January 07, 2005

Barnacle underwater

Palanivel, whose love story Amit wrote about, tells me he was fishing in the Upannar river when the wave came. In fact, he has just returned from fishing this morning as well, and his silvery, muscular catch gleams in the sun at our feet. Some 35 sleek fish, their eyes glaring lifelessly up at me: the fruit of 3 hours on the river. He will eat these, preserving a few for times when he is ill and can’t fish. Though if he did sell them, he’d make about Rs 60, he says.

Where do you fish, Palanivel, I ask, that day and now? He points upstream, to a sort of structure I can see dimly in the distance. Near there. I turn and look downstream, where I can see a factory about 200 yards away. Why not in that direction, I ask idly.

Palanivel wrinkles his nose. Well, he says, that factory has thrown a lot of stones into the water right there. (Being a chemical factory, it also causes a godawful stink in the air, but that’s another story). Also, they had a low compound wall, and over the years the river has changed course slightly and covered the wall. There are pipes in the water too. Because of all this, it is difficult to fish and navigate our boats there. The barnacles on the stones and bricks cut our nets, and even our feet if we put them down into the water without thinking. So nobody goes there to fish.

What happened when the wave came, I ask Palanivel. He was swept off his boat, but since he was fairly close to the shore, he only floundered about in the water, then managed to catch a catamaran log and hold on to it until he found his way to land. Whereupon he ran away as fast as he could. He only came back home after 2 hours, which is how long he says the water stayed high before receding.

I’m suddenly struck by a possibly irrelevant thought. What if Palanivel had indeed been fishing downstream, near that factory? What would floundering around in the water have done to him? Barnacles, after all, are razor-sharp. And feet – even fishermen’s leathery feet – slice easily.

It’s irrelevant, but it makes me shudder.

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