“Sea is our mother; she feeds us without partiality,” said Palayam, a fisherman hailing from the village of Urur-Olcott Kuppam, Besant Nagar, in Chennai. “I and my family are happy and healthy; living a peaceful life as Mother Sea is providing us a secure livelihood,” he explained, his voice reflecting the affection and excitement for ‘Mother Sea.’
He said he felt lucky to be a fisherman, as the sea is an unlimited source of income, and he has been independent in his occupation. Moreover, he said he earns enough money to take care of his family too.
“With my brother as a work partner, I own three boats – two motorboats and one catamaran. Nowadays we are regularly using motorboats as there’s more demand for fish. Earlier, when we used to go fishing with a catamaran, we used to sing songs about our traditions and the history of fishermen, but these days as we have motorboats, we don’t sing anymore. I miss those songs very much,” he added.
The two brothers employ seven other men on their boats and after paying their salary, they are usually left with anything between 10,000 or up to 1,00,000 Indian rupees per month–depending on the blessings of Mother Sea.
“It sounds less, but it is enough for me and my family. And I never have to worry about hunger – I can catch crab on the shore, and fish and prawn from the sea, if it is necessary,” he said.
He further added, “All fishermen belong to the most-backward class. Based on where and what you fish determines the sub-castes in the fishing community. I belong to the Melapatinathvar caste. Catching crab, prawn and deep-sea fishing was my ‘privilege’ based on the caste I was born into.”
“Even though the caste system influences my people’s behavior, I respect humans, not caste. I trained a guy named Muthiya, who belongs to a ‘lower’ caste. My community people won’t prefer to do this. He became my close friend but he died recently. Now I miss him so much,” he said
“The village is also diverse in religion. Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, all are part of our community. I am a Hindu. But I also go to the mosque and pray. Once, during my childhood, I was facing a serious health problem. So, my parents took me to the mosque and my problem got solved, since then I’ve been going to mosques, and I respect Allah. I always pray to both Ellai Mariamman and Nagur Andawar before I go to the sea. I celebrate both Hindu and Muslim festivals by donating food to the temples and by cooking Biryani for my neighbours and friends during Ramzan,” he continued.
Apart from fishing, Palayam’s family is his biggest happiness. “My son sings very well; he went for a singing competition in the U.S. And my daughter loves me more than anyone else,” his eyes full of tears as he told me this.
“I always worry about their future. Even though I love fishing I don’t want them to do it. The fish population is decreasing rapidly due to pollutants in the river and sea,” he told me.
It signifies the man-made environmental destruction that is adversely influencing the traditional occupation for future generations in the fishing community of people like Palayam.
Mother Sea, who has been providing livelihood to fishermen for over a hundred years, might not be able to sustain the children of the fishermen anymore. The water near the seashore is polluted by the effluents carried by the Adyar River, whose mouth is to the north of Urur Olcott Kuppam.
Also, the use of bag nets (Surukku Valai) is contributing to the rapid decline in fish count in the sea. Although bag nets usage was banned by the Fisheries Department in Tamil Nadu, some fishermen and large-scale fishermen with trollers still use these nets for fishing.
These nets trawl the sea and catch even the smallest sized fishes, which are yet to grow, producing a lot of by-catches. Small fish, which are not sold or consumed by the fishermen end up in the nets and, as a result, this adds up to the missing resource of food for the bigger fishes.
In Palayam’s community, most fishermen are not interested in adopting the modern methods of fishing to make surplus produce and money. Palayam said they “believe in the signs of nature.”
He spoke about how he loves the so-called Irangatha winds, which blow from the sea towards the seashore. Even though it makes it difficult to sail into the sea, however, in their return journey, the direction of wind helps them return safely to the shore. It just went to show how he values life more than profit. The wind makes it difficult to go out in the sea when the fishermen go for their work.
Rarely did I meet someone speaking with so much passion and gratitude about his life and his work. Palayam’s pursuit of happiness has nothing to do with the pursuit of development or commercial success. Interfering with their traditional practices will not only bring harm and imbalance to the environment, but it will also shatter the intrinsic happiness of the fishermen.
“I am happy. Don’t disturb our happiness in the name of development,” Palayam said.