What would Chennai be without the sea and its fisherfolk? A series that looks at their lives

He reeked of sweat, beedi and alcohol. Lounging on the sands of the Marina between two fibre boats, he told me a story.

He was out at sea one night. The tide was just right; he knew he will be rewarded with a good catch. His boat danced with the waves as he waited for the right moment to lug out the net he and his mates had cast. Just then, he saw something in the water. It was just a flicker of the moon’s reflection, he told himself. But it turned out it wasn’t.

There were hundreds of them — tiny silvery fish that shone like ghosts in the inky blue waters. They moved like one single organism. They ebbed and flowed around his boat as he watched, his eyes wide. “I was scared,” he said. “Sometimes, when the velli (moon) glitters in the sea at night, a fear grips me. I felt the same that moment, when I was surrounded by these silver creatures.” They were harmless. But the sight did something to him.

This was from my first encounter with a fisherman in Chennai. I was instantly gripped by his life and the world he steps into once he steps off land.

On another occasion, an old lady by the sea rendered me sleepless for a night.

It was possibly one of the hottest days of the month. And I was shopping for sea food. Nochi Kuppam, a settlement of fisherfolk off the Marina, smelled of fish, salt, the sea, and hard work.

The strip of shanties with their backs towards the sea, gleamed of silvery, grey, black, brown, pink, and red fish is all shapes and sizes. People marched with their purchase of fresh catch as I stood there, spoilt for choice. What do I buy? A commotion by the waves caught my eye — a boat had just arrived and a wiry young man lugged out a net that heaved of the day’s catch. I dug my feet into the sand and hurried towards him, jubilant with the prospect of buying fish just off the net.

I tossed a shell into my bag along the way when a voice called out: “Are you taking something from my home?” I jumped. It was an old woman who was squatting on the sand. She had been watching me all along. “What you have taken belongs to me,” she added. And then, she smiled.

A fisherman with betel-stained teeth narrated the story of his chilling encounter with a shark; a greying old man laughed at me sarcastically when I asked him if he feared the sea. “Just once,” he whispered when he was done laughing. “But I don’t talk about it,” he said. A fish-seller called Kalyani taught me to make delicious fish curry with cut mango. Mohan, a nine-year-old proudly told me of his maiden voyage on a rickety catamaran…

Our city will not be the same without these men and women. Their world is fascinating — in the coming weeks, we take you into the lives, traditions, beliefs, experiences, and craft of the fisherfolk of Chennai. This will be a space for the sea, her people, and their stories.