Day 33 (Part 4): ‘That day, no one reminds them they are different’

Far beyond the horizon, across the realms of water and celestial spheres, lies a land where meet two clans different in body but one in spirit. On an isolated island that took its first breath with a volcanic eruption in 14th century, 5,000 fishermen from India and Sri Lanka gather at Kachchathivu situated in the Indian Ocean every year. Unlike the rest of the year, that particular day their union is celebrated. There are no lines, contours or maps drawing them apart. That day, no one reminds them they are different; that they do not belong together.

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“The island is about 11 km from Dhanushkodi and 16 km from the Sri Lankan border. We come together to celebrate a festival called Kachchathiva Tirula. The Sri Lankan navy encircles the island which stretches around 1 km in diameter. At night, you see their bright orbs of light hovering above as you stare at the starlit sky. The celebrations go on for two days. You have to declare all the items you carry. There are no restrictions imposed by societal norms. We drink, dance and make merry. Brothers meet brothers and friends rejoice in each other’s arms. People fall in love and never depart,” said Kumar as he drew the charted course towards the island on sand.

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Kumar explaining relative location of Kachchathivu island from India and Sri Lanka with a diagram
Kumar explaining relative location of Kachchathivu island from India and Sri Lanka with a diagram

He also confessed that there have been instances of Indian brides moving to Sri Lanka and Lankan brides being welcomed on Indian shores. We asked him if they ever faced any legal trouble or had difficulties in ensuring authorised paperwork coming through. “No. As long as you renounce the citizenship of one country and adopt the other, there won’t be a problem. Besides, we are normal fishermen and the authorities are usually co-operative in such cases,” he said with a beaming smile.

Originally belonging to the Ramanad Kingdom before independence, Kachchathivu was recognised as a part of the Lankan territory by India on a controversial conditional agreement in 1974. While the British advocated shared occupancy, Sri Lanka started claiming it as their own in 1921. Over the next few decades, their persistence in ascertaining control over the island evoked the wrath of myriad parliamentarians all over the country and especially in Tamil Nadu. Since the area held prime importance with respect to culture and religion to the fishermen community, the decision was challenged in the Supreme Court.

However, the agreement could neither be dissolved nor amended. Although initially Indians were allowed to fish around the island, the Sri Lankan navy made it exceedingly difficult for fishermen to continue to do so by expressing their concerns over illegal smuggling of weapons to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Soon, the situation got dire with numerous reports of Tamil fishermen being killed by Lankan armed forces. Many were jailed and wrongfully convicted. Eventually, the Lankan government was granted full access and control over Kachchathivu against the wishes of the fishermen and state government. While Tamil Nadu believed that the move was unconstitutional, the central government maintains they were not in breach of the constitution since the island was always in dispute and wasn’t defined in conventional territorial limits. Kumar too expressed his discontent on the island being handed over to Sri Lanka. He believed that the government failed to take into consideration the repercussions it might have had on the fishing community.

After a while, the conversation veered towards Kaliambalam. He pointed at a semi-permanent structure where his father once resided and told us that his older brother lived there now. He hoped to introduce us to him someday. As he continued to explain the history of Dhanushkodi, a young girl named Kaushalya walked towards us with a coy smile. She had a bag full of shells and quoted a nominal price for each of them.

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Kumar shooed her away and reprimanded her for whiling away her time instead of studying. “These kids don’t go to school. They want easy money. Since they are young, everything seems like an adventure to them. Their parents don’t care. They don’t know what it means to be alone and without any work or future. They don’t realise that their children will pay a heavy price for their indifference. I regret not going to school. Maybe my life would have been different. May be not. Nonetheless, I want my kids to get a decent education. I want them to have hopes and aspirations that exceed mine. I’d like to give them everything I could never have,” said Kumar.

His oldest child Raja Mani went to school in Rameswaram and lived with his extended family there while his younger son Harish Kannan and daughter Namdoodarshini stayed with him in Dhanushkodi. As he introduced us to his family, his wife Muthulakshmi peeked through the pillars of the stall with a bashful smile. She offered us some biscuits and continued to straighten the knots on her little girl’s hair.

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Later, in the evening, we took a walk through the ruins amidst hordes of tourists gazing at dilapidated relics with perplexed expressions. Kumar patiently explained what each of them signified and how the British took great care in designing and building every structure. “The church was built using corals. It is one of its kind. You won’t find a similar monument in Tamil Nadu. Up ahead, is the school. Dr A P J Abdul Kalam went there for a few years and then shifted to Rameswaram. He was a great man and he did a lot for our community.  He was one of us. And, he will always remain alive in our hearts. It takes one human being to make a difference. He came alone but he will be remembered by all,” said Kumar with a sad smile.

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….

Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

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