The little metal boat
7 May 2018
For ten days every year, the entire temple town of Irinjalakuda transforms into a massive fair. Inside the temple, there are art, music and cultural events, very religious rituals, elephants in chains, and huge crowds gathering for the chenda melam. Outside, there is a much more accessible exhibition and ‘fun fair’. As a child, this is where I was introduced to the Ferris wheel, Columbus ride, and the most dangerous of all — the ‘Well of Death’.
Apart from the rides, there would be stalls with food, drinks, sweets, toys, games, balloons, bangles and everything nice. There was also always this one store where one could “write one's name on a grain of rice”, for whatever reason. I can safely say that I have seen fewer places with more colour per square metre than I have here. It was also where we children would spend our small savings from the vishu-kaineettam (money we would be gifted by elders only a month ago, for our new year) on the conspicuous consumption of balloons, toys and food.
When younger, my favourite of all toys one could buy at this fair was a little metal boat. A small container with the wick was to be lit and placed towards the bow of the boat. You could leave it in a little tub of water and if everything is done right, the boat would soon start making a rickety noise as it went around in circles in the water. For a while now, I’ve been haunted by the thought that I was too young the last time I bought this boat to be able to appreciate it. Yesterday, I went back to the fair looking for it.
Not much has changed since my last memory of being to the fair some two decades ago. There were still the colourful shops selling all sorts of things. In fact, there more of them now than there used to be. The toys were, of course, different. There has been a definite increase in the number of stuffed animals, and an unprecedented number of fake Barbie dolls and little plastic Transformer figures. Of everything I remember seeing there as a child, the shop that wrote your name on rice was the one I would have bet on dying out first — but apparently, I was wrong. People still queued to etch their name on something they will probably misplace even before they left the fair.
I couldn’t find the metal boat I looked for. I was surprised. I can’t think of why a toy so simple yet so cool would ever go out of vogue. I wondered if it was because it took patience. The boat was theoretically simple to operate, but I remember the many disappointing attempts to get it to run. Sometimes, the water wouldn’t be evenly distributed in the little pipes. Sometimes, the fire would burn out before it heats up the system and made the boat move. Most times, it would just stay there on the water — immobile. Young me and my brother would stare back at it, half angry, half disappointed. But we would go back and buy it again the following year, and bring out a tub of water and repeat the charade, although we knew the trials and errors that followed. But once in every 5 or 6 attempts, it would move. The boat would start to make rounds in the water that would last barely a minute or two, but we would be delighted.
I wondered if children today were as patient. I looked around at the shops again, trying to find toys that would take time to assemble, or give the children multiple chances to fail. There’s nothing in a Chinese Barbie doll or a plastic toy gun that can go wrong. Ironically, the only stall around that demanded so much patience for so little joy seemed to be the one with the name-on-rice store. But the little metal boats have now been forgotten.