Cyclone Ockhi: One storm, many tattered lives

It’s been 13 days since Cyclone Ockhi hit Kanniyakumari district, and the whereabouts of at least 450 fishermen who ventured into the sea are yet unknown. A sense of gloom and anxiety has gripped Thoothur, Chinnathurai and nearby villages, which are renowned for deep-sea fishing and account for a majority of missing fishermen. Pon Vasanth Arunachalam met five of the affected families, whose stories highlight different dimensions of the unfolding tragedy:

Updated - March 13, 2018 12:03 am IST

Published - December 13, 2017 01:19 am IST - Kanniyakumari

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : A. Helan Mery from Neerodi in Kanyakumari District lost her husband S. Antoniar Pichchai. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : A. Helan Mery from Neerodi in Kanyakumari District lost her husband S. Antoniar Pichchai. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

R. Stella’s husband and her twin sons began their two-week long fishing expedition in the early hours of November 21, nine days before the cyclone, with six others in a fibre boat. All of them are now missing.

Ms. Stella and her daughter, who is the youngest of her children, are inconsolable as they keep hearing stories from survivors that diminish their hope that the three men could be alive.

Blaming the government for not swiftly commencing the rescue operations, she says that no amount of compensation could bring back the love of her husband and their sons.

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : S. Delphin Mery (left), C. Ambika, Ambikas husband S. Crisban from Neerodi in Kanyakumari District who were missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : S. Delphin Mery (left), C. Ambika, Ambikas husband S. Crisban from Neerodi in Kanyakumari District who were missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

 

“My sons are lookalike twins. I have some chronic illness and took pains to bring up my handsome sons,” she says, adding that if they were dead in the sea, she dreaded the possibility of having to see their bodies.

“People say the recovered bodies are in a highly decomposed and disfigured state. I do not want to see my beautiful sons and husband like that. If the government could not rescue them alive on time, let them not bring their decomposed bodies to me,” she says.

While the affected families in the fishing villages have begun to get the attention of the government, albeit belatedly, after intense protests and media attention, little is spoken about men from non-fishing communities from interior villages who go in the boats as labourers.

One such family is that of P. Radhamani, whose two sons went for deep-sea fishing in a boat owned by a person in Chinnathurai, a week before the cyclone. There is no information on the boat or any of the crew members.With her husband being ill, Radhamani sells milk from the two cows she owns to augment the income earned by her sons. “My elder son has been going in the boats for the past six years. I discourage my younger son to take the job, but he goes at least once in a year by fooling me. This was one such time,” she says.

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : P. Radhamani from Niththiravilai in Kanyakumari DIstrict were two sons are missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : P. Radhamani from Niththiravilai in Kanyakumari DIstrict were two sons are missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

 

Though they generally go on different boats, this time, unfortunately, they went on the same boat.

Ms. Radhamani says that despite enquiring at the information centre opened by government after the cyclone at Kirathoor, none from the government had updated her about her sons.

S. Chrisbin belongs to the relatively poor section of fishing families, who go on short five to six-day long expeditions in small-sized mechanised boats called vallam , unlike the more profitable deep-sea fishermen who go in fibre boats.

He went as a labourer in another man’s vallam , day before the cyclone and has remained untraceable along with other four members in the boat.

C. Ambika, his wife, says that Chrisbin was the only bread winner of her family, which includes their two children, her mother-in-law, her husband’s brother who is physically-challenged, and the brother’s wife.

“We did not receive any warning even a day before the cyclone. Had we known, I would not have sent my husband,” she says.

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : R. Stella (middle), of Thoothur in Kanyakumari District whose husband and sons are missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : R. Stella (middle), of Thoothur in Kanyakumari District whose husband and sons are missing. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

 

Apart from the looming concern about the family’s future, her immediate concern is taking care of her two young children, who have begun to constantly enquire about their father.

S. Delphin Mary, his mother, says that they try hard to control their tears and not show their anxiety so that the mood does not affect the children.

While it is not common for the boat owners to go for the expeditions, K. Josephath, 48, from Thoothur village, who owns a boat, went for fishing along with 12 other men,around 36 hours before the cyclone hit.

The owners of huge mechanised boats that go on deep-sea fishing expeditions – sometimes for more than four weeks – have another problem: the massive debts they have piled up for purchasing the boats.

Josephath’s house is full of relatives, who have come to console his anxious wife J. Vijaya and their three children.

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : J. Vijaya, of Thoothur. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

TIRUNELVELI : TAMIL NADU : 12/12/2017 : FOR FIVE FAMILIES STORY : J. Vijaya, of Thoothur. Photo: A_Shaikmohideen

 

“Everyone thinks that we have a huge boat, and therefore, we are rich. But we took loans for more than ₹60 lakh to purchase the boat, which we are yet to repay,” she says.

With their eldest son just doing a course on marine engineering, she is worried about bringing up their children and meeting the debts if Josephath does not return.

“The government has not bothered to rescue our men on time or visit us in this time of grief. How can we expect it to help us in tackling these debts," she asks.

A majority of the families, whose men are yet to be traced, are hoping against hope that they would have a miraculous return. However, a few families seem to have reconciled to the reality that the men are dead by hearing the stories of the survivors.

One such family is that of S. Anthoniar Pitchai, who went a day before the cyclone along with five other fishermen in a small-sized vallam . The family has already garlanded his picture and been conducting prayers in his memory as four survivors from the vallam have said that they saw Pitchai drifting away in the current and was unlikely to be alive.

Pointing to her two children, A. Helen Mary says that Pitchai took ₹5 lakh from money lenders at high interest rate to purchase the vallam . “Every month, we have to pay a sizeable sum as interest. I feel like killing myself along with my children when I think about future,” she says.“When I was a teenager, my mother became a widow. Now, I have become a widow. My mother and I have to bring up my children; just that we do not know how,” she adds.

(Photos: A. Shaikmohideen)

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