Fishing Nets and Social Networks of the Analog Kind

From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies

“Float Boat and Floats” by Dale Chihuly. “Glass in bloom” exhibition at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, July 2021. Photo by Jehan Desikan.

We watched as Kala sat on the floor in the portico of her house in the midday sun of Ganjam, Odisha, weaving fishing nets. The threads were tied to her big toe on one side and to a wooden stick about six inches long on the other. Her hands moved methodically at metronomic precision as she pulled and knotted the threads together. She was completely immersed in her rhythmic task. We watched hypnotized, from thousands of miles away on our cell phones.

We, the authors, were far away from each other as well as being away from Kala. We watched the video together on Zoom, exchanging observations as if huddled together in a university library. We met through the Southern Collective, a transdisciplinary “collaboratory” (see Aarthi Sridhar’s essay in this series for an explanation of this term) working on climate-related migration in the northern Indian Ocean. We had both worked on crisis hotlines after India imposed shelter-in-place orders in March 2020. The “lockdown”, as it was called, had profound implications for millions of migrant laborers who were stranded and suddenly unemployed. We both, along with the rest of the country, witnessed waves upon waves of migrant laborers walking home. However, media narratives centered around male migrant workers and industries dominated by them, invisibilizing women. We recognized the erasure of multiple groups of women from public discourse: those who migrated solo or as part of family units, and those who stayed back to manage the household. Media reportage failed to adequately cover stories of impacted women. Visibility matters, and without it there are gaping holes in the imaginations of those who make policy and those who petition governments. We had both been independently thinking about how the crisis may have affected women. When we met virtually in September 2020, we decided to explore this idea together, as one of us sheltered-in-place in the eastern city of Kolkata, and the other in the southern city of Bengaluru.

We were excited about the concept of remote research. It would potentially offer enormous benefits as Gökçe Günel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe (2020) point out. For our area of interest, it meant the possibility of being able to document personal pandemic accounts of women even though fieldwork in the traditional sense wasn’t possible. We knew this could be done by creatively collaborating with local experts (researchers, community leaders, NGO workers, union members) in this new experimental mode. With mostly consistent internet, initial planning meetings, readings, and discussions, all proceeded smoothly.

We were keen to find out more about women migrant workers from coastal communities in the Bay of Bengal and their lives under pandemic conditions. We first contacted activist networks, unions, and NGOs. Since many of these networks have limited gender representation, the NGOs we spoke to had difficulties maintaining connections with women in these communities. Where connections with women existed, conversations with them were almost always supervised by men because most women didn’t own their own phones and had to use phones owned by men. Even when women had access to their own phones, men within earshot felt entitled to take over the conversation. From our past experiences, we knew that such circumstances create restrictions on what women can say and how much they can express themselves. Men often interrupt or interpret women’s responses. Thus, we realized that the spaces where we could learn more would be within networks which are dominated by women, including care workers such as beauticians, nurses, and domestic workers. Working through these networks, we found stories of women from their coastal hometowns. It is through these connections that our accounts of women in lockdown emerged.

The lockdown affected everyone in the informal sector as soon as it was enforced in March 2020. Both women and men lost their jobs; the few who still had jobs stopped receiving wages, and this affected remittances. In dire straits, knowing how to count and tie equidistant knots on nets had instantly helped the women in coastal villages make ends meet. Several of them used their social networks and goodwill to find new ways of generating income for themselves and sending money to their stranded relatives in the cities. During times of crisis, such as job loss or sickness in the family, it is not unusual for women to take on greater financial responsibility. The scale of the Covid-19 crisis meant that most households were under duress at the same time and women’s role in crisis management became ever more crucial.

Kala’s was one such story. During the pandemic, her knowledge of net mending came in handy. Mending fishing nets is a precision artisanal task which demands patience and practice. It is a skill usually passed on through informal familial apprenticeship: the child learns by observing elder family members performing the task. It is similar in many ways to how one learns to ferment dosa batter or braid hair. However, Kala’s skill as a mender would have been insufficient had it not been for another equally important expertise — building and sustaining social networks. These networking skills are crucial regardless of the path women choose to make ends meet.

Economic activity and social relations cannot be easily delineated as they are enmeshed within complex, long-term reciprocal relationships, which are as fraught as they are essential. Unlike cash transactions, community economies are dependent on social relations through which labor exchange and resource sharing take place. Navigating internal hierarchies of caste and gender, to build and maintain these networks, are a large part of income-generating activities within coastal communities. Without wages or remittances being received from migrant relatives, these practices of drawing on community networks, often female and rural-based ones, became crucial during the lockdown.

While some women like Kala relied on traditional practices, others discovered their entrepreneurial spirit. In the same village, Usha and her friends came together to start a small business making plates out of leaves. With two production lines now—one in metal and the other in dried leaves, their business has grown. This has enabled Shruti, Usha’s eldest daughter, to move to a nearby town and attend coaching classes, ensuring her continued education during the pandemic, as schools in India have remained shut, with only urban ones offering online classes since March 2020 (for more on the effects of closure of schools on the lives of rural children, read Guru et al.'s essay on schooling in the Sundarban region). As the breadwinner, Usha has more control over the household income. Being more economically independent has allowed her to prioritize her children’s education. Her younger children now attend school online, using a smartphone. Usha’s husband has since returned, working with her by marketing the group’s wares to stores nearby.

Not belonging to networks has terrible consequences for women. This was unfortunately Zainab’s experience. She left her home in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, to be a domestic worker in New Delhi. With the sudden imposition of the lockdown, she found herself without savings or the means to get back home, 1,400 kilometers away. Following her neighbors, she walked to the nearest interstate bus stop but could not get on the bus. Surrounded by an ocean of men, she found it impossible to board the bus by herself and had to spend months dependent on unreliable governmental aid.

Women without social networks find it hard to access public spaces and facilities, as well as welfare measures. This inability of being in the public sphere unaccompanied by others isn’t only restricted to the surrounding environment, it extends to the digital space as well (Antonio and Tuffley 2014). It is not just the gender dimension, all manner of class and caste privileges also mediate access to both public and digital spaces (Padke et al. 2011; Kamath 2018). Unlike many of the women and men working in the informal sector, we, the authors, had fewer problems accessing networks and digital and public spaces (after the lockdown was relaxed). Carola E. Lorea et al.’s essay in this series also highlights how marginalization operates at the intersections of caste, class, and gender.

Being networked matters. Usha’s story of hard work being rewarded is rare. Many migrant women who were not surrounded by friends or family found themselves doubly impacted by their class and gender. Like net-making, which involves bringing together multiple threads, alternating between forceful action and a light hand, building and maintaining social connections is a delicate task. Women perform this emotional and relational labor every day in order to build and maintain relationships in social groups (Gilligan 1982). Often, such labor remains unacknowledged and uncompensated within most formal economies. In fact, it is rarely recognized as labor (Bhattacharya 2017). It is noteworthy that Usha and the women of Ganjam found ways to monetize such labor in this moment of crisis.

Thinking back, it is incredible how women’s experiences reached us from hundreds of kilometers away in coastal villages, including those of women we had never met before and those from cultures even more distant. Despite the vast social attributes that set us apart, we shared one aspect in common with the coastal women of Ganjam: we, too, could only practice our craft once we connected with a wider network of individuals.


Antonio, Amy, and Tuffley, David. 2014. “The Gender Digital Divide in Developing Countries.” Future Internet 6, no. 4: 673–687.

Bhattacharya, Tithi, ed. 2017. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9.

Kamath, Anant. 2018. ““Untouchable” Cellphones? Old Caste Exclusions and New Digital Divides in Peri-urban Bangalore.” Critical Asian Studies 50, no. 3: 375–394.

Phadke, Shilpa, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. 2011. Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. London: Penguin Books.