After a long season of empty nets, the month of Aadi arrived amidst much hope and desperate need. But Aadi was a betrayal too. When the monsoon over the western ghats is healthy, and the Cauvery and the Kollidam (Coleroon) rivers run bankful to discharge their nutrient-laden waters into the Bay of Bengal, they give birth to an annual marine phenomenon called vanda thanni (turbid water). Pushed by powerful thendi (southerly) and ice-cold olini (easterly) currents, nutrient-laden vanda thanni waters flow north along the shore like a turbid river boiling with all kinds of fish small and large. This is a fish bonanza, a lottery where fishers sometimes make half a year’s earnings in just a day’s fishing. But this year too, the vanda thanni was a no-show.
“Before the tsunami, the sea behaved with a predictable rhythm. Now, nothing is as it should be,” Palayam says, echoing a popular lament that can be heard along the length of the Coromandel coast. “The vaadai naal (northeast monsoon) retreats late; instead of ending with the month of Thai (mid-Jan to mid-Feb), the currents don’t reverse until well into Maasi (mid-Feb to mid-March). The summer days of kodai spill into the stormy vaadai season (northeast monsoon) without a break. Vanni northerly currents ought to set in by Purattasi (mid-September to mid-October) bringing with them a month of clear, calm seas and plenty of fish.” But Palayam predicts that like last few years, this year too we will have rough seas in Purattasi.
Fatigued by the depressing stories of empty nets and whimsical seas, I asked if he had any stories of good fishing in Aadi-Aavani. It took all of two long strides for him to sift through his considerable database of stories to come up with one. This was a story about an exceptional fishing day, but my interruptions and need for clarifications made it as much a story about winds and navigation.
On that day in the month of Aadi, Palayam and his brother purchased about 150 mathi-meen (sardines) from a local fisher. “We must have left at around 7:30 or 8 am,” he recalls. That’s when the first boats return from the vidinchakal paadu (dawn fishing). If these boats return with empty nets, it is bad news for hook-and-line fishermen. It is fish from these boats that are used as bait for our hooks. No fish in the nets of the valaikarars (net fishermen) means no bait for the marathukarars (hook-and-line fishers).”
Like Palayam, his elder brother Viswanathan too is an accomplished fisherman. “We had good teachers. My father was a skilled fisherman who worshipped his work. Then we had Murungakkai who was known for his presence of mind and intuition.
“Fishing had been slow for the valaikarars (net fishers) those last few days. We caught the kachan kodai (southwest) breeze and automatically set a thenmela (southeasterly) bearing. (then refers to south; mela refers to the direction of the deep sea (east).)”
I was confused. With a southwest breeze, won’t the “automatic” course that a sailboat takes be on a northeasterly bearing? Over time, I had learnt that Palayam anna uses English words very confidently, but very loosely. Sometimes, the words just don’t mean what he intends it to mean. I was to find out that this was one such instance.
I cross-checked with Navaz, a good friend and a passionate sailor from the Madras Yacht Club, about the “automatic” direction with a southwest breeze. Navaz patiently explained the basics. “When you sail with the wind behind you, that is called a “run.” When you sail into the wind, it’s called a “beat”. When you have the wind coming at you from the side, that’s called a “reach.” So heading southeast when the wind is blowing from the southwest is a “reach”. That takes some doing.
He didn’t understand why I was making such a big deal about the word automatic. In Palayam’s lexicon, automatic is what your muscle does to respond to a situation. For fishers like Palayam, navigation is not about thinking but about letting one’s muscle memory instruct the working muscle.
Palayam gets easily frustrated with me. “Come on a boat with me, and I will show you. You can learn in one boat trip what will take you ten days to learn if I were to explain to you drawing lines on the sand.” But believe it or not, for all that I may say about his lack of patience with my ignorance, it is a fact that he is easy with me. If I had been a fisherman by birth, and with this level of incompetence, he would have been unforgiving. Today, before he started on the story about his exceptional fishing event, he was cussing out Sunnambu (name changed). Sunnambu was a young pattinavar man from Pulicat who had not heard about a variety of prawn called nattu iral. Pattinavar refers to the caste of the community of sea-fishers from north Tamil Nadu.
“He calls himself a fisherman!” Palayam spat in disgust. “He says he’s gone to sea with his father. But he doesn’t know what a nattu iral is. I have lost all respect for him. He should be ashamed to say he’s a graduate. What use is his law degree if he doesn’t know the names of the fish in his sea?”
Palayam was trying to take me on a boat ride to explain what I thought was my simple question about the direction he took and the prevalent winds. But I insisted on an immediate clarification, and he yielded.
“You are right that if I set sail with the wind behind me, I would be headed in a vadamel (northeast) direction. But if I did that I would have difficulty returning home. Remember these are kodai naal (summer days). The sea breeze won’t be brisk and will blow from the southeast in the afternoon. If I want to head home with least effort after a day’s work, I should be positioned to run with the wind behind me. When I leave, I’m already thinking and planning for my return. So we decided to head towards the southeast. The paar (reef) that we were seeking is at around 16 fathom east of Injambakkam. By when it is time to return, we are likely to have a slow breeze blowing from the southeast. Now, I can run with the wind behind me as planned; I will be able to comfortably reach the Urur Kuppam beach.”
Nothing that the fisherman did was without intent.
“We made good time. Once we crossed the nearshore waters, we entered a zone with turbid waters as we headed out deeper and deeper past 16 fathoms.”
The sea speaks to fishers through its colours and texture as much as it does through currents and how the wavelets appear and dissipate.
“That day, the sea was the colour of coffee at the surface and a churning of mud below. Imagine what you’d look like if you were to emerge from a gutter; the sea had the colour and consistency of that slush.
Suddenly, I spotted a maavulasi (narrow-barred seer fish) flapping its tail. Maavulasi do that when they are feeding. Sometimes they jump out of the water. It is easier to spot them when they do that. But that day, it was just a flap at the surface. I called out to my brother and loosened the sail to let it flap, and shoved the thadapalagai (keel) down to stabilise the kattumaram. Both of us quickly grabbed a hook, threaded a piece of fresh sardine, added a lead ball for weight. I was at the kadaa end (back or stern of the boat) and my brother was at the thala (head, bow or front-end of the boat).
Barely had I cast my line, and a 3 kg maavalasi grabbed the bait. I hauled it in excitedly. By the time I landed the fish thrashing on my maram my brother had snagged one and was hauling it in. He cast his line on the side of the sail (leeward), and I cast from the windward side so that both of us could fish simultaneously. We were atop an entire maappu (shoal) of maavulasi. We let the boat drift. All we cared was to stay with the shoal. After that it was a tiring but fulfilling stint of threading bait, dropping the hook, reeling it in, unhooking the fish. . .and repeat. In no time, we had 60 fair-sized maavulasi on our boat. We sold it for Rs. 20,000 – a fair sum in those days.”
Predictably, seeing us return with so much fish caused a lot of excitement in our village. Next day, all the marathukaarars (hook-and-line fishers) left for the same fishing grounds. But the sea was not in the mood. The fishers were in for a kadaveri – the seas had changed overnight from being bountiful to being tightfisted. That day, it poured like it never had before. Between the winds and the pouring rain, every single boat returned empty.