“The vengeance of love.” Eugene, a fisherman from Thumba in Kerala, chooses his words deliberately and carefully in Malayalam (“Snehathinde Vairagyam”) to express the motivating sentiment that drove a group of fishermen from their village to carry out the now world-famous rescue effort that saved around 350 lives in flood-hit Chengannur.The cherubic, middle-aged, clean-shaven, dark-skinned man used the expression when asked why they decided to put their lives in danger and rescue people although it is a well - known fact that the fishermen themselves got little support from either the government or the public when Cyclone Ockhi struck their part of the state eight months ago.
Eugene says that although the fisher folk did feel let down when Ockhi hit them, a few people and officials did reach out. “We cannot forget the few who did support us.”
The bodies of a few of his fishermen friends who went missing mid-sea during the cyclone are yet to be found and several promises made with regard to compensation and other such are yet to be fulfilled by the government, he adds.
“The worst tragedy that can befall a family is when you don’t know whether a person is alive or dead. In the case of the floods, all the bodies of the deceased have been found. But in our case even after so many days, we do not know the whereabouts of our kin who went missing. ” The promised financial support too has not been forthcoming, he says.
Despite the bitter experience, the fishermen from Thumba decided to rescue fellow Malayalis when they saw the extent of the crisis on television on the night of August 15.
Horrors of the past
Another fisherman who was part of the rescue team, Maniraj, recounted that during the days when they were dealing with the challenges posed by Ockhi, from their village they had spotted a man on a catamaran trying to make it to the shore.“We wanted to help him but we could not as the winds were too strong. He kept getting pushed by the winds and it was only after two days that he made it ashore. But he died on the second day after making it back. The inability to help that man hung heavy on our minds and perhaps is the central reason why so many of us acted so swiftly during the floods.”
Maniraj, who led the first group of men to the affected villages says that the decision to mobilise support was taken in a few minutes. “We were all watching news channels and one of our elders said we must head out to the affected areas. We realised that we were the only set of people who could deal with the strong current as we are used to the ocean. Nobody called us and we did not call anyone, we just left for the affected areas by ourselves.”
In a couple of hours, Eugene organised a fleet of lorries into which the boats were loaded and taken to the affected areas.
At a function organised by Dalit activists in Vengode on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram to felicitate the fishermen, Eugene and five other fishermen from Thumba – which is about 45 kilometres away from the venue - were apologetic that most of the rescue team members could not make it to the function.
They explained that if they did not go fishing, their families would not be able to survive. “For many of us, missing even a day at work can mean inability to pay even for our basic essentials. Nobody has savings that can see them through even a week.”As the fishermen began narrating their experiences to the village folk who had gathered at a Budha shrine at the heart of Vengode, the first thing that struck many in the audience was the quality of their oratory in Malayalam and command over English which became apparent when they used a few English words inadvertently, just the way any Malayali city slicker would in urban areas of the state.
This reporter later found out that a significant section of fishermen from Thumba are graduates. The fishing village which opened its first degree college in the 60s thanks to the efforts of the Church now also boasts of an engineering college set up a decade ago and a planned medical college.
Thanks to the setting up of that degree college, a section of villagers who found jobs abroad and now live in Europe or the Middle-East have even bought luxury cars and lead a good life. But such cases are rare and most villagers despite their education are extremely poor as they are forced to depend on their traditional trade on account of not being able to afford seeking other opportunities.
Many would not switch occupation despite every kind of hardship as for them nothing comes close to heading out into the sea.
Rescuing the oppressor
Recent years have been trying on account of several problems that plague the fishing sector. However, they continue to prioritise education and send as many of their children as possible to the degree college one bad year after the other.But forget their academic credentials and hard-won achievements, even the fact that they were saving lives did not deter some of the stranded people from handing out casteist slurs to the rescue teams that had made it to their homes braving death.
“In some cases, the stranded people said they did not want to get onto the rescue boat as they were used by the Mukuvans (fisherfolk) who were inferior and smelled of fish, ” recounted one of the fishermen who spoke at the function at Vengode.
Completing his story, the fisherman said that, when such remarks were made by a couple of other stranded families, one of his fellow fishermen in the rescue boat lost his cool and snapped: “even the food we offer would stink of fish. You had better wait for some other rescue team.”
But some other members of the rescue team pacified the agitated fisherman and left behind food packets for the stranded family just as they were about to head back.
The group of fishermen felicitated at Vengode said they had become accustomed to ill-treatment all through the years when they were in school and college. “Our mothers have been asked to get out of buses because they were carrying fish. We have faced discrimination all our lives” says Eugene easily sprinkling words such as “degrade” and “discrimination” in chaste English while speaking in Malayalam.
“The fishermen of Kerala belong to scheduled caste or tribes or are from economically weaker segments of the minority community. So the tag of fisherman literally accommodates marginalisation of every kind that has happened in this state,” says Anil Nagan, the activist who organised the reception for the fishermen.
“I found that they were not being celebrated outside their native villages and decided to organise this function.”
Snakes, crocodiles and iron spikes
Describing their rescue operation, Maniraj said the list of obstacles they encountered included snakes, crocodiles, low-hanging electric wires, gates with iron spikes, floating waste and other such.
“When we tried to reach a particular two-storied house in Chengannur in our boat, we were able to enter only after few of us climbed over the heavy iron gates and opened it from the other side of the flooded compound and that too after dealing with the electric wires. As we moved through the flooded compound, where the water had risen above the first floor, we found it was thickly forested with rubber trees. Almost every single tree had a snake wrapped around its branches and visibility through the rain was poor. “As Maniraj continued with his speech, he pointed to the thickly forested area around the venue to describe his experience. Just then, the clouds darkened and it began to rain. Many of the faces in the crowd appeared a tad anxious.
But the fishermen who had seen the worst of this tragedy and several ones before, appeared as cool as ever as they obliged people who wanted to click a photograph with them.In contemporary Kerala, selfishness is not even considered a vice and much of Malayali humour in films since the 90’s has to do with getting the better of the other.
However, post-floods, several social media posts and interviews with the flood survivors indicate that the selflessness shown by the fishermen is fast encouraging urban people to do more and to reconfigure the Malayali identity in terms of being selfless.
It is also clear that "Kadalamma" or Mother Ocean has done better than management schools and other such in producing character, going by the lack of interest in relief and rescue during Ockhi on the part of mainland Kerala.
KP Narayana Kumar is a journalist based in Kochi