What’s not to like? My wife goes to work, she’s a tailor, my two sons study in an English-medium school, and I have two jobs!
The last interview turns out to be the most memorable, mostly because, for the first time, Madras Tamil defeated me. And Murugan, tired of repeating himself, flattens out the sand in front of him, and writes out the words. The sand is handy, and there’s lots of it; we’re sitting on the near-empty Marina beach, one Monday evening, in the shade of his small carousel.
Predicting lots of customers — even though the cars and scooters do not run for the entire stretch of the one- and-a- half hours we talk — Murugan tells me that there’s decent money to be had working a carousel. “This belongs to my brother Balachander Thesaran.” I copy the name from the sand to my notebook. “I’ve studied till Class 5,” he offers, as explanation for his proficiency with Tamil letters. “My teacher, in my village, used to beat the rest of the kids, but I was his pet, it’s the truth!”
“It’s the truth” is Murugan’s favourite phrase. That, and “if you don’t believe me, ask Kalaichelvi.” Kalaichelvi is Murugan’s wife. They have two sons, one in Class 10 and another in Class 11. “My sons are my wealth. They go to that red-bricked school. I don’t know the name, but you can ask Kalaichelvi,” he offers. A native of Kadapakkam, a fishing village near Alambarai Fort, Murugan came to Chennai with his elder brother 18 years ago. “I give him whatever I earn from working the carousel; he takes some money, and he stuffs some into my pocket,” he says, patting his shirt pocket, and fishing out two Rs. 500 notes. “But this money is from the fish auction. I need to give it to the boat owner.”
Like everybody in his family, Murugan is also a fisherman. His father was a big dealer, and sold fish in Chengalpet and Saidapet, while his mother retailed it in the village. Murugan took to fishing early. “I was 13 years old, when I went to sea. I can swim very well, even where the big boats are,” he says, pointing to the horizon, where ships wait to berth in the harbour. “We go to the sea at 3 a.m.; we return at 9 or 10 a.m.” But nothing, Murugan says, is certain. “Anything can happen — that’s the life of a fisherman; why, the engine might fail!” he says, with a faraway look. Even routine days can be tiring. “When I come ashore, I ring my wife from a Re.1 phone, and ask her to get the hot water ready for a bath. My wife Kalaichelvi always keeps the cell phone. Why don’t you call her now? She will be very happy to know I’m being interviewed,” he says, and waits for me to speak to her. “What did she say?” he asks, when I hang up. “Was she happy?”
Murugan himself is happy with his life in the city. “What’s not to like? My wife goes to work (she’s a tailor), my two sons study in an English-medium school, and I have two jobs!” The carousel, he explains is steady income, whereas fishing has its good and bad days. “We catch many varieties of fish,” Murugan says, and quickly reels off a long, and (to me) incomprehensible list. “You don’t know? Wait,” he says, and levels the sand once again, and draws two long lines. “Eral (prawn) has whiskers like that,” he explains, and draws the fishes, some almost sand monsters. “The fish sell for higher prices here, in Chennai. Lots of people from my village have migrated to the city; many live in Kasimedu.”
Murugan lives in Ayodhyakuppam. But with the city authorities planning to build them new tenements, he and his family will temporarily move into a relative’s house in Foreshore Estate. “If you need any fish, just call me,” Murugan tells me when I leave. I smile and tell him I’m vegetarian. “Ok, but call me if you want fish,” he repeats. And this time, I just smile a vegetarian smile, and wave goodbye...
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)