The Year of the Flood
The Vaigai used to be the wellspring from which many people drew their sustenance but the clogging of the aqueous artery by erecting dams for power generation has disturbed the gentle stasis on which rested the fragile riverine ecosystem.
Many years later, as the traffic signal suddenly turned red and Mani K applied the brakes that brought the ecclesiastical mobile carrying his virtuous fare to a screeching halt, he was to remember the time when his father pushed him into the river in order to shrug off the inertia that had kept him from progressing in school. Ironically, he never learned how to swim. The virulent undercurrents which threatened to bring his academic career and short-lived life to a premature end were circumvented after he bit the hook tossed by the long robed fishers of men. Mani K had found religion.
The river is no more. Scientists and cartographers have visited time and again to investigate the case of the missing Vaigai and retrace its path. Many differing conclusions have been drawn with few experts blaming the Mullaperiyar dam for the kidnapping of the Vaigai while others believe the irregular pattern of precipitation has dried up the source of the river which is further upstream in the hills.
From Thekkady where the reservoir is located, water is diverted to Tamil Nadu through a tunnel and released into the Suruliar River which is a tributary of the Vaigai. The damming of the Periyar which has been the cause of flared passions and regional chauvinism continues to be the bone of contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but the inadvertent casualty has been the Vaigai whose gradual decline has not boded well for those dependent on it for their livelihood.
However, for locals, the absconding river represents a friendship grown sour. Riparian communities which have over time, tapped into the river water for irrigating their crop laden fields were left with fallow lands on which not a blade of grass would escape the scorching heat of the sun which wouldn’t have the soothing balm of the Vaigai to make germane the red mountain soil of the Western Ghats.
Today, the water has seeped away leaving behind the bare silt and weathered stones on which it would glide and scamper in its heyday. A bridge hangs forlornly over the two sides of the bank like a mute witness to the scene of the abduction. The defaced legs, on which the bridge stands, are caparisoned with the graffiti of political parties, and posters put up by enterprising quacks advertising dubious cures for ‘sex problems’.
Festoons have sprung up reflecting the changed dynamics of life in the state. Chinamma’s larger-than-life face now haunts the nether reaches of the bridge, keeping a wary and omniscient eye that would seek out the children who would gambol about playfully on the sandy riverbed, hiding from their peers, until they finally disappeared into the horizon like motorized cactuses.
Youths and men who find themselves without work now congregate under the bridge, taking refuge from the sweltering heat of the midday sun, indulging in gossip, which is exchanged over card games.
For Mani, who had been thrown into the deep end during his childhood, the altered circumstances have seen him far better than his childhood friends. Education offered an opportunity that had slipped by, but he is fortunate to be gainfully employed in a big city, much to the envy of his former comrades who now treat him with a mixture of servitude and awe.
“He drives a big car now. He has shown us the photos,” said Devaraj, who grew up with Mani in Kodumalai Kondu, which is situated along the banks of the Vaigai. He points to a pucca house which has been painted in a fluorescent green hue on the far side of the empty river bed and reveals with pride that he had painted the house himself within the span of a week using three canisters of paint bought from Theni on the occasion of his sister’s wedding.
“I have been born here, and would like to die here. We thought the river would outlast us all as it had for generations,” he added, highlighting the vulnerability of nature to the fallout from ill-advised anthropogenic development projects.
Coconut trees line the banks of the river, forming a bulwark that protected adjacent houses in case the Vaigai spilled over during monsoons but today, solar panels have made an appearance in the rural landscape, their glass faces staring at the sun.
The miniature solar farm is privately owned and the power generated is transmitted to the residence of a lawyer, who is a personage of some significance in the village.
Mani K left his idyllic birthplace after finding faith. He was rewarded for his steadfastness to the church by the local pastor who recommended his name when a vacancy came up at the Infant Jesus Church, at Viveka Nagar, in Bangalore. Even if he was initially taken into the employ of the church as a driver three years ago, his role has transformed into that a factotum who is entrusted with buying the sacramental wine and pruning the lawns, in addition to driving the clergy to their ports of call.
“I am an RC pure,” he said flaunting his allegiance to the Vatican. Roman Catholics are in a minority in Theni district, and unlike others from the bottom of the caste pyramid who have converted to Christianity, believers of the Catholic persuasion find themselves excluded vis-à-vis reservations in education and government jobs.
He drives a Mitsubishi Pajero which is a part of the fleet owned by the parish that is used to ferry around priests and brothers to various functions in seminaries and churches across Bangalore, and also in adjoining districts.
To the friends he grew up with, the defection of Mani’s family to the religion of the foreigners was viewed with skepticism and initially drew jeers since it was taken to be laced with opportunism. He rejected as canards, claims that would flutter in the air that the missionaries paid money or offered other inducements to the villagers, to convert. He was baptized six years ago, and to him, the time that has transpired in the interim seems like an eternity.
The change in his personal fortunes overlaps with his marriage to a close friend’s sister. “One day when we were waiting for a bus to Cumbum to go to the movies, he said, “I want to marry your sister.” If it were anybody else, I would’ve taken offence,” said Devaraj, who works as a daily wage labourer in Kumily, which is across the border in the neighbouring state of Kerala.
He usually finds employment plucking weeds and doing odd jobs in private residences. His wages in Theni, which range from 50 to 100 rupees a day is a pittance in comparison to the money he makes in Kerala.
Religion stood in the way of the alliance but after much convincing, the two families agreed to solemnize the marriage without much pomp and spectacle. Mrs. K is a nurse at Rajas Hospital at Kodumalai Kondu and lives with Mani’s mother in the house of his childhood, on the banks of the Vaigai. Mani skitters about from Bangalore to Theni every month. They are childless.
Mani K managed to get away, but for those who got left behind, the future looks increasingly bleak. The district is burdened with disguised unemployment, and since the village now comes under a reserve forest, the growing frequency with which the forest guards clash with the villagers over the conversion of forest land for agricultural use has seen the demand for farm hands going down.
Moreover, ever since the river dried up, other avenues of employment such as fishing have disappeared. Most migrate to Kerala or work as coolies. Others indulge in less taxing pastimes such as gambling, albeit for very low stakes, especially after the cash crunch brought about by demonetization.
Vaigai used to be the wellspring from which many people drew their sustenance but the clogging of the aqueous artery by erecting dams for power generation has disturbed the gentle stasis on which rested the fragile riverine ecosystem. The changes, in fact could be irreversible. Many people have taken to dumping household waste on the riverbed. Plastic bags disposed over time have metastasized into a small pyramid of refuse that has accumulated over time.
Mani K, who was to leave for Bangalore by the night bus remains hopeful that by the time he returns home in a week’s time for the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, the Vaigai would awaken from its prolonged hibernation and reclaim its former place of prestige as the locus of life in Kodumalai Kundu.
It is almost two years since the last remains of the Vaigai were cremated by the harsh rays of the equatorial sun. On the sandy riverbed, a deck is being shuffled for another game. No bets are hedged on whether this would be the year of the flood.