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The Rich Mud Banks of Chennai’s Coast

The Rich Mud Banks of Chennai’s Coast

Palayam anna does not reveal the secrets of how fishers read the sea on a daily basis. There is no syllabus. No regular classes. So no. I don’t think I will be posting anything on a regular basis. The posts, I think, will follow the vagaries of the sea and Palayam’s moods. The quiet of our walk is disrupted only if something unusual happens. Sometimes, a comment about the fish caught – or not – the previous day could trigger a conversation. That’s what happened today.

All boats barring one returned with empty nets. They had all set off with mathi valai (Sardine nets). Fishing had been mighty slow. The waters are calm and clear, not a good time for fishing with nets. Nets are more visible in clear water, and fish also tend to bury themselves in the sand or mud or escape to deeper waters to hide in the submarine reefs.

The rough weather of the last two days raised fishermen’s hopes. When the sea is turbulent, it churns up the smelly mud at the bottom. The muddy portions of the sea are also the most productive habitats for kala (Indian salmon), iral (prawn), nandu (crab) and naakku (sole fish). The mathi (Indian sardine) comes a-hunting when the waters are turbulent, and the fishers go hunting the mathi.

Just between Santhome Church and Kottivakkam – less than 8 km as the mathi swims – there are 41 distinct expanses of mud each with a name that every sea-going fisherman from Santhome to Kottivakkam Kuppam will know – Mecheru, Naducheru, Kattiacheru, Kathalaicheru… “Eppadi vaipaattu theriyaama kanakku poda mudiyatho, athey pola un kadal-la seru theriyaama meen pudikka mudiyaathu,” Palayam told me today. (Just as it is not possible to do math without learning your multiplication tables, you can’t do fishing without learning the muddy areas in your ocean.)

The near sea – the area between the line where the waves break and the high tide line – is what attracts the fisherman’s intense scrutiny. The nearshore current and breeze, the turbidity of the water, its temperature, surf, colour, odour and even the texture of the sand are all loaded with meanings.

“Our forefathers taught us to read the sand in the intertidal region. If we are worried about a storm brewing, we check the sand to see if we are likely to be visited by a storm in the coming days. We stride through the sand. If our feet sink easily – that usually happens when there is more mud than usual in the sand – then we can expect a storm in the next couple of days. This is something they have learnt by observing. We don’t know what makes the sand soft, but we know that when it is, we can expect rough weather to follow,” Palayam says.

Today, the sand was firm and unyielding. “Normalaa thaan irukkum-na,” he concluded. [The sea will remain normal, brother.] But everything Palayam says is tinged with an uncertainty born of humility in the face of the often unpredictable moods of the sea. My attempts to secure certainty or a guarantee for the prediction have never succeeded beyond eliciting the usual “Athellaan ellaiamman kaiyla thaan irukku,” the Tamil equivalent of “Inshallah” or “Whatever the goddess wills.”

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