July 06, 2005

270, 270

In Nagapattinam, a grubby little road with a railtrack beside it leads to the port area and to Akkarapettai. Beyond the track is a creek, which is lined with dozens – hundreds? – of boats: the town’s fishing fleet. But today, the boats don’t interest me. It’s what’s between that creek and the road that’s interesting. Three things.

First, the day’s catch is in. Nearer the boats are several men in a close clump, from inside which a small, very busy and very bearded man emerges every now and then, crate of fish on his head, running across the debris and the track to a truck where he loads the crate. Then he returns and disappears into the clump for the next load.

Surrounding the clump are several women, most sitting down with baskets and waiting. For what? I soon find out. The first indication I get of what they are here for is when I hear an old woman near me saying, in a hoarse voice that’s nevertheless loud and clear, “One hundred and sixty!” In Tamil, you understand. Then she says it again. And again. Over and over, “160! 160! 160!” Suddenly, a woman seated next to her says something to her quietly, and the first woman changes her call. “170!” she says. “170! 170! 170!” And suddenly again, notes appear as if by magic in the second woman’s hand, they change hands, and I notice the collection of prawns that move from first woman to second.

An auction. Minutes later, it happens again, this time over a handsome shark. A much younger woman starts with “250! 250! 250!” and is up to 270 when we leave. By the time we pass the truck, the shark is already there, delivered by the busy bearded man. Deal must have got closed.

Second, there’s a constant hammering sound all around. That comes from several large boats that are lined up here, towering above the women, their tsunami-caused damage being repaired. We haul ourselves up, via precarious scaffolding and hanging rope, into one, owned by startlingly young-looking Kumar. He has three men at work on the deck, and with a chisel, they are hammering little bits of cotton waste into the tiny spaces between the beams that form the deck. Why? “To protect against leaks,” they tell me. This way, water won’t seep through those cracks and little spaces.

Small sad smile on his face, Kumar tells me that after the tsunami, the boat wasn’t here. It was picked up by the wave and flung where boats should never be. A large crane brought it here so that he could repair it. I assume that when it’s ready, he’ll launch it into the creek and go out to sea that way? “No”, says Kumar. “It’s too big for the creek.” When he’s ready, which he thinks will be in another four days, he’ll have to hire a big truck – “one with big tyres”, he says in Tamil – to take the boat down the road and to the port area. That little operation will cost him 12,000 rupees. The price all the owners of all the under-repair boats here will have to pay.

Third, there’s a long line of trucks here. Idly, I note down their numbers. There’s TN 28 V 0991, TDO 6669, PKP 9 M 004, TN 28 F 1602, PKP 9 M 042 … Wait a minute. The PKPs are not trucks, they are boats. One lying listlessly on its side. Both deposited here by a great angry wave. Boats that now line up with the trucks that come here every day.

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