Casting for Hope

Text and photos by Burhaan Kinu



The Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Every monsoon, however, allows the river to cleanse itself. Gusty, upstream rains recharge the flow of the river and it becomes home again to teeming fish.

We took her through Kottayam, a town where she had spent her entire life, her nephew, Vineet Abraham placed his hand on her coffin. As we left the funeral car, he grasped the casket a little tighter. He wasn't ready to let go. Neither were we.
Their boats, which are at times made from rejigged pieces of wood and aluminium sheets, can be built within five days.

While the water flow during peak summer is too meager to support a healthy fish population, during monsoon, fish can finally flourish. Fishermen move in to inhabit Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj river bank.

Christmas was spent in a small hotel instead of my grandmother's home. My aunt, Tara and she decided to take a break from the humid Kerala weather.
During the monsoons, they tend to construct makeshift tents on the river bank, from where they launch their boats every morning and keep a keen eye on their livelihood the rest of the day.

These fishermen, mostly migrants from Bihar and West Bengal, spend hours making or working on their nets and boats. They construct makeshift tents, from where they launch their boats every morning.

In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.
Fishermen sometimes travel 25km beyond Delhi’s Badarpur border to catch fish. After Diwali each year, they move to Agra and places in Rajasthan in search of fish.

Smaller nets, measuring a couple of hundred feet, take a week to make, while the bigger ones which can measure up to one thousand feet are laborious, taking up to two years to weave. The fishing boats, which are usually made from re-jigged pieces of wood and aluminum sheets, take five days to build.

The last family photograph. They sat near the Vembanad lake in central Kerala. She’d be gone within a month.
About a hundred fishermen work through the rainy season on the Kalindi Kunj stretch of the river, their nets often sandwiched between the lifeline bridges connecting Delhi to suburban NOIDA.

About a hundred fishermen work through the rainy season on the Kalindi Kunj stretch of the river, their nets often sandwiched between the lifeline bridges connecting Delhi to suburban NOIDA.

In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.
Raman Haldar’s face is a study of the many years spent in the grueling sun and tough fishing schedules.

Raman Haldar’s face speaks of the many years spent fishing under a grueling sun. Fishermen sometimes travel 25km beyond Delhi’s Badarpur border to catch fish. After Diwali each year, they move to Agra and places in Rajasthan in search of fish.

After the funeral, we sat under the makeshift scaffolding in her garden. It felt eerily normal. But as the conversation dried up, we began to feel her absence.
“Some of these fish are exotic enough to attract bids at the wholesale fish market that sprouts up on the riverbank every afternoon. However, trucks carrying several quintals of fish from Haryana’s Mewat region, gives stiff competition to us,” one of the fishermen said.

“Some of these fish are exotic enough to attract bids at the wholesale fish market that sprouts up on the riverbank every afternoon. However, trucks carrying several quintals of fish from Haryana’s Mewat region, gives stiff competition to us,” one of the fishermen said.

Our first dinner after the funeral. Everyone is sharing their memories especially my chatty mother, Roshin.
In August, on good days, a group of five fishermen can catch up to 20 kg or more in the Kalindi Kunj stretch of the river. Half of what that is owed to the “contractor”, the man responsible for the annual contract to fish in a particular stretch of the river. He chooses the ones who will “go in” armed with their nets. There are about a hundred fishermen working at the moment in this particular stretch of the river.

During this time of the year, on a good day, a group of five fishermen can catch up to 20 kg or more in the Kalindi Kunj stretch of the river. These are the days when they can return to the shore with a net full of fish — rohu, milan kar, mangoor, birgat, singhi, bhata, hilsa, pangas, jhenga, jalmas.

In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.
The day starts early for these river men around five in the morning, when they go in for the first catch. They come back after four-odd hours, to cook their first meal of the day

Half of the catch is owed to the ‘contractor’, the man responsible for the annual contract allowing them to fish in the river. The contractor decides who can “go in” to the river, armed with nets.

We stood in church for over an hour. It was long and arduous. Grief, as I've learnt is exhausting.
Roma Haldar, 42, looks on as he inspects his net for tears before he makes the trip to launch it into the Yamuna, in Noida, India, on Saturday August 20, 2016. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times)

Fisherman Roma Haldar’s life is in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Indian capital. The day starts early, at the crack of dawn, when fishermen set out to reel in the day’s catch.

We lowered her body down into the grave. The finality of it all was overwhelming. We threw some earth  over her coffin and slowly walked away.
This river-based livelihood is reflected in what they eat – fish that they have caught themselves, cooked in different styles, and that, too, twice a day.

After spending about four hours in the river, the fishermen return around 9 a.m. for the first meal of the day. This river-based livelihood is reflected in what they eat – fish that they have caught themselves, cooked in different styles, and that, too, twice a day.

Her funeral procession went through the crowded streets of Kottayam. Her funeral hearse was large and flooded with light. We stopped outside the church and took her body through a crowd of mourners.
It’s been a well deserved rest for Mona Raj Bansi, 31, after a tiring fishing trip into the River Yamuna. He recently moved base after four months of fishing in nearby Rajasthan, to harvest the better catch in the Monsoon swollen waters of the river.

Fisherman Mona Raj Bansi catches some well deserved rest after a tiring trip. He moved base to Kalindi Kunj area recently, after four months in nearby Rajasthan, to harvest the good catch in the monsoon-fed river.

In late July 2015, her lungs had begun to fail. She would lie down  ever so  often. Any kind of exertion would take a huge toll. She was in a lot of pain and she kept willing her body to fight, but her strength began to diminish. A day after I took this, she started using an oxygen cylinder to supplement her breathing.
The 22-km stretch in Delhi then starts becoming its usual self. A 2015 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report said that on most months, the Yamuna is clogged with additives such as pesticides, garbage, grease and effluents.

By the end of August, the 22-km long stretch of Yamuna in Delhi starts receding to its usual self. Though their families live in villages near Noida, the retreating water level in the river can force the fishermen to live a nomadic lifestyle, shifting from place to place in search of the best catch.

In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.
Despite thousands of crores spent on various projects to clean the river, the Yamuna, over the years, has just become more and more polluted. Only in monsoon, with fresh clean water, the river cleanses itself and river water fish arrives and flourishes.

Despite thousands of crores being spent on various projects to clean the river, Yamuna has become increasingly polluted and its characteristic stench has remained unchanged.

We kept vigil through the night. My mother and her sisters took turns to stay awake. As the hours passed, we began to look through the mobile mortuary at her corpse.
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“It is a fickle profession, wholly based on the whims of weather and river. In a ‘good’ month, we can earn 20 to 30 thousand rupees, and in a ‘bad’ month, less than ten thousand. Our wives share the burden and work as maids in Noida homes,” a 50-year-old migrant from Bengal said.

We kept vigil through the night. My mother and her sisters took turns to stay awake. As the hours passed, we began to look through the mobile mortuary at her corpse.
Raman Haldar, 45, and most other fishermen are migrants from West Bengal and Bihar. They spend hours making or working on their nets and boats. Smaller nets, measuring a couple of hundred feet, take a week, while the bigger ones that can measure up to a thousand feet are a labour of love, taking as much as two years to make.

Raman Haldar attends to his nets in the relative cool of his shack, as another day draws to an end for these fishermen.

Her cupboard. She had an enviable collection of saris. Her daughters waited 30 days to open it up and sift through more than 180 saris.
In these days of sudden dark clouds and surprising showers, even the murky waters of the Yamuna is full of rohu, milan kar, mangoor, birgat, singhi, bhata, hilsa, pangas, jhenga and jalmas. This is the one time of the year, in the monsoons, they get a full net of fish.

Web Producer: Abhinash Kumar Jha