The mallahs on Yamuna’s banks in Allahabad passionately clutch on to their profession though the returns are hardly enough to make ends meet

Survival for the mallahs has for ages revolved around boating and fishing. They are mostly found rowing commuters, tourists and merchandise across rivers in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal.

The rush of pilgrims to the Sangam in Allahabad ensures regular business. Yet, with growing competition and changing life trends, their flow of income has become as unsteady as the waters they paddle past. Moreover, they must find ways to get behind the boating restrictions on the Ganga, where most pilgrims prefer to go, and interference from unions in determining their wages and number of passengers per ride. “Sometimes it is Rs. 250 per day; on good days, it goes up to Rs. 500. But the union takes away most of it. I get only Rs. 60-70 per trip. They have written on our boats the maximum number of passengers that can ride on it. Earlier we could take as many as we wanted,” says Ram Mallah.

To keep their kitchen fire alight, the mallahs have taken to sand mining, rampant on the banks of the Yamuna. This ensures an improved daily wage of Rs. 300-700. Yet, they seem unaware of or plainly overlook the malicious circle of illegal sand mining, which goes unabated in the region. They simply follow instructions.

“We just do what we are told. We don't ask where the sand is going, what the purpose is. How do we care? All we know is that big thekedaars are involved and we get paid,” explains another mallah.

When the rivers recede during summer, they expose extensive sandbars on their banks. This gives the mallahs a chance to do some farming of their own. They plant some of the finest local watermelons, cantaloupes and cucumbers, but unreliable rain wipes out most of it.

Nonetheless, the mallah culture demands that one stays active all the time. “We are brought up like this, we don't want to stay stagnant, and we always want to move, work. We run after vehicles, just to get hold of customers,” says Vikash Nishad.

The mallahs have been a historically depressed caste and fall under the Scheduled Castes category in Delhi and West Bengal, while in Uttar Pradesh they are under the Most Backward Castes category. These benefits have enabled them to hold a few jobs in government offices, but they are restricted to low rank posts.

They have also had to bear the ignominy of being included in the Criminal Tribes Act 1924, which criminalised entire tribes by birth. Even after Independence, they have been branded as anti-social and ‘criminal minded’, with the dacoits of Chambal valley generating folklore and movie scripts aplenty. Need we mention Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, another mallah?

Today, too, the mallah existence is rife with poverty, alcoholism and pigeonhole depiction. “Even if we do other work, like open a shop or do service, we are seen as boatmen. That’s how we are known. The other castes do not look beyond that,” Vijay says.

And as a measure to avenge that historical injustice, some mallahs like Vijay do not miss any occasion to remind others whose domain the waters are.

“This is what we do. We can’t do anything else. How can we allow others to do our work? Even if they are capable, we won’t let them enter our waters, when we aren’t allowed to enter their fields.”

Traditionally, the mallah women stay at home, but some can be found selling knick-knacks on the ghats.

Makhan Mallah, now 18, started out at six — not so young by mallah standards. They strictly follow hereditary occupation and begin early to “master the right techniques”. And like most mallahs here, education has eluded Makhan. But he has no regrets.

“I know my name, and that’s enough. What will we do with education? We do what our fathers have always done.”

If you get past the hassles of bargaining and agree to take a ride on their boat, the mallah, be it young or old, is likely to treat you to the story of their ancestor Balram, who ferried Lord Rama and Sita across the Ganga in Banaras. According to the legend, Balram was given a horse as token of gratitude, after which he placed the bridle on the horse’s tail instead of its head. From this arose the custom of having a rudder at the stern and not the bow of a boat.

The mallah keep many other legends, including one version about the origin of the river Saraswati at the Sangam, whom they believe emerged to pacify her warring sisters Ganga and Yamuna.

The mallahs are also proud of their life-saving ability. If anyone is drowning, the mallahs will surely save them, goes the adage here. “Nobody else dares go deep, only the mallahs. The waters are ours,” says 35-year-old Vijay.

However, he has different plans for his four children. He hopes to educate them. But what if they dropout or fail to land jobs? He steals a glance of the Yamuna on his right and smiles.