(If you like to go back half a century to a touching lakeside story, please read on.)
The first morning back at our lakeside ancestral home in Kerala after sixteen years in the US, I woke up with a premonition that something unusual was about to happen. I looked around for my wife and six-year-old son. They were not in the room.
I lay back quietly, fully awake and alert, listening to the once familiar morning sounds. What caught my attention immediately was the chugging of a motorboat at a distance. It was getting closer. Veronica, I thought. Or perhaps it was a new vessel, which had replaced the old lady. I decided to get up and see before she passed the house.
The boat was part of the scene. As a child, every morning I used to rush out to the jetty in front of the house to watch her pass by and wave to the ‘Captain’ who sat in the small, pentagonal wheelhouse on the roof. He invariably wore a navy-blue shirt. His hair was trimmed short and parted on the side. He had thick moustache. He would smile and wave back. I would stand there feeling very happy, and watch the boat move down the lake, hoping that some day the Captain would stop at our place. He was my childhood hero.
One aspect that used to puzzle me those days was that Veronica always went southwards only. I had never seen her return even though some times I had kept awake late to check whether she passed by in the night. My conclusion was that every morning they were sending out a different boat with the same name. But when I was a little older, the defects in this line of reasoning became apparent. The boat was not new and looked the same every day. What happened to all those vessels that went south? Even if they were sending different boats, how could all of them have the same Captain?
One day I asked my father. He was leaning back on his favourite easy chair after lunch. A servant was standing at a respectful distance rolling out a betel leaf with lime and grated areca nut and tobacco for father to chew before the afternoon siesta. He did not laugh or ridicule me. He explained that Veronica plied a circular route. She started from Cochin, a port town to the north, went down the lake to a place called Shertally and returned along the eastern coast of our island. Then I began wondering whether the Captain had friends like me on the other side of the island. My great wish those days was to travel with the Captain all along his route.
That was all long ago. Then I was away in boarding school and college and came home only during the holidays. Those were lazy times of sleeping late but occasionally I used to see the boat and wave to the Captain. We remained friends. Then I went off to the United States and Veronica became part of another world.
I was glad to be awake in time to see her on my first morning back home after the long sojourn in America. A number of questions passed through my mind. Was it the same boat? And the same Captain? Surely, he would be very old now. If he were not there handling the wheel, would Veronica be the same?
Then I heard the bell from the boat.
I knew that it was a signal from the Captain to the engine room. For what – to change speed or to stop? Never before had I heard my friend give that signal.
As I was scrambling out of bed my wife came into the room. “The boat’s coming in,” she said excitedly. She knew all about my infatuation with Veronica.
I stared at her in disbelief. In my memory Veronica had never berthed at our place. She and her Captain were things mystique, entities that one were aware of, but did not directly come into contact with.
I rushed to the window and looked towards the lake. It was true. The boat had reduced speed and was heading for our pier. I could not see the Captain’s abode because a slanting coconut palm partially blocked the view. Tension started mounting inside me. I was virtually like a child at that moment. Was it the same Captain, my friend?
I almost ran to the landing followed by my wife and son. My excitement had spread to them. We watched in awe as the boat was brought alongside with expert seamanship. Veronica looked battered and ancient, something that belonged to another era. I was a little disturbed to notice that she hardly carried any passengers. There were all sorts of cargo - boxes, sacks, and bundles – merchandise from the port to remote destinations along the lake. It was sad to realize that the old lady was no longer a proud passenger boat.
The door of the wheelhouse opened and the man inside emerged into the morning sunlight. He stood on the roof of the boat, weather beaten and shrivelled but somehow larger than life. His hair and moustache were all grey. He still wore a navy-blue shirt.
He stayed there watching us and smiling, for what appeared to be an interminable span of time till I started worrying that he might not come down at all. But he lowered himself gently on to the wharf. The Captain, the friend from my childhood, was standing right before me, now an old man, but still with lively eyes. He smiled and nodded to my wife and looked at my son with great interest. Turning to me he said, “He’s the image of you when you were that age.”
I smiled in agreement.
“When did you arrive?” the Captain asked. “Last morning the house was locked up.”
“We reached in the evening.”
“Thought so,” the Captain went on. “Saw the front door open. When we came in closer, the boy was standing there. Like you used to.”
“You know,” he added after a pause, “it could have been thirty five years ago.”
I nodded, wondering how old the Captain would have been three and a half decades back. To a child he was an old man even then.
“I’m glad,” I said, “that you stopped here at last. I used to wish that some day you would.”
The Captain smiled. “I came here once before,” he stated. “When your father died.”
I was nine years old then. Some of the details were clear in my mind. Mother lying on a cot and crying silently. The crowd. Priests chanting prayers. The muted band playing as the raft carrying my father’s coffin moved away into the sunset for the cemetery across the lake.
“That morning,” the Captain was saying, “I saw the crowd. The servants and the tenants were beating their chests and weeping. Your father was a much respected man.”
“Mother died too,” I said.
“Yes. I heard.”
After a few moments of silence the Captain said, “I’m glad that I could meet you today. Also your wife and son.”
My wife thanked him. But, really, she could not be part of what was happening – the first meeting of two old friends.
“Well, aren’t you inviting me in?” the captain asked with an impish grin.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “I’m so overwhelmed by your visit. Please do come in.”
The man took my son’s hand and we walked towards the house.
Grass grew in patches over the white sand of the pathway. The flowerpots, which were arranged on either side, were empty. The beautiful roses that once adorned them had withered away. What had been a well-maintained lawn years ago now looked wild with weeds.
The Captain was carefully observing the details. “The dovecote is deserted,” he said.
I looked towards the southern side of the house where the small tile roofed structure was. “Yes,” I agreed.
“Isn’t it strange?” the Captain asked. “Birds fly away. People drift off. After decades of habitation a house lies vacant.”
“We cannot always stick to one place,” I said rather defensively. Suddenly realizing that I had made that statement to a person who had done the same beat all his life I quickly added, “As times change, people have to look for new opportunities.”
“You’re right,” my guest agreed. “I’ve two sons. One is an engineer at Bhilai Steel Plant. The other is in the navy. I can’t expect them to take over my job. There is a saying – as a tree grows old, the seeds scatter.”
“That’s one gift God didn’t bestow on me.”
“Alive and well,” the Captain answered with a smile. “A good woman. The only thing she hasn’t reconciled to all these years is my daily quota of coconut toddy. Claims she can’t stand the smell!”
We were inside the house. The Captain showed great interest in the enlarged photograph of my father and the oil paintings of grandfather and great grandfather.
“Your son,” he said, “is the fourth generation in your family that I have seen. I remember your grandfather very well. Those were the days when I started on this route.”
Grandfather had died before I was born. In the painting he looked impressive with handsome features and powerful eyes.
My wife brought coffee. The Captain smiled at her, took a sip and said, “Good.” The hostess was pleased.
“Tell me about America,” the Captain requested.
I told him about my job in the States, described the places and people. He asked several questions with a deep interest. The queries were not naïve but quite intelligent and logical. He even asked about aerospace, which is my field. He was surprised to learn that America did not have the type of boats used in Kerala.
“May be,” he said suddenly, “I could sail Veronica to that country.” Then he laughed and added, “It’ll take too long. Anyway the wife won’t come along.”
After a brief pause the Captain said abruptly, “Well, it’s time to go.”
“Please,” I said, “have breakfast with us.”
My friend shook his head. “No, son,” he replied. “Have to go. Actually I came to bid goodbye. It’s a strange coincidence that you returned in time to make that possible.”
That was a little confusing but the Captain went on to clarify, “Today’s my last trip. This route is included in the government’s water transport nationalization scheme. They take over tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said with feeling.
“Well,” my friend said, “In a way it’s a good thing. I’m too old to keep this service going.”
I wanted to protest. But the Captain was right. He must have done that route for fifty years and more.
“Actually,” the Captain continued, “I was planning to retire by the year end. A private operator had agreed to put another boat on this line. My idea was to shore Veronica. I stay by the lakeside. There’s enough space beside the house to keep her on blocks. That way she would have been near me always.”
“But you can still do that. You don’t have to surrender Veronica.”
“I have to, son,” the Captain replied sadly. “This is a minor, unimportant route. The government agency may not spare a boat for this line. There are still a few people who depend on Veronica. Then there’s the crew. Some of them are third generation. Without her they would be out of jobs.”
It was leave-taking. We accompanied the Captain to the jetty. As we approached, the crew started the engine and kept it idling.
There was a minute of silence as we stood on the wharf. Then the Captain turned to me and said, “I’ve one regret though. When she’s taken over tomorrow they’ll paint out her name and give her a number. That’s a very sad thing.”
It was shocking. Veronica was a lady with a name. But in a day’s time she would be just a number, an antiquated piece of impersonal mechanical contraption!
“But that’s terrible,”
“Yes,” the Captain agreed. “It’s bad. But we can’t alter the process of change; we’ve to accept and adjust. The consolation is that to you and me she’ll always be Veronica.”
He winked at me, nodded to my wife and patted my son affectionately on the cheek. The old man then climbed over to the roof with surprising agility and went inside the cabin. The Captain was at the wheel. The bell sounded, the gears were engaged, and Veronica pulled out slowly. My friend waved as the boat turned to mid-channel and continued her journey.
We stood on the wharf for a long time, watching till the vessel became a speck in the distance.
“Daddy,” my son asked, “what’s his name?”
With a sense of emptiness I realized that I didn’t know. “The Captain,” I whispered.
When I looked again, Veronica had disappeared around a bend in the lake.