A Fisherman Story
It’s one of those bottle-able mornings in Pondicherry. Quiet, breezy, and until the sun returns to his glowering ways, perfectly, wonderfully cool. A lovely day to make some new friends.
We live amidst the notorious “fishermen” off-center from Pondicherry town: that part that’s neither “white town” [where the French once resided] nor “black town” [where wealthier Tamil traders resided] but the “village” that adjoins both. Here are a series of kuppams or fishing villages that lay on the seashore: Kurusu-kuppam [where the lower caste Christians lived], Vaithikuppam, Angalakuppam and on, each named after headmen or local deities or the composition of its residents.
The way the story of this town is told, nobody wanted to live here. Many still don’t. It’s as though these areas are marked as undesirable outposts, unfit for the urban gentry. There’re no heritage buildings to safeguard here. The gardens and dense banana thickets that once gave Vazhakulam (slightly west of the Kurusukuppam) its name are barely in our collective memories. This is no nagaram (நகரம்) or settlement of any repute. When I gave my address to an aunt in Tirunelveli district–who has never been here–she laughed. “Kuppa-thila irrukiya?” she asked, teasingly. “Do you really live in a kuppam?”
The rapid urbanization which forced these erstwhile village and farming areas into the Pondicherry jurisdiction has not brought equal benefits here. The gardens are going or gone, and thoughtlessly built “government quarters” segregate the “poor” in housing tenements. We don’t get the fancy cobbled streets, nor the granite-clad promenade. There are no parks or spaces for public gathering. Garbage collection is a problem. Open drains are a bigger problem here than in the main canal that separates white from black towns. But above all, the story goes, the fishermen are a problem.
Notorious for being bold, brash, intensely clanish and fiercely protective of their own, manipulative, and pugilistic–but a powerful electoral constituency–their reputation precedes them. Most people we know have a “fishermen” story or two: an encounter which turned ugly in an instant, blood-spattered birds left on doorsteps as threats, money extracted for mistakes exaggerated into grievous wrongs. And these assessments are not just elite constructions. Ask anyone in Pondicherry not from the fishermen community, and you’ll get the same story.
The area of Kurusukuppam into which we moved tells the story of Pondicherry’s kuppams in miniature form. This community was nestled in a virtual garden-of-Eden, complete with coconut trees, wild undergrowth, and cobra-hunting mongoose. But then, overnight, the trees were felled, the brush burned, and a new government tenement block known as the “tsunami quarters” appeared at our very doorstep–just shy of a decade after the 2004 tsunami, I might add.
The idea of living in such close proximity to “the fishermen” was admittedly cause for some concern. What if there was an encounter? We’d imagine, and shudder. We’d flip-flop like fish out of water, second-guessing ourselves and noticing that the “fishermen” row of semi-permanent dwellings nearby was among the cleanest streets in the area. But the “what if”s and the fights that seemed to break out spontaneously, all public and loud on the roads, kept us cautious.
But then, of course, there are the fish.
“I saw her drive up in the car and I didn’t know if she speaks Tamil,” the one woman with a basin full of today’s catch said. “But she came right away, and she speaks such nice Tamil.”
Was that all it took? A little attention, a little language?
We needed to get to know each other now. What did she have? How much was it? She had squid and shrimp, too, and ideas about how they should be prepared.
The three vanjaram (seerfish, or Indo-Pacific mackarel) were Rs. 900 for a kilo, she said. The crowd that gathered was quiet; all attention was turned to me. I played the naive ethnographer–though it is true what I said, it’s really only my veettu-karar Verne (man of the house, Verne) and the boys who eat fish. “I don’t know if that’s the right rate,” I offered. Turning to our neighbor, who’d also arrived on the scene: “How much would you pay?”
“These fish cost about Rs. 600/kilo,” he said. “What she’s asking is too much. Plus the fish are too small” And, much to my surprise, the sister of the woman selling the fish agreed. “Yes, she added, what he says is right–too small, and the rate is 600/kg.”
I asked for Rs. 150 worth of shrimp instead. She pulled out her அரிவாண்மணை (arivāṇ-maṇai: literally, knife fixed to a wooden block) to de-scale and clean fish my neighbor had bought. Her sister sat down to devein my shrimp. We spent the next half hour chatting. How did they cook these? Which were good for frying?
A group gathered around, soon enough, and I realized that although I knew none of them, they knew me. They’d seen me walking, they’d seen me driving my son to school. They knew he needed to be picked up at 11:30 am, and that we returned home at 6:30 pm. Now they could ask my name, and when I told them: “Oh! தமிழ் பெயர்!” they exclaimed. “It’s a Tamil name.”
I’ve been promised more fish and better catches, when I want them. I learned that one never (ever) put onions into a Vanjaram fry, but uses a mix of flours (gram and rice) to get the fish a nice crisp coating. I learned that vegetables like brinjal and drumstick are lovely in மீன் குழம்பு (meen kuzhambu, or a tamarind-based gravy). I learned that “gravy” preparations are all about getting the right garlic-ginger-onion-tomato sauciness. I learned that the shrimp I had bought should never be simmered for too long, and that I had enough for two meals–so they were consumed in very small quantities.
All told, however, I’m not going to romanticize this encounter, because I know that a propensity for belligerence gels only too well with local goonda-rowdy politics, and can cause immense disruption. “Area boys” form a local loading-unloading mafia who are a constant source of anxiety for anyone moving things — boxes, building materials, personal belongings — into the kuppams. Someone is always on the lookout, and a cellphone network signals alarms and people arrive at the right location any time they feel their interests to be threatened. We’ve seen it happen, technologically enabled, only too often.
But somewhere at my core I’m happy to be recognized as part of this community that demands of me as much as it claims me, and to find that there are simple ways into it. I’m happy that there was time, one cool Pondicherry morning, and a little space on the road for a conversation about fish and food.