Lost and found: A story of being marooned at sea for 58 dayshttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/lost-found-odisha-fishermen-amrit-kujur-myanmar-indonesia-6100121/

Lost and found: A story of being marooned at sea for 58 days

The story of Amrit Kujur - of being lost at sea for 58 days, of the silence and fury of the waves, and of a friend's death.

Lost & Found
Kujur covered the 37-km, three-hour distance on Kavya Darshini, the dinghy owned by the trader, around 20 feet long, three feet wide, and “somewhat deep, to keep the goods secure”.

“How do I describe what it is to spend nights in the middle of the ocean, on a boat with only a torch light… The darkness and silence can drive you mad.”

Days after Amrit Kujur washed ashore on the Odisha coast, haggard and hungry, the 46-year-old sits on a chair at the medicine ward of Puri’s District Headquarters Hospital, narrating his incredible story of survival: of the 58 days he spent lost at sea, 28 of those “without food or water”, on a battered dinghy as the waves tossed it around from the Andaman Islands to Myanmar to Odisha.

Around him, patients and their relatives occupy every bed and every square foot on the floor, anxiously waiting for the doctor on duty. Now and then, they look at him and whisper among themselves. Occasionally, someone walks up for a selfie and Kujur obliges, running his hand through his freshly cut hair and looking straight into the camera. This is a different Kujur from the one who had reached the Odisha coast on October 25 and whose photographs, bearded and with matted hair, had gone viral. Now freshly shaven and in a bright orange T-shirt that has a picture of Lord Shiva, he sits back once again to tell his story.

“I am a delivery man for a Tamil seth (trader) who sells food and water to crew of small ships passing by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” says Kujur in Hindi. “I live on Shaheed Dweep (formerly Neill Island) and make around Rs 20,000 a month doing 20-25 trips a month between the island and Port Blair.”

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Kujur covered the 37-km, three-hour distance on Kavya Darshini, the dinghy owned by the trader, around 20 feet long, three feet wide, and “somewhat deep, to keep the goods secure”. It was equipped with a motor at the rear and oars for paddling but, Kujur says, he always knew the tiny boat was not good enough for the seas.

“Betiyon ke liye (For my daughters),” he says on why he stuck to his risky occupation. Of his three daughters, Nitu Nilima, 22, and Manisha, 20, are in college, while Salma, 17, is in high school. “The money I make is much more than what I would have got working in the fields of some rich farmer.”

Shahed Dweep’s vegetable farm economy is just about enough to support its roughly 6,000 residents, says Kujur. Most people work as labourers on large farms, anywhere between seven and 10 hectares. “On an island, land is like gold. So a poor man like me has to earn a living on water,” says Kujur.

***

On August 28, Kujur and Bindhyaranjan Biswas, 36, another of the trader’s employees, set off on their boat with a consignment of rice, dal, potatoes and chicken feed. The “maal (goods)”, worth a little over Rs 4 lakh, was to be delivered from Port Blair to Shaheed Dweep.

That’s when a storm struck. “It hit us from nowhere,” he says.

As the storm tossed their boat around, the two men had to take a quick call for survival. Kujur says they threw out the goods on board to ensure the boat was light and stayed above the waves. “The seth’s goods are insured; our lives are not,” he says.

The storm ended in less than an hour, Kujur recalls. But the boat was battered, the sail cloth torn, the anchor lost. As the two men staggered onto the deck, thankful to be alive, their relief soon gave way to the realisation that they were in strange waters.

“You know when land is far away — the waves are calmer, the sea feels deeper, you don’t see birds,” says Kujur. “We had run out of fuel. Our panic grew as we searched the boat for something to eat, anything… We had with us around two dozen biscuit packets, tetra packs of juice and two torches.”

“The greatest loss was our sense of direction,” he continues. “I have never ventured too far into the sea and so I do not know how to navigate reading the stars and the sun.” Never very religious, turning to God seemed like the only thing left to do for Kujur, who belongs to the island’s Roman Catholic community.

He and Biswas spent nearly four weeks drifting, Kujur adds, their dinghy going where the waves pushed it. “We would wake up every day to the sight of water all around us. The sun was unbearably hot, but we rigged a small roof on the deck and that gave us some protection.”

Time hung heavy. The sea seemed dead. As the days passed, Kujur and Biswas, two men forced into a journey without a destination, swung from desperation to resignation. “Biswas spoke little anyway, and now there was nothing to say. We did not see a single sea creature — dolphin or whale — in the water. We would sit on the deck in the evenings, staring at the horizon as the sun went down.”

Nights, says Kujur, were particularly unnerving, but memories of his family and the life he had left behind served as a useful distraction against fear and despair. “The sound of the waves seemed eerie at night. But some nights, the skies displayed the most amazing formation of stars. I would think about Lilli (his wife) and the children. Lying on the boat, I would think about my marriage, the birth of our children, our little house, my siblings, my childhood and every good and bad experience,” Kujur says.

“I once burst out laughing when I remembered a funny story. Biswas switched on the torch. I could see the light beam shaking as his hands trembled in fear. Within days on the sea, we had developed a fear of human sounds… even a laugh seemed unnatural.”

Kujur says he tried to keep his mind occupied with small problems. “I planned to catch fish using biscuits as bait. But Biswas thought it was not a good idea to lose the little food we had with us. We rationed our food to one biscuit packet and two juice packs every day.”

Some nights, Kujur says, he lay on the deck trying to study the stars, trying to remember what fishermen said about stars and directions. “I could not remember anything useful. But then I started noticing that the sun was setting behind us. That meant we were headed east. I prayed we were heading for Burma (Myanmar), Thailand or Malaysia,” he says.

Kujur interrupts his narration to greet another set of locals at the hospital — some ask him questions in pidgin Hindi. He smiles and answers all questions with, “Kismat saath de gayi (Luck favoured me)”.

“We did sight a few ships,” he continues, settling back into his chair. “But they were too far to be hailed. On clear nights, we could see lights flashing at the front and the rear of big ships, but our torchlights never reached them,” he says.

***

Roughly three weeks after the storm on August 28, one early morning, Biswas shook Kujur awake. As Kujur sat up with a start, he saw something “incredible”. Three fishing trawlers had surrounded their boat. The men aboard appeared Burmese, says Kujur, adding that he gestured to convey he was lost and hungry.

“They saw me point to my mouth and understood. One of the fishing trawlers hitched our boat to theirs and took us to a (Myanmarese) navy ship,” he said.

“The (Navy) men were kind but aloof. They went through our documents,” says Kujur, pulling out his identity card, wrapped in a plastic bag. The card, headlined ‘Republic of India’, carries a unique number and an old photograph of a young Kujur, along with his personal details — name, his address in Mayabunder in the Andamans and his age: “29 yrs as on 01/01/2002”.

Kujur remembers the wave of relief that swept over him as he got on board the Navy ship. After weeks on a rocking, battered dinghy, that was the first time he had stepped on something stable.

Kujur and Biswas stayed two days and nights on the ship. They placed a call to the seth to inform him about the storm, the goods that had been lost and that they were alive. Kujur says the seth was not pleased to hear about his losses, but agreed to inform their families and the Andaman Police.

“On the third day, we were put back on our boat with a compass and advised to keep moving southwards. We were told that we would reach the Andamans in four days and nights,” Kujur claims, adding that they were given 17 packets of Maggi and four loaves of bread, along with water and 260 litres of fuel.

Kujur says they were hesitant to go back on the sea, but the food and the human contact had raised their spirits. “In hindsight, we should not have tempted the sea so soon. We should have asked for better provisions. We were so grateful to be rescued that we forgot the need to remain vigilant,” says Kujur.

A day later, another storm bore down upon them. “A storm at sea is scary. The lightning flashes threaten to hit you any moment. The thunder is ten times louder than on land,” Kujur says.

“Biswas and I were scared out of our wits. We had tempted fate by returning to the water and were being punished,” Kujur says, recalling the high waves that crashed into their boat, sweeping away their supplies, fuel, and food. After about an hour, the storm subsided, leaving the two exactly as they were before. Lost.

Almost hysterical with grief, Kujur says he and his friend resigned themselves to whatever came next. Without fuel for the boat, and with no food and water this time round, the suffering was intense, says Kujur. The men knew drinking sea water dehydrates the body, but they did it anyway when thirst got the better of them. “I would dip a towel into the waves and wring the cloth over our mouths for a few drops each time. Our thirst increased, but what could we have done?”

Biswas, says Kujur, drank more than they had decided. “The sea water was harming him, but he did not heed any advice. His body could not stand the hunger and thirst. He wasted away before my eyes, lying listless for hours on the boat.”

Ten days before Kujur sighted land, Biswas passed away quietly one night. “I realised he was gone when his body did not move for hours. I carried his body to the edge of the boat and tipped him into the water,” claims Kujur, adding that he was too drained to feel any emotion at the time.

The 10 days after his friend’s death, before he touched land, are a blur, says Kujur. Adding that he was too weak to even think, he says he couldn’t tell day from night as he lay on his back, the waves bobbing the little boat around.

Early one morning, the dinghy grazed against a rock. Despite being completely drained, Kujur says he instantly knew the boat had touched land.

“I waited for an hour or two for the sun to come up. Then I got down from my boat and my knees sank into the sand. I could not walk and lay in the water till my feet could support me better,” he says.

Kujur says he will never forget the first three things he saw that indicated he was near a human settlement. “I saw a coconut that had been chopped off at one end for someone to drink its juice. Then I saw cow dung on the ground. Walking further, I came across a well. I cried realising I was among human beings once more.”

***

While Kujur’s is a story of human grit in the face of unimaginable odds, with parallels being drawn to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s account of a real-life event in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, it has raised its share of questions and scepticism.

The Sunday Express, while attempting to corroborate Kujur’s account, found two missing persons reports published in Andaman’s local papers, The Daily Telegram and the Andaman Chronicle.

Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle, said his paper carried the report on September 6 featuring Amrit Kujur and Bindhyaranjan Biswas. “The report was published in the paper after the local police forwarded it to us,” Giles said.

Describing Kujur and Biswas, the report stated, “The above persons went missing since 28/08/19 night on the way from Joda Kilan (Sippighat) to Saheed Dweep along with an Engine Dinghy namely Kavya Darshini.”

Speaking with The Sunday Express on phone, Kujur’s wife Lilli said, “Yes, we have three daughters and he has had to take risks to put food on the table. But I don’t want him to go back to the seas again.”

The Director General of Police, Andaman and Nicobar Administration, Deependra Pathak, admits he is “cautious” about Kujur’s story, but adds that he will wait to hear from Kujur. On whether a boat could have left the Andaman Islands undetected, he said, “On the particular day (August 28), the weather was a bit stormy, so he could have (gone missing without being seen).”

He also confirms that the local administration got a call from Myanmar on Kujur and Biswas being found in their waters, following which a letter was sent to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), requesting for their deportation from Myanmar. “I guess the (Myanmar) authorities released them before the letter reached the MEA,” said the DGP.

However, Pathak concedes it will be difficult to verify every detail of Kujur’s story, especially the circumstances in which Biswas died. “Let us hope he can give us a logical explanation,” he says.

Dr Santanu Kumar Jena, who attended to Kujur in Puri, said that while it was clear that the man had lost weight, he displayed “no symptoms consistent with complete starvation for 28 days” or of survival on sea water. “His liver and kidney function tests were normal. He had undergone weight loss, but not as severe as one might expect after prolonged starvation. It seems he definitely had little to eat, but perhaps did not starve completely,” said Jena, hinting that Kujur may have allowed for exaggerations in his account.

Kujur’s discharge papers from the hospital indicate he was diagnosed with colitis with “possible acid peptic disease”, which, doctors say, could be due to infection, hunger and rapid weight loss.

Jena also said Kujur did not seem to be disoriented or traumatised after such a psychologically taxing experience. “He spoke normally, made eye contact, smiled,” said Jena, adding that “different people, however, react differently to adverse situations”.

At the urban shelter home in Puri, where Kujur stayed for five days, his handlers too said he didn’t display any visible signs of trauma. “He was brought to us within 24 hours of reaching land,” says Soumya, who stayed by Kujur’s side throughout his stay in Puri. “From the hour of his arrival, he spoke normally.”

The other question looming around Kujur’s story is whether it is possible for a dinghy to float all the way from the Andamans to Myanmar.

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Dr Sourav Sil, Assistant Professor at IIT Bhubaneswar who researches physical oceanography and ocean circulation modeling, says it is “not impossible”. “The water stretch between Port Blair (on the eastern side of the Andaman Islands) and the southern tips of Myanmar is relatively calm. It is possible for a non-motorised boat to float from Port Blair to Mynamar waters due to eddies,” says Sil.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains eddies in simple terms: “The ocean is a huge body of water that is constantly in motion. General patterns of ocean flow are called currents. Sometimes, these currents can pinch off sections and create circular currents of water called an eddy.”

But what happens if a non-motorised boat attempts to float from Myanmar towards the Andaman Islands? Sil’s hypothesis is that the boat will float westwards till it reaches the east coast in India, a supposition that is broadly consistent with Kujur’s account of the second part of his journey, from Myanmar to Odisha.

“The flow in the Bay of Bengal differs season to season. We can detect circulation patterns from the Andamans to the (east) Indian coast. There is a process called Rossby Wave, which propagates westwards throughout the year,” Sil explains.

***

On October 25, Kujur reached Khirisahi village in Puri’s coastal Krushnaprasad block, around 1,200 km from Port Blair, where he was swept away into the deep sea.

He spent the next five days in Puri, at a shelter home run by the NGO Odisha Patita Uddhan Samiti, with the district administration footing the bill for his food, clothes and medicines.

On October 30, Kujur left for home, accompanied by an official of the Puri administration — a road trip to Bhubaneswar, followed by a flight to Kolkata and then Port Blair.

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At the Puri district hospital, Kujur had predicted his life would never be the same. “I know I will be asked to tell this story all my life. People may believe or dismiss my story, but they will still want to hear it.”