First rays of daylight were yet to fall on earth when a group of seven women set out from their homes. Leaving dimly-lit streets and coconut groves, they headed towards their embarking point: The seashore.
At a far end of the shore, some fishermen had made a small wood fire to escape the morning chill. Warming their hands near the fire, the women slowly waded through knee-depth water and climbed on a boat that was waiting exclusively for them.
The first woman to climb on the boat carefully moved towards the bow. With a long wooden pole, she kept the boat steady against the dancing waves. Once all the crew settled inside, the lone male member in the group started the engine. Against the backdrop of orange-red flames of the shore fire, the boat’s engine growled to life, giving out thick dark fumes. Keeping a handful of fishermen on the shore as witnesses, the boat started to cruise on the Gulf of Mannar.
A shallow bay and protected area, the Gulf of Mannar forms a small portion of the vast Indian Ocean. It lies between the southeastern tip of India and the western coast of Sri Lanka. Owing to its rich aquatic life, the gulf is a livelihood provider to thousands of people living on its shores. Keelakkarai is one such place where the destiny of many humans is closely knitted with the mood swings of the sea. Located in Ramanathapuram district, this village often faces the wrath of nature, usually in the form of severe cyclonic storms. The 2005-Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc in the region and it is still afresh in the memories of most of the residents here.
Unlike women in most other fishing hamlets, women here have found a way to earn livelihood: Sea faring, a profession often reserved for men.
Their working field is the seabed where bleached corals harbour a particular aquatic plant called sea weed. Found in different colours and shapes, sea weeds are a much sought-after commodity by industries, especially cosmetics and food sectors. Prices of each variety changes according to season and usage.
Decades of sea-going experience have taught these women where to locate a particular kind of weed. Since the weeds exhibit a variety of colours, the shallow sea will also showcase different hues according to the shade of sea weeds that grow under it.
Once a particular spot was located, the women prepared to dive after anchoring the boat. With their basic swimming gear – a face-covering glass to protect eyes from salt water, a pair of gloves to pluck the sharp-edged sea weeds, a pair of rubber sandals, and a net to bag their catch – the crew dived to the seabed one after another.
For the next three to four hours the women dived several times and returned with their net full of sea weeds. The exercise continued till mid-day when the waves started glittering under the scorching sun.
With the Sun above their heads, the crew decided to return shore. The boat took a turn and started its homeward cruise. It was the lunch time, and time for some chit chat. Each crew member took out the home-made food they had brought and shared it among each other. The struggle of last three-four hours gave way to moments of relief.
Photographed off the coast of Keelakkarai, Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu