Bhavani Raman teaches at the history department at the University of Toronto.
Before landscapes die, they first vanish in the imagination.
The Ennore (or Ennur) Creek in north Chennai began to disappear in the 1980s. Things accelerated in the 2000s when, contrary to laws passed to protect coastal zones, large portions of the wetlands were given over to thermal power plants and the Ennore port. Now, rivers of fly ash and intolerable levels of untreated pollutants are killing the wetlands and dispossessing those who live intimately with the sea, the creeks and canals.
But the creek has already disappeared entirely from the imagination. The Coastal Research Centre released an official map they received in response to an RTI filed earlier this year in which a full 6,569 acres of the creek are missing. The map is an effort to cover up an astounding crime. The Government of India, aided by the agencies of Tamil Nadu, is undertaking the greatest possible violation of the law protecting our wetlands. The map is an effort to wipe out this illegal encroachment. It ‘disappears’ the creek in a backdated map. If the paper map bears no trace of the water, there is no water – so goes the reasoning. There is nothing to protect. No writ of habeas can be issued for a missing body of water.
There is something dire in this story about the state’s effort to make nature disappear. The falsifying map exposes the imagination that made it. We, too, share in this official imagination, which values making landed property from water. Its tools – walls, earthmovers and diggers – are in our everyday life.
This is what official encroachment looks like. An official blue board appears in a marsh. Earthmovers come in. Projects are approved on the basis of a corporation’s project maps.
We treat such waterscapes as swampy waste, as receptacles of our garbage and a site to which to banish those whom we refuse to house. We value water only when it is bottled, stored, piped or pumped and we can control it and sell it. But waterscapes like Ennore are difficult to own. They disappear seasonally and defy legal categories because they appear in many interconnected forms like marshes, floodplains, ponds. The wrong sluice gate, the wrongly placed wall or culvert brings floodwaters swirling into homes. As the citizens of Chennai will recall from the 2015 floods, small shifts in gradient can make a huge difference to water levels. The blocking of Ennore’s channels poses a serious flood risk to the city today.
Tamil Nadu’s coasts are dotted with small blue boards. The raging battle with nature in Chennai’s backyard is in effect a part of a war being waged all along India’s coasts. How has this landscape come to be and what imaginaries does it disclose?
The shifting landforms of Ennore integrate features made by ebbing tides, gently flowing rivers and humans – fishers, salt workers, crabbers, gatherers, pickers of all kinds who enjoy ‘use rights’ to the waters and its shores. These activities and hence this landscape were historically managed by the conventions of porambokku, a term in Tamil to denote lands that are un-assessed or uncultivable. Arrangements of usufruct dominate the porambokku and are often a point of intense power struggle.
Ennore’s salt and fish workers were here before British canals came. A French map of 1754 sketches the creeks and settlements on the Madras coast and locates “Enur” between the sea and small, unmarked rivers that make up the Kosasthalaiyar drainage system.
About thirty years later, in 1786, the boats and water of Ennore reappeared as a setting for the colonial pastoral imagination. A painting in the Colin Mackenzie Collection held by the British Library portrays Ennore with an obligatory ruined ‘choultry’, a traveller’s rest house, surrounded by trees, glistening waterways and busy boats.
Watercolor of ‘Ennur’, 1786. Credit: British Library UK
The visualisation of Ennore as a place of transit anticipated public works improvements along these porambokku watercourses. The British canals linked the backwaters with Pulicat Lake. Boats carried salt from Ennore to far away Calcutta and Chittagong. Like many man made plans and imagined futures, this too had a shelf life. Railway lines crossed the creek. From the 1960s, the canal economy dwindled.
This shattered infrastructure has since been re-wilded. Mangroves, and the omnipresent but exotic Prosopis juliflora (veli kaattan) and saline flora are taking back the lock gates.
Other imaginations, sustained by labor or necessity endure. Ennore’s fishers and salt workers continued to fish in the fresh water canals. The remains of this life still mark borders of the dying river. Freshwater rims the edges underground and feeds the wild grass.
As living by the wetlands becomes increasingly impossible, the peculiar entwining of marine and fresh water flora where sea, river and land become one is kept alive in the words and imagination of those who did or could not leave. As Nityanand Jayaraman and Pooja Kumar have written, the communities in Ennore remember 23 canals, or kaalvai. The names are a lyrical mix of place words of nature, human and machine: the deer, yellow machine, broomstick plant. Only three – Kattur, Eachanchedi and Karunkali – survive. Seven were submerged by the Vallur power-plant’s 300-acre fly-ash dump. The paraval, or backwater, once rich with fish, crab and prawn is now a private shrimp farm. The canals, important porambokku fishing grounds, are buried under energy and transport infrastructure.
The word porambokku holds ambivalent meanings. The Tamil lexicon describes it as land that is uncultivable or set aside for common use. But it also describes the word to mean ‘public woman’. The verb, purambokkutal, the lexicon notes, means ‘to remove.’ As with most things in an imagination where the outside is the residual category, violence begins with the woman’s body and with the right to banish. And yet, the poetry of the seashore, neydal, reminds us that landscapes inscribe us even as we leave our mark on that which surrounds us. The seashore is a state of mind. It enters us when we can recognise the moods of the landscape. It blooms in us, when we train our eye to that delicate struggle between nature and us. The neydal can manifest as an all out battle. It can also appear in the tone of the akam or in-ness, as the longing for a lover’s return. Among the many luminous poems of the seashore, one translated by M.L. Thangappa captures this movingly:
When the waters receded
from the creek
hosts of storks
came down to feast on the lusty fish
in the slushy bed
and perched on the dunes
they moved about
like the king’s soldiers
go, my friend
and tell my lover
living beyond the creek
that I am wasting away.
and like the holders of the cattle raided
by the king of Mullur
my loveliness is lost.
(Kapilar, Nattrinai 292, M.L. Thangappa, Love Stands Alone, 2010: 78)
The earthmovers have come and the bunds are enclosing the waters. But landforms change slowly. The saltpans are silent but still visible by satellite. The fly-ash cannot obscure the land shaped by centuries of barefoot walking by bent bodies raking salt.
The ambit of those who lived with the wetlands is shrinking fast. Roads cut across the water and culverts squeeze flows to rivulets. Tree lines that once marked the boundaries of small fields and let the waters move, now lie behind stonewalls. There is no planting.
But those who continue to live here resolutely make life, refusing to yield to the imagination that deems the wetlands as waste. With no salt to work, no water, no land to maintain or fish to sell, kitchen gardens thrive in kuruvimedu painstakingly hand-watered by water brought by tanks and pipes.
Aloe is grown in broken plastic water pots, jasmine winds over trellises made of salvaged wood and metal, clothes are hung on lines of leftover wire propped by fallen branches.
Along with the fate of the creek and that of the users, keepers and makers of Ennore’s place-words, lies our fate. Our language and our gaze make them invisible to us. As long as we refuse to acknowledge this battle of imaginations, our future too hangs in balance. As we deplete the ability to denote and imagine particular aspects of our places, to see and hear the wetlands as they call from the canals and nullahs in our cities, to recognise ways of making life in what we dismiss as waste, we deplete our ability to imagine a different future. The disappearing Ennore Creek marks a crisis in our imagination.