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Life On The Edge


new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

on the edge
A trip to Vizhinjam to see the fisher-folk – and nearly cause a fight.

Kerala, India. Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital. 10.15am. A fan whirs hypnotically overhead. I’m waiting for Mary John, administrator of the Fishermen’s Federation for Trivandrum District. Good, I think. My first interview in Kerala and it’s with a woman in a position of power.

Mary John appears sporting a full moustache and, I can only assume, an equally full complement of male chromosomes. It’s my first lesson. Don’t make gender assumptions based on names. At least not when dealing with Kerala’s Christians.

‘Is it going to be true of most of my female-named contacts?’ I wonder as Mary John takes me in an auto-rickshaw to his office. It’s tucked away in the labyrinth of busy unmarked streets that makes up Trivandrum. I can see why the receptionist thought it pointless to give me directions. My aim is to visit a fishing village and get a sense of a day and a night in the life of the fisherfolk. Why them? Because they are traditionally among the most oppressed people in Kerala – and provide one of the best examples of what radical and co-operative politics can do.

A few hours later and I’m on the road to Vizhinjam, about 20 kilometres down the coast, catching glimpses of Kerala’s ‘rurban’ nature. The state is so densely populated, and the land so evenly distributed into little plots with coconut trees, tapioca plants and brightly painted houses, that the countryside and the towns seem to merge.

Magline – 27 years old, a Federation field worker and definitely a woman – has agreed to act as guide and interpreter. She comes from a fishing community herself and speaks with a regulated passion. It’s late afternoon when we reach Vizhinjam. The streets are so busy it feels like all its 10,000 or so residents – 7,000 Christian and 3,000 Muslim – are out and about. The houses are very small. The mosque and numerous Christian churches are very large.

Holding on: traditional fisherfolk recently won a government ban against trawlers.

Fish is being sold. Toddy – an alcoholic beverage drawn from the coconut trees – is being bought. In between snatches of conversation and gossip in rapid-fire Malayalam, Magline tells the history of the fisherfolk.

It is a story of extreme marginalization in virtually every sense. For centuries they were the poor people, the pariahs, not allowed into schools, churches or temples, pushed out onto the very margins of the land – into the sea, in fact.

The ruling upper-caste Hindus – who were vegetarian – viewed the fisherfolk as the lowest of the low. These people lived by fish. Dealt in fish. Smelt of fish. And, it must be added, they drank like fish too. Tired after a long night’s fishing, the men would come back with their catch at dawn. Fish does not keep – it has to be sold quickly. Waiting for them on the shore were the merchants and loan sharks.

‘They would buy the fish at rock-bottom prices,’ says Magline. ‘The same merchants would often lend money the fishers needed to replace craft or nets at an interest rate of 10 per cent a day. If the fisher could not pay back he would have to hand over part or all of his catch to the merchant or moneylender. That’s how so many fishers got trapped in poverty.’

Nobody took much interest in the lives of the fishing people – until Portuguese Catholic missionaries arrived in the sixteenth century. They – unlike the lofty Syrian Orthodox Christians who had already been in Kerala for about 1,000 years – saw the fisherfolk as souls fit for conversion.

For the first time the fisherfolk got some status. They had a church and with it an organized social life. At a price though. The Church came to own the land on which their huts stood and extracted ten per cent of their catch as well – hence the large churches and the small houses.

Held in the grip of this unholy trinity of merchants, moneylenders and tithe-hungry priests, the fisherfolk had little to celebrate. It was only in the 1960s, with the arrival of radical nuns and priests influenced by Marxism and Liberation Theology, that life really began to change. Undaunted by the Communist Government’s failure to get a co-operative movement going, the radicals decided to give it another go.

It was not going to be easy. Like many groups oppressed for centuries, the fisherpeople were deeply conservative, traditional and fearful. But the activists struck upon the idea of creating a totally new co-operative fishing village. It was called Marianad – and it provided a model which has now been adopted by fishing communities all along Kerala’s coast. The emphasis was on co-operative marketing of fish rather than shared ownership of craft and gear.

Magline becomes animated: ‘Instead of handing over the catch to the merchant, the fishermen gave it to the Co-operative to sell for the highest price possible. And instead of borrowing money from the moneylenders they could borrow from the Co-operative, which could get low-interest loans from banks.’

While we talk the men are out at sea – their flimsy four-person plywood boats and catamarans bobbing about on the great monsoon rollers like so much flotsam. Over 100 fishing boats have already been lost in Kerala this season. Other states ban fishing during the monsoon. It’s too dangerous to go out 90 per cent of the time.

The fishers face another problem – depleting fish stocks. ‘It’s the trawlers that are to blame,’ they say. The trawlers come from other ports – sometimes from neighbouring states – and scoop up most of the fish in their fine-mesh nets. There have been pitched battles at sea. ‘We lost a boy from the villages in one of these clashes recently,’ says Mamanies, a traditional fisher.

The trawlers also drag their nets along the sea bed and destroy fragile breeding grounds. But the traditional fisherfolk – helped by a radical pressure group called Programme for Community Organization - recently managed to get a government ban on trawlers fishing during the three-month monsoon and fish-breeding season. They would like the trawlers banned completely.

So far nearly all the talk has been about the ‘fishermen’. But what about the women? Shrinking catches mean fewer women are involved in their traditional role of vending fish. And there are other pressures on women – the high level of domestic violence, for example.

‘Men go to arak [toddy] shops after fishing,’ explains Magline. ‘Then they come home and expect to have their wife receive them with a smiling face. There are conflicts – the couple become estranged. The man beats his wife. This happens in most families.’

The fights are often over money. Most families live below the poverty line – and Catholic fishing families tend to be large. ‘Women need money for children, for sending them to school. Sometimes men do not want to give money for this so there is more conflict. Women talk to each other and sometimes a group of women will meet with a man who is beating his wife and try to reason with him.’

Dusk is falling as we make our way through a narrow maze of dense habitation and tropical vegetation to the house of Arojia Mary, President of the Vizhinjam Fisherwomen’s Co-operative Society. The coconut trees sway in the breeze that’s coming off the sea at last, and the crows’ squawks get ruder as the sun goes down.

Arojia is an energetic, open-faced woman of 40. Her name means ‘bearer of strength’, she declares. As she talks people gather. First her children, then her children’s friends, then her neighbours and her neighbours’ neighbours. Soon this intimate interview on her small verandah has an audience of about 50 people, listening quietly save for the slapping of mosquitos.

She talks about her work – how she arranges literacy classes, helps arrange low-interest loans and deals with social problems like domestic violence. But she also talks frankly about how her family are up to their necks in debt since her husband lost his plywood boat at sea.

What does she want most in life? ‘A regular income and government jobs for my children,’ she replies.

Night falls as Arojia talks and someone ignites an oil lamp. The light and shade playing over the listeners’ faces creates an atmosphere of magical concentration. Then a gentle rain begins to fall and we pile into her two-roomed house – with its coconut-leaf roof and rough mud bricks. Inside are pictures of Sacred Hearts and Virgin Marys.

As always, it’s the conversation that takes place once the tape recorder is switched off that’s the most illuminating. At this point Arojia reveals her deepest worry: how to raise a dowry and find a husband for her 19-year-old daughter Panirma. The young woman – who has learning difficulties – sits in the doorway. All eyes are on her. She looks excruciatingly embarrassed. This must be hell for her.

It’s time for the inevitable question to me: are you married? No, I reply. How old are you? 37. There is a sharp intake of breath all round. You’re 37 and you’re not married! Why not?

This is tricky! I mumble something about not wanting to marry. The incredulity mounts. I talk about independence and freedom of movement.

This strikes a chord. One woman asks whether women in my country are allowed to go about on their own. I say, yes, then ask them about their experience.

‘Before we started the fisherwomen’s society we could not go to other towns alone,’ says Arojia. ‘If we wanted to go anywhere we had to get our husband’s consent. Now we go all over the place. We are even planning a trip to Sri Lanka. Now I simply inform my husband and children that I am going somewhere on Co-operative business – I don’t ask their permission.’

This is not an official part of the Co-op’s agenda – but it has probably had a greater impact on these women’s lives than anything else.

We spend a night, filled with the noisy revels of returning fishermen, in the house of a man called Nelson. Dawn finds two men hawking toddy from house to house and two others sharing a newspaper while children stand on rooftops brushing their teeth.

Arojia Mary, 'bearer of strength' and President of the Women's Co-op.

It’s time to go down to the beach. We pass a large colourful church; across the bay a huge pink mosque shimmers in the early morning sun. The fishermen are coming out of the sea, chanting as they drag boats and nets. It’s unbelievably picturesque.

There are an awful lot of people on the beach – and very few fish. The women who have come to buy fish are disappointed. The atmosphere is tense – but people seem to quite welcome the distraction of having their photos taken.

Then something happens which sharply brings home to me how disruptive a foreigner taking photographs can be. I’m taking a close-up of a man mending nets. His friend comes up to me and insists on payment. It’s not happened up to now but seems fair enough. I ask Nelson how much I should give. ‘Nothing!’ he says, categorically. But surely, I remonstrate… ‘Don’t give him anything!’ he insists. The man starts abusing Nelson. Mamanies comes up and faces the man who wants payment. They stand centimetres apart, eyeball to eyeball, both seething. Fisticuffs seem imminent. Oh my God, what have I started here?

Magline suggests we move away and explains that the man I photographed is a Muslim and his friend is demanding payment because he thinks the Christians are onto some kind of money-making racket involving foreigners.

‘Don’t worry,’ she says. But I’m not convinced until we are joined by Nelson and Mamanies. I quiz the latter about relations between the different religious communities. It’s okay, he says: if there are problems the communal leaders can usually sort it out.
I leave Vizhinjam thinking about how much has been achieved here but also how precarious it still is. How easily this paradise slides into a purgatory of penury. How easily fishers may go out at night and come back craftless – or not at all. And how delicately balanced is the communal harmony that can be upset with the click of a camera – here on the edge of the land, on the margins of a sea with ever-fewer fish and menacing monsoon rollers.

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