November 27, 2013
The crab, more than any of God’s creatures, has formulated the perfect philosophy of life. Whenever he is confronted by a great moral crisis in life, he first makes up his mind what is right, and then goes sideways as fast as he can. – Herodotus, Greek historian (BC 484-409).
Aristophanes, Greek poet and satirist (Circa BC 444-380) also has a take on the crab: “You cannot make a crab walk straight”. Currently, crab has different associations. It represents my star (July 17) in the astrological columns. It represents cancer. It also represents Indian politicians, as reflected in this anecdote. There was a world exhibition on crabs. All the countries put their crabs in closed glass jars with provision air vent for breathing. But, the Indians put the crabs in an open wicker basket. When the organizers expressed fears about the crabs crawling to the edge and escaping, it was explained that the crabs have learnt from Indian politicians to pull each other down should they show signs of climbing. But, I found from my recent crab-hunting trip that crab doesn’t have any “perfect philosophy” or the ability to first make up its mind on “what is right”, and then go “sideways as fast as he can”. All that the crab needs to be trapped is chicken head and a small net. But, first the background.
My brother-in-law, Dr Aloysius (Loui) Monteiro, after retiring from a globe-trotting UN job, has settled down in Bangalore. It is a custom that whenever an out-of-town Mangalorean visits this city, he has to visit his and his spouse’s close relatives for a courtesy call. As he was getting older, and in poor health, he devised a way out of this tiresome chore. He would call about 25 families to the star hotel where he stayed and host a sumptuous lunch with spirits to wash it down. He would organize a similar get-together when his five children, now married and settled down in Australia and USA, visited him and came down to Mangalore to visit his elder brother (now the late) Stany and his wife Frlorie.
One such meet was held at Ocean Pearl by his doctor daughter, Vanitha, and her doctor husband, Tom, and their two chubby kids, David and Nalini , from Australia on the last Saturday of last September. With a few drinks under the belt, the spirited conversation veered to crab catching. Captain Osler Rebello, now on shore leave and due to sail again the following Wednesday, was organizing a crab hunt about 40 KM north of Mangalore. If I was game for it, he would pick me up the next day, a Sunday, and I should be ready at 6.30 AM. I kept the gate open for his car and waited for an hour before I telephoned his home and realized that he has fooled/ditched me.
In the meantime, his brother-in-law and my nephew, Pardeep Fernandes, also a marine Captain, came on shore leave and Osler managed to postpone his joining date. When they got together the episode of my having been ditched came up, they decided to organize a fresh crab hunt on the following Sunday when Pradeep would pick me up and drive us to the hunting spot. He turned up as promised with his father, Lawrence, and daughter, Angela, in tow. Googling for weather information and tide conditions, it was decided that the ideal duration was 11 AM to 4 PM. Accordingly, we set off at 9 AM from Osler’s residence in Bajpe, with his son Danny. After patronizing a toddy shop on the way and collecting 10 litres for later use and also collecting a stock of chicken heads from a chicken butcher, we reached the spot at 11 AM. Three expert crab catchers, yet another Pradeep, Sandeep and Aju, friends of Osler, set off with us in two cars, also loaded with cooking vessels, portable cooking range, things to cook, mats for camping and, of course, stock for spiritual sustenance.
I will not name the place lest hoards descend on it and disturb the privacy and serenity of those living in the nearby hamlets. We briskly set about wire-tying the chicken heads to the inside bottom of the small nets and kept them at various marked spots tied above the water level with marker rope, with the net itself below the water level. The crabs crawl up to the chicken in anticipation of a great meal which turns out to be their last supper and our tastily cooked dish on location. Nearing noon, the vessels for cooking were mounted and the pre-marinated chicken and squid were fries to go with our spiritual intake. Even as this operation was going on, our expert catchers went on rounds to the nets and bought fresh lots of crabs in their gunny bags to the on-shore depository. We processed some crabs for cooking and had them for lunch along with rice cooked on location.
Once I took in the situation and waded through the backwaters in the mangrove, saving my underwear from wetting, I retired to a nearby house and scanned the four English newspapers and their Sunday supplements sitting on an armchair. The lone old lady of the house kept me distracted with the story of her miserable life, with me delivering appropriate interventions and getting a certificate from her: “You seem to be a man of learning, experience and wisdom”. She provided me with a clean, comfortable pillow for my post-lunch nap on her verandah. Meanwhile, I kept monitoring the progress of crab-catching and also visited the camp site, 200 metres away, in quest of spiritual re-inforcement as also to try, unlike the crab, to see if I can walk straight!
I have brought three memories from my crab-hunt outing. It is a vast backwater lagoon with muddy water. The sea can be seen at a distance. The swamp has muddy, salty water and is subject to tides. The mangrove has clusters of low-height trees with sturdy trunks on which smaller crabs crawl above the water level. It reminded me of reading about the vast Sundarbans in West Bengal where even tigers compete with fisherfolk for the catch. Walking barefoot in the water needs careful attention as stumps of dead trees or sharp edges of dead mussel shells can injure the sole of one’s feet.
Our intrusion there may have been resented by peacocks perching on the crowns of cocoanut trees and frequently delivering their love calls. Perhaps they didn’t want to make love in our presence. The honeybees also protested our lighting a fire and sending up smoke by stinging Pradeep repeatedly and making us protect our torsos by drawing our shirt over our heads. We also saw all sorts of rejects/garbage like bottles and footwear washed ashore and presenting an ugly sight. As for me, I saw chicks and their mother being shut under a downturned large wicker basket to protect them from kites and foxes which abound in that area. This carried me back to my childhood in my ancestral house at Bearikody, Kurial Village.
The crab-hunt evoked nostalgic memories of my fishing forays at Bearikody. My father prohibited my fishing with a hook and string tied to a rod. My first memory of my tryst with fish started with crabs. We would keep fish residues, such as from shelled prawns, at the water edge of a large (half an acre when full) tank. When I went there, a bunch of crabs were eating the bait. I caught one each in my two hands and got a little greedy. I stuffed one from the right hand into my underwear (Casti) and went for the third one. The one in the underwear bit a delicate part of my anatomy. Sesu, our female farm hand was walking to work in the field, with her saree seductively tucked up half way above the knee, on the tank bund. I called out to her to release me from my agony. She thought I was fooling her and threatened to report to my stern and strict father. Helpless, I went into the water and undid my casti and the crab left me alone.
I was very good at hooking fish and when I went to fish, in the absence of my father from home, I would catch dozens of tasty Morantes in Tulu (Denkle In Konkani) and I had small groups of admiring children and ladies following me as I went along the streams, ponds and paddy field corners. But, my most memorable catch was a Marimugudu,(Cobra fish which inflated its hood just like a cobra) – 18 inches long. I had only heard about it; but never seen one. When I landed it in a dry paddy field beside the stream, I could not unhook it. It slipped from my hand grip even as I tried to take it with the hook on. Then I unfolded my double tied long Casti, spreading its loose end on my palm and bending down on my knees got a grip on the fish and took it home passing by the farm labourers transplanting paddy shoots. Since it was dangling from my mid-point the farm-hands laughed uncontrollably at the funny situation.
I will conclude with the bleak fish scenario today. There was a time when I lowered the bait on the hook, several Morantes would jump up to catch the bait – normally earthworms. Then their habitats in the streams disappeared with landslides and soil erosion – which blocked the crevices which hosted the fish. This was followed by widespread use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides that killed all fish and even frogs. So, when my son, Mohan, was around ten, 25 years ago, I used to take him and Pradeep for fishing in Phalguni backwaters at Old Bunder and catch some fish. When my grandson, Zach, after another 20 years, was taken to the old fishing spots, invariably we came back empty-handed. This is an irreversible ecological and environmental disaster we and our coming generation have to live with.
Author and journalist, John B. Monteiro, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger) His book, Corruption-India’s Painful Crawl to Lokpal ($21.5), published in USA by Strategic Books earlier this year, is available online from Amazon.com and locally at Gerosa, Hampankatta and Biblios, Bunts Hostel Road.