Some lighthouse keepers are keen sports fishermen and others like to fish for a meal, and then there others who fish to beat sheer boredom, of which they have in abundance.
Back in 1992, Hodekar was the Head Lighthouse Keeper at the Vengurla Rock; he was also a keen angler. He came from a family of fishermen and worked his way up. They say, a lighthouse keeper’s job guarantees lonesomeness, but for Hodekar it was a paradise in disguise. Whenever off duty he fished with hook and line, he kept it simple and mastered the art. Although, fresh fish is a welcomed change to a keeper’s monotonous diet, Hodekar kept just enough for the table and one meal. He fished for sport, always letting the big ones go.
Staying on this Rock, surrounded by some of the most pristine fishing waters on the coast, he studied the tides, watched the water, and observed subtle changes in its color. And when the wind changed, he knew which fish it would bring in. Hodekar taught his staff how to fish. When the Kingfish (Spanish Mackerel) were in, he showed the keepers how to skillfully wrapped their hooks with strips of white cloth and cast them out at the incoming shoals of fish. Hauling the lines back through the deep blue water, the white strips of cloth resembled squids, and Kingfish took them readily. One year just after the monsoons, while fishing with this homemade lure of cloth and line, Hodekar hooked into a Sailfish. Back in those days the Rocks used to be a seasonal haunt for Sailfish. Along with the Kingfish, other large pelagic used to come here to hunt the schools of sardines, who in-turn took refuge among the numerous coves and reefs.
Hodekar saw the Sailfish come in fast, dispersing a shoal of feeding Kingfish in it’s wake. It’s magnificent dorsal sail-fin slicing through the water like a blade. Casting the line with precision, he got the lure to land just behind the fish. As he quickly pulled it in, the Sailfish spotted the lure, and in a split second with an enormous splash the fish took bait and steamed off. A tremendous conflict ensued, taking out many yards of the line the fish fought hard for four hours, non-stop. It jumped out and tail danced on the water like only Sailfish can do; shocking the now gather staff by its agility and size. Some off the keepers were afraid, for it exhibited strength enough to drag Hodekar into the water. It was about 7 feet in length and had the thickness of a man’s body. But Hodekar fought back with skill and stamina that came from a bloodline of fishermen. While he played the line out to the powerful rushes of the fish, the line burned into the flesh of his palms and his hands bled from the deep cuts it made.
It was 6’clock in the evening when the Sailfish finally gave up the fight. Hodekar brought her in and kept her in the water besides the landing steps at the bottom of the Rock. He said, the fish would be safe here for night and they could haul her up at sunrise, but in the morning the fish was gone. Hodekar had set her free. She was indeed, too big for the table and one meal.
Early one morning, to be precise 20th July, Hodekar had just finished his night watch and picking up his fishing gear, he set out into the darkness. Except for a light drizzle, the weather was unusually calm for peak monsoons. He stop over at Josephine Jacobs’s gravestone – a memorial slab had been laid from where they drop her body into the sea. Being her death anniversary today, he said a quick pray and descended to the water below, via the steep steps that were hewn into the rocks. Hodekar never climbed-up those steps alive again. His body was later spotted floating some distance from the Lighthouse. Without a boat, and with rough seas, there was little anyone could do. The staff helplessly watched as the body drifted out to sea, and a blanket of rain came down and nothing more could be seen. Later, in spite of the bad weather, the coast guards and local fishermen conducted a daring search, but Hodekar’s body was never found.
Hodekar, died on the exact same day as Josephine. Was this a strange coincidence? What actually happened? Nobody knows. There were no witness’s, only theories. The rocks were wet and slippery, he could have fallen and hit his head on the Rock, this must have knocked him unconscious, and he drowned.
The weather being rough, a rogue wave could have washed him off. But, Hodekar was a strong swimmer. Often, just for fun, he would swim out half a mile to the incoming supply boat, and then ride back with them.
Another probable theory was that, somehow, he must have got entangled with the fishing line, and a big fish must have dragged him under. And there was no trace of any line or fishing tackle left behind.
During the monsoons, there are often sharks spotted around the Rock. They come here to breed. Local fishermen have caught them at 2-meters long, enough to drag 4 men under. I have seen an old photograph of a black marlin; about 12 -14 feet long, who had entangled itself in a net and was then dragged shore.
All these theories were born out of the imagination, but I feel somewhere, in one of them lays the truth.
Other mysterious deaths & disappearances
Some years later, a Lighthouse attendant by the name of Mr. Sreehari, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It happened while he was serving out his 4-month stint, during the dreaded monsoon. He walked out one evening on the pretext of getting some fresh air and was never seen again. There was no floating body, no shout of despair and no evidence whatsoever, to explain what had transpired. He just disappeared into thin air. The isolation and depression of being lock down on the rock for long periods, compounded by unrelenting weather conditions, could have strange effects on the mind. Or, was it another infamous 20th July?
Back in the 70’s, Mr. Bangalore was serving as a Head Lightkeeper on the Rock. Being in fair weather season, he took a calculated risk and decided to let his family resided with him. All went well for a while, and then, all of a sudden, Mr. Bangalore’s child took violently ill. When they tried to medicate her she threw up, exhibiting signs of extreme dehydration. As her condition worsened they put her on a boat and headed for the mainland. En-route, the weather strangely turn bad; the sea became turbid and the waves rose up so high that it was impossible to land. They tried the jetty first, but the sea there was too rough. They then headed for the beach, where the surf threatened to swamp the boat. After a few desperate, unsuccessful attempts to land, it was unanimously decided to turn the boat around and head back to the Lighthouse. It looked, as if the Rock was refusing to relinquish its victim.
On the way back, the child who was now unconscious took her last few breaths. And there, in the midst of those hapless and shocked occupants, she silently passed away. The next day the mourning party managed to affect a landing somewhere, further down the coast. Reaching the mainland, they gave the child’s body a decent burial.
In the mid 90’s, a similar incident repeated itself, replaying the horror note for note. Only this time, the lightkeeper managed to get his sick daughter back to the mainland, and to much-needed medical help, which saved her life. After this, no one dare challenge the Rock’s reputation, and although families occasionally visited, they never stayed.
Suman Kolwankar, a local fisherman, was out fishing early one morning in August. In spite of the monsoon, he decided to risk it. The wind was down to a medium breeze, but the water was still choppy. If he could get to the Rocks, he was quite sure of coming into the large shoal of Trevallies. During this time of year these fish were always found in large shoals there, and he would be the first to reap this fishy harvest.
4 hours later, found Suman heading, pell-mell back to shore. His catch, not fish, but three pale and frightened men, one was so emaciated that he could barely stand. These were lightkeepers, whom he had recused from the Rock after answering their distress signals. Initially, the men spoke very little and most of what they said was gibberish. They had ran out rations a week ago, especially water and had faced extreme starvation. But this was the monsoon, and the lighthouse is equipped with a rain harvesting system that could easily collect and store water. As for food, 3 months of monsoon rations, were always stocked well in advance. Why had the official’s on the mainland not answer their SOS messages? Why were these seasoned lighthouse keepers refusing to speak up? The facts were, that something out there had given them a serious fright, reducing them to nervous wrecks. Even to the simple fisher folk, the gaps in their story were quite evident, and with a little imagination, there was quite a different tale to tell.
A Fishing incident that nearly cost our lives
Back, over a decade and a half ago, in my early days of boat fishing, the waters around the rocks were extremely productive. In the early hours of the morning, at the base of the Lighthouse Island we used catch snappers and Trevallies. And in the evenings, when the winds were not too strong we took the boats out again and hooked into Barracudas. The fish hid in the waters on the lee side of the rock, and from among the shadows they used to lurch out at anything casted out to them.
One evening in early October, we had a rather dangerous session of fishing that has ingrained itself into my memory. While out spinning from the boat, close to this rock, a big golden snapper somewhere in 20-pound range took my lure on the retrieve. It fought hard and tried to cut the line among the sharp rocks on the reefs below. This made the fishing difficult, and the men had to take to their oars, as there was constant maneuvering to avoid a cut-off. Eventually the fish tired out and I reeled it in alongside the boat. I remembered the picturesque moment well – the crimson rays of the setting sun reflected off the fish’s body, heightened its golden hue to a point that the Snapper looked like it was made of pure 24 carrot gold. Everyone on the boat seemed mesmerized by this potent hue and someone said the sea has a gold of its own.
Excited we casted out again and got another strike, and this fish ran hard. The drag started to scream the line out, whilst the sun sank silently into the sea. And darkness quickly enveloped the rocks, as if, someone had thrown a wet blanket in. I remember it being humid and sweaty; for that evening the strong westerly wind had refused to blow, as it always did. Without the wind, the water kept calm and this made good fishing. If the wind didn’t come we could fish well into the night.
The barracuda on the end of the line jumped out, creating a huge splash. I could see the silver glint of its long snake-like body as it tail danced on the water. And then, in its excitement to get away, it hit the Rock, cutting short it’s aerial sortie. The stunned fish dived deep to shelter itself among the rocks at the bottom. And there was a good chance it would destroy my line on the sharp yellow barnacles that infest these rocks.
These things were all happening fast and in our haste to nail this fish, we drifted closer in. That’s when a huge swell arose from nowhere and pushed us right into the Rock. I clearly remember, hearing the crunching sound of barnacles as the boats hull slowly crushed against the base. The men were furiously trying to back up the boat while the guy at the motor struggle to start the adamant machine. We could feel an immense and invisible force, it was, as if, the Rock exerted a magnetic field that was drawing us in. And as this happened we could smell a thick odor, primeval and animal like. It seemed to emit from the cervices within the Rock; there was no denying it. The odor was everywhere, hanging dense, as if, something in there was alive. A shout distracted us, the lighthouse keeper who had rushed over, had been yelling out something incomprehensible from the top. I can still picture his dark silhouette waving frantically.
The swells retreat made a deep gurgling sound as the water rushed back through the sub-terrain channels of the Rock, and out. The man at the motor heard this too, and taking advantage of the seas retreat, he jumped down with the steering oar, and pushing hard against the rock, the rushing water took us back out. And all this happened in pitch darkness. Before the next swell came along, we had managed to put about 50 yards between the rock and us. Here we floated around, trying to put our jolted nerves in order. Another, mighty swell rushed into sub terrain channels, exiting in the form of a spray through an orifice higher up on that rock face.
This up-close and deathly encounter had left the men terribly spooked and I heard them nervously whisper, “The rocks have come alive and the omens are clear.” The boat’s motor finally stuttered to a lucky started and we took the quickest way out of the rocks via the open sea, which incidentally was the longest way home.
The strong westerly breeze sprung up and we could feel the tide turn as the sea turned choppy. The hull of the boat came down hard on the clefts of these rising waves, spraying us with salt water, which washed away our sweat and we felt better, but no one spoke.
Looking back, in the distance, I watched as the Rock slowly morphed itself into unshapely mass on the horizon. I thought about the strange odor that had emoted from the Rock, almost animal-like in nature. Did we imagine it? Was something hiding within those crevices? All this made me too tired to think and I laid back in the bows of the boat and stared up at a dark sky. I remember there were no stars to be seen that evening, and everything seemed like a black void. Except, for those eerie flashes from Rock’s white beacon, straddle somewhere up, a 110 feet high.
I still visit Vengurla every year and the fishing has got progressively bad, to a point that at the present there is no fishing to be had at all. There are times when we draw a complete blank, not even a single bite or flash at the lure. The cause being – that at the very start of the season the trawlers over-fish the area and wipe out large shoals of fish. Whatever is left, falls prey to the locals, who now use dynamite on the reefs, instead of nets. The destruction is immense and painful. You are better of fishing at a local pier back home than here. At least, there, you may still have a chance of hooking into a stray.
I go back, not to fish anymore, but as a tribute to the Rocks. It has become a sort of pilgrimage to get on a boat and ride out to open sea. And as we approach the rocks, we recognize them by their form and call them by their names. On the lee side of the Rock, in the calm of the shadowed waters we cast anchor, and the gentle swells of the sea, rocks us into stillness. Sometimes, just for the heck of it I let out a hand-line with a couple of baited hooks. And as the line gradually sinks, my thoughts drift in and down; gradually merging with the fabric of the sea. And all those stories, especially the one about the young bride comes back to me in vivid detail.
In-spite of everything that has transpired here, I have become rather fond of the Vengurla Rocks. It comes to me, that this is not an evil place or a spot of unlucky incidents. It is just that, there are places far out at sea or deep in the folds of a mountain that need to be left alone. When we humans pry into it’s domain, there is a price to pay. And then, coincidences and imagination fuse to form a common thread, a sort of medium for reality to unfold. And, we then become actors, playing-out our beliefs in a self-created universe where Devil and the Deep Sea are more than just figments of our imagination.