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Anjuly Mathai
Anjuly Mathai


Paper boats of life

48Fishermen Riding the wave: Fishermen at Kovalam in Tamil Nadu | Sanjoy Ghosh

Fishermen, surfers, ship breakers, turtle conservationists—meet the coastal natives for whom the sea is the centrepiece of their lives

  • According to a survey by Coastal Protection Development Advisory Committee, 30 per cent of Indian coast was affected by coastal erosion in 2012. The issue is largely unaddressed.

When I was young, we used to travel to Kovalam, a small coastal town in Kerala, almost every summer vacation. We would take the longer route so that we could stop at Kalpakavadi, because there was a restaurant there famous for its appam and egg curry. (The Malayalam film Lal Salam is based on the life of the owner of that restaurant.) We stayed in a hotel called Hotel Samudra in Kovalam. What I remember about that place are the open-air showers. I never got used to them. Even the smallest sound would have me running for cover. In the mornings, we would set out with a large beach umbrella. Those days, an umbrella cost the princely sum of Rs 90 a day. As the shade of the sun kept shifting, the umbrella would be plucked from one spot of the beach to the next. And then there was the sea itself, spewing waves with each majestic breath. First, we would let each wave chase us, and then, as it receded, we would chase it. And then, blissful surrender. Each step into the sea would bring with it a shaft of delight, along with the refrain from my mother not to go any further.

In a way, the sea is almost a character in my life. I’m a product of its sights and sounds—the half-dome of the horizon, the brawling waves, the contour-less sun, the distant blending of sea and sky, lying buffeted on the salt water and watching the clouds bob up and down. But it will never be for me what it is for those who live on the coast. They have, in a way, internalised it. For them, the sea is not a sight or a sound, it is a way of life. They don’t care about its external beauty. After all, one doesn’t eat bread because it is beautiful. They are born of the sea and they would be rudderless and adrift without it.

“The peculiar thing about us is that we’ll never leave here or change our profession no matter how dire our situation,” a fisherman from the coastal village of Nattika in Kerala told me.

Then there are those who derive an intense joy from the sea, like the surfers and the hippies. Theirs is not the natural adoration of the fishermen but a more consciously cultivated pleasure. They have tasted the ocean and got hooked to its heady sensations.

“When you go inside a wave, it’s like a crystal cylinder,” a surfer and hippie told me in Gokarna, Karnataka. “Time stands still inside that wave. It is like a revelation. Surfers will search all over the world for that experience.” There was a time when hippies would congregate on the beaches of Goa and Gokarna. “A whole bunch of us would come together, have big feasts and chant on the beaches,” he told me. “In that way, India is a bit like the last frontier which hasn’t yet been tapped fully.”

It is sad to think that those beaches which were a melting pot of the hippie culture might soon be a thing of the past. India has more than 7,000 kilometres of coastline stretched across nine states, two Union territories and two island territories. According to a survey conducted by the Coastal Protection Development Advisory Committee, 30 per cent of the Indian coast was affected by coastal erosion in 2012. The issue is largely unaddressed. A documentary produced by Shekar Dattatri points out that over 300 new ports are being planned, an average of one port every 20 kilometres. Most of these ports are unnecessary and will trigger erosion on a scale never seen before. If we are not careful, sandy beaches in India might soon become a memory.

Then what would become of all the coastal natives? What would happen to the workers who live in the ship-breaking yards of Alang in Gujarat? What would happen to those who live in the missile village of Chandipur who come out in large numbers to watch missiles getting launched from there with a massive whistling sound. They are proud to live there without understanding what exactly these missiles signify.

In a way, life on the coast of India is much like life elsewhere—a juggling act of joys and pains and fears. But in another way, coastal life takes place in the backdrop of the sea and that makes all the difference. People here have an almost mythical belief that the sea will take care of them. Most of us are striving to be someone who we know we are not. But when you surrender your individuality to an entity much larger than yourself, you cease to strive. Instead, you just are. They too have secrets and fears and joys and hopes. But they’ve floated them like paper boats into the sea. Even in the raging storms of life, they believe their paper boats will stay afloat.

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