July 14, 2005

Take these knives

At Nagapattinam, we watch the day's catch haggled over by a gaggle of women and men. Large prawns, sharp-toothed red fish, a small shark and ... and lying on the ground, a large grubby pile of what's called "trash fish". Little ones, smaller shrimp, some unidentifiable shapes, all brought up by indiscriminating nets and piled here while the more valuable fish go on the block.

So what happens to the trash fish, now long dead? Do they throw it all back in the sea?

No, and it's not long before I see for myself what happens to them. Walking across the bridge into neighbouring Akkarapettai, several young men cycle speedily past me, carrying filled baskets. Trash fish from the boatyard, which Nity tells me they will dry; it will then be turned into poultry feed.

About 30 minutes later, I'm on the fringe of the vast area I remember well from last New Year's Eve, the smell- and smoke- and slush-ridden expanse where we could count bodies that evening like we could count Frooti packets. Today too, it's nearing dusk when I get there; I notice idly that the sun is in an entirely different direction than it was then.

This evening, there are brahmini kites and crows wheeling overhead, much dust in the air, little new shacks dotting the area that's no longer slushy, but resembles a gigantic trash dump nevertheless. All around, there are women working with the trash fish. Here they've laid it out to dry on the ground, which attracts the crows. There they set up screens at an angle and pour the dry fish onto them, sieving out the real trash, and this pouring is the reason for the clouds of dust.

Seeing me, several women call out. I walk over and they surround me, begin telling me nobody has noticed their plight, nobody has given them anything, we had houses here that got washed away, we lost our boats, we don't have anything to do except this with the fish, what's to become of us ... one, a handsome 40-year-old called Rajavalli, starts weeping: great round drops rolling down her face and dropping off her chin, her broad shoulders heaving. Take these knives, she says, and kill us!

I listen, that's about all. Later, as I'm walking away, I hear something and turn to look. Framed against the setting sun, Rajavalli is now heaving with laughter.

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