Rocking her baby in her arms, Muthu was sitting among the remains of a house. Her face seemed painfully ashen and emotionless. When I touched her shoulder, she wept uncontrollably.
Behind her, a girl no more than 12 years old was rinsing clothes in a bucket with water that was gray and murky.
It was Dec. 30, four days after the tsunamis hit the Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India where an estimated 4,000 people were killed and at least 8,000 more are still missing. I was visiting family in the neighboring district of Thiruvarur and decided to help in the relief work with a local organization, Anugriha Charitable Trust, which runs a school in a village there.
The aim of the organization was to meet villagers, assess the situation and find out what they needed immediately. I made my first trip to the affected areas on Dec. 29. There were warnings of another tsunami hitting the coast, so panicked, people had evacuated the entire area. We could not go to the villages we wanted to because the police had cordoned off the area.
All we could do was drive by the coasts that lay abandoned. We were stunned by what we saw. The whole area was engulfed in darkness because electricity had not been restored. The sea was a distant eerie rumble at least half a mile away.
The only white spot among all the uprooted trees was the top half of a car; the other half had sunk in the debris and sand. I was standing next to a railway track that was completely unusable. The tracks had been bent, and the timber crossties were uprooted. A metal electric pole, about 20 feet tall, had been bent to a right angle, and there was seaweed strewn on the electric wires.
Two men, from a nearby house that was left in shambles, strolled toward us. They said the children in their household were playing cricket on the beach when the first wave hit. Their parents were all in the houses. Once the water receded, the parents went to look for the children, and when the second wave hit, many of the adults were washed away.
The two young men were looking for the bodies of some of their relatives. Ten people from their house had lost their lives.
Although the entire area had been evacuated, the men decided to remain.
“There is nothing to fear anymore,” one man said. “The worst has happened.”
He spoke with a definite calm that only underscored the feeling of helplessness and resignation.
I have lived my entire life in the coastal city of Mumbai, and for the first time, I was uneasy being so close to the sea. I realized that I needed to prepare myself better if I was going to plunge neck-deep into relief work during the next day in these areas.
The following day, along with 12 other volunteers, I went to two villages in the Nagapattinum district 40 miles away from where I was staying. We were to supply both these villages with tanks for storing drinking water. One of the villages we visited, Kallar, had already been adopted by a major relief organization, so after this initial visit, ACT had been concentrating on the other village, Vellapallam, which has a population of 1,200.
The route to Vellapallam was about five miles from the arterial road. The approach to the part of the village where the fishermen stayed was lush green with rice fields and cashew plantations.
As we drove toward the sea, I could smell the salty air and the sharp, stinging smell of fish. Half a mile away from the sea, I saw thatched roof houses. The brick and mud walls had collapsed and the roof sat on the rubble. We reached an area where bulldozers were clearing the debris and leveling the ground.
There was a huge throng of people standing around the bulldozers and the soldiers who were working. We were invited by a villager see the remains of his house in another part of the village. He took us through the beach.
All around, I saw capsized fishing boats, the motors torn from their hulls. Some were turned over, broken in half, and others lay partially buried in the sand.
The villager took me and two others to a clearing where we saw a man trying to fix a fishing net. A man named Subramanian was examining the nylon net, yard by yard and stitching any gaping holes. He said that when the tsunamis hit the coast, he had just returned from a fishing expedition with his father.
“I had just lowered the anchor, and I saw this huge wall of water come toward me,” Subramanian said. “I caught onto the boat and swung myself onto it and held on.”
The water threw Subramanian and his boat far from where he had anchored. Although he escaped the wrath of the waves, his brother and father were not as fortunate.
Nonetheless, Subramanian will return to the sea.
“We are fishermen and are not educated to do anything else,” he said. “This is the only means of sustenance we know, although we will always fear the sea now.”
Other than the lives lost in the catastrophe, fishermen such as Subramanian have lost all they owned, including their life’s savings. Their assets were kept in their homes, either in cash or in gold. They had lived a comfortable life, where most houses had television sets and CD players, a mark of prosperity in rural India. As many of the people said, what saddened them was that they have to depend on charity for mere subsistence. It was the sense of extreme helplessness and loss of dignity they felt, that hurt them most.
I took a circular path to where I had started, walking on rubble and sand. There was not one house in the fisherman’s colony that was fit to live in. In the entire colony there were merely a handful that could be salvaged and re-built; the others were razed.
Most men in the village were helping the Army, so we approached the women to talk about what they expected us to do. We discussed personal hygiene and cleanliness, stressing that they had to avoid an epidemic and keep the available water free from contamination. We also discussed what they would need immediately to set up their households in terms of utensils and food grains.
Mobilizing the women to take an initiative in the immediate relief efforts seemed essential, as they were the ones responsible for the well-being of the children, who are more susceptible to diseases if an epidemic breaks out.
In the weeks ahead, ACT hopes to provide motors for the fishing boats that can be salvaged and utensils to each of the 400 families in the village.
Talking with the women, we tried to bring back a ray of hope. I felt that just being able to talk to people and narrate all their stories, sometimes amidst sobs, was emotionally uplifting for these people.
As I was about to leave after spending the day at Vellapallam, Muthu called out to a young boy and asked him to get us some coconut water.
The boy climbed up a tree, shelled the coconut and we quenched our thirst. The innocence and the simplicity of these people struck me the most.
“We never let visitors leave without being hospitable to them, this is the least we can do for you,” Muthu said.