As a boy he loved watching the ebb and flow of the sea in his fishing hamlet of Uvari in Tuticorin district. Fishermen pushing catamarans into the sea and arriving the next day with loads of fish fascinated him endlessly. Their happiness and sorrows, their quarrels, physical violence, their knowledge of fishes and the sea drew him near to them. Little did Joe D Cruz, now the assistant vice-president of a shipping company in Chennai , realise that he would become an acclaimed chronicler of life along the coast. He speaks to B. Kolappan …
“My parents, who had already moved up the social ladder as middle class, were anxious, fearing that I would also end up as a fisherman like many other children in our village,” he says. Joe, however, proved their fears wrong. Though a busy executive in the city, his heart is where his people live. His love of the sea and fishermen has resulted in two novels — Aazhi Soozh Ulagu and Korkai , an insider's account of the fishermen's lives and their history.
“It is sheer accident that I am working in a shipping company. But I never imagined that I will become an author,” says Joe, who completed his post-graduation in economics from Loyola college. Later, he completed his MPhil but quit a doctoral programme he had enrolled in.
Aazhi Soozh Ulagu arrived on the Tamil literary scene like a whirlwind in 2005, telling the story of fishermen, their struggles, resources and religious beliefs through real-life characters closely watched by the author and in a language sparklingly authentic.
Though the dialects may pose a challenge to an outsider, the author's phenomenal knowledge about marine life, the landscape and other aspects associated with coastal areas and its people makes the work a treasure.
As he speaks, Joe effortlessly quotes from Sangam poetry on coastal life.
“We have a long tradition and the fishermen known as Parathavars were once rulers of Korkai, the harbour of the Pandiya kingdom. It is famous for its sea trading and pearl fishing,” the 48-year-old author explains.
Korkai , published in 2009, traces a 100-year history of fishermen beginning in 1914. If Aazhi Soozh Ulagu deals with fishermen using catamarans, Korkai is about fishermen using Pai Maram (sail boats).
According to Joe, though the fishermen had converted to Christianity, their lives still draw upon their ancestors' faith, particularly during crisis time. In fact, this is the subliminal theme in both the novels.
“Even today, one can see the Santhana Mariamman temple in the midst of the fishermen's settlement in Korkai. I know many fishermen continue to worship the deities of their ancestors, but may not reveal it,” he added. These details evoked strong criticism against the novel from the community.
Joe says he was approached by some directors keen on making films out of his books.
“But I turned down the proposal since I think it is very difficult to bring out the essence of the literary works on screen,” says Joe, who has worked on two documentaries on fishermen.
Is he planning another book? “Yes, it will be about modern-day shipping.”