T. Nataraj, Fisherman

It’s such a windy afternoon that the metal-roofed shack on Thiruvanmiyur beach judders. The 13 small boys standing around me laugh; Nataraj frowns at the scudding, black clouds; his brother — a fisherman like him — is still at sea. “They must’ve gone to Kasimedu; they will get back soon,” he says. But then, Nataraj should know; he’s a third generation fisherman. “We have two boats in our family. We go fishing four days a week, about 30km into sea, and sometimes, even 60 or 100,” says the 27 year old, who’s been fishing for the last eight years.

On the days he sets out fishing, Nataraj’s day begins at 3 a.m. “The boat is stocked with diesel and drinking water; we also carry food. Usually, we’re back at noon. But when we go far, we’re home only by 10 p.m.,” he says. The running cost for each trip is Rs. 4,000, but the returns are very unpredictable, very seasonal. “On good days, we net fish worth Rs. 10,000. For a six-seater-boat, that’s a profit of about Rs.1,000 per head. Sometimes, the catch is poor, and there are days when it’s hardly anything.”

We walk across the sand to his boat; his father sits nearby, mending nets; Nataraj tells me that they use different kinds of nets, as fish vary with the seasons. ‘We’ll catch eral next month, while in January, it’s sankara meen; in August, we get plenty of vavval meen. For sankara and kola meen, we need to go far into the sea. The really big ones,” he stretches out his arm wide, “can fetch Rs. 300”. He removes a tall signal-light from a box inside the wooden boat. “We switch this on when it’s dark; it’s our emergency light, and it also warns large ships. See this iron? We drop it to check water depth. The oars over there are in case the engine fails. And these banners are to cover ourselves when it rains,” he says, laughing at my suggestion of raincoats. “How far can you swim wearing wet raincoats madam?” he asks.

Rain, Nataraj tells me, does not hold fishermen back; only stormy weather does. “The elders in the kuppam can read clouds, they advise us to stay indoors in nasty weather. Choppy seas can kill; but more often, it’s the huge waves that capsize boats; sometimes, winds drag us to Besant Nagar.” Seasickness makes life an agony for new fishermen, Nataraj tells me. “Gher-a irrukum madam; there’s also the strong smell of fish,” he shudders, and the small boys laugh. But their laughter is drowned by the rumbling sky.

“Let’s go, it will rain now,” Nataraj tells me, as lightening cracks open the black clouds. When he plans to go 60 km -100 km into sea, Nataraj takes along older, experienced fishermen, as the middle of the sea offers no direction, and it’s easy to get lost. The risks involved is one of the reason fisherfolk want their children to study, and look away from the sea for sustenance. Happy tidings are in store for Nataraj though. “I’m getting married in six months. My fiance’s father is also a fisherman,” he tells me, blushing. It begins to rain; I run for cover; Nataraj waves good bye standing in the drizzle.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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