A day out with fisherfolk
In 2009 I found myself at Puthiyathura, a fishing hamlet on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.
In my many years of knowing Kerala’s capital city, I had never ventured into these parts.
The fish reached the refrigerator in our home, carried all the way by a fisherwoman. You saw the fisherwomen all over town, hurrying along at a fast pace. What we never knew was why she hurried. She too had family; she had left home early and had that far to get back, before dark. Wanting to save the little she earned, she walked; a hurried walk.
The only time the fisherwoman’s home captured our concern was when the police resorted to firing to disperse clashing groups. In the days I attended school and college in Thiruvananthapuram, the city’s fishing hamlets witnessed clashes. When a fisherwoman came to our home after one such incident reported in the local papers, my mother would ask her about it. Some of them talked at length. It was, I guess, a venting, unloading one’s mind of life’s burdens to a fellow woman. Some others spared just a few words. As the crow flies, I lived maybe three to four kilometers from the sea. We went to the beach on weekends, enjoyed the sea breeze, wet our feet in the surf, had the hot, roasted groundnuts sold by vendors and returned home. Amid the silhouettes of fishing canoes drawn up on a sunset-beach, would be people relaxing over a chat or card game. Once in a while a kid or two came prancing down from the shadows towards the waves, jumped into the surf, swam about confidently and went back to the shadows. They were the people of my fish.
Years passed. I began catching up on things I didn’t do. I wanted to venture out to sea in a fishing boat; watch fishermen at work. My sister Yamuna, who had studied sociology and worked with communities, pitched in to help. She had worked before in the Puthiyathura area. She put me in touch with the fishermen. Several phone calls later, we had a trip scheduled. Then, Varghese who was to be my guide cut his arm and so the first attempt got called off. The second one saw us all on the beach staring at an angry sea. The water was grey, turbid toward the shore and the waves crashed with a dull resonant thud, which has always been the audio signature of a south Kerala beach. On that particular day, the thud was too strong for comfort. “ We won’t have a problem,’’ Johnson said referring to himself and his fellow fishermen, “ but a newcomer, if required to jump off the craft on the return may end up in trouble.’’ To put it in perspective, the coast towards the south of Kerala slopes steeply into the sea. You can find waist deep water within striking distance of the shore, neck deep trifle beyond and start swimming around where the nearest wave arches to crash. In contrast, beaches in Gujarat have extended shorelines; at low tide you can walk far out to sea. This is the secret to what was once the world’s longest stretch of ship breaking yards at Alang. You run the ship in on its last burst of energy and ram it into the shallows. At low tide, the steel hulk stands exposed for scavenging like a castle bereft of its moat.
Unlike Kovalam, which has a protected cove, at Puthiyathura the beach was a straight line exposed to the sea’s fury. Here, I may be able to launch off in a boat in rough weather but on the return, devoid of the skill to jump out of the boat in time and swim, risked getting hit by the craft, which would be tossing and pitching in the waves. “ The sea should be calmer,’’ Vincent said during moments stolen from his perennial focus on the auction happening on the beach. The auction was a miserable sight. On display was a meager collection of fish hardly echoing the famed plenty of the sea. “ There is nothing left to catch there,’’ Vincent said.
The time I was at Puthiyathura, an advertisement for the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival in the newspaper announced up to forty kilos of gold to be won if anyone bought the precious metal during the festival period. That’s twelve kilos shy of my body weight and many, many times more in value than my person. In a country recognized as the world’s biggest gold importer, Kerala is one of the biggest retail consumers. I suspect Kerala’s love for gold has much to do with an underlying conservatism. The advertisement for the shopping festival dutifully highlighted the logic. It asked: which other investment is as secure as gold?
The image in the advertisement about the shopping festival showed five fishermen folding their nets on a beach. The sea braced itself into a wave in the backdrop; large, shining gold coins morphed into the photograph tumbled out from the nets – a haul of gold. The caption said: Swarna Chaakara. It was a play of words and imagery. Swarnam in Malayalam means gold. Chaakara is the phenomenon of mud banks that occur along the central Kerala coast bringing with it shoals of fish. Old timers distinctly remember it for the flurry of activity it brought on the beach. Years ago as a journalist in Kochi, I had traveled south to Ambalappuzha to witness a chaakara. Venu, my colleague from the Alappuzha bureau and the person who loaned me a wonderful collection of Hemingway’s essays to read, accompanied me on the trip. I reached the beach expecting festivities and jubilation. The mood though was matter of fact. More like – been there, seen it. I was the only one straining to see a great story for a new generation. Most people on the beach probably saw it as a stroke of luck to pay off debts. That was in the early 1990s. As an introduction to the economics of fishing that laconic attitude was the right initiation.
In the Malayalam language, chaakara has evolved to become an expression of plenty. And times of plenty are rare. Whichever way you look at it, fishing is a tough business; hardly the stuff of gold. For most of us landlubbers dreading the fury and unfathomable depth of that vast blue expanse, returning safe from the sea is accomplishment enough. For the fisherman though, returning alive and empty handed is an invitation to accumulate debt, suffer from it. Behind each outing into the sea is a string of expenses, ranging from the cost of nets and fuel to the cost of hiring a boat if you don’t have one. A simple inquiry on the beach would reveal that these costs are not tiny even for your wallet, leave alone a person struggling to make ends meet. In a low capital environment like the fisherman’s beach, these expenses are incurred and paid for with promised claims on the catch. Thus the first right on catch is rarely the fisherman’s; his is typically the last. The math at its core is simple – if you spent a thousand rupees and fetched catch worth six hundred, you paid off the equipment providers on the basis of a local ratio, kept a small portion and started your second voyage with debt in excess of four hundred rupees. That is not just simple; it is simplified for atop that debt would come the fresh investment for the second trip, which may be another round of borrowing. Until some time back, this atmosphere of frequent debt was accentuated by loans from money lenders arranged at high interest rate. The rise of self-help groups may have partly addressed some of these monetary difficulties but there has been no escape for the fisherman from the basic model of fishing. The sea loves its unpredictable nature.
It had anyway spoilt my chances that day of the second attempt to go fishing. Confined to the shore, Vincent and Kennedy, both activists for the fishing community, took me around to see the day’s catch. Prominent on the Puthiyathura beach were plates of normally overlooked cartilaginous fish, the sort seen hiding in the sands of the sea bottom on National Geographic. Also around was fish, dead in a different way – it was already dead and floating on the sea when the fisherman hauled it in. This was fish rejected at high seas as unwanted collateral catch by large trawlers. With few fish to come by, the trawlers’ refuse was also getting cleaned and sold. The woman cleaning the lot for sale stayed absorbed in her work. She didn’t look up at either Vincent delivering a commentary on her plight or me, clear stranger to the beach, standing there and listening to it. She seemed indifferent to the whole world.
Two days later, I made a final attempt.
This day and no more on this visit home, I had promised myself.
Bad luck threatened from the start. The global economy – certainly the US and Europe – was in recession; India was claiming to be free of the disease, yet showing signs of it in every business update. At that most blessed moment when thousands were losing their jobs worldwide, the country’s well paid oil company employees decided to go on strike. Simultaneously, by design or coincidence, a nationwide transport strike began. Soon fuel stocks at retail level reduced to a trickle. Long queues of vehicles appeared in front of petrol pumps. This was the situation at the city bus depot that morning, many buses were caught in queue for fuel, some trips were cancelled and some that ran were way behind schedule. That was the case on the route I was to take. Finally I got a slow bus.
We ambled along at leisurely pace, as these buses have always done in the city of my childhood. In due course the breeze became sea-tinged and the sky above the coconut palms betrayed that openness so characteristic of proximity to the sea. Christian churches frequented by the fishing folk appeared and in the courtyard of one, reflecting the charismatic brand of religion followed by many in these parts, a lone man walked around, gently dancing, swaying, and holding aloft a leafy tree branch. He seemed to have stumbled upon some blessing or may be as part of the blessed, he was blessing the world – who knows? He seemed happy anyway. “ It is a fine day,’’ Vincent said on the ocean’s edge, the big blue expanse looked sleepy, almost tranquilized and prayed to stay so for a novice to sail its bosom.
My friend Swarup had helped me secure a life jacket. I put that on. It was an effort pushing the wooden boat in. The moment it hit the water Johnson fired the outboard engine. We punched ahead through the waves and shot on for a long time, till all sign of shore disappeared and we were in the calm waters of beyond. Here, more than from ashore, you notice the bulk and immensity of the sea. I watched three men drop long lines to catch whatever fish they could. I had expected to see a net or two. There was none. I suspect my companions on the boat took the outing less as fishing and more as an assignment to satisfy my curiosity for their world. The lines dangled in the water, managed by sensitive fingers alert for the slightest tug or movement. Every few minutes a line would be drawn in; several hooks empty, a fish or two being all that was caught. The sea may have turned calm but the fortunes it held, hadn’t changed.
The few fish getting caught were all the slimy, grey type. A couple of them seemed painted at some art school but hardly the variety for eating. Save one type – red in color, with white spots that the crew said was tasty to eat. Yet none commanded value in the market. Here and there a creature resembling the seer fish or mackerel jumped out of the water but that was it; it wouldn’t be fooled to bite. Still in that highly diluted and watered down version of fishing’s thrills, I could sense the nature of engagement. As he drew up hook after hook where the fish had eaten the bait and escaped getting hooked, Gregory said aloud to himself, “ crafty characters.’’ By noon we were done. A small pile of low value fish lay on the boat’s floor. George, Clement, Johnson and Gregory sat pensive near the lone outboard engine. They had just concurred that given their life experience they would rather have their children educated and doing something else. “ In this profession, those who lost, outnumber those who gained,’’ the older, quieter, Gregory said. The sea slapped softly on the boat’s sides. Even at such gentle times, the swells resembled giant aquamarine saucers; you sank into one and crested at its edge like a two second-light house.
At one such cresting, I saw the most amazing sight – a man poised atop a slender catamaran, all alone and so far out. Had it been space, he would have been a planet all to itself. Here, he was a world on two logs drifting by, lost to the rhythm of a work getting longer and longer for want of fish. He would sit, stand, squat, and pull in a net – all on a foot-wide platform liberally washed by the blue sea. The minimalism of his life clothed him and two or three others like him that I could see scattered wide apart in that area; the briefest pair of shorts or a section of an old lungi wrapped around the waist and ending well above the knee. That bare existence on a fragile stick near submerged by the sea was apparently fundamental to anyone’s evolution as a fisherman. “ You start on a catamaran,’’ Gregory said.
In the boat Clement kept working, as though working against time, making good use of the little time, any time, he had. He was usually the last to draw in a line from a given spot, big hands reeling out the line and feeling it constantly for the faintest of tell tale tugs. Chaakara doesn’t happen this far south in the state, nor is plenty at sea anymore the plenty of old. Unless that is: some lucky fisherman borrowed money, bought gold and struck a Swarna Chaakara at a city jeweler’s shop. George would have liked that thought. Standing at fore with a hungry gaze seaward for any sign of fish, he seemed mad enough to indulge the absurd. He was getting restless. Suddenly, the placid sea and the hours spent fishing futilely, got to him. He whipped around, “ Let us go back to land, eat and get drunk! What do you get here?’’ My thoughts hung for a second on his last observation – what do you get here? I had heard that before in the mountains, where the sight of ocean is typically part of a lucky journey. Memory of the sea – if seen at all – is a good subject for conversation at mountain villages. There too, they ask with envious glance cast towards the plains – what do you get here in the mountains? Everybody wants to be somewhere else.
Johnson warned of low fuel. At the turn around point roughly eight kilometers out at sea, I gazed at the water all around and couldn’t resist taking a dip. I took off my life jacket and lowered myself over the boat’s side into the water. Then I pushed off. It was the least I could do as a puny statement of intent before the vastness of the surrounding blue, the length and breadth of it, the depth of it. “ Don’t go too far from the boat. The fish here is big,’’ Johnson said, half in jest. My conspiratorial mind immediately switched to National Geographic mode. Below me should be tiny teeth, big teeth, sharp teeth, suckers, stingers; there was a world of murderous characters lurking below. The quality and quantity of danger was directly proportionate to seventy per cent of the planet being water and that watery world being three hundred times – according to some estimates – bigger in volume than the land mass inhabited by terrestrials. With large bait splashing around in the water, all we needed on the boat was another aspirant for the World Press Photography award. The sea had been calm that day; the swim felt easy as though in a gigantic swimming pool, sole concerns being that sense of terrible depth and the inevitable drift of the boat away from you, away from you. For someone whose longest swim is a struggled lap in the swimming pool that specter of the boat slipping away evokes panic. In the ocean there is nothing to grab when starved of endurance, except water.
Vincent remembered a day some twenty years ago when the sea was far from calm. He had been out with a crew that included his father. They had just pulled in the net laden with catch, when the weather turned bad. The furious sea flipped the boat throwing everyone into the cold water. He reasons that things would have been different had they not pulled in the laden net as it may have worked as a stabilizing anchor. Each time they steadied the boat, the sea flipped it till over a series of capsizes, the net wound itself around the boat. It was a mess now, a tangle of men, boat and net in the deep waters of a furious sea. Night came. At some point during all that agony, the cold water proved too much to bear for one of the crew and he died. For a while they kept the body in sight, lashed to the remains of the boat. By day break, they had lost two people – the second being Vincent’s father. Luckily for the crew, they were discovered by a boat that had set out from the Tamil Nadu coast, further south from Puthiyathura. “ That boat just burst out from the surrounding swells,’’ Vincent said. He didn’t go back to sea for a year and when he did, the memory of the accident shadowed.
Back on land, Johnson rather apologetically, presented me with a bill for the fishing trip. In tune with the fluctuating fortunes of his work, he said, “ had the catch been good, I would not have insisted.’’ I couldn’t argue, the fish said it all. “ That’s alright Johnson,’’ I said.
Before I left Thiruvananthapuram for Mumbai, the local newspaper reported on one of the winners from the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival. It was a fisherwoman who had borrowed money to buy the coupon for the lucky draw.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the economics of fishing outlined here are as perceived in 2009.)