extract from Joe D’Cruz’s Tamil novel THE OCEAN-RIMMED WORLD

This is the opening chapter of Tamil novelist Joe D’Cruz‘s first work of fiction, AazhiSoozh Ullagu (The Ocean-Rimmed World) translated by V. Geetha Published in 2004, on the eve of the tsunami that devastated Tamil Nadu’s coast, the novel unfolds as a series of events, tales and meditations on the sea, fisher life and the coast, over a period of time, from the early decades of the 20th century to the 1980s.
R. N. Joe D’Cruz

V. Geetha had translated the 600+ page novel in 2013 and it was all set for publication when Mr C’Cruz announced his support for Narendra Modi’s candidature as the prime ministerial candidate and for the BJP. This upset the translator and she withdrew her translation and decided not to offer it for publication. She has however continued to reflect on her decision since the novel tells a rich and layered tale and is a great testimony to the lives of fishers, their imagination, powers of endurance and their love of the sea.

V Geetha
At a time, when the southern coast of Tamil Nadu is reeling under the impact of the destructive cyclone, with over 1000 fishers gone missing, the opening pages of the novel reminds us of lives that are essentially precarious, and yet lived with verve and imagination. This is the occasion for the publication of these pages from the novel.

 

17 July Wed 1985

Everywhere, on all sides, there was water. The sun’s rays were in retreat against a distant horizon. Far away, beneath a red sky, the sea lay sprawled, a lazy blue expanse. Its ebb and flow becalmed, it seemed at rest. A mild wind blew from the east towards the west. A catamaran with three men on it moved, in rhythm to the gentle sway of the sea. Old Man Godhra, a cloth wound around his head like a turban, looked this way and that. As far as the eye could see, there was not another catamaran anywhere.

The wind ruffled the waters and sent them into a ripple. Seagulls glided along the sea’s wrinkled surface. Godhra watched, entranced by wave and bird. The sea was green and yet also dusky blue, especially in the distance, but now it seemed to be turning black. Darkness took over. To the east, the lamp from the Manappadu lighthouse was a sharp shaft of light.

They had cast their nets five times, but not even a single fish was to be had. Now, for the sixth time, they had let the nets drift, and were getting ready to haul them back in. It was the night of the new moon, but pinpricks of light emanating from the sea- glow lit up parts of the sea. Soosai was busy pulling in the melvalai, the upper net and Siluvai the lower net, the madivalai. The lengths of net that they dragged up were left to lie on the deck, the nadumaram.

“Eyyah! Watch out for sea-snakes when you heave the nets in. “

“Siluvai! Careful!”

“If you get bitten, there’s no cure at hand. And you’ll probably die before we reach the shore. So, watch out!”

As the nets came up, the muddied and discoloured water that swirled below exuded a disgusting smell, enough to turn one’s insides out. Since the east-west current stayed constant, Godhra stood at the back of the boat wielding both oars alternately to keep the catamaran from being tossed this way and that.

Neither tall nor short, fair-skinned, with a few wrinkles etched in his flesh, Godhra was around 70 years old. Pock-marked, dimple-cheeked and with an enchanting smile, he probably made many a woman’s heart beat faster when young. Though a fisher from the age of ten, on this trip he was a coolie who accompanied Soosai.

“Sea smells of algae…” he said.

“Yes, looks like the wind has changed direction.”

“Soosai, the current will too, shortly. Besides, it looks like rain. We should make for the shore. No time to be lost.”

“The sky is alit, illumined…” pointed out Soosai, seated on the rolled up nets on the nadumaram, and chewing betel nut and leaf.

“It’s a starlit sky, but there’s no other light visible. I can’t see a thing down there!” Godhra sounded worried, as he stood astern and steered the catamaran towards the shore.

“It’s dark. All around us!” Siluvai added.

“Old man, it’s late, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Soosai! When we dropped the nets in, the east-west current kept steady, no wonder the maram drifted so.”

“Maama! Should we keep a south-east course, and later unfurl the sails…”

“Soosai! Siluvai’s got it right. I’ll loosen the sail-rope and the mast-line. You two stretch the sail. Siluva! Rest the mast against your shoulder and hold the sail across. Run the rope from mast and sail to the peg twice through!”

“Old Man, tighten the sail-rope, but leave the mast-line somewhat loose. Siluva! Slide out the plank from near the bow. And old man, you pull apart the planks at the back. Don’t forget, Siluva, to pick up the dripping oars to wet the sail.”

Both sea and wind moved to an even cadence, and the catamaran sailed smoothly.

***

There were a million different stars in the sky. The Ship and Crab constellations were well marked and bright.

“The Cross is yet to descend!” Siluvai sounded perplexed.

“That happens only with the advent of the morning star.” explained Soosai.

“What time do you think it is, Maama?”

“Around midnight? Am I right, old Man?”

“Must be so. Shall we coast along to the shore?”

“We should. Old man, hold down the sail-rope and mast-line. Siluva! Unwind the line from the peg to the mast and sail, and let it run singly.”

From nowhere a mass of clouds appeared and clothed the sky. The wind changed direction, and they felt a chill descend on them.

“We’ve lost the starlight too!”

“Old Man, I can see the twin peaks of Kalakkadu. Set the bow straight against them and steer along.”

The twin peaks of Kallakaadu were the tallest in the region and those out on the sea used them to set course and mark their direction. Paravas who plied the ocean in these parts kept these peaks straight ahead of the bow or to east and west of the maram, as the case may be, as they steered their craft to their particular destinations.

“Maama! The Cross is now face to face with the Crab!” pointed out Siluvai.

“Must be past one, Siluvai. Grandpa can’t see as well as before, and so it’s up to you to keep track of the stars!” said Soosai.

“Soon you’ll see the mercury lamps in our Church! At least we have those now. In those days, we had no electricity. We’d burn turtle fat in a turtle shell and leave it on the shore, to illumine the dark and guide those out on the sea. We’d catch its glow as we came in from the east and then set course. But if it rained or there was a wind, the turtle lamp blew out. Things are so much easier now!”

“Is this why our village’s called Amanthurai – the turtle village?”

“No, not because of that. The graveyard, you know where it is, don’t you? Well, in the upland shore next to it, you’d find turtles in the summer. They come up from the sea in large groups. Hundreds of them, and they lay their eggs there. So, maybe that’s why they call our village, Amanthurai.”

“Thanks to the parish priest, the new one, we have these mercury lamps today! Would be difficult if we didn’t have even those!” said Siluvai.

“Well, if that gang which sets out to catch pigeons has kept off the Church spires, those lights will be spared. Otherwise, they’ll get smashed and that’s the end of that.”

“Soosai, your wife Mary never misses morning service, I know. So what does she have to say about the new priest?”

“Old man, he is around forty, I’d say. People say he’s highly educated, isn’t that what they say, Siluvai?”

“He’s studied in Rome or some such place. Soon as he came back, they sent him to our parish, I heard. Mutti told me so, Maama!”

“Old Man, they say he’s from a city family, one of the old upper class, you know, Mesaikkara families!”

“Maama, the priest is the one who rings the morning bell these days, not our bell-crier, Melinji! I also heard that all the big men in the village are now trapped…”

“How do you mean, Siluvai?”

“Soon as he became priest, he started asking questions about the auctions at St Anthony’s Church…”

“That’s what I call a good striking blow! Soosai, do you have betel nuts to spare? My throat feels parched!”

Soosai who was standing akimbo on the nadumaram turned and bent down to the woven palm box in which he kept his wares, opened it and handed a betel nut to Godhra. Men on the high seas were given to chewing betel nut, but this was no mere habit. They did so to stave off hunger.

“Son, continue, but keep an eye on the sea!” said Godhra.

“So, he asked them to produce accounts for the auctions that have taken place until now. He’s also made it clear that he does not want women – those that belong to the Mariyani brigade – selling stuff inside the Church premises – you know they sell offerings …”

“Well, that means they can’t get to munch peanut balls anymore and suck at ice-creams the way they do now – making good out of public goodwill…”

“Maama! You know nothing of what goes on in the village! Those days of peanut balls are gone! Those women not only make money, but lend it out, and charge huge interest rates.”

“Now they must be raging mad and sweating their backsides out!”

“Last week, they piled into a truck and went to Tuticorin. To see if they can get the priest replaced!”

“Has the priest got rid of our Manda Pillay as well?”

“Well, you know Manda Pillay – strutting around saying he’s sprucing up the Church, tidying the priest’s residence. He’d go off to the market to buy this and that and make money on the side. Well, that’s all over now. The priest’s put an end to that as well” explained Siluvai and then, abruptly, one hand on the sail and the other holding the mast, he changed the subject.

“Maama, do you see a light flashing on the shore?”

“Siluva! Smear these betel leaves with lime and hand them over to the old man!” Soosai handed Siluvai the palm-box and started to stuff the nets into the kotumal, the bag into which they were rolled and kept. The waves had borne them shoreward. The catamaran rode the waves, then dipped, and rose again, and they found themselves dripping wet from the fine sea-spray.

“Siluva! Careful with the sail. Hold tight to the mast!” cautioned Godhra.

“And, so, Siluvai, what about that school business?”

“Oh, you don’t know that story too? Last week, rather late at night, the priest walked past the school. Our Middle Street silambam players’ gang was out at that time – they’d stolen fowl from North Street and were busy frying the birds. Many were sozzled and just as they were relishing their stolen meat, the priest caught them. They started to run! Don’t laugh yet! One of them tripped – his own lungi did it – and fell down and the priest had to lift him up. And guess who that turned out to be?”

“Who, indeed?” Old Man Godhra was curious.

“The Maths teacher!”

“And so the fellow’s fucked now!” Soosai said approvingly.

The cloud-draped sky darkened even more and it began to rain. The mercury lights that had been visible so far faded from view.

“Looks like electricity’s gone!” muttered Godhra.

“Old man, Steer along, and towards that stream that runs straight down from the graveyard and we’ll touch shore at that point.”

“I thought I’d keep course to reach west of St Anthony’s Church!”

“Are you out of your mind? Don’t you know that last week, those chaps on Taazhaiyam’s maram who tried to do just that were thrown off by the surf and their vessel turned over! So why would you want to get there?”

“Siluvai, Soosai’s right. And now the sea’s got rough. I can’t see too well, and you lad, you’re young and so keep a watch out for those waves, and help me with these oars, okay?”

“I will, Old man,” replied Siluvai.

The minutes rolled by and they stayed quiet. Their catamaran was now on the aazhi, the point in the ocean where the rocks that ran along the sea bed from the shore ended, and where the waves are always in a tumult.

Suddenly, Soosai yelled out: “Old man, loosen the sail-rope and the mast-line. Siluva, to the rope line that links to the pegs! Take down the sail and rest it on your shoulders!” Soosai fussed around, and seemed in a hurry. “Siluva!” he called out again. “Pull out the plank at the bow. Old Man, have you pulled out those planks at the back?”

“Here’s a man who’s plied the sea before me! To the oars, I say!” Godhra yelled back angrily.

They went about their tasks involuntarily. Soosai who stood at the back and watched Godhra keep course observed: “Old man, we’ll keep an eye on the waves. You keep course, keep going straight!”

“Hey! There’s a giant wave coming at us. Don’t let the maram go under!”

“You two! Looks like we’ve hit the still-water line! Row us out of this! Oh, and did you remember to secure the kanji-can to the kotumal rope?”

“Holy Mother! Old man, that wave, it’s tall and coming at us. Hold the maram to course! Siluva! Row faster, keep the oar down!” Soosai yelled out instructions by the minute even as he rowed vigorously.

The catamaran cut through and sped along, nosing its way through the white spume of the wave and beyond where it formed a trough.

“Siluva! It’s a strong wind that’s taking us along. Gather the sail, and pack it up. We’ll go along without it.”

“Ele, Soosai, not a being on the shore, not a bird in sight!”

“Well, it’s late, isn’t it and so there’s no one…”

“That means we can’t haul the maram up the sands!” said Siluvai.

“We’ll anchor the maram and get to it in the morning.” said Godhra.

They were nearing the shore, and realized that the breakers were particularly wild where they hit the coast.

“Old man, the breakers are strongest at the sea-face, where the shore curves in. Careful now with the maram! Give me a minute or two! I’ll jump across with the nets, and return with the anchor” said Soosai and with Siluvai helping him carry the nets went ashore.

“Ele! Come as soon as you can. Not young anymore. Not a stitch on me, except for this loin-cloth. And this maram! How the waves knock at it! Been a while since they crashed against the arching shore like this… don’t know if I can hold on!” muttered Godhra.

Soosai and Siluvai walked ashore, and as they trudged upland were swallowed by the dark.

Time moved slowly while Godhra waited: “These two! What’s keeping them? What on earth are they up to?” Even before these words rolled off his irate tongue, a gigantic wave dashed against the curving line of rocks and as it receded, took Godhra and his catamaran with it. Soosai and Siluvai who were just then walking towards the maram, anchor in hand, were horrified by what they saw, and immediately dropped the anchor and ran towards the sea. By then the catamaran was further away. The two plunged into the waters and managed to get their hands on to the maram.

Wave upon wave tumbled over them. It began to rain and in the pitch-black night, they could not make out a thing. They were now in the deep sea and while they held on to the maram could neither get on board nor push it towards the shore. Suddenly, a tall wave tossed the catamaran away from them and into the wide stretch of the sea. For a while, nothing could be heard above the roaring waves.

“Eyyah! The current’s from land to sea now and the maram floats over the aazhi. Don’t climb onto it yet!” warned Godhra, who by then had managed to get off the maram and was swimming alongside them.

The maram collided with yet another wave that held it aloft and caused it to roll over on it side.

“Siluva! Don’t go near the maram. Stay away! Should another wave come upon it, it’s bound to throw it around!” yelled Soosai.

This time around the wave was ferocious and it caught the maram in its upswing and brought it down. The maram broke into pieces.

“Siluva! May you be safe! Keep off the maram!” Soosai was desperate.

The waves refused to relent and kept up their boom and burst. Sky and sea were yet an impenetrable black and they lost all sense of direction. Even before they could ride a wave, another took over and cast them into the whirling waters. They swam, ducked, almost drowned and swam again. The sea seemed in spate.

After a while, the sea’s clamour died down and it appeared waveless and very quiet.

“Maama! Maama!” called out Siluvai.

The undulating water and endless darkness made it impossible for each to see the other. Each time his head showed above the water, Siluvai screamed. At last, hoping against hope, he tried again:

“Maama! Where’re you? Can you see me at all?”

“Siluva!”

Siluvai turned in the direction of that voice. He saw a black huddle swaying with the flow and ebb of the sea.

“Siluva… eyyah!”

“Maama!” Siluvai’s relieved tone betrayed both fear and hope, as he swam towards Soosai and held him in a hug. Soosai felt the lad’s affection, his nearness. Siluvai’s hot tears warmed Soosai’s cheeks and he felt flush with love.

“Eyyah! I am alright!” he said gruffly, “But where’s the old Man? No sound of him!”

Siluvai trained his eyes into the dark. “Maama, on the eastern side, there!!”

“Yes, I see something, a black shape!”

They both swam towards the shape. As they got closer, they found Godhra, his head resting against a bark of wood that had got disengaged from the southern plank of the catamaran, and drifting along with it. The other two decided they would do likewise and soon all three were floating on the wide sea.

“Old man, Old man!”

Godhra did not reply. Soosai touched him on the head, and his fingers came away moist.

“Siluva! The old man’s hurt!”

Godhra floated along unconscious. The sea’s ebb and flow pitched the bark about and them along with it.

 

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