Ferrying passengers through the backwaters is the livelihood for three women from North Paravur. They talk about their unique choice of rowing through male territory

Water is an integral part of North Paravur, with a network of canals and picture perfect villages at every turn. The best way to traverse this place is to ferry through it and bask in its beauty. Three women of a family in Kuttanthuruthu, one of the many islands here, make a living by ferrying people, in rain or sunshine.

Thulasi Lakshmanan, 76, Jaya Ramakrishnan, 72, and Raji Sudheesh, 34, have, between them, been ferrying people across to Khandakarnanveli village for more than 50 years.

This ferry links Kuttanthuruthu Kadathu with Khandakarnanveli, meandering through rivulets like Idathodu and Pashnithodu.

Labour of love

“We are able to reach out to people because we live close by and are available from early morning until sunset. Though we own the vanchi (canoe) we work under the Kottuvally Panchayat. My husband and his brother gave us the freedom to choose our work. We love the waters, and so we decided to train ourselves and be one among the very few women who do this kind of work,” says Jaya.

“When Raji got married into our family, she too joined us. There was no opposition at all. Actually, we feel that there is no danger or risk involved. And we believe we are doing a great service by helping the local population travel easy. Most of the travellers are people from the locality who are familiar and so there is a sort of warmth in our job,” she adds.

Thulasi joins in on the conversation: “Years back one could walk across the waters as it was crystal clear. These small canals are not very deep. But now we have noticed that the colour of the water has changed, perhaps because of the weeds or because of pollution. That’s why people depend a lot on us for going about their business.”

The people here observe that the waters used to be fresh and clean after the Idavappaathi (North-East monsoon) and would remain so till Thulam-Vrischikam (November-December). But all that has now changed.

It is only when the weather turns very rough, when there is heavy rain, gale and lightning that this ferry does not function. The commuters would then wait patiently till the weather improved before boarding the quaint ferry.

“Our daily commuters include teachers to the school at Manjummel, the milkman who heads to the dairy farm at Khandakarnanveli and a few school students. It starts getting dark early these days. So, if people come late after work, they whistle from the banks across and we whistle back indicating that we are coming to pick them up. The three of us take a few hours from our daily household chores to do this work. The advantage is that we stay so close that we are able to manage our homes and this job successfully. When it comes to attending festivals or family functions we take turns to attend them. But we ensure that one of us is there to help ferry the people across the rivulet,” informs Jaya .

There have been the odd disasters. Raji has a story which she narrates accompanied with peals of laughter. “Beginners, those who are taking a ferry ride in this small, narrow canoe, need to be very careful. A few years back, my mother-in-law and her brother, came to visit me. They were coming with a share of a wedding feast they had gone to. The boy was not used to this kind of travel. Trying to alight from the canoe he lost his balance. The canoe tilted and all the carefully packed items of the wedding feast, from the banana chips, rice to the round, puffy pappadams fell into the water.

“But the ferry ride is really like a soothing-balm. It is a lovely getaway for city dwellers who enjoy this ride when they come here.”

Thattaruparambil Sreemathi Mukundan, well into her 70s, provides an insight into this once-crucial transport system that dominated the many canals of the Periyar. Her kadathu vallom or ferry connected Paliam Kadavu with Cheria Pazhampilly Thuruthu or C.P.Thuruthu, in Chendamangalam panchayat. “I did this work for close to 18 years, till the end of the 70s. I was trained by Mukundan, my husband, who had to quit due to ill-health. My day usually started at around five in the morning and I was on ‘duty’ till the last show at the old Bobby Theatre in North Paravur ended. Students and teachers of the Paliam School, children who attended the tuition classes of George Sir, who was famous for his classes, were my regular passengers. And there were also some people who never paid for the ride.”

Preserving a culture

Kottayil Kovilakom, Gothuruthu, Kottappuram, Malavana, Elanthikara, were among the many other regions that were connected through the kadathu. Sreemathi adds: “The water used to be so clean those days that I preferred drinking this water than what was kept at home. There were many days when I had to skip lunch. And by the grace of God there were no accidents. The traditional vallom or canoe gave way to motorised boats and construction of bridges made transportation a lot easier.” Sreemathi now runs a small shop at Paliam Kadavu.

There is pain, fortitude, entertainment, love of labour and so much more in what these women do. It’s a tough job, and the fact is that it is people like them who have preserved a way of life, which would have been lost forever like many other things that we see don’t see around us now.

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