The Netters

2008-12-19 00:00

It was a July evening in 1978. At 8 pm Isipingo’s beach was deserted — most people were locked away behind gated doors and high walls. Moonlight bounced off the gentle waves as a sea breeze smoothed over the fine sand in readiness for a clean dawn that would inevitably come. Against the light-black sky the silhouette of a bell tent cut the horizon.

The tent flap opened on the side away from the sea. At the entrance a small, lively fire crackled in bouncing shades of orange and yellow. Around it sat four young men, cross-legged. The oldest among them bent at the waist, lit a cigarette on a glowing ember, took a drag and passed it around — to all except the youngest who was no older than 13.

Inside the tent four middle-aged men sat around a dented Cadac gas lamp. They were engrossed in a game of thunnee — that strange South African card game. Except for the hissing gas lamp and the occasional trump and score calls there was silence. At the end of the game they stretched and Prem said to his brother: “You know Chan, we ous from Chassie are too good for you coastal ous!” The Chatsworth ous versus the Merebank ous, thanks to the Group Areas Act. And Chan’s response was: “Maybe, but the same old man taught you and me — netting, thunnee, religion and cricket, everything.” He struggled to his feet, went to the fire and placed his hand on the shoulder of his 13-year-old son. “Howzit, Vishan. Nice here, heh? Go get some water for tea, boy.”

After they had tea, Chan fetched a long box from inside the tent, undid a couple of latches, opened the lid and with exaggerated care lifted out the flute. It gleamed silver in the moonlight. “Play it boy. Show these scarpies how you can play this beauty.” Vishan took the flute, made some hesitant sounds and then gently slid into a haunting rendition of No Woman No Cry and other hits of Bob Marley’s Exodus album — the rest of the boys chimed in.

Around the fire the talk turned to the poor sardine run during the past two years. For some the cause was the leaking oil jetty just off the shore and Durban South’s polluting industries, even though all of them depended on these industries for their livelihoods. Vishan listened and then said simply: “Sardines like cold water. And the water is cold this year.” While this chatter was going on Prem prepared some tackle. He held a metallic fish with a large hook between two layers of soft cloth and polished it: “Shine, shine,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll bring home one big barracuda.” The large fish follow the sardines and the sharks follow the large fish.

They doused the fire and snuggled into their sleeping bags. Now the beach was deserted except for the whishing sea breeze, the gently thrashing waves and scurrying crabs. In the distance, the lights of a tanker docked at the oil jetty bobbed rhythmically, unloading its cargo of black gold — probably not Nigerian in source. A South African tanker was under arrest somewhere in the Niger delta.

Drifting through the early morning air the sound of the Azaan — the Muslim call to prayer — held Chan’s attention. As he looked out to sea, the skyline was still indistinct. He began to prepare breakfast for the others — a pot of water for tea on the gas tank, sliced brown bread and smooth apricot jam — and as the rising sun broke the sea-sky symmetry he awakened the others.

After breakfast they congregated around the three-metre rowing boat and checked it thoroughly. The boys went back into the tent and brought the net out. They laid it out flat on the sand beside the boat with the large cork balls fitted at intervals at one metre on one side and lead weights on the other. Prem directed the folding of the net by the boys. He asked Vishan to climb into the boat and helped him fit a beam across the stern.

The rope attached to the one end of the net Vishan carefully wound into a wicker basket that he then stashed under the beam. Together the boys and Prem loaded up the net on to the beam. Prem was severe on his nephew: “Slowly Vish, no tangles.” The rope at the other end was also carefully wound into a wicker basket and placed on the sand at the side of the boat. They were ready.

By now the sun broke across the skyline and the protesting dawn sent a chill through the morning. A pair of seagulls glided on the breeze cutting wondrous patterns in the growing light. Silly seagulls, Vishan thought. The sardines were close by and the gulls should not have been flitting about here. He sauntered over to Uncle John’s Café. It was still shut. They saw a young man walk towards them. He slipped off his takkies as he took to the sand. “Good morning uncle,” he said to Chan. “The news is good for today. The sardines are just off Umkomaas.” Vishan noticed the book he was carrying — The Challenge of Nationhood by Tom Mboya —as he continued his walk towards a rocky outcrop, sat himself down and began to read.

A couple of hours later the peace of the morning disappeared as hundreds of people descended on the beach. The four boys had by now positioned themselves at the highest point of the rocky outcrop and focused their attention just beyond the breakers to the south. The number of seagulls flying about increased and they saw the gradual emergence in the distance of a dark, shimmering patch. As they dashed back to the boat, the book man, who was joined by a young African man, called out good wishes to them. Just a few more minutes. Prem did a final check on the nets. And then suddenly the first sardines were in the breakers.

With Prem in it, the boys pushed the boat into the thrashing surf. As soon as it was waterborne two of the largest boys jumped in and Prem pulled at the oars. The attention of the crowd was focused on the boat, willing it on, small psychic pushes to get it beyond the breakers. It rose to the top of the heaving waves, balanced there for a long moment, the people gasped and then it lurched beyond the waves. Prem watched Chan’s arm signals and then began to release the nets as the boys kept up the powerful rowing.

Vishan dug himself into the sand and hung on to his end of the rope as it tautened — pride growing as father and uncle both gave him the thumbs up. As the net was plied out fully, the boys tucked the oars under the crossbeam. They grasped the other end of the rope as it began to unwind, leapt into the surf and swam towards the beach. Prem guided the boat away from the action and landed it away from the net. Vishan and his father hung on to their end of the rope. The others pulled on the other end and the crescent-shaped net heaved with thousands of sardines. As the net came through the breakers they kept the ropes taut. The netted sardines shimmered like a large bowl of quicksilver.

Not all the sardines were caught in the net. People dashed into the water with carrier bags, partially unwound saris, onion bags and wicker baskets. Little boys and girls followed every wave out and picked up the stranded sardines.

Chan began selling off the sardines. “Three rand a crate, no discount. Twenty crates here, 40 there,” he instructed the boys as they frantically filled the crates and then emptied them into open bakkies. These sardines would be sold in Overport, Merebank, even in Pietermaritzburg and Port Shepstone. Within minutes half the catch was disposed of. The rest went into a Land Rover — the owner of the boat. This was his share.

By 9.30 am the netters were alone again, except for the young man with the book and his friend, who appeared to be in animated discussion. Vishan experienced a strong yearning to be with them. To listen to their discussion.

Meanwhile, Prem had caught his barracuda by casting behind the shoal. A 20-pounder, he claimed. At the tent he saw a scene of exhaustion. He galvanised them and soon they were turning the boat around, checking the nets for tears and tangles, and then they went through the ritual of loading up the nets again. Ready for the next shoal. Uncle John offered them several bottles of ice-cold water. He had the radio tuned to Radio Port Natal and offered to give them regular updates. While the others lazed around the tent, Prem, Chan and Vishan took a walk along the beach. Each of them wondered how long this tradition would last.

Right then it felt altogether good.

Ahmed Bawa

Ahmed Bawa grew up in Seven Oaks and went to school in Greytown. He sees himself inextricably linked with the midlands and with KwaZulu-Natal more generally. It is where he feels his being is most at rest. He is a physicist and is currently a visiting professor at Hunter College in New York.

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