#KeralaCoastalWalk: The warm, curious, sea
The earth may be cruel but the sea is heartless. Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi.
Filming the artisanal thattumadi way of fishing was secondary, the foremost task was to not come in the way.
A maali…aisa maali…
Some of the crew swayed precariously over the gunwale in underwear, ferrying bucketful of fresh water and passing a missing sparkplug.
A maali…aisa maali…
They hollered expletive-laden instructions at each other while pulling up the madi, or the net, by the thattu, which was the rope, in step with the chant.
A maali…aisa maali…
I am thinking the anxious hopefulness of the catch is making them swear more. The sound of the trapped fish in the madi coming up is like tambourine. But with less clang. It is a memorable sound, I can hear it even today.
The madi is finally above water-level as the boats nearly bump into each other. Curiosity gets the better of me and I peer from the stern where I am tucked into over the starboard side where the action is. I have been on fishing expeditions before and I know that a good catch would be met by a sudden spurt of obscenities, hurled at everybody in general. This enhanced the bonhomie of the brotherhood, which would continue late into the afternoon once they got back over potent army quota rum. Afterward, everybody would stagger to their respective houses and eat fish and rice and sleep on mats before heading out again to the sea as dusk fell. Now there was silence.
Those who have passed 60 years of age get a pension of one thousand rupees – enough for a chai and a snack which might keep them alive. I still go out to the sea, on my kattamaram, by myself. The sea has become hotter and more violent from earlier days. And the fish is considerably less. I don’t want my son to do what I do for a living. The kids today are not able to handle the sea, they have lost touch. Even to go somewhere on land they use computers – tik, tak, and you are there. I still use the stars to navigate myself back home sometimes when I go far out into the open sea. Most days I go really far out as there is no fish near the coast or even five or six kilometres from the coast. David Jasadima, fisherman from Puthiyathura, Trivandrum.
Despite my city swagger – or maybe because of it – they were initially hesitant to take me out to sea with them. Though I assured them that I had been there before I still needed the good sisters at the convent where I was staying to put in a word of commendation. The second generation non-fishermen were the biggest naysayers. ‘There’s a stench out there,’ one told me, a master degree holder in Malayalam literature. ‘It will make you puke your guts out.’ He himself had been out in the sea only once before the stench got to him making him stick to the shores and write PSC exams. Anyway, it had been a while since I was out there so I did what I could – packed biscuits for dinner. So, while the rest of the crew gorged on rice and curried and fried fish, I pecked on Britannia 50-50. Several light boats – the single-crewed kattamaram which ferried the LED lights used to lure the fish – passed us. And none did without enquiring after my well-being. ‘Is he holding up alright?’ went the general refrain. Maybe all the biscuits I was looking a little pale. Offers of chapathi and other food proper came my way which I stoically refused.
“So, what if you throw up?” Asked one old chap almost anthropophagous in his chomping on tobacco and spewing red betel streams. This fluttered against the wind before splattering against him and those who sat next to him. There was a nonchalant disregard, not even a murmur of a gripe, for this splay.
“You just have to eat more!” He said squinting at me like a punter. Maybe it was a gyp remark. But nobody laughed. Maybe it was real concern. I showed him my tumbling stack of Nice and Good Day biscuits.
These guys are like the sea only – rough and destructive on the outside. But go a little deep and you will find the gentlest, most pacific souls. Father Pradeep Puthenveettil, parish priest, Pozhiyoor.
Cletus (name changed) straddled the border, literally. His father was from Tamil Nadu and mother from Kerala. His modest home in Neerodi, TN, next to South Kollemcode, Kerala’s coastal border with TN. (Kalayikkavila is the road border.) Most mornings when he is home he can be found at the football ground between Neerodi and South Kollemcode. He used to play football but these days he just sits there, gazing at the open area. More than booted nostalgia, this is a consequence of the many months he is away at sea – he finds concrete and walls claustral. A resident of Dwarka, New Delhi, I understood this very well; the cycle park next door used to be my succour. Cletus went with trawler boats from next door Thoothoor in TN. Thoothoor is a comparatively better-off neighbourhood looked up by fishing communities all over Kerala. The prudence and diligence of fishermen here was the gist of the Joneses. When I went there, I found all the houses brightly daubed and gated with at least one car in the portico. The kids were well-fed, the boys nattily turned out and the girls pretty. Probably making all the difference was a college in the vicinity. Something which Kerala lacked.
“When we go, we are away for at least a month. In our last run, we went all the way to New Zealand passing through Andamans, Dubai, Iraq and Muscat. We reached in nine days flat.”
I know the issue of international maritime border laws was quite touchy these days but I don’t know whether he had broken any in his NZ outing. The thing is, he doesn’t either. But he does know of the repercussion though.
“It has happened to many of my friends – their boat and fish were confiscated and they were put in jail. But no, it has never happened to me.” I detected a faint cockiness here. Probably due. Even the name itself is famously redneck after all. But more than any thoughts on breaking laws or fear of imprisonment what really gets his goat is being circumscribed in his own country.
“Twice in Kochi we had just returned with our fish but we weren’t allowed to leave the boat as Modi was in the general area.”
Sri Lankan jails are full of boys from the south of India – from Kerala and from Tamil Nadu. Most of them break maritime border laws unwittingly. Many are in small boats which are not fitted with GPS; even those in trawlers, which are supposedly hi-tech, just chase fish wherever they can find it. Besides, we are talking about water here. How do you draw a line on water? How can anybody know where the line falls? How far do these lines go? We are all humans eking out a living, after all. Our government has done nothing to get these boys released. Abdur Rehman, fisherman from Edava.
I undertook #KeralaCoastalWalk with the intent to document a fast-disappearing livelihood and landscape. ‘Before the MacDonaldization of the coast…’ as I mentioned in a talk to students somewhere. This was going to be a drawn-out exercise – by end of February I had only completed Trivandrum (78 of the total 590 km, or first of the total nine coastal districts). Besides, there was a supporting job I had to handle out of Delhi, I also had to see the coast in different seasons and phenomenon – like the famous mud banks or chakara – formed during the rainy July month in Alleppey. While learning about the impact of the new port coming up in Vizhinjam in the lives of local mussel fishermen, I stayed at Kovalam – a stay which got extended as I bumped into an old German friend. More human reasons delayed me at Varkala as did the awe-inspiring layout – I decided to film it. #WorkLoveVarkala. Kappil, the district border with Kollam, is just seven kilometres along the shore from Varkala. I stayed at Varkala for nearly a month before walking to Kappil. The film is currently under post production.
My sense of intrigue and enthrallment were met with sympathetically, even returned at times. This inspired me vastly. The warmth and wonderment of many of the people I met stuck with me through most part of the walk; while some plied me with genuine queries many masqueraded Ripley-doses of information as casual posers. Living on the edge, probably a bit of drama had encroached into their own lives. There is a lot more to walk, I know. Even further up north through a village where ISIS recruitments allegedly take place. Whatever, from my journey so far, I know these are good folk, folk I can trust. Folk happy to swap tales over a cuppa.
Folks whose splendiferous curiosities met me midway.
You must give it to them engineers – each of their heads must contain two brains! All through the four years the bridge was under construction, every single day I used to marvel at the capability God has endowed on us humans. And the huge technological strides we have made on our own. The engines made a loud rattling noise and chucked a lot of smoke, yes, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off them which worked throughout emptying out the water so the foundation could be laid. The engineers themselves rarely came to my shop but the Bengali labourers who worked on the site did. And I would make them tell me about the work and progress. See, I was in Dubai and used to converse a lot with Pakistanis and Afghans in Hindi, so talking to these lads was easy. Maybe even easier than talking to all those big-brained engineers. Asma Biwi, cool drink shop owner, near Perumathura Bridge.