It's overcast, but not threatening rain. A breeze caresses our hair as we drift across the lake. Behind us, the lush Eastern Ghats roll into the distance. To the northeast, we can see no limit to the water; the lake merges smoothly into the grey sky. Only a distant sail or two tells us approximately where the horizon is.
Kartik and Sanyas take turns poling the boat, the pole dramatic against the sky. Progress is slow, but we have nowhere to go and are in no hurry to get there. Progress is also silent -- pushing a pole against the bottom of a lake to propel a boat must be about the quietest mode of transport in existence. But the silence is also fine with us. Goes well with the smooth water we are on.
But it doesn't go well with Sanyas. Without warning, out there in the middle of the lake with nobody else visible anywhere around, he sings. Sad Oriya songs, Hindi film songs, cheery Bengali songs. He startles us, but after a while this little man's odd voice grows on us.
And as he sings, I lose myself to a dream. What would it be like to live here, on this lake?
"Will you tell us about Bombay?" Kartik asks suddenly, shaking me from reverie. So we do. We talk of the crowds, the garbage and the rush. Paan stains, suburban trains and poverty. Crime and cars and shopping and the tall buildings of Nariman Point.
All that we have escaped, coming here.
They listen. Then Kartik -- he doesn't sing, but he's the more voluble of the two -- asks: "Will I get work if I come to Bombay? Because here, there is nothing."
"Certainly you will," I say, in some surprise. "But you should stay here. Why would you want to leave this beautiful place to come to the big city?"
The words are barely out of my mouth and I regret them. Who am I to tell Kartik he should stay here? How can I say to him that he should live with the lack of opportunities here, only because I am captivated with this spot? Away from my city life, I have the time and leisure to enjoy pleasure like this, this gentle ride on this lovely lake. Why should I assume Kartik feels the same?
Anyway, he ignores what I say. He fires more questions about work in Bombay.
Orissa is likely the country's most backward state. Of every 1000 babies born there, 114 die before they are a year old: easily India's worst infant mortality rate, nearly 50% higher than the national average. 45% of the state's people live below the official poverty line, again the worst ratio in the country and again 50% higher than the national average. Per capita income is close to the lowest in the country.
For men like Kartik and Sanyas, what these numbers mean is that making a living is hard. For years, they have been small fishermen on Chilika, this vast saltwater lake on Orissa's coast. Now they are being muscled out of that lifestyle by corporations that set up huge farms on the lake to raise prawns for export. It's not just that these farms are destructive to the local environment and economy. For Kartik and Sanyas, the logic is much more personal.
They have lost the only way they know to make a living here.
No wonder they long to travel to Bombay for work, where several friends and relatives already are. In the meantime, they offer their services to the trickle of tourists who come to Chilika.
Today, we are the only ones.
If they do come to Bombay, these once-fishermen will certainly find a way to earn. But they will probably live in awful conditions. And they will be subject to middle-class anger over "illegal immigration" into the city, anger which demolishes their hovels and tries to send them "back where they come from."
Where they come from, of course, is Chilika Lake. Where there is nothing for Kartik.
Though for us city folk, it has significant attractions. Elegant flamingos and other birds flock to Chilika in the winter. Even if you are not a bird-watcher, the slow boat rides are guaranteed to relax. The sunsets, the green hills, the fluttering breeze, the clean air, the sheer distance from hectic city lives -- Chilika is a uniquely gorgeous corner of India. If you visit, be warned: you will also begin dreaming, like I did, about living here.
Yet I have the privilege of seeing beauty in Chilika. For Kartik and Sanyas, life there now points in just one direction: destitution.
I wrote to Kartik recently. No reply. I think I might see him one day, shining shoes at Churchgate or selling balloons on the seafront.