Velu told me that he had seen people with different instruments probe the water to measure its levels of toxicity. “But they never enter the water. Why don’t they just ask us fishermen? After all, only by entering the water do we make an income.”
The industrialization of Velu’s landscape has heavily affected the river that supports his income. The presence of copper, zinc and mercury has been confirmed by different scientific tests that were designed to measure the levels of bioaccumulation that aquatic life in the river had endured. But Velu knows that the water is polluted. His body, he insisted, was enough to make sense of it.
In the image above, Velu and Surya are drawing the nets they had set up in the river, back onto the boat. Both the action of setting up the nets and the work needed to draw them back on the boat demands the body to be fully or partially immersed in the water. His feet traverse the riverbed, making calculations of its depth and consistency. His body measures the strength of the current as he sets up the nets to withstand its force. His hands work through the nets in the water, untangling any unnecessary accretion that might hamper the proper functioning of his nets. All routine calculations of their river and all measured by their body.
At first glance this image might just appear as two men in the process of fishing. But I wish to reorient our reading of the image. This image is also a representation of the body’s intimacy with toxicity. Not solely as victims of industrial pollution, but also as “embodied empiricists” in their own landscape. Knowing that the water is polluted changes our perspective of the two men. But it is in knowing that both Velu and Surya are well aware of the water’s pollution, through its influence on their body and in their place, can we visualize what we otherwise might believe only lies beneath the surface.
Rishabh, "The Body in the Water", contributed by Rishabh Raghavan, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 2 March 2020, accessed 24 September 2023. http://centerforethnography.org/content/body-water