This is only 500 metres from Akkarapettai—a tough 500, but still. Apart from this team—from the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)—nobody is out this far for this job. There are bodies strewn all the way to the setting sun. Nobody wants to come out even 500 metres; what will happen to those other bodies?
Just getting here, we’ve seen at least eight bodies. One’s a little form—sex, age, even humanity wiped away—sprawled in a carton. In the muck nearby is another: brother? mother? who? On a collapsed hut, a body lies as if asleep. Two men lift the thatch roof; more bodies below. They pull one out and put it on top too. The others are too difficult to extract. They set fire to the roof.
As we stand in the smoke and stench, Veerappan, his wife Parvati, daughter Pasupati, sons Ganesh, Dinesh and Abhi—names in a sodden exercise book at our feet—go up in flames. Dr Narasimhan and team are done for today. They are already planning where in the muck they will go, tomorrow morning.
In Pudukuppam one afternoon, a dozen exhausted men rest in a boat. They have just finished distributing cooked food to the villagers. How this happened is one of those gorgeous stories that great tragedies invariably throw up.
In nearby Parangipettai, a Rafiq was to be married at noon that Sunday, December 26. Food ready, guests gathered in the jamaatkhana, festivities were about to begin. Then, terrified villagers from Pudupettai, Pudukuppam and elsewhere poured into Parangipettai, running from the wave.
The men from the wedding party quickly brought out the food, distributed it and began cooking more. And more. Eight days cooking, by the time we meet them. Eight days cooking for the villages of Chinnur, Pudupettai, Samiyarpettai, Vailankarayanpettai, Kumarapettai, Panjakuppam, Shanmuganagar, Dalbastaikar and Pudukuppam. Lemon rice on the menu today, and it fed 300 people in Pudukuppam.
It’s lucky, says Mohammed Hameem who tells me this story as he sits in the boat, that that wedding was scheduled that day.
Yes, but did Rafiq ever get married?
The men look at each other in surprise. Hadn’t thought of that.
In Parangipettai, we meet an impressive young sub-collector, Rajendra Ratnoo. Aware that he has lots to do, we speak only briefly. But enough to get the sense that Ratnoo is practical, sensible and, even then—five days after the tsunami—has things under control. Back in Mumbai, I call Ratnoo to ask a couple of questions. He answers in the middle of a birthday party for his son. I can hear the festivities in the background. He has invited a number of children to the party. Nothing unusual there—what’s a birthday party without lots of kids?
But this is unusual: his son’s party guests are children orphaned by the tsunami.
Drawn to coastal Tamil Nadu to help after the tsunami, the filmmaker R. Revathi then decided to stay on in Nagapattinam and take an interest in longer-term concerns. This, because one day, she found some kids begging at the bus station. Before the tsunami, their families lived in shacks on the seashore. With those shattered, they had settled into tents in a small city park.
For various reasons, nobody was willing to recognise these people as tsunami-affected. But there was a possibly greater obstacle—they belong to a nomadic tribe, the Aadiyans, that faces great prejudice from fellow citizens. Not even the tsunami changed that. Distressed by the begging kids, Revathi tried to get them into the local school system. Calling them "shit-eaters", students and teachers made it clear they were not wanted. Eventually, Revathi decided to set up a school for the kids herself. She dipped into her savings, tapped her network of friends, established a trust, rented a house in Nagapattinam’s Marai Malai Nagar, and got going.
When I visit in September, the house is overrun with lively, inquisitive, sometimes unruly kids: a thriving little school alright. And when I meet Revathi, a small circle is closed. She looks familiar. Soon, we realise we’ve met before. Where? In the slime outside Akkarapettai, where she was part of Dr Lakshmi’s body-burning team.