India's intriguing backwaters

A trip to India, where her parents were born. Will it feel like home? .

I came to explore the backwaters of the state of Kerala, a region popularized in Arundhati Roy's novel "The God of Small Things," with my father, who grew up in a neighboring state. Close to the Arabian Sea, this 550-mile network of rivers, lagoons, and lakes stretches across nearly half the state. My great-grandfather, a civil engineer, surveyed this area in the early 20th century. While here, we hope to ferret out a piece of our family history.

We climb aboard a 20-foot wooden boat and sit in plastic chairs on its roof. It feels strangely Cleopatran to ride this way, although it frequently requires us to crease our bodies at the waist, dangling our elbows while passing under the low bridges that bind the backwater communities.

The thick lilies growing in the Meenachil River and surrounding canals keep clogging our motor, forcing the captain to put the boat in reverse to spew out viscous green water from pipes at the stern. We pass by villages lining the riverbanks, rice paddies, and power lines roped between poles that stand like dead trees in marshy waters, leaning toward thatch-roofed houses. Saris of six and nine yards – vermilion, mustard, and magenta – cover the lengths of entire clotheslines, which are strapped tautly between coconut palm trees.

Women walk on spits of land, barrier islands that divide water from water, balancing stainless steel jugs on their heads. I'm reminded of a Jon Stallworthy poem about a woman in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, that I used to have on my wall when I was growing up: "I, with my stoop, reflect / they stand most straight / who learn to walk beneath a weight."

Here, the river is the road: It is how people commute to work, school, or market in what they call "country boats" – flat canoes constructed by hand. The river is also kitchen and bath – where dishes are washed, children rinse off playground grime, and women scrub cloth before beating it against rocks to wring out the brown water.

Hammers knock on wood planks as teams of workers assemble boats under tarps. They are building kettuvalam, houseboats for tourists who want to spend a night or two in the backwaters. They crosshatch dry palm leaves, weaving intricate patterns that make up the walls and rooftops of river-bound palaces. It is difficult to imagine that this watershed can accommodate so much new construction. Yet we seem to be able to wander through the maze for hours without returning to the same place.

I can't remember how many twists and turns, how many narrow passages we have traveled down, or how many concrete bridges we have ducked under. A small turquoise and red bird that has evaded regional field guides makes repeat appearances, perching on electrical wires.

A woman waves, and I wave back. Girls returning from school in white and blue uniforms have their hair plaited and tied in bright orange ribbons. Here in Kerala, where the people have democratically elected a communist government, education is free in schools that teach in Malayalam, the local dialect. Families must pay high fees to send their children to English schools.

As sunset approaches, we pass the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. We can't linger because our boat is motorized, but egrets, herons, and cormorants are heedless of the sanctuary's boundaries. One egret seems to walk on the water, delicately traversing the lily pads clumped along the shore of Vembanad Lake.

We encounter boats filled with other tourists, both foreign and Indian. The tourism market for nationals is growing as India's middle class grows. Just five years ago, it would have been rare to see Indians at resorts in Kerala.

The changes in this country mean different things for different people. For my father, it means driving around his old neighborhood to find that his childhood home has been razed to build a condominium.

After circling the eastern portion of the lake, we return to the river and its canals, passing through the city of Vaikom, where women in saris ride sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes, and auto-rickshaw drivers await the bustle of evening rush hour.

We see the local beauty salon, a rectangular concrete structure with the brand name "Nice" painted on its yellow facade. At the riverside market, the lime and lemon vendor leans his head on the flat crate of green and yellow globules that is mounted on his bike, stealing a few moments – maybe hours – of sleep.

For some, this place is nowhere; the backwaters are not noted on most national maps. Yet for others, this place is everywhere: Many of the villagers have not traveled more than three miles from the communities where they live. But some, like our boat's captain, read news on the Internet and use cellphones. These rural areas of south India – once isolated from global technological advances – are getting "on the grid" and perhaps exemplify a narrowing digital divide.

The next day, we meet the wife of our captain, who speaks fluent English. Her name is Princy, and, at 23, she walks with a refined grace. She has a 1-year-old son and a brother who is an air-conditioning mechanic looking for work in Chennai, a large city in the state of Tamilnadu, where my parents were born.

Her modest appearance belies her sophistication. "You are American even though you look Indian," she tells me before I have uttered even a word. She's right; I was born in the US and have lived there all my life.

We talk for almost an hour, she and I, strolling near her village on paths that cut through the lush forest. By the end, I notice that she is holding my hand, an eager guide to this world that she knows is, despite my best efforts, foreign to me.

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