“ Can you see that light, madam ? It has seven bulbs.” Balu points across the vast expanse of waters to a long horizontal contraption with outstretched rods. ”That’s a Cheena vala,” he says, referring to the Malayalam word for the Chinese fishing net believed to be brought into Kerala by the 14th century Chinese mariner, Zheng He.
I am at the Ashtamudi Lake , near Kollam sailing around the islands .Balu is from the local resort and is accompanying me on my morning cruise.He speaks fluent Tamil and Hindi and says he picked it up from the tourists .
The entire water scape is littered with these shore operated stationary nets. Long metallic and wooden rods jut out into the waters ,held in place by ropes. We sail a bit closer to take a look. The structures are more than 10 metres high .The rods stretch out as the birds perch on them and nets are outstretched on them.
Balu explains the process and says that fishing usually starts in the night. A net can be operated by a team of about five fishermen. They normally lower the net and submerge it at a certain depth. The lights suspended from these rods are placed on the surface of the waters and are used to attract the fish and crustaceans. The electric cable stretches out from the fishermen’s homes from the bank to the contraption .
“You can find more than 1000 of them ,” he says referring to the Chinese fishing nets . Popular in Kochi, , they are used by the local fishermen here to catch mainly prawns and crabs. Balu tells me that on a lucky night, the catch can be anything around 4-10 kgs.
We move on passing islands and islanders as Balu points out to “seacrows” .These cormorants were perched on the rods that were immersed in water. “This is Karimeen fishing,” he says referring to the pearl spot fish which is a delicacy in the backwaters.According to him the fishermen promote breeding and even cultivate “fish sanctuary.”He shows me the fish which is probably the size of the palm .
“The fishermen , even women catch by hand,” explains Balu , “We call it Vellavali.”I ask him about the rods and he explains that they are stems replanted on the waters . The fish he says feed on the leaves of plants that are littered below the surface .Stems are placed above the water and the nets are cast around them to catch them in the night. I listen fascinated as Balu tells me that lanterns are used by the fisher folk and karimeen auctions happen early in the morning .
It is Sunday and the backwaters are silent. It is a five day week for the fishing community. As we sail back, Balu sums up ,” There are different kinds of specialists for various varieties of fish and each technique is different from the other, even the nets ..” Its amazing, I thought how we take such simple things for granted.
The Inside Story is a fortnightly column published in the Metro Plus, The Hindu every Monday. Its not my story, but the story of the destination . I decided to reproduce some of my published columns and start a new series.