Esther Elias alights at the Ernakulam Boat Jetty and finds a microcosm of our city

At 10 p.m., on the last boat back to Kochi from Vypeen, there are five ferry staff, four sleepy passengers, two cockroaches and a drunk man shuffling newspaper sheets on the floor. Around us, though, is absolute calm. Still waters stretch far, hemmed in by a shimmering Kochi skyline that soars with the high rises and falls to the street lamps. Blue, white, green, orange and yellow twinkling lights lose their long reflections to murky black backwaters. As we reach the shoreline, docked ferries bob softly outside an ominous building bathed in darkness — the Ernakulam Boat Jetty.

The Jetty at dawn is more welcoming. Sunshine floods through its broken glass windows framed by deep red paan stains. Sparrows, pigeons and crows fly in, rest, nest and feed off the abundant peanut shells leftover from yesterday’s snacking. The rumble of approaching ferries slowly grows, and by 7 a.m. thick crowds from Vypeen, Mattancherry, Willingdon Island and Fort Kochi spill out on the pier, hurry along the sides of the Jetty and speed away to schools, colleges and offices. The day’s first ferry though, had moored several hours earlier, at 4.40 a.m. Inside the Jetty, life is still lazy.

On the first floor, station master P.N. Govindan pores over his rosters marking in workers’ attendance, fielding calls and allotting schedules. “We work in double shifts of 16 hours each,” says Govindan. While the station masters reach at 6 a.m. and leave by night, everyone else employed on the boats — the ‘sranks’ (drivers at the steering wheel), engine drivers, ticket masters, and ‘laskars’ (those who anchor ferries to ports with ropes) — works from one afternoon to the next.

Afternoons at the Jetty are for infatuated school kids bunking class, beggars looking for a catnap, weary street dogs and migrant labourers pausing for lunch. The shade inside shields from a fierce sun. Lottery ticket sellers peddle a richer future, the paan-walla outside does brisk business and P. Chandran, ‘srank’ for 18 years, has just finished his shift. “I came into this profession almost 30 years ago. A lady in my hometown, Pizhala island, passed away because she missed the one boat that could take her to hospital. Friends and I then began a self-employment venture ferrying islanders there,” says Chandran. While that service stopped many years ago, Chandran became a ‘laskar’ for the government and eventually became a driver. He is 54 now, and will soon retire.

Almost everyone at the Jetty has such stories of determination. K.P. Benny, who mans the lone licensed food stall inside the Jetty, ‘Juice Magic’, left his home and vanilla business in Sultan Bathery, Wayanad, to augment his family’s farming income. By day he serves passengers some excellent tea; by night he sleeps in a room adjacent to the shop.

In the five years that he has seen the Jetty grow, he says the biggest change, besides the toilet, has come in the last week: “They’re tiling the walkway outside!” he says. Getting to the Jetty has thus far been a test of passengers’ athletic prowess. In the monsoon you leap over craters of water; otherwise you hop, skip and jump over open drains, potholes and stones. “So many people have fallen, especially in the dark,” he recalls.

Sunset is peak-time at the Jetty. Long queues, a steady babble of languages from German to Bengali, children dashing between counters, arguments with ticket collectors over the 100-per-ferry limit, it is loud madness inside. Life at the Jetty is never dull, says ‘boat master’ Masheer. Although it took him two years of service on a private boat, and passing the Kerala Public Service Commission exam to get hired, he says it’s worth the wait.

“We’ve saved suicide attempts, recovered lost baggage and much else. We’re worried when the boats stop mid-waters though. The ‘laskars’ then have to jump in and clear the nets/plastic/rubbish that’s blocked the propellers.”

For all its squalor, the Jetty has been the site of many new friendships. Divya Mohan, from Eloor, takes the 8.40 daily ride to Willingdon Island every morning. “We know almost everyone on the ferry after all these years,” she says. Most people usually come charging in, jingling change in their pockets, with a quick glance at the gates to see if their ferry’s left. They bring in backpacks and suitcases, the day’s shopping and vegetable bags, digital cameras, cycles and even electric guitars. For customs auditor Geevarghese, who’s taken the ferry since 1991, the Jetty has symbolised stability in changing times. “Although it’s moved three places in these years, the prices have gone up only from 50 paise to Rs. 4. It’s a service for the common man.”

QUICK FACTS:

- 120 full-time staff run the Jetty and its allied works, with another 60 on daily wages.

- Between them, they manage six ferries shuttling 26 one-way daily trips to Vypeen every half-hour and 49 trips to Fort Kochi every 20 minutes, beside one boat each for Varapuzha and Vytilla.

- While the ferries are managed by the State Water Transport Department (SWTD), the Jetty also houses an information kiosk of the Department of Tourism. A few of the Tourism offices are on the first floor.

- The present Jetty building has operated since the early 2000s , and stands in front of the remains of its former avatar. The regional office of the SWTD operates from there besides a staff room and a workshop. For thorough servicing, though, the ferries are taken to the Thevara workshop near Venduruthy Bridge.

- Fuel for the ferries comes from Poochakkal, where large drums are filled every alternate day and stacked at the Jetty beside the docked ferries.

Keywords: VypeenKochi ferry