It is brewing up a storm. Fishermen in Urur Kuppam have pulled their boats and gear up the beach in anticipation of a tidal surge. Palayam Anna thinks they under-estimate the power of the storm. “They should move the boats and gear further inland. I will advise them,” he said.

The past few monsoons have been disappointing for fishers. Prawns, the gold they harvest from the sea, have not yet made an appearance. Cyclones churn up the oceans and mobilise the prawns from their refuge in the sediment into the nets of eager fishers. Last year too, the season was a washout. Unlike the Greater Chennai Corporation and the Government of Tamil Nadu which views the monsoon as a nuisance, and a potential threat to the party in power, the fishers await the Northeast monsoon and its cyclone-driven rainy season. Cyclones are good for fishing – not during but after. “I hope we get a decent storm this time. Every time, the storm misses us and goes elsewhere,” Palayam rues.

As I write, the sky is overcast. The tree-tops visible in the sliver of window in my fifth floor room in Chetpet are still. Calm before the storm? I don’t know. This monsoon has been a series of disappointments for Palayam Anna. However, he has high hopes for Michaung.

Those hopes are tempered, though, by the realisation of the immense hardship that the rains will bring to the people of Chennai. Successive governments have continued to intensify urbanisation in Chennai to such a point that every few years, intense or steady, heavy rains end up drowning large portions of the city. Palayam prays for good fishing and for the safety of the people in the city. Unfortunately, if a good storm means good fishing, then the follies of the past will mean that if one prayer is answered, the other will not.

Just yesterday, he sent a regretful voice note on WhatsApp. Fishermen from village after village to the south of Chennai as far down as Alambaraikuppam in Kanchipuram confirmed to Palayam that there were no prawn to be had this season. “Prawns are ever-present in seas with reefs. But this year none has been caught, even in the villages to the south. A good storm should help. But last year too, Cyclone Mandous roiled up the seas but we had no prawns in Chennai all of December. Let’s hope Michaung sets in well. Fishermen in Thiruvallur, Chennai and Kanchipuram are looking forward to some good fishing.”

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Today, Palayam Anna called asking me why I had not responded to the photographs he had sent. “I thought you’d notice and call me,” he said, visibly disappointed that 5 years into my schooling with him on the #ScienceOfTheSeas, I was still unable to pick up crucial clues. Only after he told me could I even make out that the objects in the net were crabs. “Marappu Nandu (a kind of crab),” Palayam declared hoping that at least now I’d make the connection. “This crab has not been seen in quiet some time. But here they are in substantial numbers.” This indicates marappu or barren conditions of the seas caused when bottom waters turn crystal clear and devoid of fish and prawn. If Marappu Nandu comes up in your net, you can forget fishing for a day or two.

Thursday, November 14, 2023

It was an hour past noon. Chennai’s celebrated Tamil Nadu Weatherman had tweeted, “Hit or miss rains today for Chennai to Pondy coasts.” I was waiting for an airport train at Alandur metro station when the overcast skies opened up and began chucking water. Just as I thought that the roar of the rains couldn’t get louder, the skies would turn it up a notch and then again. Passengers on the platform exchanged nervous looks. Chennai is built to drown. Since the city-wide floods of December 2015, Chennai-ites and the city corporation are prone to anxiety attacks come monsoon time.

Urur Kuppam fisher elder S. Palayam has been recording wind, weather, ocean current and sea condition data daily from his perch at the Adyar river mouth since September 2018. As a veteran hook-and-line fisher, Palayam and his ilk have a keen understanding of weather systems, seasons, fish and ocean behaviour, and of the dynamic coast where ocean meets land. On 14 November, Palayam called me with a special update. Like the Tamil Nadu Weatherman, Palayam too was skeptical of the dire predictions for heavy rains in Chennai. “The storm seems to be moving away from us; unless it turns west, heavy rains are unlikely,” Palayam said.

“Traditional wisdom,” the crudely patronising phrase adopted by the “mainstream” to classify the everyday science practised by communities, fails to capture the depth and complexity of Palayam’s data sources and gathering methods, and analytical techniques. Consider Palayam’s justification for his skepticism about the recent prediction of rainstorms: “I’m standing on the beach, just north of my village. A vigorous Vaadai Eeran (north easterly sea breeze) is kicking up sand particles. I can’t stand facing the breeze because of the sand. There’s a strong Olini (westerly current). I can tell because the sea that was calm yesterday is now rough, and there is an uneven belt of shells along the tideline. For heavy rains, three factors need to converge – dense rain clouds, a Vanni nearshore current and Kun Vaadai (north northwesterly) winds. The Olini weakens the northerly nearshore current as it is normally associated with the southerly (Thendi) current. If the Olini persists for another day, the nearshore current will reverse directions eliminating any chance of rains. So even though the Olini began easing by midday and the Vanni became more pronounced, unless the breeze shifts to blow from the north-northwest (Kun Vaadai), the predicted rainstorm will not materialise.”

The rains this season have been a flopshow compared to last year. Here’s how Palayam describes this to me during the call: “There’s hardly any trash on the beach. If 10 tonnes of river trash was recovered from the beach last year, there is hardly half a ton this time. That indicates poor outflow from the river [Adyar] and poor rains further west. Did you see the video I sent you of the buffaloes from Pattinapakkam swimming across the river effortlessly? See it. What does that tell you? Mani [another fisher elder who frequents the beach] was telling me that several years ago, a buffalo that was trying to ford the river at the estuary got washed away to sea all the way to Kel-cheru at 16 fathoms deep. Exhausted, it had made its way to one of the fisher’s kattumaram (craft) fishing there and rested its snout on the boat to catch its breath. One of the fishers dived in, lashed a net rope across its haunches and they slowly rowed it back to land. It galloped away as soon as it touched the beach. I’m saying that the river flow was so huge and swift that it pushed all the way to Kel-cheru. Look at it now; it is hardly at 4-5 fathom (8-10 metre depth). It is true that the sand in the intertidal region is squelchy and yields easily to the feet. And yes, stormy weather is afoot when your feet sink in the wet intertidal sand. But as I said, the Vaadai Eeran sea breeze that is still blowing from the northeast means the storm is too far away from us to bring rain.” It is remarkable how much one can tell standing on the beach, just by reading water, waves, trash and the earth beneath one’s feet. Fishers, farmers, forest workers and just about anyone that lives and works closely with land develop a basic earth-literacy from listening to and working with their elders, and their own lived experiences. Some among them evolve into knowledge keepers; they function as a repository of communal memory. And then, there are knowledge-makers like Palayam; most fishing villages are blessed with at least a few. Traditional wisdom and people’s science is not a static fossilised knowledge situated in the good old days. Community knowledge-makers draw from any source at hand – western science, modern environmental markers like trash and pollution, other informants – to make sense of nature.

To most of us, a cyclone conjures up an image of a spiral of swirling winds viewed from above. In the northern hemisphere, the winds circulate in an anti-clockwise direction as the storm moves. Palayam and fishers in India’s east coast experience storms differently. I had shared a satellite image of the depression hovering in the northern Bay with Palayam over WhatsApp and asked him to tell me what he saw. Even before looking at the map, he asked “Brother, how is the map oriented? Which direction is up?” To fishers, the sea is everything. Unlike colonial maps that feature north on top, fisher maps from the east coast always have east (Eeran) on top.

Where institutional science and the meteorological department deploy a god’s eye view to read cyclones and weather patterns using satellites, fishers use a standing-person’s view and their senses to understand the sea. “I use my cheeks to read the wind. When I stand facing the sea, I’m facing east. If the wind strikes my left cheek, it is a northerly (Vaadai winds), and if it caresses my right cheek, it is blowing from the south (Kachan winds). I then turn to sense its orientation – northeast (vaadai eeran), north (neenda vaadai), north-northwest (kun vaadai), northwest (vadamarai), west (kodai), southwest (Kachan kodai), south (Kachan), southeast (Kachan eeran) and east (eeran). I notice the colours of the sea and see if there are different coloured bands across it. I step into the water to sense its temperature. The chill water I sensed today is because of the rainwater brought in by the river which has been pushed south to my village by the Vanni (north-south) nearshore current. I watch the orientation of the waves or the direction of drift of a floating object to read nearshore currents; the wet mark left by the tide along the beach and the presence or absence of shells and seaborne trash tells me about the power of the tide and how the sea was last night. The orientation of the ships dragging on their anchor out near the harbour tells me what the mid-sea current is like – if the ship is dragging with bow east, stern west, I can tell that a pronounced easterly (Olini) is in force.”

There are many ways to tell a story. Comparing the met department’s satellite image with Palayam’s observations reveals convergences in the meanings that one can make of each narrative. The satellite image shows wind arrows descending from the north and curving towards land as it approaches Chennai from a northeasterly direction, exactly as observed by Palayam. Now, if the same depression were to move due west and continue in that direction after landfall, the wind arrows descending from the vortex will appear to be coming in from north-northwest or Kun Vaadai, the direction of storm winds. Each has its strengths – the satellite image yields a reliable big picture, but lacks granularity; Palayam’s observations have high hyperlocal relevance but cannot be used to understand conditions in other localities.

Palayam and other fishers closely follow weather reports, although they haven’t yet learnt to read the satellite images. But the met department and institutional scientists seldom read anything but their own science, and probably are ignorant of the existence of other sciences. Western science imparts an arrogance to its practitioners, an arrogance that rests on a tacit declaration that this way of seeing is sufficient to reveal all that is to be known. This can just as easily be called ignorance. Every way of knowing has its blind spots. You cannot know what your way of knowing sees as unknowable. Accessing multiple forms of knowing can deepen one’s knowledge. But for that, one needs humility and a willingness to acknowledge that the western way of knowing – what we call science – is merely one among a dazzling array of systems of knowledge, enquiry and comprehension.