“Hurry up, eat your porridge fast, we are going to watch vallamkali(boat race)”. I urged my sisters.
I thought I would be upset, eating porridge instead of a full course ona sadya. But it didn’t matter at all. I was too excited thinking about the boat race I am going to watch today. I kept singing the vanchipattu (boatman’s song) over and over.
“Stop it Nina, your song is giving me a headache” Liza spoke.
I stuck my tongue at her.
“Akkachi, Nina is showing me faces” Liza yelled
“Oh Nina” Akkachi came out of her room
That is when I noticed her. She wore a half saree, instead of her normal pavada (long skirt) and blouse.
“Oh, what is going on Akkachi? You are all dressed up?Are you going to meet your ‘special’ someone at the boat race?”
“Shh Nina, you are too much. Stop teasing me and go and get dressed”
We took the bus to Kumarakom. I was expecting to see a small river, with one or two boats and few people standing on either side of the river and cheering the race. What I saw there was beyond my imagination. The river was huge. There were thousands of people, young ones, old ones even great grandmothers, who can hardly walk were there, holding their grandchildren’s hands for support.
“Akkachi Why didn’t these people go home to celebrate the festival? In Malaysia, we go back to our village to celebrate festivals.( balik Kampong*)”
“This is home Nina!”
We heard the announcer speaking.
“The first part of the program is water skiing”
“What is water skiing Nina?” Sally asked me.
“I have no idea”.
We could hear the sounds of excitement approaching us and we turned to look. From the distance, I saw a speed boat coming towards us. ‘Is this speed boat called water skiing’? We have thousands of them in Malaysia. Silly people. I was just about to turn my head away, then I heard Liza yelling
“Look, there is a matsalleh(white guy) walking on the water!”
That was true. Right behind the speed boat, a white guy was walking on the water, swaying side to side and doing stunts.
“How does he do that?” All of us asked.
As the boat reached us, we saw him holding a rope tied to the boat.
“Oh!, so this is what called water skiing” We said in unison
“Handsome looking guy eh? Akkachi said
“Yes Akkachi, he looks really good, nice blond hair”
“Who are you looking at Nina?”
“the guy who was on the water ski!!”
“I was talking about the boat driver”
“Oh!, he is also handsome” I was grinning
“aiyyedi, you are only 11 years old and you are already looking at men eh?”
“Why, Kochumaharani, Why were you looking at the white guy?”
“This is my eyes, and I have a right to look at anyone I want” I pointed my eyes and told Akkachi.
“You can look, but also look for your grandmother with a sickle in her hand, if you look too much, she might cut your head off”
“You know something Akkachi, when I am big, I am going to marry a white guy and live in a castle like Cinderella!”
“athmavinu shanthi undayirikkate.(may your soul have peace)” Akkachi spoke
“Who are you telling that to?”
“That is an advance peace greetings for your soul !”
“Go, Akkachi, now you are too much.”
“next is the chundan vallam(snake boat) race” We heard the announcer, announcing.
Everyone started to push forward. In the ensuing melee, couple of the front row spectators fell in to the water. I thought ‘oh, now they are going to fight’
“Get out of the water, you are delaying the race” Everyone rushed forward to help those who fell in to the water. Nobody had time to fight.
In the distance I could see 5 boats. Ready for the race. I couldn’t see them clearly. Akkachi told me earlier that boats were really big. it didn’t look that big to me.
The race started.
From where I stood, each boat looked like a giant bird just about to take off to fly, and then decided not to fly, instead run in the water. From a bird, it became a giant dragon with thousand legs, slithering and swimming. I couldn’t see the individual oarsmen or their ors. All I could see was. this huge dragon coming towards me, with great speed, everything moving in perfect harmony. The crowd was cheering like the race depended entirely on how much they cheered. As the boat approached the place where I was standing, I realized, this is nothing like I have ever imagined. This is a giant boat. There was too much energy, too much rhythm. I became part of the race. I could feel my hands rowing along with the oarsmen. My heart, singing along, thithithara thithithara thi they thaka they tho.
Each boat had one guy standing right in front of the boat, facing the oarsmen. He was singing at the top of his voice, urging the oarmen to push and push, and row faster and faster. Another guy stood balanced in the middle among the oarsmen and was doing the same. There were atleast 100 people in each boat. Even with the 100 oars hitting the water with each and every stroke, the boat was moving gracefully. There was not a single out of place stroke. People around us were jumping and cheering. If Akkachi didn’t hold me, I would have jumped in to the water.
It was a race, where it didn’t matter who won or who lost. It was the moments that mattered. The moment that I became part of the race, the moment I cheered without any partiality for each boat that passed in front of me, the moment the first boat reached the finishing point. I was part of the winning team. I was also part of each and every boat that reached the finishing point.
Then when the last boat reached the finshing point, my heart sunk. I have to wait another 365 days to feel this joy and excitement again!. I promised myself, As long as I am alive, I will never miss another vallamkali.
* balik kampong: Every chinese new year/ramadan/deepavali, Malaysians living in the city goes back to their ancestral village to celebrate the festival with their extended family.
While writing today’s blog, I realized, much as I try, there is no way I can explain the exact feeling I felt that day.. I aplogize