Chennai, India -- It was my last afternoon in Goa when fellow vacationer Ashwin Sivakumar -- who swapped an arctic Helsinki for family and sunshine -- stumbled upon news of a "hurricane" on the net. I didn't pay much attention and was thinking of the long, intolerable bus trip back. In my case there would be two.
In retrospect, it was incredibly surreal that both of us were sitting there at the net café, enjoying the soothing sounds of the rolling waves. Western tourists could be seen browsing for traditional souvenirs. Others were flocking to the famous Calangute-Baga beach yards away for another round of sunshine. A tsunami had already claimed tens of thousands that morning, a large number of them in Chennai, situated right across on the Southeastern coast of India. No one we spoke to in Goa was aware of the incident yet. One of the net operators was confident that the patron saint of Goa, St Francis Xavier, whose mummified body I had peered at on Christmas day, would save Goa yet again.
There was one problem. There was no patron saint for Chennai, where I had pitched camp since early December and was returning to my host's apartment within 36 hours. Ashwin was worried and called up his relatives there. They were ok. We went back to our usual topics of how well we haggled with the traders, his biotech project and my occupation - best termed as "dreamer."
There was no further thought about the matter till we reached Ashwin's home in Bangalore. That night, only when we watched the Tamil language Sun TV did we realize the magnitude of the mayhem. The images were horrific. We were shown image after image of little bodies, housewives and men wailing hysterically, mass burials with bulldozers, and a resort in Thailand or Malaysia that was being enveloped by a giant wave in a manner that was morbidly aesthetic, if only it was Hollywood. Villages were flattened, little bodies dangled unclaimed. Debris and body were in a deathly embrace.
Aswin's mother was livid. "They shouldn't show such images on TV. They are just kolandegele (children)! Earlier that day, we were treated to a different sight - exotic saris of every silken hue at a store located in Bangalore's trendiest shopping enclave. I purchased four of them.
If there is another dimension to this tragedy, that was it. Silk saris, and people who never had, or will ever again have a chance to don one. Those tourists in Goa must have still been sunbathing, even after the news broke out.
The full reality -- if there is indeed such a thing -- sunk in at night. Emails were pouring in, particularly from fellow writer Rowan Wolf enquiring whether I was safe. My Chennai host, an American expat back in Texas for Christmas, forwarded the following alert issued by the American Consulate.
WARDEN MESSAGE ON TSUNAMI
FROM THE AMERICAN CONSULATE IN CHENNAI:
The east coast of southern India was hit by a tidal wave the morning of 26 December 2004 as a result of the major earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. Government of India is reporting several hundred deaths and injuries. At this time there are no reports of any U.S. citizens among the dead or injured.
The Consulate advises U.S. citizens in southern India to avoid coastal areas for the next few days. Authorities advise there may be aftershocks which could generate additional waves. Additionally, the full moon will cause higher than normal high tides which could contribute to additional flooding. U.S. citizens visiting or living in beach or other coastal regions should seek higher ground for the next few days.
The American Consulate General in Chennai expects to be open for business as normal on Monday, December 27. All U.S. citizens living in or visiting India are encouraged to register at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi or at one of the U.S. consulates in India. They may now also use the Department of States new Internet Based Registration System...
The quoting of "hundreds of death" clearly showed that the warning was issued immediately, no one knowing that close to 2,000 shoreline residents in southern Indian had died within minutes of the tidal surge.
I expected the Chennai apartment to be, at the very least, splintered with glass. It was only 400 meters from the sea.
When I reached there, after a sleepless night, I was surprised to find it in perfect order. The lawn below had a few scattered leaves, mildly redolent of an English autumn. Relieved, I collapsed into bed.
Later in the evening, I accosted two policemen at the beach. They were armed with the characteristic rattan sticks. I asked one of them a few questions through a strange blend of Tamil, English and Malayalam. He could make out my queries. He had nothing much to report.
By some miracle, Valmiki Nagar was spared. The debris on the beach was the usual type associated with a mild storm. They were pretty much amorphous, except for one Nike sandal I noticed. The elevated road right in front of the beach was packed with the usual joggers and elderly folk out for their evening brisk walk. Some would be undoubtedly discussing the Malthusian benefits of such tragedies. I have heard this too many times before among elderly Indians. For them, the huge population was a national problem.
There was only one death here; an unfortunate student who had to make a sudden jump over an embankment that turned out to be the weakest rampart along the shore. It was breached and his body was discovered 12 hours later. His motorbike, still there, indicated his final whereabouts after futile searches were conducted elsewhere. Further along that same stretch thousands had perished. My mind went back to the amorphous debris -- they were definitely strands of textile washed ashore. It will now be a rather eerie sight when I jog there again.
Valmiki Nagar is considered a posh locality, with a good share of expatriates. It's more known among Chennai residents for its 24-hour water supply -- sometimes from two sources -- than its beach. In the evening, the beach is animated by children playing football or cricket. Lovers huddle there by the biggest wall. With its ramparts and elevation, it was a natural choice of residence for the moneyed class; the architects had ensured adequate safety for contingencies like this. But what struck me most were the fishermen's huts nearby. They were unbelievably intact. I figured that the tidal energy repulsed here had to find an outlet elsewhere, intent only on wanton destruction. Much like how a stream of molten lava finds the least path of resistance.
Bodies are still being found along the coast and inland areas of Chennai. The government is doing its best to prevent outbreaks of typhoid, diarrhea, cholera and a multitude of others that form the second deadly wave in this seismic tragedy.
The Indian government to its credit is doing its best. There seems to be no hint of denial, something I had always associated with the style of the Mahathir era back home. The Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee was down. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deliberately stayed away to avoid diverting badly-needed manpower from devastated areas. Atypically for a politician, he had forfeited the political mileage. Or was that idea a shrewd necessity?
Indian waters are not known for tsunamis. Many fishermen never even heard of it in their native language. Here is an excerpt from the Chicago Tribune: "We have been here for generations," said Kandasamy, 32, in Koonimedu Kuppam. "We had no idea this could happen, not from our fathers, not from our grandfathers."
The same paper describes this scene:
Children playing cricket were swept away. Fishermen were lost. Women were crushed under houses. All day, new bodies washed onto beaches. Others were found under debris. Many of the dead were children.
Children were the most obvious victims. They were too small to outrun the surging tides and out of this pan-regional tragedy, they will constitute between one-third and half of the victims. Nearly 60,000 deaths have been registered, and the numbers keep rising each time one logs on to a news site, making this the greatest natural disaster in the last 100 years.
Here is another depiction from the Tribune:
Fishing nets were tangled in palm trees and colorful silk saris. Catamarans and fiberglass boats were thrown like children's toys into the middle of villages. A boat named after a Hindu god crashed into one fisherman's living room. The water ripped palm trees out of the ground and threw at least one horse to its death, hundreds of feet away. (Chicago Tribune, Dec 28).
And yes, so were people. Their bodies are still being found beneath muddied soil, wrecked homes, tattered huts and those mundane structures, perhaps a drain, perhaps a well. Among the vigil, there are vultures.
In an article headlined "How can religious people explain this?" Guardian's Martin Kettle wrote that Sunday's earthquake "inevitably poses that challenge afresh in dramatic terms....Voltaire" -- when referring to the Lisbon quake of 1755 -- "asked what kind of God could permit such a thing to occur." Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand."
The answer can be found in the embankments and cell phones of this upper middles class Chennai neighborhood. It lies with fallible human systems. Not one man, woman or child here conspired to let others die in their stead. They all worked hard and like everyone else wanted and got better homes and better social security. They didn't conspire to have embankments that probably saved their lives. They didn't conspire to elevate their ground a little higher. But others may have paid the price. You cannot blame those who had some cash for vacationing in Goa while poor fishermen were swept away by the thousands, at the other end.
I had long given up on human systems. They reek of victims, often corpses, intentional or not. No Voltaire, Rousseau or Robespierre, inspirational or quotable they may be, will stick their necks out for another, though they did play a role, sometimes indirectly, to sever the necks of many.
When I look out of my balcony, Chennai seems normal. People are driving to work and shoppers go about as usual. Their expressions, right down to the security guards, are back to normal. Here in Valmiki Nagar, children have begun to play again but not too close to the beach. Not now. Here you won't find the mass wailing and hysteria that has accompanied the destruction of entire families.
It is possible to live in one city and two worlds at the same time. Or "Multiple Universes" (Foucault)
The fate of those in the Andaman Islands is still unknown. "New Delhi has carried out little development in the islands, known for their pristine beaches, to leave indigenous tribespeople in peace. The lack of infrastructure left communities incommunicado after the waves struck." (AFP, Dec 28).
Without communications, and developed facilities, thousands more may have surely died. The next time Indian "intellectuals" fly over to the US -- first class --to lecture Americans on how rotten Uncle Sam, their own nation or their own mothers are, take a closer look at their motives, their homes, and whether they themselves live in a place and condition vulnerable to such things. Watch out for moral thunderings against a corrupt Indian government that had neglected its "poor citizens by not building 'tsunameters' earlier." Or blah, blah, blah! Surely tsunameters would benefit the Americans as well, with their strategically located Diego Garcia nearby.
Sometimes they want things built, after a tragedy strikes; sometimes they work overtime to stop it, after building has started. All the time, they crave for the attention. That's the intellectual anarchist's story.
A few would admit that its easy to do so when you write from a Chennai apartment that boasts, among other items inside, an antique 200-year-old French dining table.
Mathew Maavak publishes an eclectic online journal called the Panoptic World (www.maavak.net). He is a journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (C) Copyright 2004 Mathew Maavak.
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