At 7 pm on 20 August, when I reached the Neendakara port in Kerala’s Kollam district, it had finished its business for the day. The silhouettes of the berthed boats were still visible in the light of the night sky, fishermen could be heard chatting in the distance, and the breeze over the Ashtamudi lake carried the smell of freshly caught fish. I approached a group of people— around eight men and one woman—who were standing under a street light before a row of empty boats. They were all party workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI-M, from Neendakara village. Each of them occassionally glanced towards the entrance of the fishing harbour. “Three boats are coming back today,” Jessi Mathias, a local committee member of the CPI-M, said. “We are waiting for them.”
Natural calamities in India have frequently seen the country’s armed forces join the rescue operations. However, in the disastrous floods that have swept Kerala this monsoon, scores of survivors are thanking rescue workers from unlikely quarters for ushering them to safety—the fishing communities from the various ports in the coastal state. One such community is the fisherman of Neendakara port, which literally translates to “long bank,” in Kollam district’s Karunagapally taluk.
Around ten minutes after I reached the port, 11 fishermen returned after three days of rescue operations. As a truck approached the gates of the harbour, Mathias said, “Look, the boats are here.” Two more trucks followed in quick succession, and each of them carried one boat and a few fishermen. As soon as the fishermen alighted from the truck, the CPI-M workers stood in front of them, and with their closed fists raised to the sky, they began to chant, “Abhivadyangal, abhivadyangal! Nalla manassin abhivadyangal! Veera manassin abhivadyangal!”(Salutations, salutations! To your great hearts, salutations! To your brave hearts, salutations!) The exhaustion among the fishermen was evident—they smiled faintly in response to their hero’s welcome. The party workers continued chanting, “Keralasainyathin abhivadyangal!” (To the Kerala army, salutations!)
“We just returned from Edathua,” Russo Alexander, one of the fishermen, told me. Edathua is a village in Kuttanad, a region that falls within the area of three districts, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha. “We are coming back after completing our rescue duties. We left in three boats. We saved around 500 people. I am happy about it.” The group also travelled to Changanassery town, in Kottayam district, and Thakazhy village in Alappuzha, among other places, for rescue operations. They said that the water in these regions had started receding.
The fishermen told me they wanted to participate in rescue efforts since they first watched the disaster unfold on the news. “Everybody supported us,” Justin James, another fisherman in the group, said. “It was our own fishing community who arranged for travel. Those who are in-charge of this harbour arranged for everything.” James emphasised the help and support of Neendakara’s fishing community, which in turn, enabled them to “help in rescuing a lot of people.” He added, “We are happy and they are happy as well.”