It was in the early sixties. The Communist Party in India had just split in two, with the intellectuals and idealists lining up on one side and the street smart leaders with the majority of the cadre on the other. The first major war with Pakistan was just around the corner. US troops were considering a ‘brief’ working holiday in Vietnam. But all those things were happening in a far away world that we kids knew little of.
Those days, we lived in an old rambling tiled house with too many rooms and too many doors offering exits to the open courtyard. A family of palm civets lived in the huge attic. Mongooses and foxes had colonised the surrounding wooded fields. A river with steep banks flowed behind the house, before swinging around and ducking under a tall bridge. Trivandrum city still retained the atmosphere of a large prosperous village rather than a state capital.
In the morning, Trivandrum woke up to two distinct sounds. First came the rolling roars and explosive grunts of the huge male lions from the city zoo about four miles away. Then there was the steady drone of the twin engine DC3 Dakota airplane that brought the morning’s Hindu newspaper from Madurai, the temple city in Madras State. The air was so clear that one could hear the Dakota for over fifteen minutes till it landed at the seaside airport seven miles away. This Dakota and its clumsy looking contours were one of the icons of Trivandrum life during those times. Much later I would read that it was the longest serving aircraft ever and that it had dozens of nicknames including ‘Gooney Bird’ and ‘Old Fatso’.
The Killi River which flowed near our home never went dry in those days. There was some serious fishing upstream and we boys went to watch on lazy afternoons. Once I saw a man land a thick eel like fish three feet long. It was caught by an old man named Kunjan who kept stud bulls near the rice paddies. He told me that the fish was called a ‘vlank’ and that its fat could cure asthma. It would be put alive in a vat that contained rice flour. It could survive for more than a day out of water. Writhing around, it would dislodge an oil from its skin, readily absorbed by the rice flour, which would be then prepared for the medicine. Local legend had it that the vlank could move like a sidewinder across land, from one body of water to another on new moon nights. ‘Braal’ and ‘aattuvaala’ were two other medium big fishes they regularly caught from Killi. Braal looked something like a fierce pike while the aattuvaala was flatter and had scales that flashed like silver coins in the sun. For some unknown reason, river fish was taboo at home and was never cooked or served.
Fifteen years later, my love for this river made me trek trough the south end of the Western Ghat mountains in pouring rain, guided by a Kaani tribal called Kuttan. There were leeches everywhere and herds of wild elephants were moving to higher grounds for fresh grazing. Walking around the Neyyar reservoir and slithering up muddy trails, beyond the wild Meenmutty Falls*, I stood in a rock crucible, knee deep in crystal clear water that oozed in from the surrounding undergrowth and mist. On all fours, I drank greedily like an animal, the water tasting like a hundred herbs and washed rock. Blood from the leech bites, which refused to clot, made smoke patterns in the water. I was where the Killi began. That visit changed me and in the following years I would trek the mountains and monsoon forests of Western Ghats several times. More of that later, perhaps.
All of that is a scene from the past. My friend’s nephew tells me that the place has now been vandalised with broken beer bottles and plastic waste. For a few hundred rupees, a boat man will take you across the reservoir with the silent consent of the corrupt forest guards. The deer, mountain squirrel and the lion tailed macaques have been hunted to near extinction. The harsh echoing call of the hornbill is rare. Majestic tuskers are absent, with the tuskless mozha males passing on their genes to the next generation of baby elephants. Mafias distil moonshine in the woods and bribe the ancient forest people to transport the brew in small canoes. Constantly pestered by the criminals and officials, the Kaani tribes have lost their roots.
Coming back to river fish, many years later, I tasted braal at the legendary 6th Mile toddy shop in Alleppey. Marinated in a paste of red chillies, turmeric and salt, deep fried in coconut oil, it tasted divine with the sour sweet palm toddy. Last year during a trip home, I asked a young fish vendor for braal, aattuvaala or vlank. He had not seen a braal in a long time and never heard of the other two. Riverside fishermen in different areas had different names for the same fish, I consoled myself. Two days later, I stood on the bridge above the Killi. Greedy and uncontrolled sand mining had ravaged the river. Tufts of wild grass grew on small islands of broken rock. The trickle of sewage that flowed from one murky green pool to another had the sheen of floating oil. Nothing could live anymore in the once plentiful river. It was truly disembowelled and murdered. Another world has closed its doors on me.
*Note: Looking for Meenmutty Falls can be confusing. Most trekkers who venture in to rainforests to the south of Western Ghat Mountains are led to believe that there is only one in existence. Most of the places in this remote area are named by the Kaani tribe. For the tribe, Meenmutti is simply a steep waterfall in a river or creek that prevents the fish from migrating upstream. (Meen = fish; mutty = stop, dam, barrier etc). I have been to at least three, all named Meenmutty. Surely, there will be more, since mountains around the Agasthyakoodam Peak are crisscrossed with streams and blessed with ample rain. Three or four good sized rivers originate from this region.
*During the D-Day celebrations in June 2009, British 3 Para did a symbolic Para drop at Pegasus Memorial in Ranville. The aircraft that participated were Dakotas and the relatively much younger Hercules. Old Fatso flies on.
For info on DC3 Dakota, see http://www.dc3history.org/alialis_c47.htm