The eastern horizon was in flames as I cycled to meet Palayam Anna at the Broken Bridge. “Kaalai semmanam, kaathukku. Maalai semmanam, mazhaikku” – I muttered Anna’s oft-repeated axiom automatically. Translated, the saying means: “Red skies at dawn foretell wind; red skies at dusk foretell rain.”
By the time we began our walk back – him walking and me wheeling my bicycle – the horizon was overcast and pouring. The northeastern skies were bright with streaks of grey. Palayam pointed to that and said, “Look at that. The winds are fighting. It is blowing hard from the north out there at sea. And here it is a kun vadai from the north-northeast.”
Bright patches in the sky signify winds. I don’t fully get it. There’s a lot that I don’t get in what Palayam says. Learning is a laborious process as I try to internalise his concepts in my mind in registers designed by a different pedagogical discipline.
The kun vadai breeze from the northeast was gusting but only gently. The sea was rough and the tide was running briskly, lining up tonnes of assorted trash – helmets, footwear, PET bottles and thermocol – along the shoreline. Drizzle was intermittent. The waves were rolling in from the east-northeast, and the nearshore current was a brisk vanni (north-south).
“I don’t understand how a Red Alert was declared yesterday. Perhaps they did it because it is better to be cautious than regretful. With nature, you never know. You say one thing and something else may happen, and you may be caught unprepared. Better safe than sorry. Perhaps it is because they do it for the city as a whole, whereas my readings are only for the coast. But yesterday’s conditions were just not right for very heavy rains. How can it rain when neither the wind nor the current is set up for rains? Today can be different. The kun vadai is here and the current is vanni. But the kun vadai is still not as forceful as it should be to signal the arrival of heavy rains.”
Midway through the village, Muthuraman was returning after checking his boat. “Stow your gear safely, Muthurama,” Palayam called out. “The weather is acting up.”
“All taken care of. Everybody says Muthuraman is the first to anticipate rough weather and act,” Muthuraman replied, referring to himself in the third person. “I knew that some weather was brewing even two days ago. I was out there at 18 fathoms, and came up with nothing but Poonaan kaaral from the marappu. I knew then that we won’t be going anywhere for a few days. I came back and stowed my gear.”
Marappu is a phenomenon when a patch of the ocean floor is temporarily devoid of any fish that ought to be found there. Poonan kaaral (Pope’s ponyfish) frequents such temporary dead zones. Finding the ponyfish in the quantities that he did to the exclusion of all else and in the place that he found it has told Muthuraman that a weather system is building. I find the constant conversation that a fisher has with the elements fascinating.
But it is not just the elements that they are reading. They pick up on anything, anybody in the landscape to make some meaning. “There may be heavy rains, but it doesn’t look like an intense storm. Look! Not one boat has been pulled deep into the beach,” Palayam said. True, the boats were all parked above the berm, just out of reach of the tide. “They don’t expect a surge.”
“How can they be so sure?” I asked. “They can’t. Particularly on days like this, a fisherman never stays at home. He will come often to the beach and read the signs to see if conditions have changed. We’re not going to abandon valuable nets and boats just to the predictions of the weathermen or even our own reading. With the sea, you can never tell. It is one way one minute. Just 10 minutes later, everything would have changed. Who would have expected that the thendi current (from south) would have shifted to a vanni (from north) so quickly yesterday? Iyarkainkarathu theyvom. Athu ippadi thaan irukkanumnu naa eppadi solla mudiyum? (Nature is god. How can I say this is how it should be?). At sea or on land, we need to have an eye on the sea at all times.”
That doesn’t mean all fishermen are out on the beach all the time. These updates too are crowdsourced. Someone or the other is on the beach. In a village, where every fisher is capable of reading the signs, signs of trouble brewing spread rapidly.
It’s 8:45 am when I call Palayam. Anna still doesn’t see very heavy rains in the offing.
“It will rain in spurts. I’m standing on my terrace. It’s raining but not enough to drench me if I walk across the terrace. To my east it is still bright. The north is overcast and raining in places. But the wind is still blowing straight from the north. Until it swings to the northwest, I can’t say very heavy rains will come. There may be heavy spurts, but as things stand, I don’t see the kind of downpour we saw on 7th. But it is good to be prepared. Things can change quickly,” he qualifies. “I’ll call you if the kun vadai (breeze from northwest) intensifies; or you come to the beach and check. The rains will come then. Perhaps, it is already raining in Ennore and Pulicat. We should call Srini and ask him.”