The first air that I breathed in was of a quaint little place called Akkarapaadam (meaning the field on the other bank). You could almost call it a village, but I have always preferred referring to it in my own thoughts as a hamlet. An island hamlet, to be precise. The only access to this beautiful place was by vallam (boat); the ones where you had the boatman with the twelve feet long bamboo pole as a makeshift oar. Nowadays, there is an alternate road access; but back then it was a completely isolated and marooned piece of land.
And on this island stood the home that my mother called her own.
Reaching Amma's home was quite an adventure for me as a ten or twelve year old boy and I must say that I looked forward to it eagerly. We stayed in Ernakulam back then, and the first step of the multi-stage journey was to get on a transport bus, which after an hour's scenic journey over many bridges and backwaters, dropped you off at a place called Naanaadam.
As soon as you got off the bus, it hit you. Maybe it was the fresh air, maybe it was the smell of the river or maybe it was just the smiling faces that nodded at you the moment you stepped foot on to the ground. But this was definitely not the bustling town that I had left just an hour back. Here was pure, pristine country side; the people just as pure and innocent as the land was.
After you got off the bus, you had to walk down a mud road (it has been upgraded and tarred now) for almost twenty minutes. Well, it should have been only a twenty minute normal-paced walk, for the distance was probably just over a kilometre. But I don't remember ever finishing that walk in less than an hour! Because, Amma would have to stop and talk to each person on the road going the other way! Now, this was the only part of the journey that I did not really look forward to; though, I did act out my part as the obedient, respectful young boy, staying beside her, looking on intently and trying to give the impression that the ongoing conversation with those strangers really interested me! But I must say, after two or three such trips, I began to stop disliking it so much, because I could see it was not just a formality that they were completing; they were actually sincerely trying to catch-up on the events that had happened since they last saw each other! And with people literally queuing up to take turns to talk to Amma, ready to even wait a few minutes, I could see how their priorities were still not diluted; for I am sure most of them were on their own errands. Relationships still mattered in that part of the world; or it did at least back then.
And so, the hour long walk was never tiring, except maybe during the monsoon, when there would be puddles of water all over - and even a stretch of the road where you had to wade through knee-deep water! But again, it seemed to only add to the sense of adventure. And in the monsoon, walking on that road with lush green paddy fields on either side of the road for as long as you could see, you were exposed - to the rain and to the wind. You could hold an umbrella, more for the fun of it, but no umbrella could offer even the semblance of any real shelter. You could either wait for the rain to subside (which is not a very good idea during the Kerala monsoon) or you could just decide to walk and get wet. Most times, we walked; and I loved it.
And after that walk, you reached the kadavu (the local boat jetty). Now this is where, you needed to be quite aware of the happenings around you, especially on the last few metres of the walk. For if you perceived a sudden increase in the speed of the people ahead of you, you would be well advised to increase your own speed, because it would mean the difference between catching a vallam that was about to leave or being left on the kadavu waiting for the next one. Now personally, I didn't mind spending another twenty minutes on the kadavu waiting for the next vallam, because it was all part of the adventure!
Standing at the kadavu and watching life on the river was fascinating. Small boats passing by, people washing clothes and some even bathing in small nooks, boats with fishing nets, children diving in to the water and having the time of their lives, big boats anchored in the middle of the river with people diving deep down to bring up sand or shells from the bottom. It was a bustle of activity; something quite alien to the little boy from the town. Before you knew it, the next vallam would have come, almost too soon!
And then you got on to the vallam. Now these boats were not very huge, they were bare structures, with wooden planks functioning as benches, which offered the VIP seats. If I remember correctly, the vallam could seat about twenty people. There was just enough space for about another ten people to stand. It was just a ten minute crossing; so it was not that bad for those standing.
The vallakkaaran (the boatman, and there were two of them, alternating the banks) was one of the most impressive characters that I have met. Apart from the sheer macho aura that he seemed to exude, he was the news reporter for all those on the boat. He gathered news and he distributed news with gay abandon. He knew about the happenings at just about each of the homes on the island. And he wouldn't hesitate to share it with the eager listeners on board. No part of your life here could be hidden, unlike in the city where you could pretty much do what you wanted, without a soul knowing about it. Here it was different; you were under the public eye (or at least the vallakkaaran's eye!) most of the time, and it surprised me that nobody really seemed to mind it. Now whenever, my amma and I were on board, we were the focus of attention - not only of the vallakkaaran, but also of all the other passengers! The only difference from the walk was that now I had something more interesting to do; I could put my hand over the side into the water, and feel the cold water rush by my fingers, occasionally touching a few sea weeds too. Of course, I was well mannered enough to return a few smiles and respond to a few queries now and then, regarding the class I was in or some such topic. But before you knew it, and again, almost too soon, you had reached the other kadavu, and it was time to get off the boat.
Once you got off the vallam, it was a very short walk and just one more small bridge to cross before we came to the gate to my mother's home.
The house itself has so many memories dear to me, but nothing can probably be more important than the fact that this was the house where I breathed in my first breath of air. When Amma was carrying me, in keeping with the traditional custom where the birth of the first-born is always at the mother's home, Amma's family brought her home, with me well and kicking, inside her. Because of the island situation and the associated emergency access problems, they had made elaborate arrangements to have her taken to the hospital well in time before the third week of December, which is when the good doctors had said that I would be born. But I was probably getting very impatient in there, and very early in December, I said enough is enough and decided to come out on my own.
And so it came to pass, that in a hastily, converted dark room in my mother's home, I breathed my first gasp of fresh air outside her womb. No doctors around, no surgical equipment; they made do with what they had. And what they had, it seemed was much more that what was required. Everything went almost as if scripted to perfection; of course with the master doctor overseeing, what could go wrong?