The Cauvery River is a mossy, green monster that crawls across two states in Southern India. In parts, it is dammed, in others, it curves through dark green tropical forests and passes through the back yard of small houses. The Kadamba tree grows on its banks, sipping on its water, producing sweet-scented white flowers that find their way to nearby temples. Visitors who come to the river cup a handful of the water and drip it on their heads in a show of reverence.
The river’s most famous inhabitants are 20 pound seer fish (mackerel) and river crocodiles. The word “maha” or great is often prefixed while addressing the seer fish. The river crocodiles have a long snout and thin teeth, giving them a preternaturally hungry look. “Every night I dream of the maha seer,” an angler told me.
Venu, the boat-maker and state-certified paddler, flexes his tawny muscles to bend the bamboo into thin strips that form the boat’s circular skeleton. He uses some bark stripped from the Kadamba tree to bind these pieces together. In the mythology of India, there was a multi-headed snake that emerged from the emerald depths and ruled these river banks. It took a small god to dance on its head and bow it to submission of man. Venu layers the boat with leaves and pushes it onto the gentle waters. This kind of boat is called a “coracle” in the local parlance – like an oracle, it whispers a myriad prognostications as it skims the river surface. We sit cross-legged on the curved bottom, eyes peeping over the edge. Venu has a few prognostications of his own – you will see some crocodiles sunning themselves as we turn left here, he says. When we don’t see them, he says matter-of-factly, that “if they are not outside, they must be inside” and points to the green waters below us. We gulp.
For the climax of the coracle ride, Venu suddenly plunges the paddle into the water and makes the coracle spin on its axis, faster and faster and faster. The trees and the waters all blend into one splash of green. At the end of the ride, as he helps us onto the bank, Venu twists his head back and says that his beloved river was being “scammed.” In the press, a scam is the preferred word for the misuse of public funds.
What is a river scam? Why should a river scam impinge on Venu’s idyllic conscience? What could draw the Oracle of the Coracle to make such claims? India, for the past two years, has seen a veritable parade of scams. Some of the bigger ones I remember reading about are a housing scam (apartments being illegally allocated), a telecom scam (the spectrum auction being rigged) and a coal scam (mining rights being handed out for political patronage).
The most recent one is almost comical and involves a prominent real estate firm and the son-in-law of the ruling first family. The son-in-law looks like a local Bad Boy and his lean face is often photographed sporting Aviators and a pencil-thin mustache. He is also apparently active on Twitter and with the breaking of the real estate scam, tweeted the following brief message, to be followed by radio silence:
“Mango people in a banana republic.”
The word for a mango in Hindi is “aam,” which also means common. So, he cunningly said “common people in a banana republic.” What he meant remains a mystery.
However, back to Venu and his sorrow – I discovered what has been agonizing him was the yearly tussle between states for the waters of the Cauvery, an up-stream/down-stream political battle to decide when to open the sluice gates of the dam.
So there you have it – neither Venu nor the Cauvery are exempt from scams or any of the other growing pains in the world’s largest democracy.