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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January, 2005, 12:12 GMT
Tamil Nadu: A way of life at stake
The BBC's Charles Haviland
By Charles Haviland
BBC, India

On Tamil Nadu's Coromandel coast, fishing has been a way of life for thousands of years.

But the tsunami has caused such devastation and trauma that many fear their beloved industry will never truly recover.

Wrecked boats on Nagapattinam harbour
The devastation on Nagapattinam harbour is clear to see

Before the wave struck on 26 December, Ragunathan worked as a fisherman. But not any more.

Now he stays crammed, with 1,500 other people, into a former wedding hall in Nagapattinam, a refugee in his own town.

When the tsunami came, Ragunathan lost consciousness. He does not know how he lived.

His family survived but his two best friends perished.

"I am scared of the sea now," the 26-year-old told me. "I will not go any more. I will try to get a job in town."

I can never live here again... This place is a graveyard now
Thanuskodi, a local woman
It was the same for Thanuskodi, weeping by the harbour.

She had lost two of her children. Her other three children and her fisherman husband were missing.

"I can never live here again," she said. "This place is a graveyard now."

But at the same time she fears the loss of livelihood for this community.

Apart from fishing, we know nothing else, she and countless others told me.

An epic tale

Here on India's Coromandel coast - until last week at least - if you walked along a beach you would see fishermen mending nets and preparing to go out to sea in catamarans, which is a Tamil word meaning three or four logs lashed together.

Fishermen take out a catamaran into the sea for fishing at Nagappattinam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu
Before the wave most of these people lived off the sea

Fishing here goes back thousands of years.

It was already a way of life in the legendary time of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, when the demon king Raavana crossed this water to his lair in Sri Lanka, abducting Sita, the adored wife of the god Rama.

Classical Tamil poems two millennia old celebrate the fisherman's life. On this coast they fish not only for food: in some areas, for pearls, too.

But many of Tamil Nadu's fishing communities were becoming downtrodden.

Their caste status has always been low. They were facing additional hardship because, with the seas being over-fished, new restrictions on their trade were coming into play, driving them into deeper waters.

Many of these villages, dominated by huts built of coconut palm, were anything but idyllic; cramped and lacking in sanitation. Yet they still gave the fisher-folk immediate access to the source of their livelihood: the sea.

Unimaginable horror

Despite the horrors of the tsunami, many fishermen do dream of returning to their trade.

We will return to fishing, but the government must first improve coastal defences
Chelladurai, local fisherman

Forty-year-old Chelladurai lives in a place of unimaginable horror at Nambiar Nagar, a hamlet north of Nagappattinam.

There at least 100 infants were swept to their death when they tried vainly to take refuge in a cyclone shelter.

Beside a mockingly beautiful turquoise sea, Chelladurai told me his son used to play on the beach, but was now frightened to come there.

He himself would come to the ruins of his home by day, but after sunset would go back to his camp.

"We will return to fishing," he told me, "but the government must first improve coastal defences."

'No life but the sea'

In another flattened hamlet, where cremation pyres still burned, another, older fisherman, Ramakannan, was convulsed with sobbing but was even more determined.

Tsunami debris burns on the beaches of southern India
The locals say they need time and money to recover properly
"The sea is my god," he said. "We have no life but the sea. We have lost everything. But if we stop fishing, we will be reduced to begging. It would be better to die."

An old woman whose fisherman son was killed asked who could provide the community with any other job. "We are all fishers, and we will go back to it," she said.

It will need time and money. In the devastated fishing hamlet south of the marina beach in Madras (Chennai), boys from a fishing family showed me their house, which now consists of some sticks in the sand with brightly coloured garments draped over them.

Their father's catamaran was finished, they said, and no-one would want to buy or eat fish any more.

Their friend, Raghu, a fisherman, dismissed fears that the disaster had poisoned fish stocks.

But he would need at least 100,000 rupees - more than 1,000 - to replace his collection of nets, and a sum almost as large to repair his boat.

Twist of fate

Although most of those who died were fishing folk, not all were.

Those killed in Madras also included early morning joggers, swimmers and fitness buffs from among the city's elite.

It was the place where nine children playing cricket were among the first to lose their lives in the city
Near the fishing hamlet is the beach front where I used to wander with a friend, Manoj, and his gang in the evenings, stopping at stalls where they sold cola and mangoes sprinkled with jeera spice.

"Think. If it had happened in the evening we might have been washed away," said Manoj the other day.

It was the place where nine children playing cricket were among the first to lose their lives in the city.

Back there this week I met some youths with two baskets of plump fish.

They had caught them from a nearby river estuary, swimming and dragging the nets on their shoulders.

That may be the only fishing that goes on here for a long time to come. A way of life thousands of years old is at stake.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 6 January, 2005 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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