From Varkala

This morning I woke to the sound of voices floating over the soothing crash of the waves.  From the balcony of our room I could see the distant mark of the canoe on the water and the long ropes extending back to land.  This is not big business.  Not industrial or corporate or sport fishing.  Ten men stood on the beach in a warped tug of war with the group farther up the shore line, a wide parabola arcing between them, like a reflection in a spoon.  Looking down from the balcony they were 100 meters apart, one team occupying the beach, the other perched precariously across the jetty, all facing the horizon and the one-man canoe halfway to the horizon.  By the time I dressed and walked down, the teams had closed the distance, only twenty feet of sand and an unused boat between them.

The major local language in Kerala is Mayalam but I have no idea what language the men are shouting in. There is no discernable conversation down the lines or between them.  Just a continual disconnected series of exclamations I imagine to be aimed at the canoe in the distance, the man standing on it, effortlessly surfing the swell, waving his hands and the square plank that serves as an oar at the handful of men in the water, clinging to the lines as the waves break over them.  As the net creeps toward shore, the more grey haired and stoop-backed of the fishermen standing at the rear spooling the ropes, the canoeman slides back down to sitting and swings out around the net to steer the little boat back over the white water and onto the sand.  The boat that dragged the 300 yards of rope out to sea seems to be made solely of palm, two pieces of slender trunk joined around a base; a three-piece canoe.

Finally the netmen in the water are standing in a single line (no longer inexplicably beating at the oncoming waves with both fists) shaking the catch deeper into the nets.  The thick ropes emerging from the sea, (every foot dangles a makeshift weight (rock), a makeshift float (wood)), now hold a gauzey mesh instead of a gaping net.  The linemen’s shouts take the shape of a call and response, a frantic many-syllabled *heave ho* as they wrestle the catch farther up the beach in time with the surging waves.

When the catch has been consolidated to a 10 foot circle, a convulsing bowl of slippery silver, the fishermen circling around the nets crouch down to sort their catch.  A few saried women emerge from the shade to observe over shoulders. A couple of teenage boys flit around the edges imagining they’re helpful. Wide plastic colanders are produced. With fingers or flattened plastic bottles pulled from the rocks, fish are separated in descending order of size.  A pufferfish pulled from the catch silently mouths his protest as a fisherman uses his swollen sloshing gut to comb through the heap before he is thrown unceremoniously over a shoulder to be buffeted belly up by the waves lapping at the shore.

Slowly the bowl of silver shrinks.  Plastic crates are filled, covered with palm fronds and put aside.  The tiniest fish, shining shivering coins are left until the bitter end.  I don’t know much about fish and nothing about fishing.  Will they eat those tiny things?  India is a predominantly vegetarian country.  Is the haul for sustenance or profit (a pitiful thought, it doesn’t seem like so much for a family to live on when divided between all these crooked shouting men on the sand).  There’s no one to ask.  Gail might know but she’s still sleeping.  The ululating conversation between the fisherman rises and falls around me, staccato syllables, percussive consonants, like pig latin or the gibberish languages we spoke when we were small.  The voices roll forward without pause like the call at a never ending auction, the commentation at a horse race.  Several fisherman smile at me, but I am suddenly inexplicably sad.  I don’t wait for the nets to be empty.  Back on our patio, by the time I look up from my coffee they are gone.


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