Over two weeks after Cyclone Ockhi ravaged the country’s southern coast, the death toll has risen to 70 in Kerala, while over 200 fishermen are still missing. Shaju Philip meets six families clinging to hope, fighting off fear.
No one has ventured into the sea from fishermen villages in Thiruvananthapuram district since the November 29 night Cyclone Ockhi hit. If empty forlorn boats bob on the now calm waters, lined along the beach are plastic chairs. In bright red, blue, green and brown, under tents or out in the open — the colours defying the solemn mood on the ground and the grey skies above. Once in a while, someone comes and sits down, speaking little, staring out at the sea.
In Parithiyoor village’s fisherman colony of John Paul Nagar, the quiet is broken by a feeble woman’s voice reciting verses from the Bible. “God declares… ‘For I know the plans I have for you, to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’,” Jaquiline, 54, prays inside her home. Her son-in-law Alexander is among the 200-odd people still to return in these parts a fortnight after the storm came. And she clings on to hope, and God.
In village after village, women sit with folded hands and tears in front of photographs of their missing loved ones. Or keep an eye on TV screens. Every time the scroll flashes about the recovery of a body, relatives rush to phones to call officials and volunteers to find out if the body has been identified. Blood samples of relatives have been taken for DNA tests for identification.
With men staying at home, savings are fast running out, and volunteers and religious organisations have been supplying food and provisions to the families.
What makes every minute tortuous is the fear of the unknown. The death toll is now 70, spread across the coastal villages in Kerala, and the families are afraid that many of the 200-odd “missing” may end up on that list. Many fishermen from these parts do deep-sea fishing, remaining out of reach for up to three weeks at a time.
“We don’t have the exact figure on the missing people… However all of them would definitely return to celebrate Christmas. We are waiting for Christmas,” says Father Joby Payyappalli, of St Mary Magdalene Church, Pozhiyoor, where 11 are yet to return home. Also Read | The fishermen of Thoothoor
But till then, they wait.
‘Wanted the money for a house, so he went to sea every week’
Varghese, 34, Pozhiyoor village
Missing since November 29
Will God not allow my son to see his second child,” Sarali, 55, pleads before a crucifix hanging on the wall of their house at Pozhiyoor village in Thiruvananthapuram district. Her son Varghese, 34, had ventured out to sea from Neendakara village in Kollam district on the afternoon of November 29, just as his wife, Rajee, 25, was admitted to hospital in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The couple were expecting their second child.
“In the recent months, he began to go fishing every week, without taking a break or rest. He wanted the money to buy a new house, in which, he had hoped to move in with his wife once the second child was born,” says Theerthappan, 60, Varghese’s father.
With Theerthappan having quit fishing two years ago due to health problems, Varghese had been shouldering the responsibility of looking after the entire family, including younger sister Anthoniyamma. With him missing, the family is relying on help from the local church. “Men from the church bring food three times a day. How long will they do it?” asks Theerthappan.
Rejeena, a relative of Varghese, says local fishermen should have been roped in for the rescue efforts. “If the Navy and Coast Guard had allowed fishermen in their rescue operations in the initial days, more men could have been saved. At least, we would have got back more bodies. It would’ve let us conduct services and the families of the departed would have got closure. This wait is really painful,” she says.
‘Sea should have given at least one of them back’
Shiluvadima, 45, son Manoj, 18, Pozhiyoor village
Missing since November 28
There are no more men in the Puthuval Purayidam household in Pozhiyoor village. Mebil, 39, and daughter Princy, 15, are slowly reconciling to the fact that her husband Shiluvadima, 45, and son Manoj, 18, would not have survived the storm. “I don’t want any money. I want my husband and son back. At least bring back their bodies. We should get a chance to conduct their funerals,” says Mebil.
The father-son duo had left on a country vessel along with three others on November 28. One of the bodies has been recovered, while the other four are missing.
For two days after the storm, Mebil remained confident, says her elder brother Thadevoos. “She strongly believed that God would protect them. She used to tell the neighbours that her men were capable of surviving for days without food. Once one of the bodies was brought to the village, the gravity of the situation began to hit her,’’ he says.
Thadevoos says Mebil has to be rushed to hospital to administer IV fluid as she refuses to eat since the tragedy. “She often frantically sifts through her mobile phone for photographs of her husband and her son,” he says.
The family has to also contend with a Rs 2.5 lakh loan that Shiluvadima had taken for a small vessel, something which forced Manoj to drop out of school and join his father. “My son had to abandon his studies to help his father repay the debts. He was aware of the hardships in the family. Now, who will look after me and my daughter? The sea should have given one of them back,’’ says Mebin.
‘Hope he calls once he reaches some shore. He always does’
Alexander, 28, Parithiyoor
Missing since November 28
At Parithiyoor fishermen colony, Jasmine, 21, stills keeps calling on the mobile number of her husband Alexander, 28, who had gone to sea in a mechanised vallam (small fishing vessel) on November 28, two days before the cyclone hit. Alexander and the five others with whom he had left from Neendakara harbour in Kollam district are all missing.
“Every day since the cyclone, I have been trying to call his mobile phone. I keep the handset close to my ear, hoping to hear at least one ring,’’ says Jasmine. She says her husband always made it a point to keep his young family aware of his whereabouts. “When he would board the vessel, he would call us. When it reaches the coast, he would inform us. It was only when he was at sea that he would not call. I hope he calls us the moment he lands somewhere,” says the 21-year-old, who married Alexander only 20 months ago. The couple have a 10-month-old son, Ashmi Alex.
Even before he married Jasmine, Alexander was acquainted with the family, having gone fishing with her father, John. Off late, his brother-in-law Jobin, 19, had begun joining him on the fishing trips after John had quit, but was not on the boats when the storm hit.
“The three of them used to go fishing together. I cant even think of what would have happened to us if they had all gone together,’’ says Jaquiline, Alexander’s mother-in-law.
“We haven’t lost hope. We are not holding any funeral services yet. We are praying for his return,” says Jaquiline. John says Alexander, who had been living with his in-laws, wanted to buy a house after clearing his debts. “He couldn’t save anything as his earnings had to be spent for the treatment of his child who has been hospitalised for various ailments,” says John.
“They were married only 20 months ago. Is fate so cruel to cut short a happy life in such a manner?’’ asks Jaquiline.
‘His Birthday is on December 19. We will wait for him till then’
Wilbert Leon, 58, Vizhinjam
Missing since November 28
For Poncili, 46, life has come a cruel full circle. “I had never seen my father, a fisherman, who drowned when my mother was pregnant with me. I later joined my daughters in addressing my husband Wilbert as papa. Now the only male member in our family seems to have gone. I would like to believe that he has gone to the Middle East for a short period,’’ she says.
Poncili’s husband, Wilbert Leon, 58, had left for the sea, along with another fisherman, from their native village of Vizhinjam, close to the holiday hotspot of Kovalam beach. The duo should have returned the next day, but over two weeks on, there’s no sign of either of them.
Poncili and her three daughters are reluctant to count their missing papa among the dead. “His birthday falls on December 19. We are hopeful that he will turn up on that day,’’ says Poncili.
Poncili now has to pay of the remainder of a Rs 9.5 home loan that the family had taken in 2015. They had only moved into the home, Poncili Villa, this October. “My husband was not even lucky to live in the new house for two months,’’ says Poncili.
‘How long can we live with this torment?’
Stellus S, 47, Adimalathura village
Missing since November 28 (presumed dead)
For days after her husband Stellus S, 47, went missing on November 28, Susheela, 44, turned up at the beach. She says relatives and friends instilled hope in her saying that Stellus would return as he was an able-bodied fisherman and an expert swimmer.
But 15 days after he went missing, on December 13, Susheela was forced to make her peace with his disappearance. “Every day, I would turn up at the coast. With each passing day, the fear that my husband would never return became deeper. On Wednesday, we decided to conduct a funeral for him at the church. How long can one live with this torment?” she asks.
Stellus had left with 18 others on that fateful day. While 16 of them were picked up by the Indian Navy, Stellus and two others are missing. “Those who survived told me that when the huge waves hit the vessel, it was Stellus who gave them hope. But my husband was washed away along with two others,” Susheela says.
Before leaving on November 28, Stellus had fixed the engagement of his daughter Sumi, 22, which was slated for January 8. Now there is uncertainty hanging over the engagement. “Stellus had arranged Rs 3 lakh for the marriage and handed over the money to me before he left,’’ recalls Susheela, who will now have to run her household from vending fish at the local market. She has a son and three daughters, all of them unemployed and aged between 19 and 25.
‘Proper Warning would have saved him’
Cheelanthivilakam Yesudas, 38, Kollamkode
Missing since November 29
Two-year-old Alel Das hasn’t yet understood how the cyclonic storm has changed his life. “He starts saying appa (father) the moment the mobile phone starts to ring. He rushes to it, expecting his father to be at the other end,’’ says Thadevoos Mary, a relative.
Das’s father, Cheelanthivilakam Yesudas, 38, a native of Kollamkode, 32 kms from Thiruvananthapuram, has been missing since November 29.
His family has all but given up hope. “Yesudas used to go for week-long fishing trips; he would only carry sufficient food for just a week at sea. For a week after the storm, we all had our hopes high. We thought he would have survived the waves. But now…,” veers off Stella, 55, his mother-in-law, to wipe away tears.
Yesudas, his three children — Alel, Aliya Das, 11, and Alen Das, 7 — and wife Ajitha, 33, live with her parents in Kollamkode. Father-in-law Antony is bed-ridden, while mother-in-law Stella occasionally sells fish at the local market.
The family will now have to subsist with the meagre income Stella brings home. “I get about Rs 250 a day from selling the fish. Apart from feeding the family, I will have to find resources for the treatment of my husband, a heart patient,’’ says Stella.
The women blame the government, accusing it of having failed to issue a warning at the right time. “If there was a warning, we would not have lost our men. The sea is our bread; a part of our lives. Our men never get trapped in the sea accidentally and never venture out ignoring warnings. Even the tsunami didn’t wreak such havoc here,’’ says Mary.