It’s 9am on a quiet Monday. Ganeshan Perumal is waiting at the edge of Kodai Lake, looking out at the thin mist hanging above the water. He is in his early 30s, with nut brown skin and a dark, bushy beard, and stands relaxed, his hands clasped behind his back. Although it is the beginning of the work week and still quite early in the day, a small crowd of tourists have already gathered by the Aavin buttermilk stall, counterintuitively fighting the chilly morning with a cold drink. It is almost time for him to get to work.
Half an hour earlier, Ganeshan untied his rowboat—easily distinguishable by its paintjob: surf-detergent blue and tar black—and dragged it onto the bank. Using buckets of cold lake water, he washed the mud and lake debris from the hull. After it dries, he will push it back into the water, ready to carry the first boaters of the day. Ganeshan is one of a small group of boatmen who work for clubs that operate boating services around the lake, some of which have been around since 1863. Two are run by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Board, two are owned privately and one is run by the municipality. His father and eldest brother were boatmen too, and inspired him to take up the oars. He started working at the Kodaikanal Boat and Rowing Club in 2011, but owing to the recent suspension of its licence, has now started working for the Tamil Nadu Tourism Club. ‘My wife and son like that I’m a boatman,’ he says. ‘They tell me to be careful every morning as I’m about to leave the house, and then send me on my way.’
TKC took a boat ride with Ganeshan to learn more about his life on the lake.
TKC: Tell us a little bit about how you first got interested in boating.
G: I think it started when I was in the sixth standard. Mr Bose, the ferryman, used to take me across the lake to school every morning and back home in the evening. So that was my first encounter with boating.
Then I started taking part in the boat races held almost every year, coming in second or third place. I became so used to going boating that even while studying for my BCom degree, I would take tourists boating and then use the money I made to pay my school fees.
But it’s because my father and eldest brother were boatmen that I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I?
TKC: That’s amazing. How does one officially become a boatman, though?
G: First you need to talk to the union president and pay a sum (Rs 35,000 and upwards) to the union. After the initial payment, you, along with all the boatmen, will need to pay a small amount—Rs 200–300—per week.
TKC: Tell us what a typical day as a boatman is like.
G: When you start work in the morning, you first need to clean the boats. For the pedal boats, you thoroughly wash them with water, tip the water out and dry them completely before they can be used. For the rowboats, you tip them over and wash the hull with water.
After the boats are cleaned, you canvass the tourists and get them to buy a ticket. Then you take them on a 20-minute ride around the lake.
Boatmen don’t get a fixed salary per month. We earn what we get for the rounds we take, plus the tips we get from customers. During the off-season, we earn only around Rs 5000 a month, but during season-time, it goes up to Rs70,000 a month.
TKC: How has the lake changed over the years?
G: It used to be quite clean, but it has become dirty now—there needs to be improvement. There aren’t as many lilies on the lake as there once were, and there’s this green weed-like plant on the water that spoils its beauty.
TKC: What is your favourite memory from your years on the lake?
G: Well, I’m not sure about a favourite memory, but there are two things I’ll never forget. One is when a lady was getting off the boat—she just tumbled into the water! She laughed and laughed as I pulled her out, saying that it was her mistake. I made sure that she was okay and took care of her and gave her tea. When she felt fine again, I helped her into her jeep to leave.
And then there was a spot of trouble with a shikara boat, which is usually used by honeymooners. Taking it out during high wind and rain is a risk because it can be spun around easily by the gusts. A couple was on the lake in this boat when it started to rain heavily. We went out to rescue them and brought them back safely.
TKC: Unforgettable indeed. And what about one of the funniest memories you have from the lake?
G: [Laughs.] Well, one thing that is funny is that when some couples come to the lake, the gents will be wearing sunglasses to cover up the fact that they’re slyly checking whether the boatmen are looking at their ladies. What can I say—every guest is different in their own way.
TKC: What’s your favourite thing about being a boatman?
G: I really enjoy rowing people around the lake, more than if I take the boat solo. Talking to a guest when I’m taking them boating makes me very happy. I tell them about the lake and its importance to Kodai and its history, and ask the guests about their own lives. Sometimes they ask about mine. It’s nice to have those conversations.
TKC: And what do you find challenging about it?
G: You can get bad back pain as a result of too much boating.
TKC: Ouch. So do you think you’ll ever switch jobs?
G: No, I’m extremely happy with my lifestyle. It is what I will keep doing.