An elegy to Kolleru, one of India’s largest freshwater lakes located in Andhra Pradesh, Akkineni Kutumbarao’s novel Kolleti Jadalu, translated into English as Softly Dies a Lake, vividly brings alive the villages and people whose lives are woven inseparably with the lake. Swamped by water, this is the precarious life-world of a people in a constant struggle to survive in an environment that is nurturing and bountiful, yet unpredictable and hostile.
The translation by Vasanth Kannabiran, seamlessly brings to us the world of Kolleru in all its transient beauty. The following is an extract from the book.
This is the Truth
We are losing all our natural resources so carelessly and our leaders are helping thieves to take control of these resources. Because whenever the people revolt and struggle and say that these mines, these oceans, these rivers, these hills, these wastelands should not be diverted from our needs and cause such grave damage to the environment, our governments are determined to stamp out such protests.
The despair was in realising that this was not the ill fortune of just Kolleru, but that whether it was the Kolleru or Musi or Pulicat, destruction was certain to come tomorrow.
Also, the Kolleru of my childhood was something that I wanted to share with the people in our state and at least the people within ten kilometres of Kolleru. I wanted to declare that in our Kolleru, in our village Pulaparru, the collective farming that farmers had dreamt of worldwide had actually been practiced for some years. I wanted to shout from the rooftops that the men and women in our Pulaparru had worked like demons to make those dreams come true.
I despaired of being able to capture that past. Then Volga insisted on our moving to Mysore, to a house called Ashirvad, far from home and daily distractions. But for that decision, I could not have completed this book. For creating that enabling environment and for diligently copying my scribbles into her neat, rounded handwriting, I am grateful to her. If you like this novel your thanks are also due to her.
Why speak of governments and leaders? I thought I would redirect the Kolleru that flooded my brain into yours and flood your thoughts.
As I began to write, long-forgotten memories surfaced from the depths of my heart.
This novel is about my childhood. All the people in it are real. That village is real. Kolleru is real.
For a month they worked like demons to prepare the five hundred acres for cultivation. Carrying huge axes they would dive into the water and bring up the mud. They were building the ridge three feet below and six feet above the water. They chopped off and cleared the dense underwater foliage, the weeds, the bulrushes and cork trees. Then as the ridge was being completed they placed hand pumps everywhere and began to pump out the water part by part.
As they pumped out the water from five hundred acres of Kolleru the fishes were leaping up and falling out in dozens. When they went home each one had a big fish in hand. Everyday it was either a murrel or catfish or sprat, thorny eel, tobacco fish, russels, oily sea fish or jellyfish. In every home the women sat on the threshold waiting for the men to return with the catch in hand.
They brought the bullocks and the heavy dry buffaloes and made them stamp the greenery down to dust. When it was flattened they made it into bundles, brought it and laid it on the ridge that was built.
Then they brought the nallaru and mudarlu that they had planted in the Peddadoddi and carrying beds of seedlings they began to transplant them here. As five hundred acres of paddy seedlings were waving in the wind the hundred acres on the other side of Peddajada waved their seedlings in unison.
The women and children watching this work underway felt they were looking at a whole new world. As they drove the cattle to graze and back everyday they took care that the cattle did not climb or tread on the ridge.
After the transplanting was done although their bodies were worn out the people were so proud and happy that they had done such a difficult job. To guard the ridge twenty people would go every six hours and take turns walking up and down the ridge making sure that crabs, snails and fish didn’t make holes in it. Wherever a hole was seen they would immediately fill it and close it.
The time to harvest had come. There is a saying that there is no field that is not harvested nor is there a temple without a god. The field in Kolleru was rich to harvest. The field was full of a range of plants and rushes growing as weeds. In the middle of all that the paddy nourished by the rich soil of the lake was a deep rich green waving gently in the breeze.
If there was too much water in the fields there were the pumps to drain it. If there was too little they had to crack the ridge carefully to let some water in. This needed ten men guarding the spot so that the force of the water did not make the crack too big. The ridge should not break.
Soon the entire village was in Kolleru. In a week the field was weeded. It was customary to fertilise the field with manure, castor meal or superphosphate. But the well-nourished Kolleru fields needed nothing. Sixty-seven canals from the Krishna and Godavari flowed into Kolleru. Streams like the Budameru, Thammileru, Akkileru, Naguleru and the drainage canals all flowed into Kolleru. Kolleru was a living water forest filled with the birdcalls of all kinds of cranes and water birds, not only native ones but birds from regions across the world.
What is there to add about fish? Kolleru was home to all water life forms. Could there be a greater richness of soil than in Kolleru? Without any manure and before two months had passed the sheaves began to thrust out their shoots. In some places because of too much nourishment the sheaves got wasted.
The villagers who earlier came to work on the field came now even if there was no work. They came just to gaze upon the fields laden with sheaves which seemed to beckon them, filling their eyes in contentment at the fruits of their labour and wondering how Kolleru was going to reward them for their toil this time. At last their labour had borne fruit. Their lives were fulfilled.