Song of the Kerala fishermen

I hunkered down on the beach trying to photograph the neon yellow crabs scuttling around in the surf. The crabs had this amusing habit of stopping dead in their tracks, eyes literally popping out of their heads, whenever I moved too abruptly, as if they thought that by keeping still they couldn’t be seen.

crabIt was late December, perfect weather for Kerala. A friendly 27 degrees where temperatures would hover for about two months before soaring along with the humidity. Either side of me a ream of strawberry blonde sand skirted with coconut groves stretched into the distance. That morning, a waiter at my guesthouse had shinnied up a palm to cut me a coconut, the milk of which had made the stuff I’d drunk in New Delhi seem like ditch water. I was just outside the village of Puthenthope (pronounced POOT-an-tope), a 40-minute drive from the capital of Trivandrum. With no resorts, only one guesthouse and no restaurants nearby, this section of the Malabar Coast is well off the everyday tourist circuit. Paradise is a rather abused travel-writing term. But it was at the very least a slice of ‘aradise’.

I began to follow the movements of a group of local fishermen. Reedy built but taut-muscled, dressed in the traditional lungi wrapped around their loins, they were intently engaged in casting an enormous net into a semi circle about 500 yards in diameter. Two others swam into the middle and began slapping at the surface of the water, belting out a song at the top of their lungs—a cross between a rock anthem and a dirge. It took me a while to figure out that the point of all this was to frighten the fish into the bowels of the net closer to the surf. At the same time, two groups of half a dozen men, 50 yards apart along the shoreline, gently pulled the net towards them by way of hefty ropes, converging gradually into the point of a V. It was like watching a slow motion tug-o-war, except everyone was on the same team.

netsThe whole process took well over an hour. I couldn’t see one of them who looked under forty-five. Most of the fishermen in Kerala are middle-aged as non-mechanized boat fishing is a dying trade. Kerala is the largest producer of marine fish in India, but these days deep-sea trawlers rake in the larger catch, and fewer young men want to stay in the villages and learn the ways of the sea. The Government of Kerala has enforced a statutory trawl-fishing ban in place for a quarter century during monsoon, to protect the fish stocks during breeding season, but still these fishermen find it hard to compete with even the most rudimentary mechanized craft fitted with outboard motors.

They heaved the net its final yards up onto the wet sand and gathered around it, staring down at the contents, hands solemnly behind their backs – half a dozen or so unimpressive looking fish flapped their tails between a soda can and a few startled crabs. The men walked away in silence, some to crouch on the sand and stare out to sea, sucking thoughtfully at bidis. I’d seen many of them assume this position over the past couple of days, before they put out their boats – completely motionless for ten minutes or more; single-pointedly absorbing the mood of the waves, winds and tides. The rest of them dragged in the boat they’d used to lay the net, hoisting it over a set of palm trunks used as rollers. The boats, about twenty-feet long and five feet wide, were stoutly built with great economy of design, stitched together with coconut fibre. Not a nail in sight.

elephant boatAs I watched all this go on around me I had an idea. I asked the man nearest to me if he spoke English. He shouted over to another, slightly younger man, who sauntered over.
“Can you take me out in your boat?”
I performed a little pantomime to show him what I meant.
“We not do this,” he replied.
“Rupees,” I explained.
“We not do this,” he repeated.
I thanked him and began to walk away.
He called after me and put up both hands to show all ten fingers. One thousand rupees. I shook my head and put up one hand. Five hundred. He shook his head. I shook mine.
“Okay,” he said.

Four of them began to push out the same boat they’d used to lay the fishing net. My friend motioned me to get in. I clambered over the side in a rather ungainly fashion, and was promptly yanked to a bench and firmly made to sit down. When we reached the surf-line, they all halted as one and gazed out at the waves. After a few minutes, without a word spoken, they started to heave the boat into the crashing surf with an urgent intensity. All four leapt into the boat at once and began furiously working the oars on each side. The whole process was a model of collective timing. It dawned on me that theirs was not just a trade, but an art, requiring years of experience imbedded in both body and mind. I couldn’t be in safer hands, I thought, as the bigger waves at the point break flung the prow of the boat upwards, lurching me forward to clutch at the metal rope rings, and drenching us all with a rain of spray. It was all very Pirates of the Caribbean, like a ride at Disneyland had broken free of the turnstiles and morphed into the real thing. And then we were beyond the waves, and enveloped in calm. The water was dazzling in the mid-day sun. A light breeze dried the sweat off the back of my neck. We sat in silence for about fifteen minutes, time measured out by the boat’s rhythmic lilting. The Malabar Coast a bangle of coral and green to our stern. An indigo flourish of horizon to our bow.
“Okay,” I said, grinning.
They grinned back and took up the oars again.


Later, over dinner, I got chatting to an English family. The dad was telling me how much he and his wife were enjoying themselves, but admitted that their two young boys were getting a bit bored.
“They’re used to TV and video games. They don’t get what to do here.”
I leaned in and relayed the day’s events. The next afternoon I met them coming up the beach. The kids were laughing and running in the surf, daring each other to rescue a floating coconut shell. The dad turned and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Word got around the guesthouse. By the time I left, most of the twelve or so guests had taken a ride with the fishermen, who all began to wave at me during my evening walks. We weren’t about to solve the larger dilemma they faced of a dying livelihood, but we offered a temporary reprieve– and a reason to tell something of their arduous, vulnerable and lyrical life.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
This entry was posted in epoche and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Song of the Kerala fishermen

  1. Reblogged this on palmleaveshometel and commented:
    About beach holidays in Palmleaves Puthenthope Kerala India

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s