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Beyond The Shores: After 15 Years Of Tsunami, A Life That Was Lost To Killer Waves

The 2004 tsunami turned many lives upside down. Here is one such heart-touching story.

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Everyone had to start from scratch as they lost all their possessions.
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When the tsunami hit my hometown, I was working as a casual announcer at the Karaikkal All India Radio FM Station, situated 15 km from Nagapattinam.  

I was broadcasting film songs when the tragedy struck. Suddenly, our station director called me over the phone. He asked me to stop playing film songs and broadcast some instrumental music instead. He said, “I will call you again. Whatever information I give you, broadcast directly.” It had never happened before. When I asked him the reason, he said, “No time. Please do what I say,” and cut the call. 

I could sense it was some kind of emergency. I noticed not a single engineer was present in the control room. Everything seemed fishy to me. In a few minutes, the station director called again and asked me to broadcast that the seawater had entered Karaikkal city, the Madhagadipattu bridge was about to break, and all those near the banks of the river must move to safer places immediately. 

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After broadcasting his message, I took out an instrumental CD, inserted it and came out of my studio. I could not find anyone. Scared to be alone, I rushed out of the station. All my colleagues were standing near the compound wall, looking eastwards. I joined them. 

What I saw, I will never forget in my life. The Bay of Bengal was just some feet away, touching the back wall of the radio station. The roads which I had taken early in the morning were submerged in the sea. We were shocked and stunned. We could not even imagine what would have happened to those living in low-lying areas. Suddenly, I could hear somebody scream “en veedu poche, en pullangalai kaanome” (I lost my house; I don’t know where my children are). The reality hit us. Soon, we could see many people screaming and crying. 

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Our station director asked me to leave immediately and go to Nagapattinam, my hometown. “Sea water has entered your town too. I got the news. Please start immediately,” he said. 

At this point, I was shivering with fear because my home is situated just 500 metres from Nagapattinam beach. I thought about my parents and my husband who were in Nagapattinam. One of my colleagues helped me get on a bus. We had to drive for 30 km before we could find a bus going to Nagapattinam. The bus service between the two towns was stopped due to the broken bridge. 

When we saw this bus, I just got in although it was heading to Mayiladuthurai, which is in the opposite direction to my town. I had no choice. At the Mayiladuthurai bus stand, I saw a huge crowd. All of them had escaped from the shores in search of shelter. Papers were pasted on buses saying ‘Kadal Thuyar Avasaram’ (sea sorrow emergency). We did not even know the word tsunami at that time. I travelled to Nagapattinam through Thiruvarur and reached the Nagapattinam bus stand by 3 pm. Nobody asked passengers to buy tickets that day. That was proof that something was terribly amiss.  

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When I got down from the bus, I could see a large crowd in front of the government hospital. I rushed there. I met some fisher folks who were relatives of my husband. Everyone started crying upon seeing me. My husband’s sister handed over her granddaughter to me and began to cry. After a few seconds, I realised that the child was no more. I was deeply shocked. I rushed inside the hospital to find my parents. My father had met with an accident and was admitted to the same hospital when the tsunami hit. My mother was inside too, assisting him. 

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When I went in, I saw something which I wish no one should see in their lifetime. Hundreds of dead bodies brought from various places were kept piled up. The tsunami had hit the hospital too. Someone screamed: “Don’t go there. Nobody is alive inside the hospital”. 

I began to cry for my parents. I saw my husband Shanmugaraj involved in relief work. His shirt was soaked in mud and I could not recognise him. We did not even speak to each other. I began to look for my parents again. Somebody said, “I saw your father and mother. They were taken by a school teacher.” I was relieved, but I still had no idea where they were. 

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People were fleeing from Nagapattinam in lorries, trucks, buses and every vehicle possible to towns and villages in the west; away from the sea. Someone said my parents might have left the town. I was searching for my parents in the streets of Nagapattinam like a mad girl. 

I was not allowed to go to my home as the area was heavily affected. At 9 pm, I saw my father, running around on the streets of Nagapattinam, despite his wounded leg. My mother was with him and they were searching for me. I ran and hugged them. We were all crying. Fortunately, my school teacher, Mr Russo, rescued my parents and gave them shelter in his house. On that night, I took shelter in his house. But many people had no shelter. They were lying on roads, platforms, bus stands, railway stations, marriage halls, schools and all the other places possible. 

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One natural calamity had made the rich poor and the poor poorer. Everyone had to start from scratch as they lost all their possessions. Some people lost their houses too. The next day evening, I visited my house. The compound wall was gone, the doors were gone and there was not a single spoon or tumbler in the kitchen. Every household article got washed away. Only the cot and the shelves remained. There was up to four feet high mud inside the house. All electronic items had turned into scrap. My family decided to rent another house. We had to buy everything all over again. There was no power for a few days. So, we had to start from zero. In all the tsunami-affected areas, the situation was the same. After eight months, we managed to repair our home and shifted back. 

 

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One natural calamity had made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Getty Images

Before the tsunami, I was working in the IT sector in Chennai. My husband and I would visit our hometown over the weekends as I was working as a casual announcer at Karaikkal FM. A few days after the tsunami, we returned to Chennai and joined work. 

Even now, I sometimes dream that I am running to save my life from a huge tsunami wave. From 2004 until now, this has been a recurring dream. 

A few days after moving to Chennai, I noticed a change in my husband’s behaviour. But I could not figure out the reason. He would get angry and upset very often. He would overreact. Initially, I tried to ignore it. But after a year, I realised something was wrong with his mental health. I was hesitating to ask him and could not even share it with anyone. 

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Thankfully, one day he talked about it and asked me to take him to therapy. We consulted a doctor. After a long conversation with him, he disclosed that the tsunami had affected him. He advised regular therapies. He also said my husband would have to take prescribed psychiatrist pills for life. My life changed. I could not share this with anyone, not even my parents. Those were dark days. Taking care of him was a huge responsibility and I was doing it alone. Slowly people could sense something was amiss and started spreading rumours. His work suffered too and he started changing jobs every six months. The doctors advised him to quit and start a business. We tried that, but he could not manage. I was the only earning member then. 

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We struggled a lot. I lost my job in the recession. We vacated our house in Chennai and moved all our belongings to my parents’ house in Nagapattinam. My husband stayed back with them, and I moved back to Chennai. I stayed with my friends and started looking for a job. My parents came to know about my husband’s condition. 
After a few months, I got a job and found a new house in Chennai. My husband moved back, but things changed drastically. Our relationship could not survive and we decided to get legally separated and remain friends. After our divorce in 2013, he stayed with me for a year. We set up a company for him in Nagapattinam, which sold spare parts for fishing boats. He left for Nagapattinam in 2014, but the company did not do well. 

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We continued to remain friends even after the divorce. When we were together, he attempted to take his life thrice, but we could save him. His suicidal thoughts were getting intense day after day, but the medication helped him stabilised. After our separation, he attempted to take his life once. We could save him but he was in the ICU for three days, completely unconscious. 

On July 25, 2019, he attempted to take his life once again. This time we could not save him. When I came to know, I was in Chennai. I rushed to Nagapattinam to see him one last time. 

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Tsunami ruined our marriage and in the end, took him away from me. I lost my closest friend. We lost him to tsunami after 15 years of struggle. I can now say that he was a free man after his death. He struggled to survive because society looked down upon him because of his illness. He was constantly battling with the outside world as well as his mind. It’s hard to survive without him, but I hope he is at peace now. I miss him a lot. 
 

(Kavin Malar is an independent journalist and a theatre artist based in Chennai. She can be reached at jkavinmalar@gmail.com)

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