From the archives: Posts written in the months after the tsunami that struck the Southern coast of India (and several other countries) on December 26th, 2004
So many stories and they pile up so fast- I have not had the chance yet between the travel and the work to spell them all into this space, but here is a small beginning…not investigative reports or detailed needs assessments, not even journalistic briefs. Just ordinary glimpses of the extra ordinary lives that survive beyond the statistics.
A little girl with curious eyes holding a baby goat. Both kids make you smile.
What’s your name? Shweta she says. And the baby’s? Shweta she says.
Where did you get her?
When the water came we ran to our home near the lighthouse. My father brought the baby goat home in the evening. Her mother died in the water.
And now who takes care of her?
My brother and me.
Her brother a quick young fellow of eight holds out a fistful of green leaves. The baby goat lifts its head, takes a tentative bite and chews reflectively while the children look on in obvious pride and delight.
A woman with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, they come out when I pass, invite me to sit awhile on their unfinished front porch. They lost their homes to the tsunami- this house is one they had been building before the waters came. It has cost them six lakhs already. Six lakhs!
The daughter smiles, You don’t know how good the sea has been to us she says. How much she gave us. Now she’s taken it all back…we all had televisions in our houses, and fridges, radios and CD players. We weren’t poor. People don’t understand how generous the sea can be…
They are worried because they have been told that the government will take this house away from them- it is too close to the sea. They have been told it will be knocked down and that a new house will be built for them further away.
They won’t build us a house as nice as this, says the mother sadly. We’ll get one of those small huts they’re putting up for everyone.
We don’t want that.
What we really want says her husband, is to go back to sea. We are used to being out on the water every day.
When would you go out and how far I ask?
Depends on the season, and the moon. We often leave at 1.00 in the morning when it’s pitch black out. We sometimes go as far as 100 kilometres from the shore.
Don’t you get tired out there?
He laughs, if you get tired you sleep, once your nets are in the water there isn’t that much to do anyway. We’d look to the sun for directions and to tell time. We’d be back home here by 4.00 in the evening. Those were good days.
A soft sigh.
And you’re not quite sure whether it was him. Or you.
A woman with a face that seems to have fallen into habitual despair is sweeping the dark corners of her front porch. I stop to ask her how she is doing. She has had headaches ever since the tidal wave attacked. The water lifted and dragged her several hundred metres, it washed away the small grocery shop she and her husband ran across from their home.
Have you seen a doctor?
Yes she says and he’s given me some medicine but it’s not working.
Another doctor will be coming this afternoon so I am going to get checked again.
All this sea water is sitting in my head, and it stinks.
Where are your children?
The boy is out playing. My daughter is inside bathing. See this little dog?
I look down, there is a small dog of indeterminate parentage sniffing the ground around our feet. Bright eyes, dirty coat.
That’s Sneha. When the water came she dragged my daughter out of the house- the water was already pouring in- then she swam with her to safety.
Yes. This dog.
And the woman laughs at my disbelief. Bends down to scoop Sneha up, holds her close and says, But for this dog my daughter would be dead.
Her husband, who’s lost his business, most of his possessions and all their savings is leaning over the seat of a standing bicycle. He has said nothing until now when he says quietly-
We’re all still alive. That’s enough.
Samiyarpettai is a coastal village in Cuddalore district. Close to three thousand people live there. To reach them we travelled about 45 kilometres along thick sugarcane fields in harvest, paddyfields running hectic green to burnished gold. The land here is uncompromisingly flat, stretches out on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see. Women bent low in the curious half-squat of the fields, their long curving blades, their heads wrapped in chequered cloth. Bright saris boldly interrupting the green. Tireless their arms move in a difficult rhythm echoing the harsh beauty of this land. After the railway crossing we turn onto a narrower side road. Eventually in the distance a small temple tower becomes visible.
The fields have given way to sandy, uncultivated stretches. You can smell the sea in the air, feel the salt on your skin. We drive into the village and past the little cluster of buildings where the camp is underway. Down a sloping road and then a little ways further we are on the beach. It is more deserted than not.
A row of wooden boats are lined up to one side wounded warriors watching the sea. Waiting to be well enough to return.
I climb out of the jeep and walk away from the water towards a small cluster of thatched huts under a swooping grove of coconut trees. Everywhere there are big piles of rubble. At first glance the place seems empty of human habitation, then in small clearing I see the back of a man’s head. He is sitting on the ground his back to the sea looking straight ahead. By his side staring vacantly into space is a grey-haired older man. I approach their silence and then shatter it as softly as I can with a statement voiced like a question.
You are from here.
Yes they nod.
Why aren’t you at the eye camp I ask the older man- are your eyes all right?
I need glasses he says. Will they give me glasses?
They will. Right here on the spot. All you need to do is go get your eyes checked at the camp and then place an order at the opticals desk they’ve set up. You’ll have your glasses in hand before the team leaves today.
In that case I’d better go up there.
Yes, you should.
He heaves himself up and heads towards the campsite.
The other man is still sitting on the ground. He doesn’t seem inclined to talk.
Maybe I should leave.
Are these new homes? I indicate the low thatched huts beside us. They are very makeshift with interiors that are dark, empty and surprisingly cool.
Yes. But they are just temporary. A local NGO came in and built them in that first week and set up the common kitchen here.
How many homes were lost here?
About thirty. Most of the families affected are staying with their relatives now.
The rest are using these shelters until the government can give us better ones.
Where’s your home?
He points to the hut behind him. This is where my house used to be. It got washed away.
So now you’re living here?
Is your family alright?
Yes. My wife and two boys ran up the slope to higher ground when the water came in. I was on the boat and didn’t have any idea what was happening. When I got back there was nothing here. But we were lucky- we only lost things. The family is all safe.
You _are_ lucky.
Funny to be saying that to someone who has just lost every material thing he ever owned. I look at the thatched hut Kuppuswamy and his family are living in now and wonder what it must feel like for some of these people who had nothing to lose- and then lost it.
Our village only lost 24 lives he says. Most of the people when they saw the water coming didn’t run to their homes they ran towards the temple which is much higher up, that saved them…and then these coconut trees, they saved a lot of people too.
Yes, when the water came it was as high as that house over there, it lifted a lot of the women clear off the ground up to the height of these trees. Many of them were able to grab on to the trunks and then held on for their lives. See, you can see a part of someone’s dress up there at the top.
I look up, and this being a coconut tree there was a ways to look. Sure enough it’s there. Fluttering evidence of someone’s desperate bid for life.
Behind me is a small cement house with an outer courtyard. A women steps into it carrying a small pot.
See that lady- she hung on to the top of the tree over there.
It seems incongruous in that moment, to think of this young woman with her girlish face and quiet concentration on her pot clinging to the top of a coconut tree with tall waters raging right where we are standing now.
Kuppuswamy is joined now by another pleasant faced man- one of those faces that have an immediate quality of friendliness that automatically makes you smile. He starts talking now.
I’d just got back from the sea and was sitting with the others on the shore picking fish out of the net. At one point the waves came in a little higher than usual, we laughed about it and kind of wondered what was going on. The next wave was still low but a little more forceful, it took the boat with it and scattered our nets and all the fish. We shouted to the women and children then to run to safety, and then we started scrambling after our boats and nets. We still didn’t know what was happening. And then the third wave came, a huge wave, lifted out of the water higher than the roofs of our homes. It hit and the next thing I knew I was holding onto the top of this tree over here. When I looked around I saw almost all the trees had a man or a woman holding onto it. The funny thing is it was all so fast. The water didn’t stay for a second. It turned around and rushed back with the same haste it came in. Our clothes were ripped from our bodies. When the water went back some of us dropped from the trees and without a thought automatically began looking for the others, helping them get down, already there were bodies on the shore.
More people have gathered around us. Kuppuswamy’s wife, a young woman with a pearl white smile in a darkglowing face, a gray-haired neighbour in a faded pink sari who points out the tree that saved her, other fisherfolk from the same community all adding their pieces to make up the fabric of their shared history. I remember a thought wandered in from nowhere in the middle of all of this, a voice saying calmly- I could live here.
It surprised me that thought. I realized then how comfortable I was with these people, how surrounded by their warmth. Granted they hadn’t lost nearly as much as other villages. Food and clothing had been taken care of they said, and most of temporary shelters were up. Their possessions hadn’t been replaced yet, and some of the children still needed textbooks, but they didn’t seem too worried about any of these things. They interrupt each other talking about the kindness of the various organizations that stepped in to help, the college youth and the NGOs…I think what touched me most about this group was their sunniness. They had all suffered. The woman with the pot had lost her mother in a village down the coast. Others had lost brothers, neighbors, friends.
Their village like the hundreds of others will never be the same.
But they are not broken, these people. The only time they let shadows creep into their voices is when they are talking about people who didn’t make it, and when they are talking about their boats…
We can’t go back to sea until the boats are repaired. This is hard for us.
We’ve been given everything we need. Food, clothing, shelter…but no matter how many things you give us it won’t be enough until we can work again.
We are not the kind of people who can eat our food unless we’ve earned it.
Their honest restlessness touches you. Makes you understand all over again how important it is for us as human beings to be engaged. To have work that occupies us, lends purpose to our time here and the shape of our days.
The government and the NGOs have promised to repair these boats and the nets. Each boat in the water employed four or five fishermen who work like field ‘coolies’. They are daily wage labourers who often have no share of ownership for the boat. The boats themselves cost upward of one lakh.
They will all be repaired and where needed replaced but in the meantime…
Ramesh is the fisherman with the eminently friendly face. He lives in the cement house behind us, the woman with the pot is his wife.
Can we see your house?
We walk towards it, I stop outside to talk to his wife. She has bruises on her forearms from the coconut palm.
She points it out.
You could build a temple to these trees.
She looks up at it.
Now I can’t believe I was actually lifted all the way up there.
She shakes her head, bends to stir the pot of sliced eggplant cooking over burning wood.
We enter the house. It is painted three different colors maybe four. The walls are covered with technicoloured posters of politicians and filmstars. Rajinikanth, Trishna, Meena, Jayalalitha, MGR, Rajiv Gandhi…a surrealish sort of gathering.
There are water stains on the wall. No furniture it was all ruined- is strange that the posters survived. They had a television and a CD player, a radio. All gone. At some level I am a little surprised by this evidence of their prosperity.
Ramesh tells us that the house was built in 1993 after he’d spent two years in Singapore as a construction worker, saving money.
Most of the men in this village have been to Foreign he says.
(foreign is a legitimate noun-not-adjective in Tamil).
Even Kuppusamy has worked in the Gulf for a few years…
You gain a sense of how slowly and surely these people built up their lives. Saving a little at a time for their families, their future.
It’s all gone now says Ramesh. We have to start over.
His eyes automatically wander back to where the boats are waiting.
If only we could go back to work, that would be enough. I dropped out of school after 7th standard. I’ve been fishing since I was 12 years old. Kuppusamy never went to school, he’s been working the sea since he was a boy of 8.
We’ve know the sea so well but we’ve never known it to do anything like this before. We can tell by the wind when a storm is brewing, we can detect it way ahead of time and pull our boats to safety, but with this there was no warning, not even as much breeze in the air as there is now, and such a bright sun, like everything was normal…
There is such bewilderment in their voice but not the anger of betrayal…they still are willing and wanting to go back to her. They still trust the sea.
I get up but immediately am told to wait, to please have some tender coconut water before going. Kuppusamy is halfway up the tree before I can say No Thank You.
We watch him climbing, the ease and strength never fails to amaze me.
He brings down a bunch of the green fruit and other people gather to help split their tops open, spilling the milky nutrient-rich water into a small silver ‘sembu’ (a curvedrim pot). One of the others brings it around pouring it into the steel tumblers someone else has managed to produce. As we drink they insist on refills. The tender insides of the cut coconuts are scooped out and heaped on a plate in front of us. Eat, they urge us.
A feast I say, touched by their generosity.
Ramesh looks up smiling from where he is crouched on the ground splitting the shells, Madame right now this is all we have on hand to offer.
And they offer it, the same way they would have offered whatever they had on hand before the tsunami struck.
The children are on lunch break now and have come running home, Ramesh’s daughter is in third standard, a girl with beautiful long-lashed black eyes and long braids. His son is three, a stocky little fellow with a shy manner. He was visiting relatives at another village that Sunday. When the water came he clung to the neck of an older cousin who clung to the window sill of a house and somehow they both survived. We thought for sure we had lost him, says Ramesh, shaking his head. I still can’t believe we’re all safe.
When it is time to leave they stand up, not one of them has asked us for a single thing. I wonder what I can send back for them or for their children. We will have a follow-up camp here so it will be easy enough to do and I know there are things they need even if they’re not asking.
This was such a special village.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Da Vinci said that once, and so often in my encounters with village India the paradoxical truth of that statement rings clear. Tagore says its taken centuries of cultivation for India to reach the open-heartedness of perfect simplicity, and that today we are slipping from that state in our cities, but the spirit still lives strong in some of our villages.
‘Ultimate sophistication’… that’s what they had, these people in Samiyarpet.
Now it’s our turn to cultivate.
January 20, 2005
The only way to get to the island village of Sodhikuppam is by boat. The long, once-brightly painted ‘thonni’ bobs gently against the jetty. A thick rope runs through its stern secured on either side of the water. The current in these parts is treacherously strong, instead of using oars an old man pulls the boat alongside the rope. The sun beats down in sheets of heat. Sitting on the wooden boat bottom I pull the end of my sari’s pallu over my head and look towards the coconutpalm shaded shore drawing close.
About 2000 people live in this village. 125 died in the recent tsunami. Twenty-six of them were children. There is no bridge connecting the village to the mainland, only a jetty that wanders partway into the water and stops. When some of the children saw the water rushing in they’d run to the far end of the island towards the backwaters and onto the wooden jetty in terror, hoping perhaps to make it to the safety of the other shore. When the second wave struck it took them all with it. Almost all.
Most homes in Sodhikuppam are sheltered from the beach. Around fifty huts built on the sea-facing shore were washed away by the tidal waves, but no lives were lost on that side. If the children had only stayed in their homes, they might have been alive today. Just yesterday the Collector of Cuddalore visited this village. Promised its people to sanction funds for a tardy bridge.
We step off the boat onto the jetty. As we walk towards firm ground you cannot help but notice how there is nothing- absolutely Nothing to hold onto. On either side the green waters gently lap, innocent of memory. It is a seven minute walk from the shore to where we are holding the eye camp. Along the way we meet a small group engaged in lashing poles together, topping them with rippled plastic sheets. Temporary housing sponsored by one of the many NGOs working in this district. Dominic the enthusiastic, warm hearted local District Blindness Prevention Officer insists on introducing me to everyone we meet as Madame Pavithra International FilimDirector. Initially I protest but this has no effect, so in the end I put my palms together with a shrug and a smile half-amused half-apologetic. I have not brought my camera. It is better to go emptyhanded the first time. When they see a camera people tend to think you come from the news channels, and then you start to hear only one kind of story.
The primary school where the camp is being set up is on lunch break. There is a swarm of knee-high humanity around our arrival. The girls wear indido blue skirts with white blouses, the boys are in khaki shorts and white shirts. Each of them is holding a tin plate waiting to be served their free government-sponsored midday meal. One child comes to stand directly under me. She is wearing two pigtails that stick straight out of the sides of her small head. On her face a huge smile, there is a charming gap between her two front teeth.
What’s your name I ask. Her grin widens but she says nothing. What class are you in? She hops on one foot and shoots me a mischievous look out of the corner of one eye. What, you won’t speak to me? And then without thinking- Don’t you know how to talk?
No. Jayshree’s mute. She can’t talk at all.
A chorus of little voices. Arm in arm these little girls, Jayshree’s classmates crowd around educating me out of insensitve ignorance. Jayshree takes hold of my hand. I feel at once chastened and forgiven.
Unprompted the children start to speak all at once, spilling stories from their lives since that December 26th morning. They do not seem scared or shocked or even particularly sad. They are still so young. Do you know there’s another tsunami coming on the 26th? says one child with a knowing air, So many people are packing to leave now. Are you leaving? No. My parents say we will stay. My mother is the schoolmistress here, she says this with such shining pride in her voice I am obliged to be suitably impressed. My name is Poovizhli, volunteers one little girl. I’m Kausalya says another sweetfaced child. She can’t read, chips in a classmate. Oh and you’re the Big Genius says sweetfaced Kausalya notsosweetly sticking a small tongue out at her detractor.
He fell into the water.
This nonsequiteur from the Big Genius startles me a little.
I look over at the boy in front of me. He is small and skinny and somehow tough looking. He is nine years old but looks about six. His air of lounging indifference makes me smile. There is something spectacularly nonchalant about this little fellow, evidently a hero among his peers. He is not in the least bit thrown by my scrutiny. When he speaks it is in short, clipped sentences. I am seated on the ground, he is leaning against a wall, his thin legs crossed at the ankle, his hands in his pockets.
You fell into the water?
And then what happened?
The waves pushed me past a boat, I caught hold of a rope and hung on. Then I pulled myself up into the boat.
Then what happened?
Then I sat there for awhile, didn’t know what to do.
Then I think I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
You fell Asleep?
I fell asleep
Then after about an hour the boat was close to the shore, so I got home.
And that’s all?
You weren’t scared?
I was a little scared. So I just kept saying God’s name.
What’s your name?
Vignesh- but people don’t call me that at home.
What do they call you at home?
Pavi. Sometimes they call me Pavithra.
Yeah. Many people on this island are called Pavithra.
Just like that.
I look up at this little guy to see if he’s pulling a fast one on me. But no. He’s serious.
So what’s my name?
I don’t know.
What do you think it might be?
Now he’s really teasing me.
They try out a few more names and then I let them off the hook.
My name’s Pavithra. People call me Pavi.
Vignesh/Pavi smiles at me. A bond has been established.
It’s time to set up for the camp. I put out a hand to be helped up.
Vignesh/Pavi looks at for a second and then shakes it briskly.
Help me up you.
He motions to a grinning sidekick to assist, together they pull me to my feet. Such strong kids.
Inside and out.
The woman in the schoolyard, Sharadha, has a sharpfeatured, sad face. Her husband is a fisherman in the Gulf. She talks to him on the island phone every week. Their home was washed away. She’s living with relatives now, her two children are on the mainland living with their grandparents. Do you have enough food?
Yes. They gave us supplies.
What about clothes?
She makes a face- They brought us such worthless clothes. We don’t wear things like that. We’re poor but even so we buy good quality clothes. The women here wear saris that cost Rs 300-400. Nylex sarees. Not cheap cotton ones. That’s the kind of people we are.
I swallow a smile. I am sitting there in a cheap cotton saree. My favorite kind. I wonder what kind of people that makes me.
Dominic has set up lunch for us at the house opposite the school.
The doorways are low and we stoop to enter. Inside they’ve laid out mats for us to sit on. Packets of lemon, tomato and yogurt rice with lime pickle arrive neatly packed in newsprint tied up with twine. Whose house is this I ask. No one answers. A thin woman from the small open yard in the back enters, hollows in her cheeks, her eyes very wide. Is this your house?
Yes she says. My daughter died.
She says it very fast, pointing at the same time to a framed photograph of a little girl. Nirmala it says across the bottom. Born November 14th 1993
Died December 26th 2004.
She is wearing a frock, and her face is freshly powdered. On top of her head is perched a small strand of orange flowers. She is not smiling, her small face has the serious semi-scowl of those unused to being posed for photographs.
Over lunch I learn that she was the brightest and liveliest of three children. The photograph was taken at a school dance programme that she’d participated in.
When the waters came she ran with the other children to the jetty. Her mother had been inside and before she knew what had happened her child was gone.
Nirmala has an older sister who’s 15. Seethalakshmi who cannot hear or talk. She hovers in the doorway smiling shyly at us. They have a younger brother as well who gazes briefly our way before scampering out of sight.
Let me show you the photographs says the mother eagerly.
She disappears into a small room on the side and soon comes out again with a small sheaf of photos.
I flip through them. They are all, every single one, the same as the picture on the wall.
She’s beautiful I say.
Yes, says the mother eagerly…and then in a slightly abashed tone- there’s only that one picture over and over again.
It’s a beautiful picture.
She wants us to stay a couple of days. I wish we could but it is time to head back. I wish I knew what to say.
We will be thinking of you and your family.
Her palms fly together as she nods.
Come back someday.
We walk back to the jetty waiting for the boat to come in. I sit in the shade of a thatched roof on the sand and look out over the explanationless water.
Such quietness inside.