On Monday (July 23), the body of one of the Mathrubhumi reporters who went missing in the Mundar floods in Kottayam, Kerala was retrieved. The missing men had gone to report on the floods in Kuttanad when their boat capsized in the Kariyar river earlier this week. Oddly, the hunt for the men and retrieval of the body was undertaken not by police divers or the fire department, but by a 42-member group of local rescuers, that includes women.
This group of rescuers call themselves âNanma Kootamâ (Goodness Collective) and rightly so, for they are a huge boon to the locals of Erattupetta and neighbouring areas. Since its inception, Nanma Kootam, under the leadership of founder Ashraf Kutty, has taken great risks and saved 11 people from the brink of death.
The collective comprises 10 expert divers, including 3 women. Needless to say, saving drowning people and diving to retrieve missing persons is their forte. But the members undertake a host of other activities such as rescuing victims of road accidents and donating blood.
Simply put, the group functions to do good for people. And it all started with one man â 35-year-old Ashraf who inspired an entire community of youngsters to join him in saving lives.
How it began
âI was 12 when I jumped headlong into the Meenachil river to pull out a 55-year-old lady. She had drifted all the way from Illapangal to the neighbouring Erattupetta through the channel near my house. When I swam close to her, she grabbed me with a deathly grip, nearly drowning us. But I managed to rescue her. This was my first rescue mission and the urge to save lives has only grown since,â says Ashraf.
Growing near the Meenachil, Ashrafâs father would toss coins into the depths of the river and train him to retrieve them. By the age of 5, Ashraf was comfortable in the river, and soon navigating the deep, murky waters became as easy as breathing for the little boy.
âMy father used to help people. He regularly dived to retrieve things that people lost in the water and even saved several lives. Back then there was no internet, so he lived as a not-so-well-known hero,â says Ashraf with a laugh.
Inspired by his father, Ashraf too jumped in the river to help people. He was followed by his family members who would dive along with him in case of any crisis.
âThere are around 10 members in my family who are expert divers. These include the 3 women who are part Nanma Kootam now. Haseena, Jaseela and Raliyath are all in their 30s and regularly participate in rescue missions,â Ashraf adds.
Ashraf soon realised that kindness has an appeal, when several young men from all over Erattupetta joined him in his rescue missions. The collective then grew from a one-man-army into the 42-member-strong battalion that it is today.
In fact, the group was christened âNanma Kootamâ by a doctor they had rescued from a road accident in Vagamon.
âHe was touring Vagamon and the car fell into a ravine. We rescued him and one year later, he met us all and gave us this name,â recalls Ashraf.
How they work
Today, Nanma Kootam covers a significant chunk of Erattupetta.
âWe have done 11 successful rescue missions and retrieved 7 bodies, including that of the journalist from Mundar. We operate in Vagamon, Poonjar, Erattupetta, Teekoy, Pala and neighbouring towns. Of the 11 rescue missions, 6 are road accident victims who had fallen into the ravines in Vagamon. Five were those who drowned, including school kids who slipped and fell while crossing the river,â says Ashraf.
In the 3 years since they have become an official group, the collective has divided its operations into several verticals.
âWe have 10 people who clear the way, carry the rescue equipment and call the police if needed. Ten are expert divers. We also have a few persons with physical disabilities who immediately call and inform us in case of accidents. Once we receive the message, we round up whoever is present and head to the site,â Ashraf explains.
The group, especially Ashraf, has become indispensable to the local authorities who contact him in case of drowning accidents.
âThe police officers and fire force call us and we turn up. In Erattupetta, the circle Inspector and I are the ones who resuscitate victims by giving them oxygen,â Ashraf says.
Ashraf acknowledges that his passion comes with its own nightmares and recalls one chilling incident that happened a few years ago, which still haunts him.
âI dived into a 35-foot deep well at 9 in the night. It was to save a 11-year-old boy from drowning. But sadly by the time I got to him he was already dead. The locals pulled us both out with a rope made by tying together veshtis and mal mal towels,â he says.
Canât stop, wonât stop
Two decades later, there is no stopping Ashraf Kutty or the team he has built over the years.
âI will still jump into any water body, whatever be the case,â he says with a reassuring confidence.
If this wasnât impressive enough, what comes next is sure to blow your socks off.
Ashraf admits that each and every rescue mission has been done free of cost by the collective.
âWe donât charge money. We, instead, arrange Rs 42,000 to those whoâve been rescued. Each of our members pitch in Rs 1000. Sometimes we even arrange Rs 3 or 4 lakh from friends in the Gulf to bear the hospital bills of victims who canât afford it,â he says.