Behind the boats

Xavier doesn't remember when he made his first boat. Probably as a teenager, when he learnt the craft from his father more than four decades ago, he says. “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 water, tossed by the winds.

Xavier's Kerala has changed over the many decades. Now, there are just a handful of people eking out a living through this small-scale industry in Chellanam, a small hamlet close to Kochi.

The country boats or vanjis have been the lifeline of the locals. For kids to go to school, for vegetable vendors selling produce on the boats, fishermen with nets… almost every house had a boat. “It is not the same anymore. Only fishermen come to us these days. Most villagers have left for towns,” says Xavier. Xavier makes about five boats a month, and earns a few thousands.

A parakeet screeches close by, and bright orchids light up his shed. Planks of wood and coir threads are scattered around unfinished boats. One of them is almost ready, and is waiting to be polished with fish oil that keeps it water-proof.

Xavier explains that a boat is usually about 12-ft long and three-ft wide, and shows me the hull. Planks of local wood called a anjili ( Artocarpus hirsutus) are tied with coir and coconut fibre, and stuffed in between to prevent water from getting in. He says that the boat would take about a month to build.

A few houses from his shed is John's unit that specialises in making order-based large boats, and with more hands. John proudly shows his biggest boat — 40-ft long and nine-ft wide. Nestling inside is a very tiny boat. “It's just a showpiece. Do you like it? I can sell it to you,” he says. I politely decline.

Elsewhere, John's grandchild is wailing, and his daughter distracts the child by showing him around the unit. “It is our family tradition, and we will continue to make boats,” says John as his grandson picks up a small plank. As we drive past Chellanam, a group of kids waves out to us, sailing away on boats.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 5:41:01 PM |

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