Rowing between Rooftops: The Heroic fishermen in Kerala floods, quite deservedly throws the spotlight on these unsung heroes
Nature has made her displeasure quite clear in recent times, sending the sub-continent more than her fair share of floods and cyclones. Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been at the receiving end of floods that have been unprecedented in scale, in a manner that should tell us that human activities have tilted nature’s balance.
In times of such natural disasters, however, is when humanity surfaces in unexpected ways, throwing up heroes, most of them unsung or unrecognized. And this book, Rowing between Rooftops: The Heroic fishermen in Kerala floods by Rejimon Kutappan, highlights a few of those heroes, throwing the spotlight on them, telling stories of their bravery in dangerous, turbulent waters.
Rejimon has had an interesting career. Primarily an independent journalist, he also calls himself a ‘migrant rights defender’. He was a Chief Reporter for the Times of Oman, one of the leading English dailies in Oman, till 2017. In April 2017, he was deported by the Oman government for exposing the human trafficking of South Asian women domestic workers and modern-day slavery in the Arab Gulf, through news stories in the Times of Oman.
His next stint was at Equidem Research and Consulting, a specialist human rights and labour rights consultancy, as an India-Arab Gulf Senior Investigator. Kutappan is a regular contributor for Thomson Reuters Foundation, Middle East Eye, Migrant Rights, Equal Times, The Caravan, The Wire, The Lede and various other news outlets.
A Dalit Panan from Kerala, Rejimon tells The Lede that his community were historically ballad singers, who sang of warriors and their heroic acts. “How apt then,” he asks, “that I do the same by capturing the heroism of the fishermen who saved thousands of lives in the worst floods that Kerala faced this century?”
His storytelling groups the fishermen who worked together on the same boat during the rescue missions, giving their perspectives, their impetus in doing what they did. Rejimon says that he travelled the length of the Thiruvananthapuram coast, interviewing more than 50 fishermen. He says, “To be honest, writing their tales is a way for me to archive their heroic acts. I didn’t want people to forget their inspirational stories.”
Rejimon, who writes on workers’ rights, the struggles of Dalits and tribals, the challenges faced by manual scavengers and the marginalised people of Kerala, working on the book was an eye-opener. He was amazed by the grit and resilience that the fishermen displayed in the difficult time. He tells us, “It is estimated that the fisherfolk managed to rescue over 60,000 people during the flood. If not for them and their boats, the death toll would have gone up. These were men who had no rescue training, or rescue equipment. But they didn’t fail. They are really heroes. What was remarkable was that the men plunged into the rescue operations without any expectation of any remuneration. And interestingly, after the water subsided, these men helped in cleaning many towns.”
One of the rescue boats was manned by the veteran Wilfred and his team.
Wilfred S, a veteran fisherman from Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram, who saved around 500 people from the worst flood-hit area from the banks of Pamba river was the only elder among the rescuers. “After two days of tiring rescue operations ignoring hunger and danger, we decided to end the task. We boarded our boat on the truck and were ready to go. We were waiting to sign some official papers with the government officials on the rescue operations, then came a request from the government side,” Wilfred said. “The request was that we have to transport some food and medicines to some 350 people who have taken shelter on a small hilltop across the Pamba river,” Wilfred added. According to Wilfred, it was already 5:30pm and it was raining heavily. If Wilfred and his team have to reach the spot, they would have to cross the Kuttanad lake and the ferociously flowing Pamba river. As the hilltop was full of trees, the navy and army choppers had failed to drop medicines and food for the stranded people and eventually, the people were literally starving for at least three days. All of them were residing in nearby areas. But when the flood water started to rise, they moved on to the hilltop so at least their lives were saved. “It was a bit late. And the time was around 6pm. We were aware that by the time we reach, it would be dark. However, we decided to go. Without any delay, we unloaded the boat from the truck. The officials and volunteers loaded the medicines and food. A local who knows the way also joined us,” Wilfred said. According to Wilfred, it was a risky task. When Wilfred and his team docked their boat and climbed the hilltop with medicine and food, the stranded people were really surprised to see them. “More than getting the medicines and food, they were happy to learn that the government was aware that they are there,” Wilfred said.
An excerpt from Rowing between Rooftops: The Heroic fishermen in Kerala floods
The book talks about many more such heroes and their teams, and their untiring efforts at reaching out to stranded and affected people.
“Following the heroic rescue operations, the Kerala government called these fishermen ‘Kerala’s Own Army’. A special programme to honour them was arranged and a small honorarium was awarded for all the fishermen. However, the fishermen refused it,” Rejimon said.
He added, “Dr Shashi Tharoor has recommended the fishermen’s heroic act for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
According to Rejimon, fishermen along the Thiruvananthapuram coast are empathic to nature and human life.
“Many suffered injuries during the rescue operations. Many risked their lives. Many had to face different kinds of discrimination during the rescue operations. But they ignored everything and continued to rescue lives. When I asked them why they had spontaneously ventured out on this mission, their answer was simple and straight forward. If not them, who else would?” Rejimon said.
Rejimon is planning his next book on five Indian migrants who had to lead slave-like lives in the Arab Gulf.
Book: Rowing Between Rooftops: The Heroic fishermen in Kerala floods
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Publication: July 2019
Genre: Contemporary History
Author: Rejimon K
The author, an ILO-Panos fellow on Labour Migration and an advisor for the Ethical Journalism Network, has also co-authored a book, Uncertain Journeys, an anthology on the India-Gulf labour migration, published by Speaking Tiger.
You can follow the author on @rejitweets or mail him at email@example.com