They lost their loved ones to alcohol abuse. Now these young men are surfing to escape and heal themselves.


On the pristine coast of Tamil Nadu state in southern India, a small fishing village called Mahabalipuram is home to Mumu Surf School, one of India’s most popular surf schools. It is run by Mukesh Panjanathan, known to everyone as Mumu, who lives two minutes from the school on the beach.

Every morning he watches the sunlight glisten on the seawater and the palm leaves sway in the breeze. Along the shore are kattumarams, a local term for boats made from tree trunks, which he used to squeeze into the sea as a child to ride the waves. But as beautiful as it is, the seaside town has a dark side.

Mumu was just 12 – the youngest of six siblings – when his father, who suffered from health problems linked to alcoholism, committed suicide.

“Alcohol addiction is a huge challenge for fishing communities,” Vincent Jain, deputy head of the Federation of South Indian Fishing Societies, a nonprofit dedicated to building, told VICE. traditional fishing. “Most of them start drinking in their teens and start making money. “

It is common for fishermen to drink up to three times a day, and paying for their addiction consumes a large part of the money they earn. As it stands, their livelihoods are already strained due to large-scale commercial fishing activities and the climate crisis.

Mumu, now 36, said fishermen use alcohol as a “pain reliever” because of the exhausting and precarious nature of their work. They paddle their boats in the sea as early as three in the morning, sometimes in very difficult conditions, and return with a batch of fish at sunrise. That is, if they are lucky. The rest of the day leaves them doing nothing.

“Drinking helps them fall asleep; it makes them feel better. Slowly it becomes a habit, ”he said. “But things are changing.

Over the past 15 years, the surge of surf culture in Mahabalipuram has not only turned it into one of the top water sports destinations in India, but has also opened doors for young people to pursue alternative careers. The trend is rooted in the state’s local fishing traditions. Tamil Nadu, which occupies 13% of India’s long coastline, has one of the country’s most prosperous and active fishing communities, with more than 608 fishing villages in 13 coastal districts and a fishing population of over ‘a million.

“The generations to come have a lot more freedom to choose what they want to do, instead of sitting around and getting drunk,” said Mumu, who is among the first surfers to emerge from the local fishing community.

Mumu charges students Rs 1,000 ($ 13.33) an hour for surf lessons, but he teaches and lends surfboards to local kids for free, provided they also help him clean the beach. . “I want them to connect with the environment and protect the ocean. In my father’s time, we went 5 kilometers into the sea and came back with bags full of fish. Now people have to travel 10 to 20 kilometers to find fish.

In Kodi Bengre – a small fishing village of about 8,500 people on the coast of the neighboring state of Karnataka – everyone knows Nithin Kharvi. Whenever Kharvi goes fishing, the 25-year-old returns with a batch of fish within half an hour of entering the sea, leaving the rest of the fishermen bewildered.

“I notice the direction of the wind and the tide and I can predict the movement of the fish,” he said.

Although Kharvi spent much of his childhood baiting fish and crabs in the pond behind his house, he credits his prowess to surf fishing. “The more time you spend catching waves in the ocean, the better you understand them,” he said.

Although he is an excellent fisherman, the money from fishing alone cannot meet the needs of his family who live in the nearby village of Kundapura. “The fishing season only lasts from August to December. After that there are fewer fish to catch, ”he said.

Kharvi has been working at sea since the age of 14. He dropped out of school to support his family when his father’s health deteriorated from alcohol abuse. “Every time he tried to cut down on his intake he would throw up,” he said.

In his first job as a crew member on a trawler, an industrial fishing vessel, he was so overworked that he barely slept a blink of an eye at night. Now when he’s not fishing he works as a surf instructor and camping manager at Shaka Surf Club, a surf school in Kodi Bengre. “Surfing has completely changed my life,” he said. “It made me easy going.” He calls himself a “soul surfer” – someone who relishes every sunrise and sunset, and at night, prefers to sleep on a roof or in a hammock from where he can see the stars.

But some surfers want more from the sport than just a quiet lifestyle. In Kovalam – a fishing village an hour from Chennai, the bustling capital of Tamil Nadu – boys as young as 10 are full of ambition. They aspire to represent India at the international surfing championships, especially after the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics this year. The village has around 100 surfers, 14 surf instructors and seven surf schools. It also hosts the Covelong Point Surf Festival every year, which attracts over 15,000 Indian and foreign surf enthusiasts and competitors.

“This is a great opportunity for young surfers to meet new people, develop their communication skills and broaden their knowledge of surfing,” Dharani Selvakumar, a 29-year-old surf instructor. to Kovalam, VICE told VICE.

Fishing has never been a career option for Selvakumar. His father always wanted him to be an engineer, and surfing was unacceptable. “He thought I was wasting my time,” Selvakumar said. Her father would come home drunk and fight with his mother, even physically abuse her. “I stayed away from him and only came home to eat,” he said. “Sometimes I slept on the beach.

For 13-year-old Kishore Kumar, one of Selvakumar’s students, this is fortunately not a problem. His father, a recovering alcoholic, not only accepts his passion for surfing but also encourages him by encouraging him during his competitions.

“The fishing community and the surf culture have a lot to gain from each other,” said Rammohan Paranjape, vice president of the Surfing Federation of India, the national governing body of surfing. “In terms of tourism, the sport grows every year, bringing even more business opportunities to fishermen in the form of host families, restaurants and shops.”

But he thinks India still has a long way to go in competitive surfing. “It takes years of development at the local level,” he said. “India has some great surf spots, but maybe they’re not world class. Surfers need to be trained in different countries and places to become better and more competitive surfers.

Back in Mahabalipuram, Mumu’s immediate neighbor, Akilan S, 17, has won several national surfing competitions, including the Covelong Point Surf Festival. He can glide through the waves of the barrel, create shapes on them, and even perform aerial tricks.

Now he aspires to practice on the waves in Sri Lanka, Bali or the Maldives – places relatively closer to India. Her dream destination is Australia. However, he cannot even afford the Rs 500 ($ 6.69) entrance ticket and the cost of travel for competitions in South India. He lost his father two years ago to liver failure caused by alcohol abuse. He dropped out of school after ninth grade to help his mother, who sells fish in the local market.

Without surfing, would Akilan have turned to alcohol as well? He can’t say for sure. But his childhood friend, surfing buddy and translator of this interview, Sivaraj Babu, thinks he would have done it. “Because that’s what everyone in our village does,” he said.

One would expect a parent’s alcohol problems to serve as a warning to their children. Yet studies suggest that children of people who suffer from alcoholism are more likely to develop alcohol abuse disorders on their own.

Surfing is another form of addiction for Akilan. “The feeling I had when I caught my first wave is beyond words. I just knew I wanted more, ”he said. “When I’m in the water, I forget all my problems and just think about the waves.”

Akilan said some young boys in his neighborhood have already become addicted to alcohol, but he and his friends don’t have time for it. They surf in the morning when Akilan returns from fishing, take a lunch break for an hour or two, then return to the water. “If the waves are good, we don’t want to be on land,” he said.

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