The shark bit the bait, but instead of giving up, was tugging at the hook with all its might. The three fishermen on the catamaran — Thommanthirai, Kothra and Bosco — knew that their combined resistance wouldn’t be enough to prevent the beast from pulling them away into the sea.
As the line was cast, one of the many hooks had lodged itself in the calf muscle of Thommanthirai, a veteran fisherman, and the pain was excruciating. But he had seen tougher situations in his sea life. The fishermen — fictional characters in Joe D’Cruz’s novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu — made three knots on a rope and deftly drew the rope around the shark.
The fish was held in place, caught inside the knots – one at the neck, the second in the middle and the third around the tail. In a practised manoeuvre, they tightened the knots on the fish, slowing it down and controlling its movements.
The knot couldn’t be too tight though. The fishermen wanted to take the fish back alive — as a prize catch. “A dead fish would mean a loss of face, which is worse than the fishermen’s own death,” explains D’Cruz, who was born in a fishing family at Uvari near Idinthakarai.
Using a regional dialect, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu and Korkai — a companion novel to Aazhi — authentically detail the struggles, the tenacity and the fierce independence of the Gulf of Mannar fishermen, the qualities evident in their agitation against the Kudankulam project. “Once they are convinced about anything, no amount of persuasion can make them go back,” he said.
For the Parathavars — as the fishermen have been known since the Sangam period — fishing is not just a means of livelihood, but a lifestyle inextricably woven into their culture.
Fishing could well be called their religion. Their denomination is Roman Catholic, but they embraced the religion in a strategic move to safeguard their fishing rights.
In the 16th century, the Parathavars fought a war with Muslims over pearl fishing rights in the Gulf. Over 2,000 Parathavars died in the conflict. The Portuguese stepped in and offered protection, but on condition that the Parathavars embrace Catholicism. The grateful Parathavars, led by their chief Pandipathi, kept their promise.
For the Parathavars, the Kudankulam plant is the latest in a long list of threats to their livelihood that they have successfully beaten back. “They are convinced that the nuclear waste and coolant water would destroy the fishing population and their millennia-old lifestyle, and eventually uproot them from their homes,” says D’Cruz.
D’Cruz rejects the allegation that foreign funding is sustaining their agitation. He says the fishermen have borrowed crores of rupees from banks to stay alive and feed their families as they have stopped going to the sea.
He goes so far as to suggest that despite the appearance of a priest-led agitation, the church, as an institution, has played no significant role in it. “Only a few committed priests and individuals have given leadership to the movement.”
Aazhi Soozh Ulagu describes the fishermen of Idinthakarai coolly tackling a police inspector brandishing a pistol. They throw the inspector into the sea, retaining his cap as a souvenir.
“Given the fishermen’s violent past, it has been a great source of wonder that the agitation has been non-violent so far,” says D’Cruz.