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The Long Wait for the Vanda Thanni

The Long Wait for the Vanda Thanni

The river mouth. Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

The sea seemed joyous today, as if at the prospect of meeting its friend, the river. The malodorous, deathly condition of the Adyar seemed not to have affected the sea’s enthusiasm. The estuary was open. The massive fish kill we feared had been averted, saved by the sea. The rank, putrid smell was thankfully gone. “It is the power of salt,” said Palayam Anna, referring to the healing effect that tidal flushing had on the health of the river. He does this frequently. Refers to the healing powers of sea salt, I mean.

Last night, the earth mover appears to have fulfilled its karmic duty. A 50 metre gash had been cut through the sand bar separating the two friends. Seawater surged through the opening and flooded the river.

To the ever hopeful fisherman, there’s a lot more to the sea than just salt water. “There’s a lot of fish in this river. You don’t see them. See how much they caught these last few days. Would anybody have known there was so much fish to catch in this river? It’s all thanks to the sea. Even now, our eyes only see the seawater washing in. But every wave brings with it fish of all kinds – oodan, pachakutty, madavai, kezhangan, thumbili,” says Mani, an Urur Kuppam fisher who is here every morning, most days with his hand-cast net and sometimes just to stare out at sea. Fishing is his early morning job. He is close to retiring from his day-job in Metrowater. For now, though, he is a fisherman moonlighting as a fisherman. That’s quite normal in fishing villages. One foot may be in an IT company, a printing press or a government office. The other is always in the river or the sea.

The tide was already high. The sea was rough and powered by a strong kachan karsalla (a current from the south). Angular waves struck the shore from the southeast in a process that fishers call kuthi vangarathu (dig/lunge and withdraw). Every strike dug at the base of the mound of sand on the northern bank of the estuary, causing a mini sandslide that the backwash swept back and distributed across the freshly excavated channel. The kachan had begun its job of closing down the freshly opened river. With every passing day, the sea would bring in sand to narrow the estuary even as it pushes the opening northwards. In a week, the river mouth would be narrowed to a shallow thin dribble about ten boat-lengths north of where it is today. In 10 days, it would be sealed shut. Standing at the southern bank, I could see Palayam Anna’s explanation of the phenomenon of erosion in action.

This morning, only one boat, Kumar’s boat, had ventured out. He must be setting a kadama valai – squid net. Squid and octopus are caught using bottom set nets. They’ll go to the fishing ground at 10-11 fathoms, Palayam said. If they return with some catch, others will go. No point everyone wasting diesel.

The air and Palayam’s manner are thick with a sense of expectation. That, he said, is usual for the third week of the tamil month of Aadi. Yesterday, August 3 and the 18th day of the month of Aadi, was the auspicious tamil festival day of “aadi perukku.” Celebrated by tamils across the world, this day is a tribute to water – the basis of all life. In Tamil Nadu, this also signals a time when the monsoons in the ghats spill over and flow right down the coastal plains to meet the sea. In a good year, Cauvery will have enough water to run right through to the tail-end coastal districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Thiruvarur and Pudukottai. For the delta farmers, aadi perukku is a joyous occasion; it signals a healthy planting season.

Fishers too look forward to the days after perukku with great expectation and and even greater nervousness. If sufficient waters are released in the Cauvery, the surplus is diverted at the Grand Anicut into the Kollidam. When these nutrient rich waters are disgorged into the Bay, it gives birth to a marine phenomenon called “vanda thanni” (silt-laden waters). This is the equivalent of a single-day harvest season, a bounty, a lottery.

Telltale signs of vanda thanni’s arrival are many. “When we’re at midsea, we see clumps of long leaf-like river weed flowing north with the current. We call that Kollidathu Paasi (river weed from Kollidam),” Palayam says. “Then we know Vanda thanni is coming.”

Vanda thanni requires the convergence of three phenomena, explains Palayam – a copious outflow from the Cauvery and Kollidam; a strong kachan karsallu (south-north current), and a strong olni push where the deep sea churns upward and landward bringing ice-cold waters from the deep to add to the turbid nearshore flow.

When the Olni happens, which is usual for this time of the year, it clears up the sea right up to the nearshore. The mid and deepsea turns a clear sea-blue, while the nearshore runs turbid.

And then there is the temperature. “Thannikulla kai utta iceland-aa irukkum,” Palayam explains. “The water is ice-cold to the touch, like Iceland.” If that’s how cold it is near shore, imagine how cold it will be in deeper waters. That is why the fish – even deep water fish – escape. They seek out the less cold and turbid nearshore waters to lose themselves in the opaque silt-laden waters. When this happens, it is a bonanza for fishers. Now, with mobile phones, fishers get word of vanda thanni’s arrival well in advance. If the vanda thanni is seen near Kalpakkam, we get to know immediately; we get our boats and gear ready. When the current hits us, it is a like a river of fish swimming north – all kinds of tharai meen (bottom fish) – kaala, sura, panna, kadamba era, korukkai/koduva. Fish that we’d go searching for deep into the sea will be making our nets heavy right next to the shore. If we’re hardworking, have a good team and wise counsel, the sky’s the limit. The only limiting factor is our strength and the speed at which we can empty our nets and return to fish.

“Adi vellam, thedi paayumnu solluvanga (The aadi waters will seek you out, it is said). With luck, if you land a school of kadamba era (tiger prawn) each boat can earn lakhs in just one day.”

Last year, the vanda thanni was weak. But in 2019, it arrived with a bang and with lights, albeit a bit delayed. The beaches from Kovalam to Besant Nagar were alight with the blue glow of bioluminescence – a feature that sometimes accompanies vanda thanni. See Palayam Anna’s explanation of bioluminescence and vanda thanni here.

That day, his boat hauled in Rs. 80,000 worth of fish in four trips. “We held the record for our village that day. Other boats made 60,000, 50,000 and all. This much is a given. Era kadacha bonus (If we land prawns, that’s a bonus). Then the income can go up in lakhs,” Palayam says. “The sea is nature. Nature is god. It is whimsical. But if you have faith in it, it will take care of you. If not today, then another day. You will be given. Kadal thozhilla vex aagakoodathu. (With sea trade, there is no room for cynicism.) You have to work, work hard and keep working and waiting for those few days when the sea is in a giving mood.”

Coming from an artisanal fisher, this advice highlights how internalised his understanding of nature is – that vagary is the very nature of nature. Contrast that with the engineering mindset of modern corporate fisheries that views such dealings with chance as primitive. The quest of modern engineering to eliminate chance taunts nature, and invites doom. Where the artisan operates with humility, the other exudes a hubris exhibited by fools that venture where wise men fear to tread.

Let’s hope this vanda thanni brings a happy new year to all our fisher friends and puts tasty fish on our tables.

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