Not far from the town of Chidambaram, with which I began my column a year ago, are the mangrove forests of Pichavaram. The disappointment of the temple at Chidambaram is a story for another time. For now, there is the narrow road through a village where we pay a toll, the path lined with fish drying in the sun and a small building through which the waters are visible and beyond that, the mangrove forests.
It is mid-day, perhaps not the best time to be out in the sun; but we’re grateful because rains would mean we could admire from afar but not venture near the forest. We pay for the boat and the fee for the camera and hang the florescent orange life jackets around our necks. A board warns people ‘consumed with liquor’ to avoid the water.
Our boatman, Elumalai, is at first not inclined to talk; but as the trees take over the water, his silence is first punctuated and then scattered by his speech. The first thing he asks is, do we want to go to the canal where the film Dasavataram was shot. We don’t particularly care about where the film was shot and say so.
‘Take us by whatever route you usually take,’ we say.
‘There are five thousand ways into Pichavaram,’ he answers. ‘Ten thousand acres of forest. Nobody has been all over it.’
At first the rowing is hard because the tide is in and we’re going against it. There are a few motor boats but those can only go on the wider channels, far away from the roots that sink their feet into the water. As we edge over to the thicker part of the forest, we see narrow channels we don’t take and a sudden flock of birds rising and dipping low over the water. Elumalai says they are visitors from Australia and I wonder if he counted that as one of the five thousand ways into Pichavaram.
From nearby we hear the whoops of people in high spirits and I shudder to think what it must have been like to have a film crew here for a few days. Somewhere I had caught sight of a pink plastic bag caught in the roots, somewhere else a glint of a quarter bottle of rum. In general, though, I am surprised by how little litter there is considering how many people there were on the water. And – except for the chattering boatload – how little noise.
Is there wildlife, we ask him. Just the fish, and the birds which leave in the morning, Elumalai says. No snakes, no crocs, and certainly no tigers. There are foxes, he concedes, but they’re to be heard in the evening, mostly. The place is benign, serene.
I think of the black and white mystery of Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, in mangroves far away and long ago. But the biggest predators in the bayous Flaherty shot were most likely the very oil company that funded his film. In Pichavaram, one way or the other, the talk has been about the ecosystem, though it comes in scattered pieces that I put together in the in-between times.
‘Chidambaram would have gone in the tsunami if it hadn’t been for the forests,’ Elumalai says, and we nod, as if we had long thoughts on the matter. Earlier, he had told us that he rows visitors for a commission that the tourism department gives him, and fishes in the night for a living. Now he asks if we would like to go deeper into the forest for a little extra that nobody but we need know about. Of course, we say.
Inside, it is dark and blessedly cool. The water is a deep, dappled green and there’s barely place to move the boat. Elumalai locks the oars and steers the boat using the overhanging roots that fall so low we have to duck and swerve to avoid being hit. It’s a gradual realisation that he’s as much a part of the ecosystem as the fish and the eighteen varieties of trees that grow here; and we, perhaps, silent and respectful as we hope we’ve been, like the visiting birds from elsewhere.
An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.