Living On A Prayer
Guest blogger and journalist Kajal Iyer, narrates the story of fishermen from Tamil Nadu. These fishermen fish close to the nautical borders between Sri Lanka and India in the Indian Ocean. Their tales of woes centre around an indifferent Indian and regional Government which watches in silence, while the Sri Lankan government pursues them either out of the waters or into lock ups. Currently there are no trade agreements or policy decisions over the issue. And the bi lateral talks havent been fruitful in formulating one either. Meanwhile this community suffers.
Living on a Prayer brings to sun, the lives of this Tamil fisherman community and the whimsical solidarity the government shares with it. It makes one question once more, the government’s defiant rhetoric during Devyani Khobragade‘s arrest.
Read the full story below.
The first thing that strikes you when you see the fishing hamlets around Rameshwaram (India) is the relative absence of the ubiquitous TASMAC stores (Tamil Nadu’s government-run liquor outlets). I have covered stories of fishing hamlets in India before, and from these experiences I know fishermen to ‘drink alcohol like fish’ as the saying goes. But not so much in the hamlets here.
Here, the intoxication is of another kind- people here have religion as their opium, to draw from Karl Marx’s metaphor. On a one kilometre stretch of the main road leading to the famous Pamban bridge, I saw almost five churches of various sizes and makes. It was the closing image of another story I did for the channel I was employed with then.
I was visiting Rameshwaram and the surrounding hamlets it to compile a sort of documentary on the conditions of the fishermen. This community of fishermen were invoked by the Tamil Nadu politicians whenever they needed to make a point about Indo-Sri Lankan ties. During my visit, the issue of Devyani Khobragade‘s detention was at its peak. And one of the leaders who had helped organise talks between the fisher-folk of both countries asked me – “No offence to the lady concerned, but if the Indian government can be so concerned about a perceived insult to her, what about the thousands of fishermen lying in prisons on both sides of the border?”
The stories I heard there were sad and shocking. One fisherman spoke of how they were almost afraid India would win the last cricket world cup final it was playing against Sri Lanka then. India did win and the villagers recounted how that night they were scared to fish, in fear of an irate Sri Lankan navy and that a few were indeed chased out of waters by the navy.
A family I met had lost two of their men to Sri Lankan prisons, and hears from them only once or twice a year. The house was full of toddlers, some born after the men had been captured. The family had the eldest son of one of the imprisoned men presiding over family matters; and he was now father to the family’s ‘fatherless’ boys and girls
I visited a mother of an imprisoned son in her bare thatched roof house. I was informed that this was not uncommon- most houses here were sand-floored and thatched-roof. Her son, the mother said, tried hard for the longest time to avoid taking up fishing as his livelihood and concentrated on studying instead. He was doing a computer course and was planning to go to Dubai. But with the boy’s father growing older and the family income halting at a dribble, he succumbed to sea faring after all. The plan still was to look for a job and quit the sea as soon as the prospect of a job seemed possible. This was not to be. Two years ago, he was caught by the Sri Lankan navy and ‘falsely’ framed for drug smuggling, she alleges. The family hears from the boy son about once in six months, every time he manages to make a call from some friendly prison guard’s phone. The mother says her boy just cries and asks her to take care.
Stories like these are ubiquitous in these hamlets. The fishing community says that their forefathers have been fishing undeterred in these waters for centuries. But now things are changing. With the best catch somewhere near the nautical boundary, every year scores of Indian fishermen are caught by the Sri Lankan navy for trespassing. To make matters worse, they complain that they only have traditional and outdated fishing machinery at their disposal. The Sri Lankan government on the other hand provides its fishermen with the best motor boats and technology.
The only time they get the government’s attention is when Indian politicians need to make noise around the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) or when they need to resort to the ‘Tamil nationalist’ rhetoric, popular among the mainland Indian population in Tamil Nadu. At the time of my visit to Rameshwaram, Sushma Swaraj, a senior leader from BJP, had announced a visit to Rameshwaram to show solidarity with Tamil fishermen. The fishermen union leaders were sceptical and questioned this sudden attention prior to an important election.
With the BJP having won the elections in May 2014, one hopes there was a ring of sincerity in Sushma Swaraj’s claims of solidarity.
A while back, as part of a peace treaty some fishermen were released from both sides and talks were held amongst the fishermen. But for most of the men here, going out to the sea remains a risk.
One remembers the famous song from national-award winning Malayalam film Chemmeen, which eulogises the devotion of a loyal fisher-woman and how her devotion brought her husband back from the jaws of the sea, akin to a fisher-woman’s version of Savitri if you will.
Most women in the community say they wake up at around 1 am to say a small prayer when their husbands leave. They call the menfolk around 5-6 in the morning on their mobile phones to check if they are near the shore. Then they pray once more for their safety. Another prayer and invocation is done after the fishermen reach home.
If they don’t return the same day and they cant reach their husbands on phone, they pray it is because of a better catch and not because of the Sri Lankan navy. And if it is the Sri Lankan navy, then there is nothing left to do, other than praying for their return. The villages hold masses and prayers for the ones in prison.
Perhaps this is why these villagers don’t use alcohol to numb their senses to what can only be described as a life full of uncertainty. Alcohol is too mild an intoxication to forget this, only faith can do this trick.
Updated on 26th May 2014
All these fishermen have now been released as part of a ‘goodwill’ gesture after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse was invited and decided to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on 26th May 2014 as India’s new prime minister. Rajapakse’s invitation has led to a lot of protests amongst Tamils but with a majority government of single political party at the center, Modi does not need to appease the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu who have boycotted his oath taking ceremony in protest.
The question though is, if the release of these fishermen required just one phone call, why were these steps not taken earlier? Also, what really is Sri Lanka’s stand? If these folks can be released now, doesn’t it show that they were held merely because they could?
About the author:
Kajal Iyer is currently a television journalist with Times Now in Mumbai. She has previously worked for CNN-IBN in Mumbai and Chennai and has freelanced for the Mid-day and the Times of India in Pune. Studs Terkel is her inspiration as she tries to unravel the lives of ordinary men and women in the country. Despite this interest in ground realities, she loves getting lost in the fantasy world of Bollywood.
View Kajal’s story on Tamil fishermen here
(All photos have been sourced from the web)