Cyclone Ockhi first arrived on their boats over the radio transmitters, through the panic-stricken voices of other fishermen. “Kopam, kadalode kopam… kaattru… bayangarmaana kaattru (Anger, sea’s anger… winds… terrible winds),” says Yonas Aruldas, 38, from Kanyakumari, recalling the loud screams that woke him. “We understand fear. Our friends warned us, it was like the December tsunami of 2004.”
For over 4,000 fishermen taking refuge at Devgad’s natural harbour in coastal Maharashtra, December 2017 will forever be the month when a chillingly familiar eastern cyclone crossed over to the western shore, hundreds of miles from their villages in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But on the morning of November 29, on the sea off the Goa coast, Aruldas didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t know on November 30, either, as Ockhi churned across the sea.
“I don’t know where and how this angry wind came or went,” he says, while waiting for diesel at the revenue department’s temporary outpost at the harbour on Wednesday evening, along with over 560 other fishermen from Tamil Nadu. The colour-coded boats resembled an assembly line, green for Tamil Nadu, blue for Kerala, and hundreds more from Gujarat with GJ numbers.
Back home, Aruldas has lost his friends, and is now eager to go out to sea again to salvage their bodies. “Once I reach home, the bigger tragedy awaits, counting the bodies. I don’t know what is worse, the fate that awaits or the wait.” On Thursday night, the Maharashtra government moved a proposal to release 750 litres of diesel for every boat from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. On the harbour, meanwhile, the fishermen spoke of their “dance of death” through November 29 and 30, with memories of December 2004 on the horizon and no official mapping available on Ockhi’s route.
From November 29 morning till well into the night of November 30, voices and screams over crackling radio channels filled the cabins, “not from the government, not from those who monitor weather, and certainly not from any rescue operation”. The 800-odd boats now taking refuge at Devgad were oblivious till 8 pm on November 30 about the cyclone’s path, “or even its name”, says Anthony Das, from a Kerala-registered boat. Das says he recalls every detail of the 2004 tsunami. “Death does that to you. I lost everything then. It was a December then, it’s a December now. But I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
As news alerts prepared “people on land” of the cyclone’s route, hundreds of fishing boats, spread inside the nautical triangle between the southwest coast, waters off the Mumbai harbour and the angle of the cyclone, were only aware of a moving storm. “It’s like you know danger is around you. But you don’t know where it will hit you. Now multiply the fear because you are in the middle of the sea with nowhere to escape,” says Anthony Elavaras, 34, recalling the hours of November 30, after his friend from Kolachil in Kanyakumari urged him to escape. “He didn’t know where to, though. He asked me to figure it out myself.”
But Elavaras knew, just like Francis Alphonso, a shopkeeper and fisherman from Vizhinjam in Kerala. “A sea that had suddenly calmed was trouble. We knew something hard was coming our way,” says Alphonso, who lost his net worth Rs 15 lakh. While the Tamil Nadu and Kerala vessels reached the Goa coast, those that had moved north had to return south. “We didn’t know where to go. We knew the cyclone was coming our way, but no one told us that it had pushed away from the coast. We still moved to the closest land, as we didn’t know how else to gather credible information,” says Elavaras, who later learnt that his house had been razed by the cyclone.
To rub salt into the pain, coastal security authorities demanded ID papers from those entering Vasco at Goa. “We had to then divert back north, as we had documents for only 11 men onboard, with two not having updated their sheets. We knew we would be struck forever and so we moved our boat to a natural harbour,” says another fisherman from Tamil Nadu.
Over 200 boats from Gujarat were later moved to Maharashtra by December 2, with Met officials warning of landfall in the election-bound state.
“I have never seen a cyclone this coast in December,” says Rupesh Arul, 30, whose boat now has 10 grieving men onboard. “Our grief makes noises in our head. And with no information coming from officials, we have been lying drunk in our boats. I just got told that my friend has died,” he says.
Pleading for diesel from anyone willing to lend an ear, Rupesh says, “We promise we will leave Maharashtra without disturbing anyone. Just give us diesel, we have bodies to fetch from the sea once we return.”
Over the last two days, a common sight in Devgad was that of fishermen walking across the jetty’s roads, picking errands, a pack of beedis, alcohol from local shops and basic food, all with the little money left in their pockets. “We have locked our boats together. Without any help from the government, we have decided to travel in the company of fellow boats. This will be a long journey. But in the sea, during such calamities, only a fisherman is a friend. Out in the sea, there are no enemies,” says Subair C, 43, who decided to leave on Thursday morning, without the diesel.
“In the hour we got the news of the first deaths, we stopped fishing out of respect for the dead and reached this coast. The loss is at least Rs 15 lakh on paper. With the government having failed to inform us in time about the cyclone, the loss will hurt us forever. It’s a fisherman’s curse.”