That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.
We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.
Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.
This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.
I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.
I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.
One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.
I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.
When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.
It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.
Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.
This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).
Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.