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Storm Widows

Storm Widows

Of late, our morning conversations have been about storms, reading storms and the risky business of fishing in storm-prone times. Just a week ago, the Met Department issued an unlikely “Yellow Alert” predicting isolated heavy rains in Chennai over the weekend of 4-5 March. Unlikely because this is not storm season. Palayam anna does not recall a single storm in the Tamil month of Masi.

We spent the week waiting for a storm that threatened to come but never showed up, at least not in Chennai. There were mild to substantial showers further inland. But the coast was clear. Clouds were visible, the winds swung tentatively between north (vaadai) and north-northwest (kun vaadai). On friday, the dreaded kun vaadai set in as though it had come to stay for a few days. That would have normally signaled the onset of a storm, but there was still no action. The sea has been choppy and fishers stayed home. In an audio message, he told me not to wait for the rain. “Choppy seas and kun vaadai should mean rain. Even the scientists have said “prepare for rain.” But why isn’t it raining?” he asked himself in his manner of speaking, and then answered his own question. “For that, you have to wonder why the nearshore sea is rough even though the wind and the shore current are from the same direction, the north. But I sense a strong olni tendency (a phenomenon where the sea pushes landward) accompanied by a swift mid-sea thendi current flowing from south to north. Thendi currents break up the rains.” That’s exactly what happened – no rain.

Soaked firm by last night’s tide, the beach sand made for easy walking. We got to the river mouth quicker than usual, and settled down on the still moist berm to stare out at sea. About four months ago, Palayam chided me for not taking my lessons seriously. “You are always in a hurry to return home. You can’t learn just by listening to me. The sea, winds and skies change radically within minutes. You need to sit and observe. Spend some time just staring out,” he said.

But it is not always just staring out. This morning, for instance, prompted by all the talk in the media about the storm that never came, Anna began narrating a story about one that did, and with deadly consequences. “Aruvathu marathukarar thaaliya aruththa Kōṭai puyal,” he began, narrating a story about a summer storm that widowed 60 young women in the village. “Did this happen in our village Anna?” I asked, shocked. “Yes. Several generations ago. My father told me the story as one that happened when his grandfather was a young man. But listen to the story. Where it happened doesn’t matter, what happened and why the story is told is what matters,” Palayam replied.

The vaikasi sea was calm and blue. Barely two hours old, the hot summer sun was already burning shimmering mirages on the expanse of brown sand stretching out from the hamlet. Fishing had been good. The old man had hooked a boatload of kezhangan and keesan at the kadavaadu just yesterday, and not too far out at sea either. At 6.5 fathoms, the kadavaadu is a stretch of sandy sea floor covered by a layer of mud and slush washed in from the river during the previous monsoon. Through the year, the sea would cover it with sand until the next monsoon brought in a fresh load of black silt and mud, building a brown-black multilayered submarine sandwich on the ocean floor. The kadavaadu is a good place for near-shore fish like keesan and kezhangan.

There were more lucrative pari meen (large commercially valuable fish) further out at sea. But venturing too far into the sea during the months of chithirai-vaikasi (mid-April to mid-June) was risky. This was the season for the fearsome kodai (Kōṭai) puyal (summer storm). This is also the time when the warm, pre-monsoon breeze blows east from beyond the western ghats. It has been three years since we last had a summer storm, Palayam says.

There was much excitement on the beach that day. Tempted by the old man’s haul the previous day, every able-bodied youngster in the village was readying to get their share of the fish today. Early in the morning, when the tide was low, the men were out hunting ili poochi (mole crab) and matti (clam) to take with them as fish-bait. The old man was quietly loading up his kuthiri (solo) kattumaram (catamaran) with essentials – water, bait, hooks and lines, seeni (anchor), alavu kal (plumb line), thala (paddle) and a bag made of woven palmyra fronds called sikkom to carry home the day’s catch. His fingers flew with a mind of their own as he moved around the craft securing the fastenings that held the logs together. Sails were not needed. They were not going far. The youngsters were all teamed up in groups of two and three, each team on a separate larger craft.

By mid-morning, most of the kattumarams had crossed the surf-line. Some were already anchored at the kadavaadu. The kodai winds blowing from the shore caused the maram to drag east and away from the anchor lining the maram prow to land and kada (stern) to the east.

Kezhangan and keesan are small fish, each weighing about 50-100 grams. The bait couldn’t be threaded whole. The old man chopped up the clam meat to small bits, and threaded a bit to each of the three hooks suspended from a line. He dropped two lines, one to the north and the other to the south of the maram, with each line loosely secured to the big toe on each foot. “It is easy to sense it when the fish takes the bait,” Palayam explained.

The shore breeze seemed to be slowing. Vaikasi is notorious for day-time storms, just as the chithirai is for night storms. All around him, the young men from Urur were merrily hauling in the catch. The kadavaadu was in a giving mood today. The winds had dropped to an ominous calm. Looking up to scan the northwestern skies with concern, the old man sounded an alarm to the young ones in the maram nearby. Bad news came from the kun vaadai (north northwest), the direction from which deadly storm winds blow in this part of the coast. “It looks like a storm is brewing. May be good to be prepared to haul anchor and get back to safety,” he warned. The guys looked at him as though he was crazy. The party had just begun; every maram was hauling in the fish as fast as they could thread the bait and drop the line.

Barring the mappu (the eerie calm), there were no other signs. Shore was in sight. No clouds on the horizon. But the old man hadn’t grown old by taking it easy while at sea. Especially during these two months, he was always on the lookout for bad news while at sea. And then he saw it. A dreaded gopura-maasi had formed in the kun vaadai skies. Shaped like the gopuram (tower) of a temple, this isolated lump of a cloud doesn’t look like it is capable of any mischief. Pulling in the seeni (anchor), he let his maram adrift as he packed up his gear. The gopura-maasi had all the tell-tale signs of the dreaded kodai puyal (summer storm). A light, white puffy tapering tower sitting atop a dense black mass of a cloud. And then a streak of minvadu (lightning), followed by a kodi minvaadu that lit up the western sky in a patchwork of brilliant streaks.

“Dei! Stop fishing and get back now while there is still time,” he hollered. This time, he didn’t bother hiding the panic in his voice. “The wind will begin any second now, and then we’ll be paddling upwind and into a storm.” But the youngsters were in no mood to listen. The uninformed bravado of the youth mistook the old man’s panic for weakness in spirit. “Nee po perusu. Naanga varom,” one of the youngsters shouted back urging the elder to return, assuring him that they too would by and by. The sea is calm; the sun is shining and the fish are biting. What’s not to like?

“The fish will be there you fools. Return home now so you can come back another day,” he shouted. With that last warning thrown over his shoulder, and a silent prayer to the 16th century Sufi mystic Nagoorar, the old man paddled furiously. “As long as we are on land, we pray to Murugan, Pillayar. While at sea, we raise a prayer to Nagoorar and Allah to take care of us,” explained Palayam who has a shrine with a green flag atop a green flagpole in his courtyard. “Every Thursday, I cover my head and offer a Fathiya to Nagoorar,” Palayam said.

The wind was beginning to pick up in little, short, gentle gusts. The waves too were more pronounced. The andai – the movable wavebreaker sitting atop the prow of the maram – splashed through the waves as the craft surged homewards. The gopura-maasi had vanished. All across the western sky was a dark dense mass of storm clouds moving purposefully and swiftly to meet the sea. The wind was relentless. But old man felt no pain in his arms. His knees were chafed and bleeding, as he kneeled and paddled with single-minded effort.

The storm reached the sea in a curtain of wind-torn water even as a wave pushed his kattumaram gracefully onto the beach. Exhausted, the old man collapsed on the sand; the sea washed about him. Barring the young men who were all out at sea, the entire village was on the beach. The old man was sobbing inconsolably. “I warned them. But they wouldn’t listen,” he cried. There was an air of helplessness. They would have to wait for the men to return. There was no question of venturing out to sea in the midst of this storm. A blinding rain was pouring in sheets with droplets the size of small pebbles slapping everything that stood between the earth and sky. The villagers moved the old man to safety, and waited. The storm lasted less than an hour. Not one maram returned. Not one maram was found when the elders went to the kadavaadu. Sixty young women were widowed that day.

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