This is the second of a two-part series on the fishermen of Porbandar. Read part one here.
Porbandar: “Jai Bharat ke saath batata hu ki Pakistan me har ghari tumhe yaad karta hu. Dhanji ke saath sabhi machuare thik hai yaha” (Hailing India, I write to you that I miss you every moment in Pakistan. Dhanji and other fishermen are doing well here).”
These are the words of the letter that Parvati Dhanji Lodhari holds as her most prized possession. It is the only letter that her husband Dhanji Lodhari wrote to her from Pakistan’s jail.
Dhanji Lodhari, a fisherman from Porbandar in Gujarat, was arrested by Pakistan maritime authorities in December 2016.
“It came as shock when I was informed that he (Dhanji Lodhari) was arrested by Pakistani authorities. I couldn’t eat for about five days. I was broken, numb and didn’t know what to do,” says 31-year-old Parvati.
Parvati, like most wives of fishermen who are arrested, was informed of the arrest by the owner of the boat that had Dhanji as one of its crew members.
Parvati was 19 and still studying in Diu when she was married to Dhanji. Born into a family of fishermen, she accepted her early marriage. Her mother was married around the same age, as are most women of the fishermen community.
“All women in our community are married between ages 17 and 20, so that’s not new for us. We are daughters of fishermen and are married to fishermen. So we are used to the hardships of managing a family while men are away at sea. A fisherman earns anything between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 if he makes at least two trips a month. During monsoon they stay back home for a month or two,” says Parvati.
“Eight or ten years earlier, men would go fishing along the coastline and would come back in four or five days. But due to pollution, there are no fish now along the coastline and men venture far into the sea for a good catch. At times they go so deep that a trip could last 15 days,” she adds.
This is the first time that Dhanji has been arrested by the Pakistan maritime authority for illegally crossing Internal Maritime Border Line (IMBL). Even as the boat owner initiated the process of negotiating the return of the fishermen, running a household with children was Parvati’s biggest challenge.
“I did not know what to tell my kids. I confided in my elder son who is ten years old. My eight-year-old son is closer to his father. I told him that his father has gone fishing but this time it will take a while for him to return. It wasn’t easy to spend ten months without any earning. It took four months to go through the process of claiming the compensation of Rs 150 a day that government gives to the family of fishermen who are arrested. I shifted my kids from private school to government school. But I still had bills to pay, the house rent is Rs 1,000 a month and electricity is Rs 800 a month. Later, my younger son fell sick and I had no way but to borrow money from various people for his treatment,” says Parvati.
Faced with financial trouble, Parvati tried her hand at cleaning fish at the Porbandar port – a job that women of the fishermen community usually take up for Rs 50 a day. But she had to quit when her son fell sick.
Subhashnagar, where Parvati lives, is home to about a 1,000 families of fisherfolk.
“It’s difficult to raise a family here. Nobody ever comes and cleans the garbage, there are open drains and stray pigs loitering in the area. Water scarcity is still an issue here. Earlier we would get water for half an hour a day. Just before elections, a Congress candidate installed a bigger tank. Now the area is divided into rows of about ten houses and each row gets water for two hours a day in the morning,” says Parvati.
Amidst the turmoil, Parvati managed to write four letters to her husband in Landhi jail in Karachi, Pakistan. She also sent food, shampoo and blank pages for Dhanji to write back.
“Envelopes are sold at Rs 50 in Pakistan’s jail. Dhanji did not have so much money. He managed to write back once,” says Parvati.
Dhanji could return home a year later, on December 5, 2017. He resumed work within a week of being back from Pakistan.
Manju Parshottam Charanya was decorating her house on the first day of Navratri, a nine day-long festival, in the November of 2015, when she was informed that a boat with six or seven fishermen had been caught by the Pakistan maritime authorities. The next morning it was confirmed that it was the boat with her husband in it. The next few days were spent running between offices and getting documents ready to initiate her husband’s return and claiming the compensation. Her 16-year-old son quit school and took up work at the Porbandar port so his three siblings could continue to study.
“Overnight my eldest son grew up to be the man of the family,” says 35-year-old Manju.
“It took four months for us to receive the compensation of Rs 4,500 a month. I had four kids and my old father-in-law to take care of. For a week I was very depressed and would wonder how to manage the expenses. I took up the work of cleaning fish at the port that would pay Rs 50 or Rs 100 a day. My eldest son would do whatever work he got, like cleaning boats. He would earn about Rs 200 a day. There were days we weren’t able to earn at all. The only respite was that we have our own house,” she adds.
Parshottam Charanya returned in January 2017. Manju’s only regret is that Parshottam’s father passed away in his absence.
“We would exchange letters. That is the only medium of communication if a fisherman is jailed in Pakistan. I wrote many letters. He wrote back three letters in 14 months. I could not bring myself to inform him that his father had passed away,” she shares.
Manju and her eldest son work in two shifts now earning about Rs 6,000. She urged Parshottam to never go back to the deep sea. He now goes fishing in what they call ‘local’ water along the coastline. Many a times he returns without a catch. For the past decade pollution from industries along the coastline has affected the availability of the fish.
“If not for the pollution of the local water, fishermen would never go into deep sea,” says Parshottam.
Lalitaben Tandel prayed to Harshadi Mata or Dariya nu devi (goddess of the sea) every day for the safe return of her husband. Fifty-six-year-old Lalitaben and her husband Dayaharibhai are uneducated so they couldn’t exchange letters while he was jailed for nine months in Pakistan.
“Mata meri pariksha le rahi thi (goddess was testing me),” she smiles. Her husband returned a week ago.
Dayaharibhai has been diagnosed with tuberculosis after his return and cannot go fishing till he is cured.
Lalitaben and her husband moved to Porbandar from Valsad ten years ago.
When Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation came up in Ankaleshwar, a town about 130 kilometres from Valsad, the industries began disposing untreated waste into the sea. Gradually it affected the availability of fish. Dayaharibhai, like many fishermen, began travelling to Porbandar to fish. Eventually, he shifted to Porbandar with his family.
Lalitaben lives in one room for with a rent of Rs 1,000 and Rs 600 for electricity. Their only daughter is 18 years old and has been married for a year. When the boat owner came to inform them of the arrest and collect documents, her daughter handled the process. But she left soon after and Lalitaben was alone after that.
“Cleaning fish is hectic at this age so I started sewing quilts out of old saris. People give me the materials and I get Rs 50 for sewing one quilt. I sewed about seven or eight quilts a month. But that wasn’t enough so I would take up any other work, wherever one needs an extra hand during functions like weddings,” says Lalitaben.
“My eyes hurt but I try to finish sewing a quilt in two days,” she adds.
Lalitaben did not get the compensation that the government pays to the family of fishermen who are caught as she could not follow through with the process of claiming the compensation. Some local activists have come to help and she hopes to use the money for her husband’s treatment, if she gets it.
“Wives of other fishermen who live around would come and help me. They bring me food and at times information of some work that I could take up. Deprivation has infused a sense fellow feeling amongst the wives,” she says.
“I swore a mannat (religious vow) that if my husband returns safe I will visit Harshadi mata temple in Veraval. But I have no money to travel that far.”
Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.