“I cast my net to the right as Jesus did at the Sea of Galilee”
Fishermen in Mumbai Koliwadas reveal their spiritual life in the middle of nowhere.
By Binu Alexander
“We recite the Rosary and other prayers throwing our net to the water. We do this even while starting our boats”
The alarm rings at 3 am at Michael Koli’s home. Almost simultaneously, a chorus of alarms can be heard in the entire neighborhood. The 59-year-old resident of Koliwada, a fishermen’s hamlet in Worli suburb of Mumbai, reaches out to his rosary and kisses it before switching off the alarm.
It’s time for the fishermen to venture into the Arabian Sea to cast their nets wide and open.
Michael gets up and kneels before the mini grotto inside his home, makes a sign of the cross on his forehead, lips and chest, and softly recites the Angelus and other morning prayers. He then gingerly hops over the other family members sleeping on the floor of their one-bed room house located at the far end of the hamlet and enters the congested lane that leads to the seashore.
Once outside, Michael realizes he’s forgotten his spectacles. He performs the same circus to get near the altar where he’s left them. Everything else he needs is hung outside. Michael’s sons – one of them works as a driver while the other helps him in fishing – are married with children. They stay with him - the reason he keeps his clothes and tools outside, to avoid bothering them while sleeping.
The houses in Koliwada have no locks and the doors are kept open even during the nights to let in the cool breeze from the Arabian sea. Michael’s family owns a fan but uses it sparingly, allowing the sea breeze to do its job. Despite wide open doors, the residents claim they have had no robberies so far.
Negotiating my way through the hamlet’s congested by lanes, I could see why the Kolis weren’t bothered about security - there was hardly any space for an outsider to enter their homes. “Even if someone managed to enter, what can they take away?” one fisherman asked jokingly.
Poverty rules the fishermen’s close-knit settlements, dwarfed by the glitzy glamour and the high rises of Mumbai, the financial capital of India. Mumbai never sleeps and the swanky Worli Sea Link still has traffic moving at this odd hour. Not very far from this newly built bridge, Michael is now ready with his small boat to venture into the sea armed with holy water and rosary.
As long as he can remember, Michael’s family has been engaged in fishing for generations. Kolis are the native fisher folks of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. The name Mumbai owes its origin to the Mumbadevi temple in Dongri, worshipped by the Hindu Kolis. The arrival of the Portuguese during 1500 and their subsequent rule over Bombay led to the conversion of a section of Kolis to Christianity.
I was visiting Michael’s hamlet, where the Koli Catholics outnumbered their Hindu brethren, to know about their spiritual life. I found most fishermen I spoke to deeply religious and strong in belief. Next to Michael stood Johnson Patil and Richard Koli mending their nets. It was late noon and the sun pierced through the plastic roof of their shack, making it hotter inside than it was outside.
“Yes, each one of us recites the Rosary and other prayers before setting sail or throwing the nets into the sea,” Johnson told me as he struggled with the complicated twists and turns of the net, his eyes fixed on the task. “We go to church every Sunday and consider the priest as our guiding angel,” he continued. For every problem, they go to the priest seeking his guidance and help.
“God takes care of us. If we have a poor catch today, He will compensate us with a jackpot next day”
Typically, fishermen from their village form teams of three or four before they set sail as early as 4 am. “For the last 50 years, I have gone virtually every day into the sea,” Michael said interrupting his work much to the dismay of his partner who was apparently in a hurry.
Depending on the size and strength of the nets as well as the capacity of their boats, the fishermen decide how deep they would go into the sea. While a few would not go more than three kilometers from the shore, others like Johnson would venture out deep in search of the bigger catch.
None of the Koli fishermen have GPS equipment. They bank on experience, checking on the changing colour of the sea, or varying strength of the winds and waves. Sometimes they dip a rope with a weight tied to its end to check the water levels; so they know where to stop and return back.
The deep sea makes Michael spiritual. He prays and sings Hallelujah, then sprinkles holy water on the net and throws it into the sea chanting “Praise the Lord”, joined by his non-Catholic partners like Dinesh Koli. A follower of charismatic renewal movements, Michael said his favourite passage from the Bible was John 21. “Sometimes when we sit idle for hours waiting for the catch, I narrate this passage to my colleagues,” he said as Dinesh noded.
“Yes, I know the Sea of Galilee very well. I also know about Yeesu asking his disciples to cast the net to the right side of their boat. At times, we also follow this out of habit as Michael has been doing this for years,” Dinesh said.
“But we don’t jump into the sea as Simon did,” Michael joked as the sun shone on his head. It was noon and time to reach for the shores. On days when the catch was good, they would remain engaged in work till evening. They eat only after work is over. Until then they survive on tea, biscuits, and as Michael put it, on the Lord’s blessings.
I’d met Michael again after he returned from the sea. The sun was setting and the vehicular traffic on the Worli Sea Link was growing. Today, Michel told me, he had got very little. It wasn’t sufficient to even take care of the fuel for his boat. “I won’t get more than Rs. 300 for today’s effort,” he said without a hint of dejection. “But God takes care of us. Even if we have a poor catch today, He will compensate us with a jackpot next day.”
Jackpot is a terminology used by fishermen for a big catch – sometimes it could fetch them Rs. 3000-4000. But it is rare, they admit. These fishermen are used to tougher days. Every year, from June to August, the government bans fishing due to monsoons and high tides. Most fishermen use this break from fishing to repair their nets and subsist on the cash savings if any. Many have to pawn their gold ornaments to survive.
“It is all an act of God.” Michael exclaimed as he cleared the day’s catch from his nets.
(Binu Alexander is the Editor and Publisher of Living in Faith)
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