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Sea Spirit Science

Sea Spirit Science

Wednesday, 02 August, 2023

It has been more than six months since I have taken a morning walk along the Urur Kuppam beach listening to Palayam Anna speak to me about winds, waves, weather and fish. Walking by himself these days, he has developed a nice new routine. “Every morning, I walk along the shore and sing to Kadalamma (ocean mother),” he told me. Last month, he sent me a video. As the sun breaks through a rose-tinted horizon over a gentle sea, he can be heard singing an ambaa paattu – a genre of songs sung by fishers at work. What a way to begin a day — a sea-song sung to the sea by a child of the sea. This song invokes Nagoor Andavar, a 16thcentury sufi mystic born Syed Shahul Hameed, a popular icon among the region’s predominantly Hindu fishers.

There is something elegant, easy and deep about Palayam’s spirituality. The sea, he says, is his mother, and the wind his paattan (grandfather). When he gives thanks, it is to Goddess Ellaiamman, the fishing village’s fiercely protective pre-sanskrit Tamil deity; while at sea, he turns to Allah and Nagoorar for protection. The courtyard outside his home is a shrine to a saintly sufi trio – Nagoorar, Kasmur Masthan and Ansari; every Thursday, his entire family gathers for a fatihah (prayer) offered by Palayam in Arabic and Tamil.

Saddled with a confused relationship with faith, I find Palayam’s spirituality unsettling and reassuring at the same time. He and I belong to different worlds – his world and mind shaped by the sea, the winds and his elders; mine shaped by a masala version of western rationality, a mind colonised by the white man’s pedagogical legacy. Our intercultural conversations are interesting and rich once we get past the initial frustrations of comprehending each other or getting through to the other.

In the early days of our relationship, when he was still trying to figure out what kind of fish I was, he once prompted a conversation about faith. “Do you believe in God, anna?” he asked. I mumbled something about being an atheist; but I also admitted to some confusion because even rationalists appear to be faithful to reason as the only god. He ignored my confusion, quite satisfied with his reading of my faithlessness. “How many years did you say you have travelled among fishers?” he persisted. This was in 2016. “About 25 years,” I replied. “So tell me,” he probed, “in all these years, have you met any sea-faring fisherman who is an atheist?”

I can’t say I have, and I know exactly what he’s getting at. I mean, I have been to sea. Interacting with the ocean on a daily basis cannot but be humbling. Palayam’s relationship with the ocean is an inseparable weave of love, gratitude, fear, awe, understanding and an acceptance of its unknowable nature. He would read the conditions to prepare for rain, storm or good weather always tempering his readings with a mumbled prayer to the goddess or to Allah.

Meanwhile, for me, my wanderings between faith and reason, science and spirituality continued. Once, two years ago, when we were talking about an approaching storm, I asked him how he distinguished between faith and reason. Where does science stop and faith begin? He looked puzzled: “Why should science stop and faith begin?” he asked. Frustrated, I tried explaining: “There’s so much you do and say that is science. And then you keep bringing your faith in. I just want to know how you separate the two.”

His puzzled look disappeared. Now he got it, I thought. Instead, he said “Why should I separate the two? You are the one that first told me that what I was saying was science. Then you said some of what I said was faith. Then you separated the two. Perhaps for you, the two are different. So you explain how you separate it. I see no purpose served in separating the two.”

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. So Palayam explained, with a story.

It was the month of Karthigai (mid-October to mid-November), the season for storms. But things were as they should be. It was the period of the northeast monsoon — Vaadai winds and Vanni currents were flowing gently from the north. Palayam Anna and his elder brother Viswanathan had set out in the evening to drop the crab nets. Only one other – Kumar – had set a net that day. Crab nets (nandu valai) are set in the sekkil paadu (night fishing). The nets are dropped before sunset and hauled in the dark of the night. They had come ashore and planned to return in a few hours to haul in the net.

Suddenly, everything changed. The wind picked up to howling speed and began gusting from the North Northwest. The standard compass rose most of us are familiar with features north on top and has 8 directional pointers, the compass rose of fishers from north Tamil Nadu features east on top and identifies nine points to denote the nine wind directions – eeran (east), kachan eeran (south east), nedun kachan (south), kachan kodai (southwest), ner kodai (west), vadamarai (northwest), vaadai (north), vaadai eeran (northeast), and the deadly kun vaadai – the violent cyclonic winds from the north northwest.

Credit: Satwik Gade. For Science of The Seas & Chennai Map Project, University of Toronto.

The winds whipped up the sea into a dark roiling mass. Palayam, Viswanathan and Kumar paced the beach as the winds worsened and the waves rolled in without a break. Launching kattumarams or their modern-day fibre-reinforced plastic versions from a surf-pounded beach requires considerable skill. Boats that are launched from the beach enter the sea, and wait in the near waters for a gap between waves to get past the naduthambu or surf zone. One mistake, and the surf will upset the boat flinging everybody, everything inside it into the waters.

If that is what it’s like on good days, setting out under the current conditions would have been suicidal. For eight hours, until midnight, the three fishers waited – brewing and sipping tea after sweet, milky tea — for a break that just did not come. Crab nets are expensive, each costing Rs. 30,000. Kumar had given up for the night. But the brothers had just bought the net.

Around 1 a.m., Viswananthan sensed a slight let up. The breeze had eased. The sea was still a churning sinister invitation to death. The older brother asked Palayam to recruit one more fisher to help them. With great difficulty, Palayam managed to rope one young man willing to brave the seas.

“Palayam! The waves are coming in counts of 15. If we are lucky, we will get a break with the 14th wave,” Viswanathan said. Squatting on the beach, staring out at the sea, Viswanathan and Palayam were reading the waves. Launching the boat was okay. But once launched they would have to drift in the choppy surf zone waiting for the right break to break past the naduthambu.

“With a prayer to the goddess and with Nagoorar’s name on our lips, we set off a little after 1 a.m. wearing just a pair of shorts and a light T-shirt. Anything heavier would drag us down if we were to fall in. In storms such as this, the westerly memeri current tends to drag you into the sea rather than push you back to land. The sea was fearsome, but we had given ourselves to her. “Amma, we are coming in. We put our lives in your hands. We are at your mercy. We’ll accept whatever you decide,” I thought aloud as the boat drifted south powered by the strong northerly nearshore currents. We drifted for nearly an hour before my brother called out asking us to be ready. “There should be a gap in the waves coming up just now. Be prepared to turn the throttle at my signal,” he said. Three, two, one. . .and there was a hair’s-width gap in the waves. We went for the throttle. The boat surged like a stallion, turning nose up. The boat was nearly upright and then it landed on water with a slap that could be heard above the din of the waves. We had cleared the surf. The sea was rough, but no more surf. We gave thanks and found our way to our net. Hauling it was hard but happy work. It was loaded with crab – 15 baskets full. We made it back tired, but rich and thankful to be alive. Tell me now, how you will separate faith and reason in this story. But first tell me, why you wish to do that?”

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