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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Gained in Translation: Children of the sea goddess

The novel Korkai has shown that the consequence for those who do not move with the times to make changes in their lives, mindsets, approach to profession and way of life is their downfall.

Written by R N Joe D’Cruz | Updated: September 22, 2018 5:41:50 pm
The reason, because a life that has not been documented is no life at all.

When I began to write, it was not with the absolute aim of having to become a writer or the dream of receiving awards. The pain, worries, and frustrations of the seaside communities I knew of from the very beginning had taken root inside me. The things I had learned, heard and the perspectives I acquired through life experiences bound me, as if through destiny, to the desire that I had to do something for my community. For this reason, I began to write.

Who are these children of the sea? As Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai beautifully said, “Children of the sea goddess are the owners of unlimited wealth”. However, the reality today is different. Why are the lives of these people alone so different from those of others? Why do others not understand their self-reliant economic functioning or the way they guard the nation’s coastline? These were questions that came to me naturally. The contributions that seaside communities have made from pre-colonial times till today in the defense of the nation, in the production of seafood and in maritime trade have not been understood by the rulers from the plains.

The reason, because a life that has not been documented is no life at all.


These people, who proved their bravery and character on the unstable seas, could not attain economic benefits and positions of power on land because of that same character. The sea they toil on every day is their livelihood space, but land is their space of celebration. Be it death, birth or marriage, the life they lead on land is a celebration for them. They have no thoughts about how their sacrificial work is looted from them on land. These people who live each day in the moment did not move towards political representation or positions of power. This is the truth that has caused great turmoil within me.

I wanted to write about these people who, at the peak of natural disasters such as tsunamis and storms, did not just prop themselves up with their own hand, but also offered it reflexively to anyone else in distress. It is my understanding that literature alone must act as the voice of the voiceless.

The greatest problems for the seaside communities on the Indian peninsula is that the authorities don’t have even a fundamental understanding of their lives and that they have not delved to the heart of the problems faced by these communities to find solutions. It is normal, for seaside tribes, to live their lives by overcoming natural disasters. However, the disasters brought about by schemes implemented by dominant powers in the name of growth are unknown to them and because of this, they cannot face them.

When Aali Sool Ulagu (The World Engulfed by Sea) was published, Tamizhini publisher Vasanthakumar expressed his desire to visit the area where the story occurred, I took him to my village Uvari. It was a day towards the end of the Tamil month Aadi, when the season for prawns begins. All the catamarans had already reached ashore because it was past noon and there was not much of a fish catch. A lone catamaran was some distance out at sea pushed by wind-filled sails towards the shore. The waves were rising as high as palm trees and folding in a chaotic dance. Along with this, a south-east wind was blowing. For that catamaran to reach the shore, it has no choice but to cross the aazhi, the point where the waves originate. Understanding that this was a tense period, I tapped Vasanthakumar anna’s shoulder and told him to look there. Upon looking, he reflexively brought his hands to his cheeks and said, “Oh, poor men . . .” In fury, the wind and waves take hold of the sail and force the catamaran into the stormy waves. In the next moment, the catamaran vanished into the sea. The foam was everywhere. I told the panicking man to look again at the shore. Like arrows from a bow, the people who stood on the shore dived deep into the sea to rescue the ones who were drowning. As tears broke out in his eyes, Vasanthakumar said, “Tribal people, this is their nature.”

It is the final leg of the protest in Chennai’s Marina Beach over the Jallikattu issue, and to subdue the protesters, the police have stopped the flow of food and water to them. Despite this, it was the denizens of that coastline who provided food and water to the protesters. When in a show of fury the protesters walked into the sea, it was because these people went with them as protection that suffering was averted. The reason, because it is in their nature to protect those facing trouble before their eyes. When floods hit Kerala, the seaside communities were the first to step in. For their sacrifice, their reward was the praise from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, referring to fishermen as the first military of the people, and the never-ending praise of the people they rescued. However, if it takes a natural disaster to shine light upon a great ethnic group, that is a failing of democracy.

In a community, external shifts are caused by strenuous intrinsic factors. This is the truth I have seen with my own eyes over the course of my observations. Recently, I was at the Mandapam (Rameswaram) seashore close to the break of dawn, a cool breeze blowing and my ears well-hidden behind a muffler. Everywhere it was greyish. A gram (?) bank official who had invited me to the area pointed out a group of five people, within shouting distance, who were drinking alcohol at that early hour. If they drink like this even before dawn breaks, he asked in frustration, how will their families fare, how will they repay their loans? When I walked towards them after inviting my friend to come along, drops of water could be seen dripping from their clothes. Upon drawing close, I asked them why they were drinking without waiting for dawn to break.

“We have been at sea for four days, we just returned with our hands and legs frozen due to the prickling cold wind, we will only be able to go back to fishing if we sleep for a brief spell.”

These are people who drink to forget the fatigue brought about by their labour, who are waiting to return to work after alleviating their tiredness. The bank official and I returned silently.

During cyclone Ockhi, over 600 deep sea fishermen were missing. At this crucial time, the only request the people of the coast had for the government was to use all their strength to rescue those fisherfolk who were thrown out to sea while they were alive. “We sent the biggest ship we have to conduct a search,” was the naive response from the responsible minister. Many lives could have been saved if the search had been conducted with concern — this was the contention of the sea folk. It is possible to adequately compensate with relief aid the losses which occur on land. But how to compensate for the lives lost at sea? When the one who died were able-bodied men, what will happen to their parents, wife and children in the times to come?

Despite the fact that repeated losses have been suffered, the disaster management system in place is not safeguarding people in advance. This is due to a lack of concern. The reason for such a high number of deaths is the inability to predict weather patterns accurately and a lack of concern and swiftness in carrying out rescue operations. In the times that follow, the ruling class, which does not stand by the seafolk during times of disaster, paves the way for great economic loss by citing non-existent weather conditions to halt the fishing industry.

In a time long past, the people who sailed the seas using a log that had fallen into the water used their creativity to conceptualise various boat designs based on their needs. In the production of food, they contributed in tangent with agriculture, fishing in the shallow sea, medium deep sea and the deep sea to guard a self-reliant economy. They treasured the sea as their own mother. From a catamaran to a canoe to a vessel capable of carrying commodities to a sailboat — they came up with many designs to suit their livelihoods. The evolutions brought about by these children of the sea goddess paved the way for the trade vessels that ply the oceans today. What was the reason for their losing this creativity and languishing? If on the one hand there is colonial exploitation, the other is the sustained way governments ignored these communities after Independence, contributing to their fall.

Even the current generation of these seaside communities do not understand the need for change at all. Due to the stagnation prevalent among these communities, growing to even the next stage seems unlikely. The novel Korkai has shown that the consequence for those who do not move with the times to make changes in their lives, mindsets, approach to profession and way of life is their downfall. Rising income due to fishing in the peninsula brought about due to imported technology created many job opportunities along the coastline; but at the same time, it also sowed the seeds for discrimination between traditional fishermen, mechanized fishermen and fishermen-traders. The supply of fish is dwindling due to the havoc wrought by fishermen-traders and the lack of oversight by government authorities.

None of the schemes implemented in seaside communities with great fanfare by the government is for those communities. When asked by people to protect the coast against schemes that disrupt nature and sand theft, the government, in the name of building walls, does all but fling loose boulders at their faces. The awareness that standing together is the only way to pressure the authorities to implement creative schemes must come to the seaside folk at all costs.

Even the Catholic church, which has rooted itself deeply and permeated the south Tamil Nadu coastline, taught people to pray to it at the peak of their problems, but not to face them with skill. It cannot be denied that they brought education to us. However, this Catholicism fears that its importance will dwindle away if capable leadership arises from these communities and obtains government representation. To ensure that the basics of health, education and economy needed by the people remain with them, this religious structure doesn’t just prevent innocent people from thinking in the name of religion, it also drains their labour to the tune of crores in the name of organising festivals. This is the reality that the south Tamil Nadu fisherfolk must understand.

It is possible for the government to transform seaside territories into prosperous economic zones and kendras of job opportunities. It is possible to use future schemes to carefully foster domestic, shallow-sea, mid-sea and deep-sea fishing; to create and progress with such mechanisms like conservation, repopulation and market creation at ports. It is possible to generate a great number of job opportunities and economic growth by transforming the uninhabited islands near the Indian peninsula into fishing farms and transport sites.

Throughout the Indian peninsula, there are communities that have plied sailboats for generations as well as the priceless knowledge they gained through experience. It is possible to transform them with the present day technologies into owners of coast to coast moving small vessel owners and make them carry cargo from small ports to main ports. Thus the much-touted Sagar Mala scheme would become a real and successful garland if only the fisherman community is used as the social thread for linking all the ports in the western and eastern shores of the peninsula.

I have worries about the community of the children of the sea goddess, who live throughout the country. Instead of posing the question of why other land-linked communities don’t understand the lives of the seaside communities, today, I ask myself what I have done to foster that understanding. Even while criticising the centres of authority, I firmly believe that the mandate of our time is the elimination of community-related and faith-related problems. For this, the continued literary work of those like me will most definitely act as support. Through such work and through mutual understanding made possible by interactions with other land-based communities, schemes of the land and of the people will be created, laws will be enacted, the toll of the democratic bell will be heard along the coast.

D’Cruz grew up in Uvari, a fishing hamlet in southern Tamil Nadu. He won the Sahitya Akademi award for Korkai, a novel set in the ancient port town, in 2013. Translated from Tamil by Ram Sarangan

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