bamboo, about 2m in diameter. While the men feed out a knotty line, women or children row with a single oar. We smile and wave at each other. No matter what size the boat, we are all brothers and sisters on the water.