‘Rowing Between The Rooftops’ captures Kerala’s heroes: The fishermen of the state

Journalist Rejimon Kuttappan narrates some shocking incidents that occurred while fishermen, risking everything, went out to save the lives of others during the 2018 August floods.
‘Rowing Between The Rooftops’ captures Kerala’s heroes: The fishermen of the state
‘Rowing Between The Rooftops’ captures Kerala’s heroes: The fishermen of the state
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Rejimon Kuttappan asked this question many times, but he still doesn’t have an answer – Why did the fishermen of Kerala, who have had so many setbacks in life, risk everything to go out into the floods and save the stranded people? He asked it every time he interviewed a fisherman. In reply, they smiled. 

A year after that scary flood that caused so much damage, took so many lives, Rejimon’s book Rowing Between The Rooftops: The Heroic Fishermen of the Kerala Floods was launched in the presence of fishermen he wrote the stories of.

“T Peter, general secretary of the National Fish Workers’ Forum, told me that’s the way they are, they jump at things, ready to rescue lives,” says Rejimon, during an interview. He has been a journalist for years. Last August, he wrote a story for Asia Times, about six fishermen who went from Thiruvananthapuram to a flood-hit area in Chengannur and saved 27 children from an orphanage, among others.

Rejimon knew there were many other stories to be written, of the fishermen who had later been much lauded for the selfless work they did, saving tens of thousands stranded. “If it is an online story it can disappear any time. If it is for print media, it would be forgotten in a day. But if it is a book and remains in a library somewhere, their stories would never be forgotten. Someone would refer to it, read it, years later,” he says.

Survivor story

In the book, he writes about some of the most daring acts he learnt about, visiting the brave men at their homes in the coastal areas of Thiruvananthapuram. He begins, however, with the experience of a survivor, a woman who watched the three members of her family die in front of her and remained alive in the water that entered their house, for three days, to tell the story.

“It is one of the most moving stories I heard. When I visited her in September last year, she was still in shock. But she agreed to talk to me because I approached her through the church. She was stranded in her house for two-and-a-half days during the flood, the bodies of her husband, mother-in-law and son floating around her. She didn’t even realise that her paralysed son was no more. She had been without food or water and there was no one to hear her cries. The mother-in-law died because she was aged, the husband died after that because he was diabetic, the son died last. She told me, Jesus must have kept her alive because she has something more to do. That really touched me,” Rejimon says.

Annamma Varghese’s story was the first. She couldn’t recall the names of the fishermen who came to save her. The rescuers didn’t think of much beyond their immediate task: saving people. They didn’t think of the struggles they were already going through after the Ockhi cyclone that had caused much damage the year before. They didn’t think of the boats that may get destroyed and ruin their livelihood. Some didn’t even tell their families at home before venturing out to save lives, because they might not let them risk their own.

“Even before the government thought of seeking the help of the fishermen, these heroes of the Thiruvananthapuram coast had rushed to the flooded areas, ignoring the risks, as usual,” Rejimon writes in the introduction of his book.

Selfishness shocks the selfless savers

Rejimon had the help of T Peter and Mini Mohan, a social activist, in finding stories of a few fishermen like Johny Chekkitta, who was involved in saving the 27 children in Chengannur. Johny and others referred him to other fishermen involved in daredevilry acts. Rejimon was shocked to hear each of their stories. One story is about how some people they had saved refused to accommodate others who were stranded. Rejimon quotes the words of Joseph, a fisherman, who was involved in the rescue work.

“We took a detour and saw that the cry we’d heard came from a pregnant woman and two small children, standing on the roof terrace of a house. Drenched in rain and without any food, they were in a terrible situation. I realized that she was suffering and in pain. The children, too, were crying, seeing their mother’s suffering. They immediately began begging us to take them to shelter. We started towards them, to take them on board. But, to our complete shock, some of the people on the boat refused to accommodate them!”

In another chapter is the story reported by some media, about people who refused to get on boats of Christian fishermen, who they thought ‘would make them impure’. Raju, a fisherman, narrates how in Venmani, a village in Chengannur, a group of Brahmin women refused to board their boat because they (the fishermen) belonged to a lower caste.

“I can’t still understand the logic. We risked our lives. We sacrificed our time. We sacrificed our jobs. At some points, where water levels were low, we had to get down and push the boat to move it forward. After all this, people think that if they board our boat, then they become impure…”

- Raju’s words from the book.

“Another story that really shocked me was Wilfred’s, a veteran fisherman from Vizhinjam, who was in his late 50s and still went out for rescue work. After two days of rescue work, when they were about to return home, they got a request to transport food and medicines to 350 people who were stranded on a hilltop across the Pamba river. They did that knowing it would be dark when they reached there and the risks involved,” Rejimon says.

Rejimon Kuttappan

The book narrates many more daring acts, removing snakes from under the boat, fishermen jumping off the boat to make space for those they were saving, and so on. Despite all this, they haven’t been compensated properly, they don’t get what they deserve, Rejimon feels.

“Earlier, five of them would buy a boat together and share their catch. Now even ten of them cannot afford to buy a boat together (after the ruins in the Ockhi cyclone). And even if they can, there would be nothing when they try to share the profits among 10 people. When there is sea erosion, they live as refugees in their own village, in a camp 500 metres away from their homes. There is just so much uncertainty in their lives. And yet, they do not fall, they do not contemplate suicide, like farmers do in our country. They do not hesitate for a moment before jumping out to save lives. They tell me they battle the sea every day, they can fight anything in life.”

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