“I was quite sure I would die at sea. And then I thought, even if I die, my boat should reach the shore. It’s more valuable than me.”
Jose may have fought off the monster waves churned by Cyclone Ockhi deep inside Arabian Sea to live another day, but on Thursday, he came back to his Kanyakumari home to a relieved family and a mountain of debt staring at him. Having lost two precious canoes in the cyclone, Jose is faced with a paradox of emotions: feeling relieved at having survived a nightmare and at the same time wallowing in grief thinking about paying off a line of debtors.
“Our fishing nets and gear are gone. The canoes are gone. We had borrowed a lot of money to buy all the material. Since I am currently staying in a rented house, I had thought about even buying a home of our own. All those dreams are over,” said Jose, by phone, from his home in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.
Jose’s green boat, All Maighty God (sic), battered by Cyclone Ockhi on November 30, was found drifting at sea by the Indian Coast Guard and subsequently brought to the Thoppumpady Harbour in Kochi on December 6. Jose and 11 others, all except two are Tamil, had left the southern Tamil Nadu coast on November 24, heading west towards the Lakshadweep Islands in the pursuit of a bumper catch.
“The white tuna (kera in local parlance) fish we catch swim very fast in the sea. So we usually get down from the boat into the canoes to catch them. By November 29, we started getting strong winds so we knew something was wrong. We got back into the boat and tied the canoe by rope,” Jose recalled that chilling night in the sea.
Meanwhile, at home, Jose’s wife Nisha, got a panic attack when she heard the news of the cyclone late Wednesday night on TV.
“Hridayam thakarnu kettappol (My heart broke when I heard),” Nisha told the Indian Express. “I was shivering. We always remember God when we send them out to sea.”
By 30th, Jose said, winds became fiercer sending the boat tossing and turning in the violent waves. Soon, the rope tying the canoes broke setting them loose with the boat rocking dangerously in the sea.
“It was pitch dark. Even though it was the middle of the day, there was barely any sunshine. Each of us tied ourselves with ropes, indirectly holding on to each other. I told them, ‘if you lose grip and fall into the water, I cannot help you. You will die,” said Jose. The 12 men, remained in that position, for almost 12 hours, desperately praying to be saved.
“I have been going out to sea for more than 30 years. I have not seen or experienced anything like that,” Jose summarised.
For the next six days, the boat, whose engine had malfunctioned in the cyclone, drifted in the sea with mainland nowhere in sight. “We had some ration which ran out soon. To stay dehydrated, we would mix lemons in a mixture of freshwater and seawater and drink that,” he said. The ordeal of the 12 men ended when they saw the Coast Guard ship ‘Abhinav’ coming to their rescue.
On Thursday, as Jose and his friends returned home, neighbours and family came together to welcome them in Vallavilai, a small fishing village on the TN coast.
“We ate properly in over a week after Jose ettan came back last night,” said Nisha. “My younger son would pray for his father. He used to say the boat’s name is Almighty God and so God himself would return him.”
But the happiness in Jose’s family is fast fading. “The future’s looking grim. I don’t know what to do. We have losses of Rs 20 lakhs. I don’t know how we will pay back the money,” said Jose.
When asked about government compensation, Jose and his wife are not optimistic. Even as neighbouring Kerala announced rehabilitation packages buckering under public pressure, the couple don’t expect much from the political leadership of Tamil Nadu.
“You know, I may have been born at home but I have lived my entire life at sea. The sea is all we have,” he said.