Of illegal boat rides and Dutch princes

At seven on a Tuesday, the four of us sit on tiny slabs of concrete outside the college gate, waiting for our ride. Empty stomachs, drooping eyelids. We watch joggers and morning walkers in their determined steps.

Half hour later, now six of us inside the white Isuzu head towards Pulicat, roughly two hours north of Chennai.

‘At Home, In Madras’, a guidebook I found in the library explains that the “ [Pulicat] lake offers swimming, fishing, boating in traditional kattumarams or more modern motor-powered boats that fishermen will bargain you for…and, during the October-March season, birdwatching”.

We pass by the Puzhal prison on the Red Hills road, the green meadows, a pond of water lilies and the odd bird every few hundred meters that I didn’t knew the name of until later.

Pulicat seems different from what the guidebook had promised. At an Indian bank branch (the only bank I spot in the town) there is a long queue of people waiting. The poorest are the worst hit in the demonetization process and the sight is humbling, their lives have come to a halt.

We spot several, but not enough, storks and pelicans. It is supposed to be the season but the lack of migratory birds, especially around the lake, is strange. The lake looks lifeless, save the motor boats used for fishing. Boating has been banned because 22 people drowned in 2014, and there are no birds to spot. Where is the adventure?

We get ping-ponged by the locals until we reach the beach that has a different ambience than the town. Fishermen flock the place and the boats are all in place lest they need to go out into the Bay. A man in yellow t-shirt, Mohammad Elias, tells us “20 people died here on the beach as well, so boating is at your risk.”

While half of us convince him to take us boating, the rest marvel at a young man in a teal t-shirt fishing without any fishing rod or reel. He’s 19 and explains to us, “I hold a block of thermocol in my hands and wrap the fishing line around it, and with the other hand pull the string for the fishes.” The waves bring him a fish to the shore and he’s quick to catch it.

The demonetization process has affected his job. “Earlier I used to earn Rs 5000 but now I only get Rs 1000.”

The fishermen, including Elias, now take their motorboat into the water. We reluctantly part with our phones and wallets, for fear of not finding it when we come back. Out into the vast ocean with no money or phone, as if I’d need them there!

I hear the hammering in my heart as I climb the boat. Six of us sit facing each other and six fishermen — four along the engine and two at the tail — stand on the boat. I feel very conscious of the fact that there’s no life vest inside. Because I had no one to pray to, I took comfort in the fact that I learnt swimming when I was 12. That was years ago, but it reassures me.

The shore waves are powerful so we hold the rope tightly. The water is salty and washes everything on its way; our clothes, hair, faces. I can taste it on my lips and the lacerations on my skin sting under the sun. We reach the spot where they have placed their fishing nets and the boat stops. The sea gives an illusion of calm from afar; it is anything but that. The water is never still and rocks our boat, and my heart flutters.

Elias informs us about the black flags, “It is their [some different group of fishermen’s] territory and we don’t cross that. On the other side, the sea is deeper and our boats do not go there.” We also see the Sri Lankan territory and the bulkier ships at a distance.

“At 3 in the morning we throw in our nets and at 8 or 9 come back to collect the catch,” he adds.

But before we wait any longer and see the catch Annu pukes. “The first time the unsteady movement gets to people,” says Elias. We head back to the shore.

We don’t hold the rope now or at least loosen our grips, getting a bit used to the pace of the boat and seeing the fishermen standing like it’s land and not the fantastic, unnerving ocean. As we get closer to the shore, however, they ask us to hold it tighter. Wrestling with the crashing waves, we reach the beach.

Exhilarated, out of breath and generally happy to be alive (and secretly delighting in the fact that the wallet’s intact), we stand succeeded, wet, blood pumping. Suriya, a B. Comm. student when he’s not fishing and who had also accompanied us, takes a few selfies from his phone.

We loiter on the beach, trying to dry ourselves in this sun. And then the catch arrives — a boat filled with sword fishes. The fishermen, and this time some women, stand around the boat and sort the different silver fishes. “The women take these to the market and get Rs 100 for 1 kg of small fish. The big fishes get Rs 400 to 500 per Kg,” Suriya tells us.

Again on the road we see the lake and parked boats on one side and meadows on the other with rare glimpses of cattle or women drooped to sow on the fields. In the town, the queue outside the bank hasn’t moved.

We reach the Dutch cemetery. The Dutch had come to Pulicat in 1609 and the cemetery remains a stark reminder of their presence. The etchings on the stones sprawl from the gate to the graves, which are easily from the late 1600s. The caretaker, Hussein, explains the architecture of the graveyard, “The different burial chambers resemble the king, the queen and the minister. The bigger tomb is for the first prince, Jacob Elibracht, who fell down from the ship and drowned and it is built in his memory.” At a corner, I see three goats graze the grass and some birds, perched on the wall, fly away.

Hussein brings a biography of Jayapaul Azariah and asks us to refer it for more information, which we register gratefully, and leave in search of a restaurant.

November, 2016