Boats evoke mysterious feelings in most of us. The scene of a far off boat on the river water looking like a speck is etched permanently in the memory of those who had seen this. It is feeling of departure of some one close to us who is going away. When the fishermen leave for high seas for their occupation of catch, their families wait anxiously with baited breaths for their safe return. Sea is full of hopes, despair and surprises. Same is the story of life which wobbles on the surface of sea of life. Many a times the fishermen had a windfall, at others, even after spending so many days in the sea, nothing comes in the hand. Many a times, we have to battle with the difficulties of life like the old man who comes victorious from the jaws of death in the epic book “The old man and the sea” by Ernst Hemingway.
Those who live near the shores of rivers and sea are familiar with the boats sailing on the water. They inspire so many songs and pages of the literature. Boats enrich their literature and provide metaphors for many events in our lives. For example, many of our saints who lived in the towns situated on the banks of great rivers like Ganges, had compared the life to a boat floating in the turbulent seas of this samsara. They urged the God to steer the unstable boat whose sails have become tattered facing the strong winds to safety.
Mallet Ferry Wharf! I visited the place. It is a ferry terminus and fish trawlers unloading port in Bombay. Whole area smells of fishes even from a distance. Hundreds of fish traders stand on the platform and fish baskets are conveyed to top from boats by ropes and mesh nets. There are mounds of fish of every kind. Every single inch is covered with sea fish. There are porters towing it away on the carts. Water drips from the baskets made of the bamboo carrying the fish. Trucks and tempos are loaded with the fish for taking it to the different parts of the city. Every boat has a flag and while standing in the parking area these boats bob up and down in the waters.
A very popular variety of fish called “Bombay Duck” also dries on the ropes in the boats. This fish is cooked both as fresh or dried and does not have bones. The rows of hanging fish on the ropes look like buntings.
There were fisher women, very fat and strong. The boats which have emptied their catch were parked to one side. The fishermen on them were preparing the food: lentils, rice and of course fresh fish. Crows pecked at the fish filled in the baskets waiting to be put into the trucks. These seemed to have become bored by eating and eating in plenty. Seagulls caught the floating dead fish thrown out of the boats. On the right side is the ferry wharf station from where ferries ply to Mora Bunder in Uran and Alibaug, and to Elephanta caves. People wait there on the benches. Most of them are inhabitants of fishing villages. There are shops selling refreshments in the waiting area. They come here on buses from Mumbai and take ferry for crossing the sea and to avoid the torturous road journey. The journey is thus reduced from many hours by the land route to an hour or so. In the earlier times, when British were here most of the work force belonged to people from Konkan Ghats and used the sea route for coming to Bombay. Still many people working at the docks belong to this area.
In the modern world everywhere, the industrial revolution is ushering automation in every field: be it a automobile, telephone, airplane, home gadgets and traditional hand makers are in trouble if they don’t adapt themselves to these changes. Because automation means mass production of items. Mass production or assembly line production of the articles or gadgets is like asexual reproduction where the product items are almost identical to each other and there is very small degree of error usually in parts per million. Thus mass production through assembly produces monotonous items whereas when it is hand crafted, the personality of the creator is reflected in the product and each creation becomes unique. Only problem is the limited number of the product.
Something like this is happening in the field of boat making in the North East state of India called Assam. Mighty Brahmaputra and many other rivers pass through this land making it fertile be depositing the rich alluvial soil. These rivers also provide the inhabitants with fresh fish which is the staple diet along with the rice. Rivers are also used from transportation. Thus boats play an important role in the life of people of the state. In Assam, tradition boat makers are finding it difficult to compete with the mechanized production. But still here are people who would rather cling to their generations old profession of making the boats by hands. One such person is Baler Das who is aged 70 years and hails from Kukurmara near Guwahati the capital city of Assam. He learned this art from Panewar Kalita. Sal is the wood used traditionally to make boats but now pama gach, gameri, sama and ajar are also used. An 80 feet Khel boat requires about 60 cubic feet of wood and fetches only about 12000 rupees.