Quite recently, I was in Killai - this is a small village some four hours from Pondicherry in South India, and is one of the areas that was hit by the Tsunami Disaster of December 26, 2004. I went there as a volunteer for Aid India, which is one of the NGOs that's been organizing relief work for the Tsunami Victims.
The situation in Killai, when I went there, had pretty much been stabilized. Most of the land here is owned by a Muslim Trust and they had very generously allowed the victims to be temporarily housed in a school building and a marriage hall belonging to them. Relief Agencies were already providing food, clothing, and medical care.
The volunteers of Aid India were mostly a young, cheerful, and friendly lot. Really fun people. For the sake of this article - and probably since they made a particular impression - I'll mention just Rajdurai and Sheikh Khalifa from Cuddalore, (the first who gave me and another person a battered ride on a battered two-wheeler, very much like in the scene from the Hindi movie 'Swades', and the second who tried to teach me to sing in Tamil; I got around that with a musical rendition of 'Illa, Illa, Po!' or 'No, no, go!' ) and last but not the least Raghu Murthy from Bangalore. Raghu is a software professional with Wipro, and one absolutely terrific guy. He was in Killai for about a week and kept very busy the entire time, assembling the required statistical data (regarding deaths, injuries, property loss, etc.) into proper order. And he was very patient with me when I tried to help.
The Aid India workers were staying in a house belonging to Mr. Syed Umer and his wife Shafi-unissa, wealthy landowners from Killai, who had offered the house free to the organization for a period of six months - the only stipulations being that they pay the electricity bill and not thrash the place, quite reasonable requests. They themselves lived in their spacious old tamil-style home some distance away. I visited them while I was there and got to know them and their youngest daughter and a grandson and they were all amazingly kind and warm-hearted. A lovely, lovely family. And Shafi-unissa makes the most terrific Dosas with tamarind and coconut chutney.
The house they had lent to Aid India was still being constructed - about 70% of the work had been done - the couple's children are based in Riyadh and work apparently commenced only when they were down here for a few days once or twice a year - and surrounded by a large bit of plantation land - coconuts, drum-sticks, mangoes, etc. There was a groundnut field adjoining and beyond that the marriage hall mentioned before. The house stood along the narrow road and across it there was another road that led straight, with just one or two bends, towards the sea.
On the fateful day of December 26, I was told, the sea had rushed in nearly three and a half kilometers inland and destroyed most of the coastal fishing hamlets. Many of these had been mud, wood, and coconut frond constructions and so, of course, hadn't stood any chance. Several brick and concrete houses near the beach, however, seemed to have weathered the catastrophe without too much obvious damage, and their families had returned to living in them too.
At the beach - it took half an hour to walk to it from the Aid India house - clearing up work was still in progress. They had already removed the bodies within one or two days and now they were clearing the debris. A yellow bull-dozer was leveling the ground. Several lungi-clad men were hauling away pieces of broken timber. There was a bus-load of maroon-jacketed young chaps that had, like me, come to take a look around. I took a photograph of a broken statue and walked further along the beach. The sea was very calm, it was hard to imagine it ever being threatening. A couple of empty boats were moored to poles a little way off, but none of the fishermen, I had been told, had as yet resumed any fishing activity. They were, said my informant, still too afraid. Their fright though, he said, wasn't preventing many of them from demanding compensation for boats and fishing equipment from the government. What's so strange about that, I inquired. Well, he said, many of them never owned any catamarans or nylon nets of their own to begin with.
Two of the lungi-clad workers passed me and paused to say something in Tamil, a language I don't understand. I shook my head and they pointed to the timber. I thought perhaps they wanted me to stop gawking and start helping. In a while, I said, I want to look around first. They shrugged and went on. I saw them stop some of the maroon jackets next and then everyone stood together for an impromptu photo session.
I continued towards the ruin of a house just ahead and found some possessions of the owner scattered about on the uneven ground - video cassettes, books, a torn mattress with the stuffing coming out, broken pots, crushed plastic bottles, a framed, sand-covered photograph, a suitcase.... In other cases, the sea had taken absolutely everything, most especially things like refrigerators, televisions, VCRS, music systems - prized possessions, in fact, probably bought after much saving over the years.
Further ahead from the ruined house, the beach was littered with bleached white pieces of coral. The Tsunami had wrecked the reef. As I was gathering up a few pieces, the workers came back and this time solved the language problem with hand gestures. Click, click, they added on inspiration. Okay, alright, I said, and they posed with the timber. That had been the whole idea from the start.
On the way back from the beach I ran into the maroon jackets. They were medical students from Bangalore, who had come to volunteer their services. Walking on I came across a crowd gathered around a truck - some four or six men, dressed like priests, were handing out notebooks, pens, clothes, and other items. These were probably the people that had earned Shafi-unissa's ire. They only help people from their own caste, she said, everyone else can rot.
Near to the house I found myself mobbed by excited children who wanted to have their photo taken. They were in fine form with all the attention they were currently getting and not above manipulating everyone with their charm. They spoke to me in Tamil. I said, Tamil Illa, so they switched to English and said, want pen. I said, don't have no pen. So they said, want something to eat. I said, me too. That really stumped them. They exchanged glances. Want fifty rupees, said the eldest then. Sure, I said, hand it right over. They stared at me and really cracked up. Some of their elders yelled at them to stop bothering me, but they tailed after me, laughing, right up to the gate.
Back at the house, a new batch of volunteers had arrived - more students belonging to the Youth Wing of the Communist Party of India. Some had already been there when I arrived. They told me they had been all over India at one point or the other, attending Party meetings. That's nice, I said, but what do you actually do? Do, they repeated puzzled, didn't we just tell you, we attend meetings. We want the government to reduce Medical College fees, one fellow told me, everyone should be equal. Nobody's equal, I thought, otherwise everyone would make it into Medical college and we would all be doctors. A nice bunch for all that ideological muddle. That night we didn't discuss the Tsunami, but Che Gueverra.