June 8 is World Oceans Day. What does the waterfront mean to the people whose livelihood depends on it? Akila Kannadasan finds out

‘Raatinam’ Panneerselvam

“Do you prefer a bike or a car ride,” Panneerselvam asks a little boy. The child points to a car and Selvam nimbly lifts and secures him inside the car-shaped seat of his carousel. “I do 50 rounds in four minutes,” he says, as he rotates the carousel with a single hand. He stands a few feet from the waves, between a fish-fry seller and a corn-seller. For 14 years, Selvam has been operating the carousel at the same spot on the Marina. “I like the sea for its jilu jiluppu,” he smiles. “I don’t stand and admire it for hours like others who come here. I am used to it since I see it every day.” Selvam shakes his head vigorously when asked if he would rather work elsewhere. “I can’t live without the sea. It’s like my wife and sons.”

Tea-seller Sarath Kumar

The 17-year-old walks on the seashore for at least three hours on weekends to sell tea. He makes around Rs.250 — but it’s not just about the money. For, Sarath Kumar loves to walk on the sand in the breeze and meet different kinds of people. More than that, he loves the sight of the waves. “See the tips of the waves? They are sparkly white. And the shapes keep changing; one moment they’re curved upwards, and the next, they drop down deep. I like watching them.”

Fishermen Muthu, Somu and Sokkalingam

They sit under a makeshift shelter to avoid the piercing sun, removing shells stuck in their mani valai. “The net was meant for shrimps. Look what we’ve caught,” says Muthu. There are things beyond our imagination deep inside the sea. “We get to see some of them when we bring in the catch,” he adds. To the men, the sea is Gangai Ponni Amma. They worship her everyday, and offer her special prayers, fruits and milk on Fridays. A fisherman never fails to do this ritual. “We perform the puja at the edge of the water with camphor and other offerings,” explains Sokkalingam. Most fishermen sleep facing the sea because it’s the first thing they see when they wake up. “The sound of the waves is constantly in our ears. When we wake up, when we go to sea, when we sleep…it is like the air we breathe,” says Muthu. The sea nurtures, but it sometimes kills. Somu recalls several instances when his fellow fishermen were swallowed by the waters. “But that’s the way it is. We don’t blame the waves. Why would we? The sea is our valarpu thaai (stepmother).”

Horseman Rahul who feels that his tall white horse adds beauty to the beach, Vinodh, a runaway kid to whom the Marina is home, tea-seller Maya who considers seawater sacred and sprinkles some every morning around his bicycle as a ritual…the sea fosters anyone who seeks refuge in it. As Vinodh puts it, here, you can “be jolly without a care.”