I first saw Palanivel (name changed) a full day after I was supposed to see him. Not that I knew I was supposed to see him, that first day. This man is the local "union councillor" in a small village called Naluvedapathy, about 15 km north of Vedaraniyam. That first day I am talking about, we turned up at a small community hall in the neighbouring village, Pushpavanam, for a function to distribute nets to 18 fishermen from the area. They had, of course, lost their nets 6 months ago, to the tsunami.
So we get to the hall. Several women are waiting for us, greet us warmly and give us water and biscuits. Someone hurries in with a list of the beneficiaries. An executive from the Bangalore-based company that bought the nets is here as well, to formally hand them over. The nets, or at least a few of them, are here too.
So why don’t we start? We wait. And wait. None of the beneficiaries is here. The list-carrier, Balamurali, is dispatched to get them. He returns trailing one – a shyly smiling 50-year-old called Vadivel – in his wake. No others. We wait some more. Another two fishermen trickle in; one of them, I notice idly, is limping slightly because he is missing a toe on his left foot.
We wait on. It’s hot, the executive has to get back to Bangalore and is getting worried … what’s going on?
Eventually, the function gets off the ground. The executive hands over nets to these three beneficiaries, and Balamurali is instructed to go from house to house tomorrow and give away the others. The fishermen look pleased, one of the woman makes a short speech in formal Tamil, and we disperse. The executive gets into his car, waves, and is off.
The next morning, we go to the panchayat office in Naluvedapathy. Why? For the net-distribution function. But didn’t we do it yesterday? Well yes, but councillor Palanivel was to have presided, and didn’t show up – which is why the long delay. (I had no idea that was the reason). It turns out that the councillor had insisted that he would decide who would get the nets; so he submitted a list of 14 fishermen to Balamurali and the Bangalore company. Someone – I was unable to figure out who – had added four names to the list, among whom were two men Palanivel didn’t like, which got him annoyed. This was why, or at least we had to presume this was why, he didn’t show up yesterday.
But today, he has sent a message that he wants to do the function over, and to preside. Even if the executive is not here. And since you have to keep on the good side of these men, the function will happen again.
So here we are. Vadivel, the man with the missing toe, and the third fishermen from yesterday, are all here. Balamurali is here with his list. The nets are here. A shiny Ambassador with a red and black AIADMK flag drives up, and Palanivel gets out of it.
I have to tell you, and forgive me my stereotypes, that this man is the picture of a Tamil politician: enormous handlebar moustache, white veshti with two stripes in red and black, white shirt, a green and blue shawl thrown over one shoulder, silver pen in his pocket, gold watch with three mini-dials on his wrist, cellphone in his hand, and – yes – photo of Jayalalithaa in his shirt pocket, the formidable visage visible formidably through the cloth.
He folds his hands to everyone around. Speaking to one of my colleagues on this trip, he offers a quick rundown of his political career. I hear him saying with a huge smile, "Amma chose me personally for that election…"
Then he sits down, summons the women and fishermen for a group photo, and the function begins. Balamurali makes a short speech, then Palanivel gets up and drones for 20 increasingly hot minutes. His Tamil is suddenly much too formal for me, though I do catch "America", "Mylapore" and "34" (said several times), none of which seem relevant to giving nets to fishermen, but then what do I know?
Eventually, he begins handing over the nets to the beneficiaries, Vadivel and the others who got theirs yesterday as well. (So somebody took back their nets so they could receive them again from Palanivel today). Through it all, Amma stares formidably through that shirt pocket.