Ocean Rimmed World by Joe D’Cruz, ably translated by G Geetha, is the story of a way of life. True, it is an insider’s account tracing life as it was lived in a Tamil Catholic fishing community of Parathavars in Uvari, a village near Thoothukudi. But its sweep and depth is a tribute to the way people lived as communities barely a few generations ago.
The story, set in Amanthurai in Thoothukudi district, has an overarching strand about Gothra Pillai, Soosaiyar and Siluvai, at the mercy of water currents, adrift on one of the logs from their wrecked catamaran. The accident happens on Wednesday, 17 July, 1985. And it is 23 July before Siluvai is rescued. Together with this, the narrator deftly interweaves other strands to make up a skein of colourful stories covering some fifty-five years in 500 and odd pages.
The first of these, a flashback to 1930, is about three fishermen, Thomanthirai, Gothra Pillai and Bosco, preparing to set out to sea on a shark hunt. ‘Bosco took his place in the fore of the maram while Gothra stood ready at the centre. They turned in the direction of the Anthoniyar Koyil—St. Anthony’s Church—and prayed. Meanwhile, Thomanthirai, who was on the shore, removed the towel draped over his shoulder, and tied it reverently around his waist. Facing the Anthoniyar Koyil, he raised his hands above his head in prayer. He then climbed on the maram and took his position at the stern’ (p. 14). This image sets the spirit of the narrative, sombre yet hopeful, bringing divine providence into the very fabric of their lives. Further down the page, thirty year old Thomanthirai is described as ‘a great kadalodi, an accomplished seafarer’. This episode is a tribute to Thomanthirai’s ability as the more experienced fisherman to guide the two youngsters to steer the catamaran from the turbulence of the sea to the safety of the shore after a dangerous yet successful expedition. Even as he teaches them the trade as he had been taught by his elders, he gives them valuable lessons in daily living. ‘As the maram skimmed across the sea’s surface…all of a sudden, the sea was awash with large shoals of maangaai chalai… “Tch! If only we had a net!…” cried Bosco eagerly.’ But Thomanthirai uses that instance to teach the youngsters a life-skill in staying focussed. ‘… It’s just the same with our life. Often, we lose sight of our purpose, letting our hearts wander here and there, giving in to all the wayside attractions and finally ending up losing the little we have. No matter how big or small the task, we must be clear about it. Do you get me?’ They are out to get a shark; nothing else, however tasty. The women in the community are just as concerned. Thokalatha, Gothra Pillai’s wife, helps him to set up Vasantha with a grocery store when she returns with her daughter, Pechi. Mary tells Sesamma she feels bound to take care of Oomaiyan’s orphaned son, Siluvai.