The morning air is still, though not yet uncomfortably warm. It is early April. We decided not to walk today; we’ll cycle instead. If we ride fast enough, we can fool ourselves into believing there was a brisk breeze blowing into our faces. This dawn-time stillness has a name in fisher tamil – Odukkam. The first time Palayam anna said “Odukkama irukku,” I asked him what it meant and whether I should include it in the work-in-progress glossary of fisher tamil words that we were compiling. “Definitely! Add this. When the breeze suddenly drops to a still, we call it Odukkam,” he offered.
Chithirai (mid-April) is the beginning of Chennai’s infamously hot season. It is April 6 – and the last week of the Tamil month of Panguni. We are still enjoying pleasant mornings and evenings. Palayam is not happy. “The scorching kodai breeze from the west is late in the coming. The winds won’t shift until a thunderstorm forms, quenches the earth and swings the breeze to a steady and forceful westerly.” That will be good for fishing. Scared by the tremors caused by the thunderstorm, fish flee the deep waters towards the shore.
For many years on end, summer storms have given Chennai a miss. “Before tsunami, not a year passed without a storm either in Chithirai or Vaikaasi (May-June). But now everything is topsy turvy,” Palayam says, repeating a lament that can be heard across Tamil Nadu’s coast. Chithirai is notorious for its night-time summer storms, just as Vaikaasi is for its day storms. The tsunami appears to be a major threshold between the predictable seas of yesteryears and the unpredictable oceanic phenomena that some attribute to climate change.
Last night, Barathi brought back a decent catch of muliyan, kanan keluthi and vari paarai. “Should fetch him at least Rs. 2000. I had gone to pick up some fish for our kitchen.” The mid-sea current has broken to a light vanni. In fisher speak, “odanchirukku” which is tamil for “has broken” refers to when a current slows down and reverses directions, even if temporarily. This season is characterised by southerly thendi currents both nearshore and in mid-sea. These will remain in force until the southwest monsoon fades, and are replaced by the northerly vanni current with the onset of the northeast monsoon. “Barathi told me that last night, the sea was white with vavval (pomfret) swimming around,” Palayam said.
The young fisherman was keen to return the next night with a specialised vavval valai (float net) to catch the pomfret. But, Palayam warned him. “Don’t go out at night brother. Wait till the Chithirai storm has come and gone. There’s no telling when a storm can build up. There’ll be good fishing after that with all the fish coming ashore and jumping into your net,” he said.
The sea breeze is still making mischief. Throughout the night, the breeze blows gustily from the south – a nedun kachaan from the cardinal south. Around 5:45 am, just as daylight breaks and before the sun peeps over the horizon, the brisk breeze drops to a standstill (odukkam). And then, as we end our morning walk and return from the river mouth, there’s just a meek hint of a breeze from the southwest (a kachan kodai). Such a weak breeze can’t keep the sea breeze out. By 10 am, thankfully for the residents of Chennai, a gentle, cool kachan eeran sea breeze sets in that intensifies as the day progresses.
The odukkam marks a threshold when the sea and land are at a tentative equilibrium. Breezes are a result of differentials in temperature and pressure and Earth’s movement.
The sea heats and cools slowly; it is the opposite with land. After months of cool weather, the sea is still much cooler than the land. As the sun rises, the fast-heating land warms the air column above it. Hot air rises, and the cool sea breeze rushes in to fill up the low pressure. With every passing day of blazing sun, the sea is taking in the heat and retaining it. The day is not far when the night-time sea will be warmer than the fast-cooled land at night. When this happens, the night breeze will blow from the west and the dog days of a full-fledged kodai summer will be in evidence. Incidentally, kodai which means westerlies in fisher tamil also means summer in colloquial Tamil.
Rains even far out west will quench the land, cool it, and trigger an eastward breeze.
“Give it a few more days. If not here, there will be thunderstorms further west,” Palayam says hopefully. “The hot days will be upon us. Let’s hope for a storm here so that the misery of heat is offset by good fishing.”
A glossary of terms
- Odukkam: When a brisk wind drops to a still
- Odanchirukku: When an ocean current slows, stops and reverses direction
- Chithirai: Tamil month falling between mid-April and mid-May
- Vaikaasi: Tamil month falling between mid-May and mid-June
- Kachan: Southerly breeze
- Thendi: Southerly sea current
- Vanni: Northerly sea current
- Kodai: Summer, also means westerly breeze
- Kachan kodai: Breeze from the southwest
- Nedun Kachan: Breeze from the cardinal south
- Kachan eeran: Southeasterly breeze, breeze from the southeast (sea breeze)
- Muliyan: Tamil name for big-eyed mackerel
- Kanankeluthi: Tamil name for mackerel
- Vari Paarai: Tamil name for blue trevally