By B. Nimal Veerasingham.
Growing up barley a few hundred yards away from the meandering and mesmerizing Batticaloa lagoon had its magical moments. The swilling frothy waves dancing in the sun rays, and gently touching the sandy shores were a sight that never fades from memory. The mangroves, prawns, jelly fish, green algae, and the distinct lake smell –are elements that embody the surrounding of a lagoon dweller.
To me, the Saturday morning bike ride with my father, along the Southern edge of Lake Road dotted with colonial government bungalows with panoramic views, gave me reason to be awestruck. It’s largely due to the wholesome lagoon effect -everything from the moored cranes and sea birds on the marooned tree trunks, the smell of seaweeds hauled by fishermen trying their nets from the shore, the glitter of the rising sun, and the circles of outrigger canoes where groups of fishermen try their luck. Occasionally, my father would call the fishermen to see whether there was anything to buy for lunch.
Then there were the howls of foxes, mostly during the fading evening light across the lake, where the vast paddy lands crisscross the hinterland. My grandmother would at times point to their movements interpreting them as a call to the pack, foretelling the death of livestock. The jolt of fire that could be seen moving on the waves during dusk is not a mystery to insiders. I am not talking of the release of Methane gases in the mangroves or some fiery ghosts showing their prowess over the lagoon – but the skillful youth floating bounded banana trunks together, to host a burning log fire on the cap of a tar barrel!
The December monsoon brings another round of excitement – the rising lagoon waters that engulf, initially the lake road and gradually move inland. Our house was on higher ground, so the lake water hardly reaches. But to compensate for that, we walk on the flooded lake road, usually by a foot or two – like the moon-walkers, and try our luck on casting the rod for the fish flowing in from the surrounding tributary ponds.
I realised the unique DNA of the Batticaloa lagoon and its surroundings’ enormity, only when I came of age – during my escapades with the roots of my worldly journey. Everyone at one point of their lives will want to go back to see the beginnings, as they age with related enlightenment. It is kind of what Salmon does – going back to the swamps all the way from the sea it lived, to where it all began – the place where it was originally hatched – to lay its eggs before it breathes the last.
The very name ‘Mattakalapu’ in Tamil simply denotes a ‘flat lagoon’. It could be said that Batticaloa’s entwinement with culture, arts, poetry, literature, cuisine, drama and folklore has a strong association with the lagoon and the surrounding regional landscape – providing a romantic mysticism that could only be felt intimately when you succumb to the call of the lagoon.
The lagoon Veneto
So it is no accident when I met my aunt after almost 30 years this summer in Italy, it is not about the once majestic Roman empire and its remnants that excited me – rather the reminiscing of our common lagoon environs. She is a transplanted Roman citizen living there for almost 30 years. The gastronomy she has developed is worthy to mention – a fine interloping between Tiber River and Batti lagoon. She has mastered everything from antipasto to risotto saltato and gnocchi to calameritifritti – and makes the best cappuccino (along with mutton rolls.) The manifestation of love and affection through a satisfied palate – a mantra, that’s heavily wired and followed. Mediterranean catch almost matched the traps of the Batticaloa lagoon – my aunt’s dining table is well represented with devilled prawns and stone crabs.
To the North of the country, lies the most visited city of the world – the story of Venice has been told in every angle. The autos being forbidden in the main Islands, the lagoon is the lifeline for Venice. About 70.000 residents battle with the millions of visitors arriving by air, ship, auto and train to be part of the romanticized lagoon environs. In the free market economy the service sector is leading the economy of the Veneto, despairingly bringing eco damage or not.
But to be in the realm of a lagoon city that has ruled the waves and lands for many centuries, Batticaloa has little in common with Venice, except the lagoon itself. But interestingly the main islands of both principalities – ‘Puliyanthivu’ and the main historic Venice look similar, in the shape of a turtle. The English word lagoon did originate from the word ‘lagun Veneta’, referring to the marshy watershed of roughly 550 square Kms by the Adriatic Sea. The narrow Batticaloa lagoon on the other hand stretches around 50Kms in length, separated from the Indian Ocean.
Veneto region once ruled the waves with its advanced shipbuilding industry. The lagoon also complemented its fishing and agricultural landscape. But what was once the crown of the Roman jewel chest, has today, completely switched to a service economy intertwined with mass tourism. Career conscious young people have moved in droves out of the region due to lack of opportunities, leaving only the old; a reality that no one is immune to in any part of the globe.
What will happen to the Batticaloa region’s agricultural and inland fishing, once they get saturated is anyone’s guess. But what is noticeable is the expanding tourism industry, centered mostly on the Passekudah and Arugum Bay regions. On the other hand, a steady stream of outward youth movement, mostly to Colombo and its environs is clearly visible over time, to better them in the economic chain.
Two lagoon cities – unified in one tale
Two cities surrounded by two lagoons – though thousands of kilometers away; intertwined with many similarities. Besides providing a lifeline and protection from the angry seas, historical lineage does bring both together in many respects. Whether the forecasted nebulas in the global warming scenarios could spell disaster by way of rising water levels and weather calamities, wait to be seen – or should they be prepared for the continued existence of these people by the lagoon?
What once a maritime power and military prowess has become a romanticized fairy book, depending on mass tourism. Batticaloa lagoon’s reflective influence upon its dwellers does continue to be evolved in a manner beyond simple physics and geography. Has anyone recently notice the Soprano ‘C’note from the magical symphony of the ‘Singing Fish’ -possibly reflecting on the impending winds of change?
(Courtesy The Island)