Inspiring villages“I was born on December 30, 1945 at Chambakkulam. I have passed SSLC (10th grade) and my dream was to join the Indian Air Force (IAF),” says Kuttappai  a.k.a Antony Koorippurackal Joseph.

He sits placidly in his kothumbu vallam (a small, narrow boat), in one corner of which is piled a heap of fish — the day’s catch.   

Chambakkulam is a village in Kerala’s Kuttanadu region, known for its beautiful backwaters, lush greenery and paddy fields. And Kuttappai is something of a household name in the area. He seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to know him.

Not surprising perhaps, since he rows up and down the Pookaitha river (a tributary of the Pampa meandering here), selling fish from morning to evening every day.

Buttonholed when he is returning from the early morning fish auction in the nearby by Alappuzha market, Kuttappai is initially wary, and not very enthusiastic about a media interview.

But a little cajoling is all it takes to make him loquacious. He drops his air of reserve and decides he’s comfortable being interviewed. “Not that I was worried… I anyway keep talking about myself and my dreams to tourists who visit Kanjippadam (another Kuttanadu village). I like meeting people and chatting with them. Even the small waves of this Pookaitha river and the cool breeze across Kanjippadam probably know bits and pieces of my story,” says Kuttappai lyrically. “But when I realized that you are a journalist, I wasn’t sure what to speak,” he says, suddenly bashful again.

Kuttappai alternates between impassive silence and eloquence.

He is mildly curious but mostly impassive when told that he is being interviewed for this new series — Inspiring Villages — capturing stories of people, places in the hinterland and their passion.

His boat is anchored at the resort in Kanjippadam, the help of whose staff Mathrubhumi had to take to cajole the 72-year-old fisherman to talk freely about himself.

Kuttappai, born to farmer parents and youngest of seven siblings, wasn’t initially comfortable when he realised that he was speaking to an aerospace journalist. And with good reason too: it was as if his past was catching up with him…

A lie cost him his dream job in IAF

Memories come flooding back. In 1966, at the age of 21, Kuttappai, along with four friends boarded a train to (the then) Bangalore to attend an IAF recruitment drive. At the selection centre, he cleared all the medical and physical tests.

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“Just before the interview, our agent Mohammed Ali told us that when the officer asks us about our age we must say 19 and not 21. We were not aware of the rules and we trusted Ali,” recalls Kuttappai, his voice cracking.

The officer, a Punjabi, grew suspicious after he lied about his age. “I think Ali had tampered with even our attested marks-sheets… The officer informed the police, but we somehow managed to escape from there. But the story didn’t end there. Back home, we received several letters from the government and finally, we were barred from attending any government interviews for five years,” says Kuttappai. The feeling of betrayal still hurts.

He says he lives with great regret even now for having lost the opportunity to serve in the IAF. His parents were terribly upset too, he recalls.

“When I see my friends, when I meet people working in the IAF, I have a deep sense of regret for not making it… But, I am happy I did not lose my focus. I took to fishing, and I am happy that in the last 40 years of being a fisherman there hasn’t been a dull day. God has been kind to me,” he adds.

 His four daughters are all educated and married, and working in the Gulf.

A visit to INS Vikrant triggered his passion

Kuttappai says he was a volleyball player and represented his school in many tournaments.

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During a trip to the Southern Naval Command in Kochi, their team was taken onboard INS Vikrant (now decommissioned). It was there that he saw a plane for the first time and was absolutely fascinated by it. The fascination has remained undiminished till today.

“With a 32-33 inches chest and being about 5.6 feet tall, I was among the fit boys in Kanjippadam. I saw a plane for first time in my life on INS Vikrant. We were taken around the ship by the officers. I think I fell in love with the plane instantly. The wings, the propeller… everything attracted me,” he says. His bleary eyes shine at that memory. It was then that he had decided that he wanted to join the IAF.

Even today, he is enthralled as he watches flights taking off and landing at Nedumbasserry Airport near Kochi whenever he goes there to see off or receive his daughters.

His love for English is infectious

Kuttappai discloses a little bashfully, that he loves speaking English. He has been fascinated by the language right from childhood.

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“At the back of a fish truck, I once noticed a painted English sentence: ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ I wasn’t sure about the meaning and so I asked the lorry owner. He wasn’t sure either. Then I asked the driver, and he didn’t know either. I kept asking around. My search for the meaning finally ended with a man in our locality, who people said was suffering from some mental imbalance. But he cleared my doubt. From then on I learnt as many English words as I could,” says Kuttappai, who rows up and down the Pookaitha river selling fish from morning to evening.

Most of his customers are clueless about English. Indeed, they have no need to learn the language, he concedes.

“When I speak English, people laugh at me,” he admits ruefully. And then gets defensive: “To catch, to sell, to buy or to cook fish you don’t need to know English. But what’s wrong in learning it?”

His wife Annamma Anthony (54), also loves English, he claims. However,  she hasn’t done much to learn the language, he confides, a little disappointed.

A very popular fisherman in Kanjippadam

Apparently Kuttappai is as popular as Kerala’s yesteryear football hero I M Vijayan, in every household of Kanjippadam.

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“I have heard about this fisherman and he even met me once. I understand he is a very hard working soul,” says Fr Peter Mathirappilly, the Vicar of Holy Cross Church in Vaisyambhagom, a village near Kanjippadam.

Gigi Thomas, who runs a resort, regularly buys fish from Kuttappai. He has a soft corner for him, having known him from childhood.

“He is a man with integrity. He is not greedy, and does his job with great passion. Kuttappai has carried me around when I was a kid and even given me boat rides during my school days,” says Gigi, who is also a former Kerala hockey player.

But the best compliment comes from Sabu Thomas, who is a manager with the same resort.

“Kuttappai is the soul of Kuttanadu. We can’t match his energy levels, despite his advancing age. His presence brings warmth. He is probably the guardian of Kanjippadam,” says Sabu, who interacts with Kuttappai on a daily basis.

Youngsters are talented, but look for shortcuts…

So, finally, when asked for his views on the current generation and their ability to take on challenges, Kuttappai’s face falls. Most of them lack depth, he says.

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Kuttappai with the Tejas model gifted to him by the Correspondent

“Youngsters these days don’t have the patience to understand things. They seek shortcuts for everything in life. Unless you have patience, unless you have the knowledge, it is difficult to achieve any results. But who listens?”

But Kuttappai also sees a bright spot: “But today’s youngsters have many talents. May God bless them all,” he adds.

Incidentally, Kuttappai’s nephew Saji Thomas is a recipient of the Arjuna Award in rowing.

When he is gifted a miniature model of the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, Kuttappai looks at it keenly for a while before putting it into his pocket with a grin.

As he rows away, there is a look of satisfaction on his face. After all, he is now the owner of a Tejas!

Location courtesy: Green Palace Resort in Kanjippadam

(Inspiring Villages is a series that seeks to capture stories of ordinary people, places and passion. The writer is a Content Consultant with Mathrubhumi (English Online) and tweets @writetake.)