The Kasimedu fishing harbour is located on the northern end of Chennai. The harbour accomodates 1,395 fishing boats and also doubles as a ship building facility.
The lonely alleyway bears no hint of an approaching dawn. The sky is dark and dimensionless, and the tall, flickering street lamps paint the landscape of straw huts and crumbling housing projects a deep shade of orange. With each step, the smell of salt and fish grows deeper, and in crooked corners and dingy crevices, it mangles with urine to create an unmistakable olfactory memory.
In less than a hundred meters, the sea will reveal itself, and its slender stretch of wharf will bustle with fishermen and dead fish. I walk quickly through the alleyway, unwilling to take on the legendary notoriety of Kasimedu. This trouble-laden neighborhood, on the periphery of the south Indian metropolis of Chennai, is home to a fishing community of five thousand people. But it’s not the fear of sliced fish that has left my hands in a sweaty mess and my heart in a pounding frenzy — it’s the fear of a sliced throat.
Kasimedu has a reputation in the city; it’s known to harbor gang wars, drug peddlers, and all-round thugs. I’ve read discomforting stories about mid-sea murders and dumped bodies being swept ashore. This is my third time here, and much like an eyebrow wax –- it doesn’t get better with time. My ears feel toasty, yet it’s nearly not warm enough for the tiny puddles of sweat above my lip. I remind myself that I’ve done worse things for a picture. A steady uprising of violent headlines begins in my head — they all start with “The girl who couldn’t run fast enough” and end with variations of the word “dead.”
Seven minutes in, I’ve power-walked to the shore — all body parts in tow.
It’s 5.30 A.M and the last of the fishermen return from the sea on boats, large and small. I wade through hundreds of straw baskets, heaped with fish and ready to be transported to markets and warehouses. I head to my favorite viewing spot, the first floor terrace of the Harbor Management Committee’s office. The door is unlocked, as usual. I walk across the room and up the stairs, to the balcony with a panoramic view of the harbor.
I take a few quick pictures, when a male voice booms from behind.
“You came alone?” he asks.
The voice belongs to a middle-aged man. He’s dressed in a shirt that is a little too snug; his buttons look like they are about to pop. He wears a lungi, a man skirt knotted at the centre of his bulging belly which further exaggerates his disproportionate mid-section, making him look like three-scoops of ice cream on a wafer cone.
“Yes. I came alone,” I tell him. He gives me the either-your-parents-are-dead or either-they’re-crazy look.
“These drunk fellows are no good. They won’t do anything. But still, bring a man along next time.” I nod.
He tells me he’s the president of the committee, and then from on top of his one floor castle, he gives me a visual tour of the fish business.
“Do you see that man? The one in the purple shirt,” he asks.
“He’s a millionaire,” he says.
I spot him, a bearded middle-aged man in bland trousers and a creased shirt, his feet half-submerged in a pit of mud, water, and dead fish.
“He has several ships and sales worth millions. You think you can’t make money being a fisherman. If you work hard, don’t drink, and have only one wife, you can make lots of money. But these fellows will never learn.”
He pauses to adjust his lungi and continues, “My daughter is an engineer, my son also an engineer.”
“What do you do?” he asks.
I’m a photographer, I tell him. He pauses, and a feeble, more air than sound filled, “oh” escapes his mouth. I’ve seen that look –- the Indian parent side-eye –- the “oh-you-mean-you-voluntarily-chose-the-arts” look.
His gaze shifts to the naked ship across the wharf, as men tinker away on its steel frame. Even stripped down to its bones, the ship is large and intimidating, hovering over smaller catamarans. I ask him if he owns one.
“That’s smaller than my ship,” he says, “ Mine has a TV and toilets.” His fifteen-member crew has been sailing for a fortnight in deeper waters to bring back tons of profitable King Mackerels –- a sought-after export.
“Do you like fish?” he asks. I’ve had fish for breakfast I tell him. “Then when my ship comes back, I will give you the best mackerel. Free. Give me a missed call,” he directs. I oblige.
His polyphonic, futuristic, ring tone sounds like a hammered R2D2 on karaoke night. He saves my number and hurries down the staircase. He has a business to run. I realize I have the habit of meeting the right kind of people in the wrong kind of places.