India Uncut

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Despatches 44: The makers of boats

It feels like a surreal dreamscape that we are walking through. When I was a kid I would sometimes look at clouds and try to find shapes in them, and I do that here with wood. Everywhere around me there are giant logs, some of them twisted into the most bizarre shapes, as if they are auditioning for a man in the sky named Dali. One twists and cries for mercy, another gazes serenely upwards, one looks deploringly at me, and one writhes as the wind touches its broken skin. One curves slightly, as if it wants to be a boat, and extends a gnarly arm towards the water. Its dream shall be fulfilled.

This is Thaikal Thonithurai, a place on the way to Chennai from Cuddalore, and the people here make boats. Not small boats, the kind that people go fishing in, but huge ones, in which cargo travels from distant coast to coast. Ganesh is one of the people who runs this place, and he comes forward to greet us as we move through the logs.

“We have 20 master craftsmen here,” he says, “and many apprentice builders. We team up 25 apprentices with one master craftsman, and we can build four boats at the same time. It takes us eight months to build a boat.”

“Eight months,” I exclaim. “Isn’t that a rather long time to build a boat?”

Ganesh smiles and says:. “Come and see the boat.”

There is one under construction by the water, a massive skeleton, with logs crafted into a U-shape, stacked side by side, like giant magnets pointing at the sky. This is the body of the boat. I climb onto a log that extends outwards from it, and walk onto the boat itself. The U-shaped logs have been hammered into perpendicular logs below them with nails that, if I stood beside them, would be knee-high. I do not ask to see the hammers that these guys use, but ask Ganesh how they were affected by the tsunami.

Thaikal Thonithurai did not suffer much damage when the waves came, and no lives were lost there. But two of these massive boats had gone for registration to the Cuddalore port, and were damaged. As they hadn’t been registered yet, no compensation would be forthcoming. The boat-builders had greater worries than that, though.

“Less and less of our kids are learning our craft from us,” he says. “Soon there just won’t be so many of us.”

“Why is that?” I ask. “is it because of the tsunami?”

Ganesh smiles gently at my naïve question. “No,” he says, “it is because the market for these kinds of boats is going down.” It is an ancient craft that they have mastered, but modern machinery and equipment no doubt do the same job better.

We say goodbye to them, and walk out through the yard where giant logs act out silent fantasies. Their masters are these men who know, somewhere deep inside, that the sea that they had helped to tame will not want them for long. And then, they shall build their last boat and go away.
amit varma, 11:47 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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