The mudalali

Known simply as ‘Mudalali’, the fisherman from Rathgama talks about his friends from Batticoloa where he used to fish, and his father who raised him to be fearless at sea. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam and Daniel Ringold. Archive photography by Studio Times, Colombo.

Join the discussion: 3 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Gayathri, who was helping me find elders to talk to from Galle, knew exactly where we’d find the Mudalali: sitting in the front porch of his home mending his nets. It was the off season in Rathgama, the Mudalali’s hometown, but now in his seventies, he rarely went out to sea.

    Because of the noise from the dense traffic coming from the Galle Road, the Mudalali took us round to the back of his house. There, I followed the cooking smells into the cabin of an old boat that stood in the garden. The Mudalali had converted it into a makeshift kitchen for his daughter, who was busy preparing a Sri Lankan meal of rice, maalu, hothi and pol sambol. It was mouth watering to watch and a joy to photograph.

    As his daughter cooked lunch, we sat nearby and listened to the Mudalali as he remembered his childhood days. His father had been his teacher – he had taught the Mudalali his “craft” as he called it.

    The father had struck up friendships with Batticoloa fishermen and these friendships along with the business had passed on to the son. The father and son team led migratory fishing expeditions to the east, but these ceased during the war. The Mudalali was now keen to reconnect with his old friends on the eastern shores of Sri Lanka.

    “There was nothing to be afraid of in the sea,” the Mudalali said. He had survived the tsunami by clinging on to a coconut tree a few metres from where we sat. The Mudalali’s father had also been a protector. And this responsibility now passed to the Mudalali.

    The Mudalali spoke of distant places with Tamils names, so faraway from his hometown. More than fishermen, these men were explorers, adventurers, I thought to myself.

    The Mudalali had a large family. Some were abroad in Italy, and his children still in Rathgama owned boats and houses. They had done well in life. But what mattered most for the Mudalali was that the family business continued after him. There were other workers whose livelihoods depended on it.

    After our interview, we left the brave Mudalali to get back to the work of repairing his nets.

  • prema gunaratna says:

    Very interesting project, can get a glimpse of day-to-day things.

  • Nancy Fernando says:

    Beautiful story, well written. I wish the story could continue on and on. I would then give the story the title “The Old Man of the Sea”.


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