Fishing On Our Paddy in Kerala
I grew up in the middle of Dallas, Texas, across the street from a little pond where people from the neighborhood liked to go fishing. I still remember the first fish I caught on my own, with my tiny three-foot long Snoopy-themed fishing rod. A writhing kaleidoscope of yellow, orange and blue, the little sunfish wiggled out of my six-year-old hands and flopped back into the water. I hadn’t hooked it half as well as it had hooked me: After that, the only thing I ever wanted to do after school was cast out my line and wait for nibbles.
When I revisited my old fishing spot many years later, the pond had been walled off from the street. I doubt the local kids catch fish these days. But they certainly still do at our home, half a world away in Kerala. Almost every day after school, my nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter head to our neighborhood rice paddy. The stone bridge across the water is a gathering place for boys, girls, and their parents, who hurl their casting nets or dangle their homemade bamboo poles out over the buffalo grass and water hyacinth in a patient ritual of catching dinner.
The rules are different here. People keep everything they pull in, no matter how small. And why not? The paddy completely dries up by December. Eating small fish, bones and all, serves as a major source of calcium in this dairy-scarce part of India. Of course, when the rivers overflow during heavy rains, some 5 kg whoppers end up here too.
We bought this Banded Snakehead fish from a paddy fisherman for 100 rupees (about $1.50). Known locally as a Varal, it is well adapted to the seasonal paddy ecology. Its body contains air chambers that allow it to breathe through its mouth. During a dry spell in September, when the paddy field was reduced to a few large puddles, we often saw them coming to the surface to gulp in air. During more extreme droughts they bury themselves in the mud and remain in a dormant stage until the next monsoon arrives. They’re also excellent parents. Now that we’ve had another bout of rains, you can see them following their hatchlings around like helicopter moms—scarfing down any would be predators.
Despite the differences here, I’ve found that fishing can be a wonderful cultural bridge. The kids bounce from one fisherman to the next, inspecting their catch. Their friends have taught them what to fish with, where to fish, and how to properly hook a worm. Not surprisingly, Rohan has become a better paddy fisherman than I am! But I think he has also begun to understand that fishing isn’t just about the fish. It’s also about spending quality time with friends and family, or simply taking an evening hour to meditate as flying foxes swoop overhead and the clouds, light, and water bloom into a radiant sunset.