KANYAKUMARI: From the spot where she was sitting by the roadside, Patricia got up in a huff. With an expressionless tone she asked the customer to help her haul the heavy basket of fish on her head. As Patricia started to walk off the woman who was bargaining with her called out, “Why are you leaving? Let’s work out a price. I need to buy fish as there is nothing for lunch at home.” Turning back she said, “Madam, if I say anything to you, you will retort that Patricia is talking too much. I don’t want to fight with you but if you have to feed your children then so do I. How can you expect me to sell the catch at a loss? I paid Rs 200 for this fish and cannot give it away for less.”

Despite her rationale when the customer still insisted on negotiating a lower price Patricia had no choice but to give in. She knew that if she didn’t sell at her quoted price then Mary definitely would. Mary is Patricia’s direct competition and always waiting for her to make a mistake. Only the strongest threats and warnings from Patricia have kept Mary away from selling fish on her regular route. Moreover, a fisherwoman’s relationship with her customers is like her community’s relationship with the sea. She can never be angry for too long if she has to ensure the survival of her family. That is the rule of the game. After all, Patricia is aware of the fact that when she comes to the neighbourhood again the next morning the same customer will be there waiting for her.

It’s a hard life for fisherwomen like Patricia and Mary, who live along the Kerala-Tamil Nadu coast in the district of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. From dawn to dusk they struggle to keep their homes running and provide for their children as their husbands are either intoxicated or unconcerned. Sadly, their suffering remains unacknowledged and unappreciated.

Patricia’s normal working day starts off at 7 am and she is out of the house and on her feet till about 4 pm. She visits around 30 homes on her standard vending route and does not return home till she has sold off the entire basket-load. Fish is perishable and there is no place she can store it.

One of the most distinct features of the fishing industry is that it is a highly gendered vocation, which is contrary to some of the more romanticised ideas about this line of work especially where women are concerned. The general feeling is that fisherwomen have a lot of freedom and face very little gender prejudice although the reality is very different. For instance, the very visible unrestricted movement of fisherwomen is actually their desperate attempt at making ends meet and should not be interpreted as women’s liberation.

Gendered division of labour, according to some fisherwomen, is also a reflection of the reality of the biological differences between men and women. Venturing into sea to fish is entirely a male domain. Fact is that going to inner seas for fishing takes days and so it is difficult for women to share the same boat with men. Although a few years back some fisherwomen near the coast of Irayanthura in Tamil Nadu did try to go to sea to challenge the male monopoly, a week later they came back completely exhausted and suffering from sea sickness. Furthermore, in their absence their household chores were left unattended and children had to fend for themselves.

So the womenfolk of this community have been given the ‘duty’ of praying to Mother Sea to protect their husbands and sons. If something happens to a male member while at sea there is a direct implication on the woman’s life. Her character is questioned and everyone assumes that it must have been her lack of faith that led to the tragedy. What about recognising their backbreaking work of selling the catch door-to-door to bring in much-needed income for survival? Well, that is simply seen as one of their responsibilities.

Economic hardship and poverty compels fisherwomen to step out of their homes to sell fish. Often they are staring at a debt trap brought on by borrowing during the lean season or to cover for the expense of buying a boat, a fish net and other accessories. Most men, on the other hand, do not share their earnings with the family and instead indulge in drinking hard liquor. On an average, among the fisher folk on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, only one-fourth of the men’s earnings are given to family and that too at irregular intervals.

Women take to retailing fish as a feasible means of livelihood to pay for their children’s education and meet the daily expenses. However, competition at every step of the way is very high. Patricia and Mary are fully aware of the importance of smartly negotiating a price with the contractor from whom they source fresh fish. That is why they are quick to reach the coastal market in the morning. Then there is the turf war. Everyone has their demarcated vending areas and spots by the roadside. Some are even able to put up small stalls fashioned out of plastic sheets. Yet, the uncertainties in this work are manifold and only add to their troubles. Of late, some of them have taken to setting up small commercial enterprises or stitching centres as an alternative. Naturally, they largely deal in known areas - fish products and other allied small-scale industries such as fish processing and net knitting.

Patricia, Mary, and other fisherwomen are ready to compromise with their harsh existence but they want a solution to the problem of domestic violence, which is the direct result of the prevailing alcoholism among the men. Unfortunately, the women report that even priests of the local parish as well as community leaders, whose word otherwise carries considerable weight, hesitate to intervene when they complain of ill treatment or beating. They feel that the men would retaliate and stop paying for the expense of the church. Of course, all the constant bickering, fighting and lack of money at home has a negative impact on the children, who often go astray and become local goons.

It is one of Mary’s fervent wishes that she spend an entire day without shouting at anyone. She shared, “It would be a welcome change if I didn’t have to shout at fish vending contractors in the morning, insensitive customers during the day and my husband and young son at night.” But until the men learn to share their earning with them and give up drinking, this yearning will persist like an illusive dream.

( Women's Feature Service)