Seaside stories: Have you met dhees boys?

Dhees boy Ajith and friends. Photo: Akila Kannadasan  

Sun-bleached hair; scrawny legs in rubber slippers; shorts on which cling sand, salt and the occasional fish scale; and eyes as bright as the noon sun’s reflection on the sea — you know a dhees boy when you see one in Kasimedu fishing harbour. In their early to mid-teens, these boys are among the hundreds whose livelihood depends on fishing boats that arrive at Kasimedu.

When news spreads of the boats’ return after several days at sea, the dhees boy swoops in on them. He is a freelance helper to the marathukaaranga who ferry the catch from the boat to the quay. These boys are entrusted with tasks such as dunking into the water to scrub the boat’s sides and belly clean after a voyage, with soap oil; help in loading the catch from the boat to the catamaran to be transported; clean up on board once done; and fill in for the boat’s watchman when he goes for breaks.

“It sounds simple but it’s not,” says 16-year-old Ajith, in a broken, teenage voice. The dhees pasanga may seem like faceless labourers who are dispensable; but without them, work will not run in as feverish a pace as required. “Who else will slide beneath the boat underwater to clean it?” asks Ajith. To do so, one needs to be agile and these boys, for whom the seaside is a playground, are ideal for such jobs.

“You should see them when the boats come in,” says Jaya, who runs a petty shop at the quay. “These boys will swarm the place like ants.” Most of the dhees boys belong to the fisher folk community, but some come from as far as Red Hills for want of opportunities to work. While a few boys come to the fishing harbour after school and during holidays, it’s common to see school dropouts roaming the wharf.

On a pleasant evening, as boats prepare for the end of the State Government’s 45-day deep sea fishing ban, Ajith and his fellow dhees boys sit on the pier with their feet dangling over the sea and cast a hook into the water. “The best thing about being a dhees boy is that I get good food, four times a day,” grins Praveen, hopping to his feet. The boys are sometimes fed by the boat-owners; but on most occasions, their salary is five per cent of the marathukaaranga’s. If they’re lucky, they get a basket of fish to sell as pay. They also gather the smaller fish that spill on board and keep them for themselves if the owner permits.

Prod a dhees boy a little and you will realise that many of them have a heart-wrenching story. Both Praveen and Suban’s fishermen fathers are no more. And Ajith, who was doing well in school, had to drop out. “I stopped going since I couldn’t pick up English,” he explains. His friend cuts in: “And I stopped going since I couldn’t pick up Tamil. In everything else, I got full marks,” he says, his tone grave, and bursts out laughing the next minute.

Ajith stares at him and shakes his head. “My family’s financial situation demanded that I work,” he adds. “I should be in eleventh standard now.” Life at the fishing harbour tends to affect these young minds. They are exposed to cigarette and alcohol at a tender age and grow up emulating the boat-owning fishermen. “I want to buy a fibre boat,” says Suban. Praveen wants to “learn welding and go to foreign” while Ajith dreams of working in a “big ship”. “But I wanted to go to college and study the course that teaches all about ships,” he says, his eyes lowered. “It’s impossible now.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:06:21 AM |

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