The 28-year-old was part of a team of nine hired for a 13-day fishing expedition in July. At 5pm, on the third day out at sea, Desappan remembers hearing the boat’s engine splutter for a few minutes. “And then, suddenly, it went silent.”
Raghu, 37, the lead driver of the boat, and his trusted lieutenant, 55-year-old Babu, tried in vain to fix the engine. At the end of a futile few hours, it wasn’t just the motor that was dead, but their wireless and every other source of power on the boat. “From then on, we were at the mercy of the sea,” says Desappan.
Babu rose to the challenge. “Someone will find us. We have to keep the belief that we will go home,” Desappan remembers him saying. “Without him, we would have lost all courage.”
Sharks for company
Within 24 hours of being adrift, the fishermen could see sharks circling their boat.
At first, the men ate the exotic catch they had been paid to fish for. “There was Rs 2 lakh worth of catch on board. We ate what we could and threw whatever got rotten.” In spite of the crew eating only one or two sparse meals a day, they ran out of food within two weeks.
Raghu devised a way to catch fish, using a hook, some wire and sequins they found on the boat. With just one working gas stove on board, they used the reserve diesel to cook. The catch of the day would be boiled in sea water and eaten. “Some days the catch was great. We would dry the extra fish on the boat and eat it on the days we got no catch. Some days the sharks got our food and we would starve.” When the sharks would bite the line it had to be dropped, otherwise they would have been pulled in, says Desappan.
At sea, Raghu had instructed that no one was to enter the water. Babu though jumped overboard for a swim. He was lucky that day, says Desappan, as the sharks were not too close. “Babu was our rock. He was so calm in the face of danger that it gave us hope.”
I saw Yama next to me
“We were too tired to work, too scared to ask for food because it felt selfish when there was hardly anything to eat. We would be so listless that we would sleep all day,” says Desappan. The men took turns to stay awake at night in case another boat passed. “There were a few. We would signal them in desperation, but no one would come near us.”
It wasn’t long before they ran out of water as well. They tried drinking sea water but it played havoc with their stomach. “We began vomiting. It was horrible.” For Desappan, fatigue and fear led to hallucinations. “I started seeing Yama (God of death) sitting next to me. I was going mad.”
Just as the men were beginning to lose hope, the skies broke open. As the boat rocked hard, Raghu instructed them to fill cans with rainwater and place them on top of the boat to use as buoys in case it capsized. “But on that day, the rain was not our enemy. It was our saviour. It soon became calm.” The rainwater also had to be rationed. “One or two glasses a day per person was all we got.”
Finally, the hills of Myanmar
The men had lost count of the days, but one day — the 56th according to Raghu’s tally — they woke up and saw hills. The men knew that they were in a new land because the boats did not display the Indian flag. As they got nearer, the fishermen signaled to them.
“We just pointed at our stomachs to show we were hungry.” In a short while, rice and fish curry was handed out. “It was like amritam (sacred nectar) to me.”
The navy of the new country was informed and the men were brought on shore. “I didn’t know where we were. I knew of Burma, I didn’t know that Myanmar was the new name and that was where we were,” he says Desappan.
He disappeared underwater
With the men safe on shore, hope returned. Only to be shattered again.
Raghu was summoned to see if repairing the boat was a possibility. He called on the team for help, and as always it was Babu, the ‘fearless one’, who volunteered.
As Raghu and Babu worked on the boat, with a Myanmar vessel by their side, the propeller of the larger vessel got stuck. Without a thought, Babu dived in. He surfaced and informed that a rope was tangled in the propeller. Despite protests from all on board as it was dark, Babu went under again to untie the rope. That was the last anyone saw of him. He cried ‘Anna’ and then everything went quiet.
The fishermen refuse to accept that Babu died. They still refer to him as missing.
Back home, but still lost
On October 7, the men returned to Chennai. “My mother, wife and relatives ran out to greet me. They were all weeping. Only I was not crying. I had cried for so many days that I had no more tears left.”
For the time since they have been home, the fishermen have been visiting temples. “I did not believe in God before. Now I spend most of my day at a temple in gratitude.” Some like Raghu made a trip to Tirupati. As for the boat, a week after taking them to safety, it sank off the coast of Myanmar.
Last Sunday, four days after he returned home, Desappan nervously walked to the shore near his home and stared at the sea. After what seemed like hours, he stepped into the water again. “Will I start fishing again… yes, because that is the only work I know. But am I scared? Very,” says Desappan, his voice choking. “I am living my second life.”