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Reading Trash, Telling Seasons

Reading Trash, Telling Seasons

These last few mornings, we have been noticing a lot of trash on the beach. This was not the usual beach litter that the river flood brings in and that the northerly distributed equally along the tide line. This trash was in patches. The intertidal sea too was a patchwork of clear water interspersed with littered water and sections that were thick with cycle tyres, twisted fabric, and plastic litter large and small – from bottles, used injection syringes to small packaging and empty, sea-worn convenience sachets of pickles, coconut oil and spice powders. I stepped into the water to get a closer look at the suspended trash; a torn lungi and several polybags affectionately wrapped themselves around my ankle. I had to drag them ashore to untwist and discard them, and then peel off an empty one rupee sachet of Clinic Plus that wanted to go home with me.

Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

Such flotsam sometimes stretch out as long as rivers in the mid to deep sea. The fishers call these neethul. In earlier days, the neethul contained vegetation from distant lands – bamboo, even entire trees uprooted by storm or tide, coconuts whole and empty and other sundry seed pods – and containers discarded from ships. These days, you find less of these and more plastic litter. The nearshore neethul that we were seeing on our beach is not from distant lands. This was mostly Made in Madras garbage. Clearly visible amidst the garbage strewn on the beach, the fish curry spice sachets of Aachi Kulambu Masala were a dead giveaway. Intertidal neethul patches like what we were seeing suggest a gentle, even playful battle between two opposing shore currents, the southerly thendi and the northerly vanni. At this time of the year – at the cusp of a new season – this also signals that a change is in the offing with the northern forces tiring, and the southern breeze and current asserting themselves.

A day later, we could sense that the thendi had strengthened. “Look how that trash clump was being carried north,” Palayam remarked. Sure enough, the clump of fabric, twisted at one end and ballooning on another side, was moving in a curious zig-zag pattern. A low wave would surge, gently pushing the trash clump to the beach, the next wave would sweep in from the south and drag it north and down; another wave would push it beachwards, and the next would drag it down and north and so on.

Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

People joke that Chennai has three seasons – hot, hotter and hottest. But these are uncharitable outsiders that don’t really know the city. Yes there is the heat. But we also have a brief but delightful “cool” season spanning the months of Margazhi (Dec-Jan), Thai (Jan-Feb) and Maasi (Feb-Mar). We call this “winter” and we’re quite serious about it. Chennai’s winter follows the wet months of the northeast monsoon. Night and early morning temperatures can plunge to the low 20s (degrees celsius) during these months. If you are in Chennai during this time, you can’t miss the winter feel. Morning beach-walkers can be seen wearing chinese monkey caps and woollen mufflers.

Where conventional meteorologists are preoccupied with the onset and retreat of monsoons, fishers agonise over the winds and the currents in the nearshore and midsea waters. Since September 2018, Palayam has been noting down daily observations of wind, currents and conditions at sea, and I have been entering that data into an excel database.

Fishers in north Tamil Nadu break the year into three seasons based on winds and currents. Vaadai naal or vaadai season contains the stormy northeast monsoon months of Karthigai (Oct-Nov), Purattasi (Nov-Dec) and the balmy, calm-weather  months of Margazhi (Dec-Jan), Thai (Jan-Feb), Maasi (Feb-March) and sometimes the early days of Panguni (Mar-Apr). Kachaan naal or kachaan season comes with southerly breezes and currents (Maasi, Panguni and sometimes the early days of Chithirai in mid-April).

The kodai season refers to Chennai’s infamously prolonged hot period dominated by land breezes from the west and shore currents from the south. The Kodai itself is divided into the sweltering months of Chithirai (April-May) and Vaikaasi (May-June) characterised by steamy westerlies punctuated by an occasional, though deadly kodai puyal (summer storm), and the season of the muttai kodai kaathu (a cooler westerly) which sets in after the onset of monsoon in Kerala.

Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

The Regional Meteorological Centre announced the withdrawal of the Northeast monsoon on 22 January from Chennai and coastal areas. In fisher calendar, the seasons don’t change overnight but over a short period. It’s not as if vaadai naal begins on October 1 or the kodai on April 15. Winds and currents not only have to shift, but shift and hold.

I felt the winds and currents turned decidedly southerly on March 17 and have held since. I asked Palayam if I can note on the excel sheet that the vaadai has receded and the kachaan has set. “The thendi is flowing briskly today. A net that was set in Odai Kuppam (a fishing village 1 km south of Urur Kuppam) drifted past the river more than 2 km to the north. This morning, the peria valai (shore seine) that was cast at sea near Thalapakatti went all the way north to the estuary. It certainly looks like kachaan is here. But give it a few more days. What’s the hurry? One never knows with the sea.”

I looked up the database to see when vaadai naal ended and kachan began in 2019 and 2020. In both years, southerly currents and winds were recorded consistently over several days beginning the last days of February. We don’t have data for 2021 as the observations were suspended during COVID. This year, if the existing winds and currents hold – Palayam says it is likely – we can conclude that the vaadai receded sometime in the third week of March. The onset of the kachan is delayed by at least 20 days compared to 2019 and 2020.

That probably explains the unusually cool mornings that continue to bless us well into March. I hope and wonder aloud that this probably signals a mild summer. Palayam laughs and says “Paakkalam”. We’ll see.

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