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More Than Just a Pretty Sight; What Fishers Read in Red Dawn Skies

More Than Just a Pretty Sight; What Fishers Read in Red Dawn Skies

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Daybreak on June 17, 2023 was spectacular. The northeastern horizon was on fire. Every morning, Palayam anna sends me photographs and short videos of the seas and skies taken from the Urur Kuppam beach. If there is anything special, I would receive a recorded audio note as well. Since I’m out of the country, my morning walk-and-talk sessions have been reduced to this ersatz tutoring. June 17 was special. I received a voice note at around 2:30 pm Chennai time. Palayam goes out to the seaside three times a day – at dawn, at around noon and at 10 pm – to observe wind and current conditions that I then enter in a database that we have been maintaining since September 2018 (minus a part of the COVID-19 lockdown).

For those who understand Tamil, I have shared the link so you can hear the real thing. Please ignore the initial section where he chides me for being unresponsive, wondering if I’m busy. “I don’t know if you have a lot of work” ought to be read as “Too busy to respond, eh?”

A translation follows for those who cannot understand Tamil, or may have difficulty with vadakathu kadalmozhi, the name we have given for the fisher Tamil spoken in the Chennai coast. I will intersperse the translation with short notes within square brackets to explain terms peculiar to fisher ways of knowing and tacit meanings.

“Greetings brother! In the morning, early morning when I go [to the seaside]. . .you saw the photos I sent? I don’t know if you have a lot of work… Every morning when I go out [to the seaside], every time when sunrise reddens the skies, it is understood that some natural changes are in the offing. Every day is different and there are changes. That is why our ‘Science of the Seas’ project deserves such intent attention.”

“We are now still in Kachaan naal [a season that roughly corresponds with the southwest monsoon], not Vaadai naal [season that roughly corresponds with the northeast monsoon]. This morning I immediately sensed something. Towards the northeast, the skies above the low-hanging clouds on the horizon were a resplendent red. “What’s this?” I wondered. It looked like the sun had shifted northwards. How can that be? We are deep in Kachaan days, and the Vaikasi vaangal* has barely faded, and the month of Aani is just two days old.” [*Vaangal refers to powerful localised eddies and whirlpools that are generated by strong southerly currents. The Tamil month of Vaikasi (mid-May to mid-June) is known for these deadly vaangals that have been known to trap even powerful swimmers among the fishers. Fishers are wary of these eddies.]

“The thendi [southerly] and olini [easterly] currents have pushed the edaapu* close to the shore. Everything is as it should be in Kachaan days. If one looks at data from the last few years, we can see that pre-dawn reddening and sunrise should be from ner eeran [due east]. That would be the truthful way. Then what does it mean when red skies [dawn indicators] are lighting up the north in this uncharacteristic manner?” [*Edaapu is a shifting line in the sea that marks the separation of turbid nearshore waters from clearer midsea or deepsea waters. Depending on whether a landward-moving easterly (known as olini) is in force or a seaward-moving westerly (memeri), the edaapu will be pushed closer to land or deeper into sea respectively.]

“Is this Vaadai naal (northeast monsoon season) that the sun is rising from the northeast? Why is the vaadai eeran (north eastern) sky reddening to signal daybreak? It is only as the sun clears the horizon that the red begins to bleed out as the day brightens. This morning, sevvanam [red skies] was unusually bright. You may have seen the photos. What is the reason? What changes do these signify. When we observe this, why do we write ‘winds can change; currents can shift and it may rain’.”

In many of our conversations, anna has reminded me of the saying “kaalai sevvanam kaatrukku; maalai sevvanam mazhaikku”, meaning red skies at dawn signal winds, and the same at dusk signal rains. Today’s sevvanam brought in the winds needed to disturb the oppressive heat. Palayam explains:

“First, the hot land breeze clashes with the sea breeze when the latter sets in. Second, the clouds brought in by the northerlies collide with clouds from the south, moist breezes then bring rain. This is what is happening.”

“At 1 pm, [I observed that] the winds had shifted. A vaadai eeran [northeasterly wind] has set in. How can it not when the [northeastern] skies were painted bright red at dawn? The wind has shifted despite the prevailing thendi themma olinisal* conditions. But this breeze is not here to stay. It will shift. By evening, if it rains, the rains will quell the northerlies, and the wind will swing back to blow from kachaan eeran [the southeast].” [*thendi themma olinisal refers to the combined influence of two currents – the south-to-north thendi current, and the east-to-west olini. Southerlies are the prevailing currents and winds during the southwest monsoon season, and currents influence winds and vice-versa. For the breeze to shift to blow from the north, despite the prevailing southerly is significant.]

“This is the reason behind the unbearable odukkam [a condition of stillness absent of any breeze] of the last few days. Yesterday (June 16) was oppressively hot compared even to other days. The days were doubly oppressive because the northeasterly sea breeze was weak [and couldn’t set in]. But today, that has changed, and the heat is doubly reduced. This morning (June 17), I noted that the heat will reduce as the day progresses with chances of rain either later on or at night.”

At 10 pm, Palayam anna sent me another voice message.

“Greetings brother. As already mentioned, at 1 pm today, the vaadai eeran [northeasterly winds] set in, right? These are not Vaadai days, but Kachaan season. Northerlies will be transient and not stable, and unlikely to last after sunset. That’s why the winds shifted to kachaan eeran (southeast) after sunset. Then from 7:14 pm, it started drizzling, and it was leaking rain from then to 9:10 pm. But the rains were too weak [to wet the ground]. The past few days have been very hot. The land has been radiating heat. Raindrops sizzle out on contact with the ground. The wetness of the rains is overwhelmed by the parched heat of the land. Now, the rains have stopped. I wanted to share this with you to note the momentous changes that can be signalled by a sevvanam (red skies).”

It is June 19, as I conclude this essay. It has been raining incessantly since midnight. Such heavy downpours in June are rare. Rare enough for the much-loved weather blogger Tamilnadu Weatherman @praddy06 to tweet: “This is today 150+ mm event in June. Rare indeed, very very rare indeed in June.”

The rains were brought in by clouds moving in from the sea, from the northeast that was afire at dawn on June 17. An event that many enjoyed, but only the wise ones like Palayam saw as a sign of things to come.

Note: For an introduction to local seasons as fishers see it, you can read the story here.

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