|River, Sea, and Bengare
A Day Long Odyssey
2002 by Deepak Nair
And that was how it was. Bliss; and perhaps a little more than that. It was at a moment of wakefulness that they had come- the rains, the monsoons; they had made me feel greedy months back when in the sweltering heat of Delhi I had seen dreams of heavy rains; and here they were, disrupting me in my sleep in the middle of the night, and that too on a night when I had slept over a bitter dilemma. At that moment of wakefulness; of being irritated with the fact that a dream had been broken, I heard the peltings of a heavy rain, one that lashed across the land - over the coasts, the fields, the narrow roads and over my tiled roof. At that moment, at nearly two in the dark morning, the realisation that the monsoons had arrived never came to me, and so I returned to the phantasmagoria of my drowsy mind.
In the morning, I woke up, saw the funereal colours of the world outside, and only then - refreshing a similar memory of lashing, noisy rain in a darker, sleepier world the previous night- did I come to the conclusion that it had been a long rain. I got up. The glasses of my room had a muffled, blurry quality and all that I could make out from inside of the action outside was the drab, colourless quality of the light that filtered into the room. I hurriedly bundled up my makeshift bed of dusty rags and opened the wooden doors to get a clearer view.
The landscape around me was grey and green, with the green glistening in whatever light the grey permitted. There was a remarkable immensity of activity in that space around me: the raindrops -big and clear- fell heavy on the ground, the insects of the Mangalore Wild croaked relentlessly, the brusque rain and winds jerked the trees; drops of water stuck in the small spaces of tender leaved plants dangled and lost balance only to get thrown off their waxed surfaces. In the distance, some branch or tree cracked- submitting itself to the fierce, ravaging wind. But it was the roofs that bore the brunt of the deluge; they were involved in the battle right from the start; and the pitter-patter that had awakened me in the midst of a night dream testified to that. From the roofs, the rainwater slid along the slope and, as if having completed its work, retired, and absorbed itself into the land.
It had rained the whole night, yet there was not a single puddle nearby; and in that I was reminded of the septuagenarian Ms Celine and about what she had told me the previous afternoon about the remarkable natural drainage of Canara red soil.
And it was from this sight, this changed environment that I received a new confidence, a new urge to go on. And I think this happened because the rains reminded me of Delhi, and of good things and feelings that come with home; feelings that had not come to me in what had seemed to be a very long time. I had no pretensions to being a social worker; and never before had I even thought of working with an NGO. How I had landed up here, in Mangalore, a thousand miles away from Delhi, had been a product of sheer chance. My selection for this NGO Internship meant that I was to undertake my first independent journey. That idea of independence was thrilling; but it lasted till the moment I arrived here, for in the midst of a very helpful people the only companion that never failed to leave me was loneliness; and that ate into the spirit of adventure I had nurtured at the outset of this journey. On the night before the rains came I had slept with an unsettling dilemma; I wondered 'why am I here? What will I achieve from this internship? It has been a week since I arrived, what have I gained? Is this all worth it. How will I get over this loneliness...this has just been the start, how will go about the remaining days, the whole month?
'I come from an elitist background with the plans and resources to make it big in life; then what am I doing here? Social work? Have I lost my mind!
And for moments thereafter I played with the idea of withdrawing from my internship; of backing out; of reverting to the dependence of my life back at Delhi.
The sight that morning had, in a small way, helped soothe me. The rain and the grey had done their bit to wipe away the alieness that had been eating into me for this long.
But the scepticism in me persisted. In my week long stay here I had met many people but had not engaged in any work; I suppose that had made me restless; had stoked questions on what I was doing her; of what was I benefiting from. That was why the coming day was important. My first field trip; and I had waited for this day for long. As a matter of defence I undermined its importance in my mind to avoid any disappointments from letting me down even further. But in that very subconscious level I was aware of how important this day was to be.
The rains were the first prognosticators of a better day. The second was Veena aunty, my neighbour. With a pot of boiling Coorg coffee she stood at my door with a broad smile, failing to save the drink from the onslaught of the rain. She too was in the NGO sector. A woman of little means; but with an enormous heart. She chatted, laughed and gave me affection that in I accepted hungrily. And when she left, the incipient optimism in me felt itself grow.
Roshan Rodriguez was a project assistant who was the only person of my age I could relate to. He arrived with a sense of anxiety when he appeared this morning. He was late, and it was imperative that we make it at time to meet Mr Sylvester, another project assistant, who was a famous sticker for time. We hurriedly walked to the bus station. It was the first time that I was to travel on these famous, private owned, self- spirited and fiercely competitive buses of Mangalore that were often contrasted with the irksome indolence of the bus system at Delhi. And to sense this contrast first hand made me curious.
I discovered that the efficacy and speed of these buses was impressive, but the same private zeal that had engendered such qualities in them had also produced rashness in their driving, which at many times got worrisome. The crowd was large; seats were precious and meant to be captured, literally; and my failure to occupy one of them meant that I would have to spend my inaugural journey holding the steel rod overhead that was meant for passengers in a standing predicament like myself. It was near the State bank that we got off and waited for Mr Sylvester. The idea of being admonished by Mr Sylvester on my very first field trip was not something that appealed to me. Such an event, I knew, carried it with the possibility of making me lonelier, of terminating this experience even before it would have started. I was worried.
For the first time in years Mr Sylvester had turned up late. I wondered if it was luck or providence? Or chance? The same chance that had brought me here in the first place. Mr Sylvester waived to us from his auto rickshaw and we hurriedly hopped in with him.
From that stop, Bengare - the coastal ward being examined by this project that was pronounced as ben-ger-ay - was only a few kilometres away; and I waited in suspense to see how Bengare - a strip of land jutting into the Arabian Sea - would actually turn out.
I saw the sky line - the colourless quality gave way for a darker, heavier shade of grey; and I made out that we were approaching the sea when I observed the space of the sky above expand. Unlike a patch of blue sky that I often saw stifled between two buildings, here I saw an increasing blue sphere, one that was got rounder and reached out to the ground. There were no trees and no concrete to obstruct the vision of the sky anymore.
We got down at a small stretch of land that led to the ferry service. The distinctness of my new settings was apparent: A woman with an empty palm basket, a fisherman with a small plastic net, and men and women wearing colourful clothes folded till their knees, as if they were ready to take a dip in the water; and I realised that these were the first signs of the coming fishing community.
At the ferry stand, Roshan delivered a copious speech, explaining me certain things about the fishing community - their insularity and ties of absolute, unswerving trust. They were powerfully bound by their loyalties; and anyone from the mainland constituted the' other', the 'outsider'. Their distrust for mainlanders and occasionally xenophobia seemed inevitable to be, for these were the ways of a tiny community distinct in every sense from the rest. In their seclusion, their distinctness, these ties of trust, loyalty and self reliance were crucial.
Sitting right at the edge, I saw the ferry come to life; saw it push water and propel itself ahead; and I began to feel a genuine thrill at what I was doing: it was the first sense of satisfaction I had experienced with the job on hand.
Roshan told me about the remarkable geography of Bengare; of the fact that it was till a few centuries ago a no mans land, a graveyard for the colonial settlers of Mangalore. Since independence, and to some extent even now, the ward was referred to as a 'sand pit' for it was essentially a strip of land jutting into the Arabian sea, flanked by the tumultuous sea on one side and an estuary on the other; an estuary where river and sea met, and brown and blue mixed, to produce a violent murkiness. Bengare was a tiny narrow peninsula, and was formed by the sediments deposited over thousands of years by the indeterminate and constantly shifting rivers: the Gurupura and the Naitravati, and by the tempestuous depositions of the sea.
That was what Bengare was: a river-sea exotica.
We got off the ferry and met some officials; we walked for a while. I could not help noticing the ground below. It was a remarkable mixture - of the red coastal soil, golden beach sand and occasional patches of black soils. We walked along the multicoloured paths, and only after some fifteen minutes was I to see what had been my ultimate Mangalore fantasy - the sea; a colossus I was to see for the first time in my life.
The path we now walked on was right at the edge of the coast, overlooking the sea and the rivers. It was a narrow protrusion into the sea serving the function of a breakwater. This path was built of rocks that were placed here only in 1984 when it was realised that a heap of them could effectively counter the sea from flooding into, and eroding away, the sand pit that Bengare was. Loud approaching waves thrashed themselves on these gleaming rocks. At first, the sound of thrashing waves had shocked me; and this was because of my unfamiliarity with the sound. The waves thrashed, and I shook; that impact was so loud and sudden that it was instinctive for my body to shake, or get pushed back a bit on gauging the ferocity of the impact.
Those shining black rocks that comprised the breakwater caught my attention for the brilliant green moss that coated them; the green was of a florescent shade, one that I had seen only through sketch pens during my urban childhood; it was a colour that I had accepted without a conformation from nature; and after all these years, for the first time in my life, I was seeing pure florescent - one that glowed in green - on those wet coast rocks.
I looked ahead: the broad endless horizon, the space it encompassed. The sight of the sea had overwhelmed me. That emptiness, or the realisation that there existed such an overpowering emptiness, had left me stunned. That sight of an azure sky, of a mass of water that filled the vision, all 180 degrees of it, and that in its collective enormity seemed to rise at the horizon, making horizon an amorphous zone where sky and sea merged with deception, left me delirious. And that delirium came from my urban existence, where the logic of the city and the logic of congestion had deprived me of such sights and sensations.
The monsoons had arrived, but the sea displayed its oddness by being exceptionally calm. The sea winds lacked the aggression that the new season had imparted to them; and that was why the waves that rolled up to the shore were not of any considerable height. But despite their tepidity, the waves continued to shock me.
Those colours! They were the next most remarkable thing.
Standing where I was, I could see the exact places where the great sea and the river met. And that was apparent by the colours that characterised the two different flows: the river was dusty brown and red while the sea wore more pristine shades of blue and green. It was a remarkable sight - brown mingling with blue- and that was, as Roshan pointed out to me, the most tumultuous point of the sprawling water mass, and the most dangerous point of the fisherman's journey. That mingling was not all that peaceful; that area where sea and river met was one of conflict. The sea, to retain its massive flow, (and what seemed to me- to retain its brilliant blue) repulsed the muddy river water. But the river had travelled miles from the heart of land for this moment of release, and it was not to give up; it thrust itself on those repulsing sea currents. The outcome was this area where an eternal battle was being waged- through day and night, months and years, centuries and millennia altogether. This battle did have its victims. The zone where sea and river merged was so unpredictable, so stormy, that the small boats, making way to fish from river to the deep sea, often capsized to the rage of the waves; and at the distance I could see how the boats, moving quite straight and steady, would suddenly get thrust upwards and then be pushed steeply down by the mixing waves. The turbulence that swept the boat in those moments almost always seemed alarming; the boat perched precariously in that moment of transfer from river to sea; it was such a delicate moment: a ship on a violently unstable crest.
I had also noticed the nature of the sea's tactic and aggression. Letting my eyes search the horizon, in the far distance, I could see some parts of the sea fold and furl into white waves; but in that distance they hardly seemed threatening. Then those waves disappeared, as if they had been distortions of a great sea's calm. I lowered my vision, and in a large part of the sea, there was hardly any visible sign of such surface activity - of ripples and white furling waves. I now narrowed my vision close to my surroundings near the rocks; and only then did I see how masterfully the sea had deceived me; for at that very spot, so close to me -close enough to shock and surprise me- did I understand the intensity of the approaching water mass. That wave had disappeared in the distance, but it had not lost force; it simply ran along the surface, and as if sensing me close to the rocks, pulled itself out at the last moment and thrashed itself on those mighty rocks, foaming, spuming, lathering in rage. It shocked me: but it could do nothing more.
Having thrashed itself along those rocks, having lost the power it had generated hurtling deceptively along the sea, the waves suddenly lost all initiative; they disintegrated on the rocks and made a sudden retreat. But then, in no time came the next wave, and they spurted ahead; but while they gathered force to launch another offensive, the withdrawing, dead and defeated wave slid on it, imposed its mass on it and in that way slowed it; it seemed to advice the surging aggressor of the futility of his act, of its eventual disintegration on the rocks, of its eventual death like its own. But now it was late, and the coming wave disapproved the words of the defeated wave, discarded his experience, lifted him along in his aggression, and thrashed on the gleaming rocks, only to meet the same fate. And that was a story that went on- coded, as it were- in the eternal ways of the sea.
That observation had left me amazed; but it couldn't force me to overlook the ground on which I stood. The beach soils, in the illumination of the morning sun, glittered with the fantastic litter of shells and shards of other broken shells. I spotted one of them, one with a mauve shade on the curve, to be my souvenir of this unforgettable experience facing the sea, on the narrow Canara coast.
We had waited on that spot for long, lost in the ways of the sea; we made a move.
For quite some time we three walked without speaking. That, as Roshan was to tell me later, was the effect of the sea. That temporary loss of voice ended when Mr Sylvester pointed, for my information, at a heap of well-arranged laterite stones. Those laterite stones -cleaned and cut in standard measurements- gave me the explanation for the excellent percolation qualities of the land. They were red and orange in colour, and they had many minute and narrow tunnels that cut them from within. They were tremendously porous and this was what helped them in their speedy sucking of water.
We had seen the sea and walked a lot to gather a sense of the place. Now we were at work. We were on the look out for puddles that were potential habitations for the malarial larvae. Malaria was endemic to this ward; a problem that -not to my surprise- owed itself to local nonchalance as much as to geographical and climatic conditions.
Much of the land ahead was dry and devoid of water accumulations. It was only when we neared a mud path that we came upon an alarming proflicity of puddles. But there was an oddity that baffled me - these puddles rested on the very patch of porous soil that was known for its excellent capacity to drink water accumulations. The logic behind this eluded me for some time. Then came Ms Celine's words- 'you will find puddles only where there are signs of tampering with the natural drainage'; and here those signs of tampering were more than apparent. Right ahead of me were two trucks loaded with laterite bricks and cement, and there were a number of labourers. Those lorries had run down that mud road many times, and in that process had compressed the soil to so great an extent that they depressed the land a little, gave it an inward slope, such that with the rains water would not only accumulate but also stagnate in those depressions; and from the manner in which the soil was now compressed, it formed an impervious layer over porous rock. That puddle was still and settled; it was also clean -a necessity for malarial larvae to breed; and that impervious layer made itself visible by appearing as a coating on the base that glowed in a shade of florescent orange.
But while the logic behind the puddle was established the find for the larvae remained inconclusive.
We went ahead, continuing our search. In the little distance that we covered we noticed two large water accumulations that had come about in the natural setting disturbed by construction activity. The accumulations, from the distance, appeared broad and seemed to have been crowded with stems and plants giving them a pond-like appearance. Those seeming ponds rested on large depressions of coarse beach soil. As I neared, I realised that I had mistaken them for ponds: those stems and plants were actually nothing but rubbish - of paper, plastics and green jerricans. We probed them for larvae but the search did not seem promising. There were a few shirtless village boys near the pond, playing with sticks, prodding into the water, stirring their settled bases and waking them up from their inertia. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there came a loud, jarring noise; I found it difficult to locate the source from where it came, and despite all the strangeness involved, it seemed to me that this loud noise was something coming from the pond. Roshan, not surprised, asked me with a smile "guess what is making the sound'.
"Pigs"! I replied; that was the only stupid thing I thought the sound was close to. He smiled and said "Frogs you fool; right there; can't you see?
I was amazed. In the midst of the rubbish lived a colony of frogs, nearly forty of them. And those frogs were not ordinary by any standards; they were huge, some 5 inches in height! And were light green in colour. Some of their green heads popped from the water, and strangely, there were two- and at times- three frogs that sat over the other. There was intense activity; it was mating season and these frogs leaped on each other, some also fought in groups of five. And only after that initial sight did I understand the creation of the noise. It was a horrible sound and it came from those frogs who - while leaping and mating- inflated their throats to create slimy goitres. As a child, in urban Delhi, where I had never seen such large frogs -where the logic of a congested city had stifled and shrunk frogs to insignificant sizes- I had hated frogs for this very act; and I had always had a perverse desire to prick their blaring throats. It was a disgusting thing to imagine, much more to do.
The search had not yielded any results; and now, standing beside those plastic ponds there was nothing more to do except for observing those frenzied frogs.
We retreated from that noisy orgy.
The slow walk, prolonged bending and intense observing had tired us; the search for something like malarial larvae, I discovered, was by no means an easy task. It was decided therefore that we would soon close this survey. But just as that decision was made, and as we neared the end of the road, Roshan spotted another stagnant pool over grass adjacent to an old graveyard. I, honestly, did not share Roshan's enthusiasm, and when he jumped with glee on the discovery I hoped that he would be brought down by the temptation for a rest. That, however, never happened. Rather, Mr Sylvester was fired up too. And as a helpless novice who should show the enthusiasm that is expected of a novice, I too trundled along. At the end, Roshan's anticipation had been of use; we finally discovered a few larvae. Roshan and Sylvester spoke for long in native Tulu, and so, realising my inability to participate in what was a passionate discussion, I decided to observe this pool.
It was tough grass that held the pool. Over the pool, out of nowhere, were a whole group of helicopters. That was their name, for in their structure they resembled a helicopter, or rather the helicopter resembled them- if who came first was the yardstick. They flew low and close to the water; there were plenty of them and I watched with amazement how their paths crossed with the others, and they flew without collisions. I wondered what they did by swarming over that pool, what function were they serving or which ritual were they performing? Did their reflections on the clear water confuse them with their already complicated flight paths? How did they achieve such speed and how did they manoeuvre in that maze?
I had grown sure; this small insect had been the helicopters inspiration.
The results of this survey had satisfied us. Larvae were growing in numbers, but their population would explode only when the monsoons would have gone on for weeks, filling in its wake every possible terrestrial depression, preparing fresh water habitations for the hitherto unconceived larvae population.
With the helicopter pool it was decided to end the survey, and to move on to an examination of the fishing community that inhabited Bengare. Earlier in the day when Roshan explained to me the ways of the fishing community I had bothered to ask about the status and condition of women in these communities. While asking this question I had pre supposed the general servility of women in our society, something to which urban-rural, rich-poor or Delhi-Mangalore did not make much significant difference. What I had asked in that question -something that was expressed mainly through my expression and tone- was not whether women lived a great life here, but whether they were relatively better off. Roshan had understood my question and the pessimism that had underlined it. And that was why he was emphatic in telling me that the women in Bengare had a stand of their own; that their economic functions had given them a greater say and hold over things; things that women inland and elsewhere did not have much to do with.
The work that women engaged in was determined by a bifurcation of activities between the men and womenfolk in such fishing communities. While the men went out to fish in the deep sea, returning with the catch after five or sometimes fifteen days, women got all the work that came after the catch was obtained; and that wasn't little work: they collected the fish, cleaned and sold them in auction and retail markets, negotiated with agents, they prepared dry fish- something that at times sustained a family during times of crisis during the rainy months. They also carried out other smaller works like net making, shell collecting, among others. Coupled with these were the duties of the house wife. Since the man was away at sea for most of the time, it was the woman who had to bring up a family, raise children, put them in schools and give some direction to their futures. So it was inevitable that children got attached to their mothers while their relationship with the father became a distant affair.
Also remarkable was the fact that fishing women tended to keep their incomes to themselves, and this imparted to them a degree of economic independence. While this was not necessarily the case always, the fact that this practice existed was of significance. Thus in this community, women, out of the occupation that ruled their lives, acquired a significant degree of independence and dominance. They had become indispensable to the functioning of the fisherman's community; and so they had a room of their own - for dominance and decision.
This, however, did not mean that women were a highly liberated lot; they could not be alienated form the general social system where- to put it crudely and accurately- servility was an expected attribute; for these fisher women - after disposing the fish to the markets, looking after the household and cooking- were still the last to eat their meals. The difference here was that the extent of violence, caused mostly by alcohol, was limited.
Women also benefited from other means; for instance when young boys reached an age in which their physical potential made them fit for joining the occupation, their studies were discontinued and they got involved in fishing; women, by contrast, and by default, did not have to be engaged in any full time labour and so could manage to continue with studies and fishing work together.
Roshan ended this interesting conversation by adding that the Mahila Samiti (the women's organisation at Bengare) was an influential body that had a say of its own.
We approached a group of hamlets in which seated women dealt with fish. In different hamlets, different work could be spotted; but all of them were involved in preparation of dry fish. It was May-end, and the monsoons were about to arrive anytime; and while the monsoons brought me glee, they marked the arrival of hard times for a fisherman's family, for all sailing was to be stopped; and the fisherman, confined to his hut, would be deprived of the busyness that had marked his life during the other months. At times, the family faced a crisis or starved; and through these patchy months, when the fisherman was deprived of that great sight of fish flesh -something that had overwhelmed all the other months- it was this dry fish that saved the family; helped it get going.
So in these days, with the threat of monsoons, the fisherman -who worshipped the sun and a calm ocean- felt threatened; as threatened as the sea that feared the end of calm; as threatened as the sun who felt nervous with the idea of being so thoroughly undermined by clouds. So understandably there was a lot of activity that could be seen with regard to drying fish; the fisherwoman tried to dry up as many as she could.
I was witness to the process in reverse mode: at first I saw fishes that were already dried -they looked squeezed and dead for ages; then I saw, at the adjoining hamlet, a large coir mat on which fish fresh from salt basins were laid for drying under the heat of the nervous sun; and then at another hamlet I saw fishes lying in a heap in large salt basins. It felt creepy; that sight of dead fish, with its eyes wide open, staring into nowhere; and of salt sticking and solidifying along its once beautiful fins; like it had just been brought out of deep freeze.
Finally, I went to a hamlet where I saw fish -being cut and cleaned by a woman who gave me a great smile- getting ready for its inaugural salty dip.
In course of my walk though those hamlets I had seen for myself all that Roshan had told me earlier. While men were occupied with the arduous task of packing their boats, it was the womenfolk who worked in all those houses preparing fish. One woman had shared a friendly chat with us while her husband trotted around; another had smiled at me while brutally decapitating the fish before plunging them into salt tubs, while another woman was found cleaning fish with her son seated next to her.
Independence, work and family concern -all of these were visible in that small tour.
Departing from the fisherman hamlets we came upon a jerrican that lay strewn with in halves with stagnant water filling the emptiness it promised to provide. We looked close and discovered a colony of wriggling larvae in those two exposed clean-water accumulations. Mr Sylvester and Roshan lifted them by their oddly cut plastic handles and drained the water and their frolicking larvae onto the dry soil.
We moved on; took rest at a small restaurant that served locally made cola and orange drinks, and then proceeded to the Bengare welfare office in the vicinity. The welfare office, made in concrete a few years back by a newly elected Corporator, was the administrative centre of the ward; and the nature and scale of administration administered here intrigued me immensely. Roshan and Mr Sylvester wished to an official from a distance in Tulu. Roshan went ahead and spoke to him in an unending stretch of Tulu; and all that I could figure from the speech he gave him was 'malaria', disease, 'kerosene' and 'gappi fish'. I had understood the topic and at the same time had closely observed the officials indifference; he shook his head as if he was intently listening to what Roshan had to say, but his eyes were fixed at the newspaper that he refused to put down even while standing. It seemed as if the talk was a distraction; and he was bearing it in the knowledge that it was to end in some time. When Roshan ended with the talk, and when farewell pleasantries in Tulu were exchanged, I inquired from Roshan what the official had to say. Roshan, in his Konkani dialect, spoke with disappointment in his tone- 'aah...they will not do anything about it. When malaria breaks out they will look astonished and will ask us- How it happened?"
It was closing noon and Roshan and Mr Sylvester, my guides and teachers, planned to devote the last leg of the visit to the very significant Bengare Auction market. While waiting for the Ferry to arrive to take us inland, Roshan had drawn my attention to the garbage that had piled up on the beach. There were two layers of rubbish -one right where the waves reached while the other lay deep inside the beach. Both rows of litter were straight and organised in a line that ran along the beach; and that uniformity, I realised, came from the fact that it was the waves which had deposited them. Roshan remarked 'that garbage near the waves comes from Mangalore, and the other line belongs to Bengare; see, there's coke, Pepsi, Pears soap; have a look and you can make out all the brands in this area'.
Both- Mangalore and Bengare- were not the most enthusiastic about cleanliness. Bengare, in particular, lacked necessary civic sense. There was exposed garbage heaped at many places: on roads, red paths, outside houses (an incorrigible Indian habit), and here at the beach. Garbage collection programmes had been organised, one where every member from the NGO with the aid of local contacts had involved themselves in picking garbage from different spots; but people smirked and laughed; they found it an amusing affair. School students were also involved in garbage collection camps, but they lost initiative with time; they did not feel compelled in the work they did. In that manner, garbage disposal remained an unsolved problem. Even the idea of cleaning the place was useless ' it makes no difference baba, the same garbage will return the next day' Roshan said.
Roshan was cheerful; his voice deceived the disappointments that his work involved; but he was prepared to face those disappointments. That was how he had endured for so long, that was why he had that cheerful look on his face. Even if others remained nonchalant, he tried whatever he could because he had 'to contribute', and that, over time I realised was his underlining logic; it was a logic that many others in his field shared.
The ferry roared again and it surged ahead leaving a trail of bubbly water. A pungent stench of fish fiercely announced our nearing approach to the market. The market was a large one and massive asbestos sheets, of a size I had never seen before, covered it. Our arrival was not in the best of times; the peak auctioning time was over, and only small sellers could be seen trying hard to sell their catch. The road at the approach to the market was crowded with trucks and vans. These trucks belonged to agents from far inland towns who had come to purchase fish at wholesale. Once auctioning was completed, the stock was loaded on to these trucks in plastic cartons. And like dry fish, I saw the events at the auction market in reverse motion, with the sight of fish being mixed with crushed ice loaded into trucks and Lorries constituting my first stage. These trucks with fish cartons were dripping with water; the ice from all the cartons spilled on to the roads and I soon realised that it didn't matter if it had rained or not, for this particular road -daily crowded by fish and ice trucks- remained wet throughout the year.
We entered the market; it was excessively wet and squalid. There was no particular arrangement; there were, in fact, no vendors. Even the most modest fisherman- fishing from small streams or even gutters- brought their catch for sale here. All they had to do, as one of them showed me, was to unload their fish onto the ground, shout out like vegetable sellers and attract customers. Major auctions took place at a separate section; one where there was a modern weight stand and a neatly dressed official who kept writing in his notepad. There were also official announcements from speakers: that fascinated me -speakers for fish markets! But it was no small business, as Roshan told me. For instance the white prawns that lay ahead in a heap were for a thousand rupees a kilo and were to be exported direct from this market.
Controlling and directing the flow of excess water and slime was a network of narrow drains running through floor of the market. It was in their watery flow that I first noticed the number of small fishes and crabs that lay strewn as waste. While the small fishes appeared mutilated, the crabs were brutally cracked and battered on the floor. Their carcasses crowded the narrow drains. I felt bad for both; but I realised that if there was any party that was more justified at its misfortune then it was the crab; for while man found a utility in the death of fish, he saw no similar use in those crabs that got trapped in nets in course of his fish catch. So those crabs, out of great misfortune, ended up as the most injured lot of the trade.
I also felt bad for the fish; it was just one of the many things that got sacrificed for our needs; and I realised what a hypocrite I was; a fish eating- fish sympathising hypocrite. This sight of dead fish made me feel remorse; but it wouldn't make me renounce eating them; and I realised that that is how I was, and so are many others. Half principled; we like the idea of being principled; like to see the world improve and better itself; but we are ready to pursue that as long as it does not disturb the normalcy of our life or all that which seems routine. We like to see corruption end, but if the head inspector asks for a bribe then we prefer to avoid the trouble of going to court and end up paying; so we end up as players in the crime; end up as the crime doers, committing a crime greater than that of the initiator.
I felt bad for those fishes; for the destruction of nature and wildlife it entailed; but all that I could do was to wish that I renounce its consumption; and that remained a wish, for in actuality that wasn't possible; the idea of renouncing fish and meat was not plausible for it conflicted with the routine that I had developed in so many years. It seemed that if there had to be a change then it would have to be caused by something more radical, more compelling. But then the thought came to me: wasn't this apparent large-scale destruction in the auction market compelling enough?
I suppressed the thought.
It had been some time since we had stood there, and I felt too full with the stench of fish. We finally decided to leave Bengare. As I walked out of the market I looked closely at the floor to prevent myself from stamping on a dead fish or crab. It was as if I wanted to preserve the sanctity of death- a death for which I was too was culpable. The floor was sticky with the juices of dead fishes, crabs and other victims; and when we walked we felt our sandals slip on slime.
The sun was departing by the time I reached my residence. It was a day I would never forget, not only for the diversity of things it involved but also for the greatness that lay in the feeling it left me with- one of worth, of feeling happy with what I was doing and of sensing, for the fist time, an urge to contribute to the effort. With that feeling, and with the company of Veena aunty, the dread of loneliness, of isolation, had slowly withered away.
I had realised, in those brief moments of cogitation before sleep, that some deeper lessons had been learnt. My upbringing in Delhi has engendered in me a tendency to see and think big and large without considering the smaller elements that went into making them. And that had left me with a crippling Myopia, owing to which I dabbled intellectually on issues like poverty, health, governance or welfare from- what I would call- a 'policy perspective' that was blighted from the exasperating complexity that underlined them. But this day, by roaming around Bengare, by observing something as obscure as malarial larvae in stagnant puddles, I had taken the first step towards a better understanding of extant problems and their solutions. I had, most importantly, engaged in work at a level most basic; work at the grass root; work that would be the edifice of greater work and research. For a study on malaria would not start if puddles were not spotted and larvae not identified. I found it easy to draw an analogy with the case of polio in India: to start with, a research on the disease would have necessitated meetings with the afflicted persons; then the bacterium would have to be located, studied, researched, tested and treated; then, much later- after many years and many people had been put to test -did a vaccination come; following this the idea of large scale immunisation germinated; and only then, as the apotheosis of these cumulative efforts, the disease would get eradicated.
Such a momentous and great term...but it all began with that first study, that first observation. The heaviness of the word rests on all the small actions that went into its making. After all, even nature affirms this logic; for the sea has a drop, the mountain has a rock, the mind has a thought, a river has a rivulet and in that way, everything Big has a Small. A macro has a micro. No macro exists in abstraction.
I had had my rendezvous with the sea; had probed into the ways of a fishing community -a rarity for the deep and cut off delhite like me; and had some lessons that would never leave me. Most importantly the river, sea and Bengare had reinvigorated that languishing sprit of adventure; of independence. Withdrawal- as an idea, and possibility- now suddenly seemed distant.
I was to go on.
The dilemma was quietly over.
I am a student living
in Delhi, India. I am graduating in History at St Stephen's College, Delhi,
India. I was selected for the NFI- Asha Stanford internships 2002 and was
deputed to work in Mangalore for a month's time. Eventually I did complete
my internship, and remember it now for the work I enjoyed doing each day.
But the experience of this day-31st May 2002, will always stand out for
the dramatic change in attitude it brought about in me. I have not failed
to be optimistic ever since. 11
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