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One That Got Away, and Some That Didn’t

One That Got Away, and Some That Didn’t

This morning was magical. Yet to rise and hide behind a shroud of clouds, the Sun had burnt open a rectangular frame of light stretching up from the horizon to the edge of clouds. The sea was flat as glass. Even the waves broke gently on the beach. The tinted light on the horizon was painted in shimmering, dappled shades of orange on the water.

Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

Large crowds of ghost crabs, and flocks of sand plover grazed within the tide’s reach. The plovers would lift off with every incoming wave, fly low some distance north and descend to the beach as the water receded to continue their hunt for “poochi” (lugworms or polychaetes). As they neared the estuary, they took off heading west, north and then east on a clockwise arc until they reached the river mouth. There they turned south and flew well beyond us skimming along the water, to descend to the beach once again to begin their hop-hunt-fly-land-hop-hunt sequence. These are birds that spend the summer in the cooler latitudes as far north as Siberia. They come to winter on Chennai’s beaches to enjoy our balmy weather.

The crabs were unmoved by the waves, their periscopic eyes sticking out of the water as they kept a pair of panoramic eyes on the landscape. Today’s congregation seemed larger than usual.

Ghost crabs. Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

Palayam anna and I were both in our own worlds. He was a big sucker for pretty sunrises. The usual cluster of fishermen, some with rods, others with cast nets or madava valai (mullet nets) were not around today. The Tamil month of Purattasi had passed, and we were already in the fourth day of Aippasi. The midsea current had turned decidedly vanni (north-south) five days ago, on October 16. We could tell by the way the ship out at 14.5 fathoms dragged at its anchor. If the bow pointed north, the current was running from north to south. Palayam had taught me this two months ago, and now I felt like a salted mariner every time I voiced out my observations to him.

Today was my lucky day. “I remembered a story I wanted to tell you. I don’t think you have heard this before,” he began.

“This was quite some time back. I was in school. Must have been 17 or 18. It was early in the morning. My father had died a few years back. My elder brother was like father. We were on the beach. My annan (big brother) was readying a “kambi.””

Anticipating my question, he was already explaining what a kambi was. “We take 5 fathom lengths of rope, and tie coconut palm fronds at intervals of one muzham (1 muzham = 1.5 feet). We tie a float at one end, and a rock at another and drop it at chosen locations where we would fish. We take the bearings of the spot so that we can return to it whenever we wish. The kambi acts as a fish aggregator.

This is a bundled kambi made by one of the hook-and-line fishermen from Urur Olcott Kuppam. Kambi are home-made, traditional fish aggregating devices made of coconut fronds tied to a long rope. Unbundled, this kambi will stretch out about 30 feet, with 20-odd coconut fronds threaded through the rope at 1.5 feet intervals. Photo: S. Palayam

 The mullam is another fish-aggregating device, much larger.

“We take a full-grown poosa maram (portia tree), roots and all. If it’s canopy is too large, we chop it up, and tie it all together, take a heavy stone to weigh it down, and drop it in midsea at a location of our choice. Carrying the tree to the spot is no easy task. We would have to load it on a six person kattumaram (catamaran), and take another six-person kattumaram alongside. We would load one maram with the mullam and overturn it to drop the payload at the desired spot. Poosai is a good tree because it rots quickly. Fish are drawn to it quite rapidly, within a week.

“My brother and I had dropped two mullam at 11.5 fathoms. That morning, my brother asked me to take the kattumaram and check on our mullam. ‘Go there, to make sure no-one was fishing there,’ he said.”

Normally, the owner of the mullam gets to fish near the mullam. But this is the open sea. Nothing is really private property. We generally respect each other’s spaces, if nothing else, but to avoid a shit fight.

“How would anyone know where your mullam is?” I asked.

“Our men are wily. These things don’t remain a secret for too long. They see me coming to the same spot a few times, and they make a mental note of the bearings, and will come by to check it out on their way back. It’s just like how you make a mental note if a new restaurant comes up near the bus stand,” he explained.

“So at around 8 am, armed with only a small sombu (container) of rice congee, I set off. Even if I was only going to check out the mullam, it’s not as if I would go unprepared to fish. I packed my hooks and the panju mullu to catch vari paarai (yellowtail scad) as bait for bigger fish.”

Panju mullu is an artificial lure made of thin strips of brightly coloured, sometimes shiny cloth. “If the water is thelivu (clear blue), we’d use white strips, and if we intend to fish in the vandathanni (turbid water), we’d use coloured lures,” he explained.

When Palayam reached 11.5 fathoms, he dropped anchor and waited. The mullam was in the vicinity, but visibility was poor over land. To pinpoint the mullam’s location, he would need to be able to see the landmarks to get his bearings. None of those – Parangimalai (St. Thomas Mount) for the ner vilangu (straight bearing), Rettamalai for the themma vilangu (southern bearing) and LIC building for the vada vilangu (northern bearing) – were visible beyond the overland mist.

When the air cleared, Palayam had to paddle only a little distance to locate their mullam. He threaded vella punju mullu (shiny white lures) to six hooks, added a cycle bolt as a weight, dropped it near the mullam and bobbed it up and down to test the waters for vari paarai. Soon enough, he had five small yellowtails and one the size of a large man’s hand.

Not ready to leave good enough alone, the 17-year old decided to venture out deeper to the reef. “I had to take home something more substantial than this sad excuse for a catch,” he remarked. His brother had been clear that the young lad should return after checking the mullam – a few hours’ work at the most. But by now, Annan’s instructions were a distant murmur.

It was only noon. The land breeze was slow but still blowing. Palayam hoisted his sail and set off to Pasuva kal. Pasuva kal is a reef at 15.5 fathoms at a straight heading east of the brick red building in Kalakshetra Performing Arts College, according to Palayam.

Two other marams (catamarans) from his village were already anchored there, fishing. “No action here, machan,” said one. Palayam speared a live paarai through its cheek, and dropped the baited hook near the reef. After a long wait, he felt two gentle tugs on the line. The two older fishermen turned to watch him instinctively. A wait, and again a tug and then a fair size maavalasi (seer fish) leapt out of the water. Not once or twice. It danced with the bait in its jaws leaping out of the air four or five times. Tickled by the fish dance, and Palayam’s look of consternation, the older men were laughing out loud. “It must have sensed the hook in the bait. A maavulasi always leaps out once, and we should be careful to not yank the line when the fish is in the air. We should wait until it lands before yanking. But this one kept jumping, not giving me any time to yank. By the time I yanked, I only got the hook with the bait eaten clear till the cheek.”

The older men guffawed, and then gently comforted the dejected youth. “Don’t worry. If not now, then another time.”

That one got away. But Palayam was not just disappointed but hurt too at his poor showing in front of his elders. It was 4 pm, and the sun was sinking lower on the western horizon. The sea breeze would drop soon. The older men in the two marams packed up their things, and began rigging their sails to catch the last breeze home.

“Sarasu’s husband told me, ‘Machan! Wind up. Let’s go home. It’s getting dark and the wind won’t last long. Aadi-maasam vera, puyal eppo vena edukkalam. (It’s the month of aadi, and it can blow a storm anytime.).’ But why would I listen? Perhaps, had I been older, I would have let sense drive my decision. But at 17, my mind saw only fish. I needed to take back something more than the bait I caught.

Nee po maama. Naa konjam nerathula varen (You go ahead, uncle. I’ll return in just a bit.),” Palayam said. “They left reminding me to return soon.

“Nearly two hours passed. No fish. At around 6 p.m., dusk was giving way to night. All of a sudden, the memeri current stilled. Until then, there was both a memeri and a thendi from the south which is the norm when the southwest monsoon is in force. But after the memeri stilled, it was just the thendi.”

(Note: Memeri is an ocean phenomenon when the sea draws in, causing a palpable but invisible movement of water from land to sea.)

Almost instantaneously, Palayam felt a series of strong tugs and the line wound around his thigh stretched taut. Excitedly, he drew the line and landed a thol paarai (Queen Fish) that was at least three feet long. “About this big,” he said to me, holding his palm face down at navel level as he stood. It was dark, and he couldn’t see. But he had kept the bait fish inside the pari (a woven basket made of palm fronds) and lashed it to the maram. He fixed a new hook and changed the line. “The paarai have sharp teeth, and the line may have been weathered a bit because of the bite,” he said.

He drew out another vari paarai for bait, speared it and dropped it into the sea. Another large thol paarai catch. In no time, he exhausted all his bait with a large Queen Fish to show for each. His maram was loaded with five large fish.

It was late, pitch dark and there was no wind. Palayam had to paddle all the way back. “But all the fish I had caught lifted my spirits and strengthened my shoulders. I paddled back with no sense of fatigue. It was midnight by the time I reached home. My brother was standing on the beach, very concerned. ‘Did I not tell you to return immediately? What took you so long,’ he asked. And then he saw the laden boat. He laughed out loud, and began unloading the catch. ‘Paravayilla. Chinna paiyyan, ondi marathula poi saadhichitta paa (Not bad. Young you may be, but you single-handedly brought the maram back with fish.),’ he said, patting me.

“The very next morning, we set off to the same spot. But we got nothing. I think it had something to do with the way in which the current turned from being a dual (memeri + thendi) to a single thendi current. My line was lying just above the reef. These fish must have been grazing in the vicinity; with the sudden shift in current, they would have decided to return.

“The reef is the thai veedu (mother’s home) for the fish. No matter where they go, they have to return here at night.

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