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A Fisherman's Story

Christians, Muslims and Hindus all in a commune, constitute the nearly 8,00,000 strong population of fisherfolk in the state of Kerala-an intimate and close knit community.

George moves rapidly down the road towards the sandy clearing where his boat is. He wonders, stealing a look at the setting sun, if he is late, his light footfalls make almost no impressions on the sandy path which is the main road of Rameshwaram, his village off Cochin where a fishing community lives.

The others are there and the vallam Malayalam for a biggish fishing boat-stands in readiness. The large trawl net takes much of the space. A few moments for niceties and off they go into-fast-darkening waters of the Arabian Sea. Would there be a good catch? George wouldn’t know, to him there is no drama or suspense; all in a day’s work. The time of year is certainly not favourable, just before the monsoon hits the cost of Kerala.

And some coast-590 kilometers of a lush, rich coastline ideal-fishing country. There are 41 west flowing rivers that drain their waters into the sea that breaks its waves on Kerala’s coast. All this makes for the varied marine life that this southernmost state of India is so full of. As a result, the state has a fishable area as large as its land surface!

George is busy tonight. The trawl net takes a lot of labour, specially made s it is for fishing below visible depths. But that’s how it is with fishing even if it is a persinet which is used for shoal catches of fish that can be seen.

George is one of five brothers of a Catholic fishing family. He cheerfully leads a life of hardship in today’s world of high pressure and expenses, most often earning between Rs.600/- and Rs.1,000/- in one month. His children go to school, an activity which is, in Kerala, so important that it borders on the mundane.

George symbolizes a large number of fishermen who find their singular niches in Kerala’s 7,70,000 strong fishing population. 35 Per cent of these are Christians, 25 per cent are Muslims and 40 per cent are Hindus. Most commonly a group functions together as one fishing combine. Each boat has about 32 shareholders who are active fishermen. The boat is owned by a more affluent person who may well possess 50 or 60 boats. The shareholders fish together and become a commune in more ways than one.

The boat that Gorge and his teammates have taken out to sea drifts silently as night falls like dark velvet. The fishermen seem thoughtful and preoccupied. The waters quietly beat against the boat and Gorge finds himself becoming anxious about the catch. There is one bright thought that cuts through the darkness-tomorrow is Sunday. There is no fishing on a Sunday, and this is particularly true with the Christian fisherfolk.

Interestingly, Kerala fisherfolk have no special festivals or religious customs that are set apart from those of other people of their particular religion. As George says, it is just that we catch fish for an occupation, nothing else is different. Of course the homestead is adapted in small, special ways to the specialized profession. George’s wife spends her day making nets and cleaning fish besides her usual day-to-day chores.

To George, the bright spots are the total mechanization of their boasts and the sea itself. He often goes alone to stand on the huge granite stones that form the sea wall that runs along Rameshwaram and gazes out at the massive ocean. His work place, his livelihood.

And the same marine world forms the work place for a Nicobari fisherman in the small, picturesque island of Car Nicobar. Except that he fishes in the Bay of Bengal. And that he belongs to a tribe distinct in its social customs and rituals. As his day begins, he throws his net out with practiced ease. By night, the Nicobari often goes octopus hunting, walking out into the sea at low tide with a spear and a lantern, he hunts for octopuses trapped in small shallow pools of water. the light from his lantern attracts the octopus. It is popular food because it is rubbery and soft.

He Nicobari too, is a cheerful survivor much like George and his clan. Fishing is an important profession that provides humankind with one of the most protein-rich foods known today. The people involved in fishing are ordinary, normal folk, much like people who do other kinds of jobs.

The typical Indian fishing village is an intimate, close-knit community where the common thread of the man’s profession keeps all familiers together. George’s house does not have any fence. He says they do not need one. He walks freely into another friends house, uses the central room and moves away. George’s house is never locked. A new, free culture?

The community is too busy living an ordinary, civilian life to spend time on any special handicrafts or festivals. George’s wife is a nurse in a nearby medical clinic and his three children are in primary and middle school. All craft-making is related to fishing-nets boat repair and in some cases, cleaning and drying of fish.

For George, the worrying fact is that many of his colleagues are leaving Kerala and joining deep-sea trawlers of the mid-east. More money there, he says, and one can retain one’s original profession. But that makes things dismal for the fishermen who stay on. And there are not many youngsters willing to learn the skills now. Yet, George is happy, specially happy when he moves out, into the deep sea, with the salty breeze beating his face.