From the fire behind me, there is an awful "pop". Something has exploded in it, and given that I know what's in the fire, I know what the pop is likely to be: some part of a human body, consumed by the flames. I've watched those bodies being piled onto the pyre, and the last thing these poor twisted rigid souls look is human -- but they burn nevertheless, and it's the last chapter in what must have been a terrifying, whirling end.
We are on a wasteland -- there's no other word for this vast empty soulless landscape of rotting slush, debris, mud, nets and dog and cat and human carcasses -- just outside the town of Nagapattinam. It has taken us nearly 90 minutes to negotiate our way through the slush and stench to where D Lakshmi Narasimhan, a tall gentle doctor from Salem, greets the dusk with his team in the only way that makes sense in this post-tsunami zone. They pick up and burn the bodies. We are only 500 metres from the town, but nobody except this team is out this far -- and from what we hear, there are dead bodies strewn all the way in fron of us, 5 km in front of us, all the way to Vedaranyam. Nobody seems interested in coming out this far. So what will happen to those bodies? How will they go through that final chapter in their agonizing end?
We can believe that there are those bodies out there. In getting here, we've seen at least three others being burned, at least five others lying around. One's a little form, sex or age or even humanity eroded beyond belief, lying in a carton. Nearby is another -- brother? mother? cousin? -- sprawled in the mucky sand. Bodies everywhere.
The pyre I mentioned is really a collapsed hut; one body lies on top of it as if he (she?) was sleeping. Calmly after the storm. The team lifts up the collapsed roof and there are bodies below. They pull one out -- a young boy, I think -- and put him on top with the other one. Then they light the roof. Incongruously, three cats emerge from below the hut, alive and running. The family cats? Here since the tsunami? Just sheltering here? Who knows? But we stand there, as Veerappan, his wife Parvati, their daughter Pasupati, and their sons Ganesh, Dinesh and Abhi -- the names listed in a sodden exercise book nearby, their photos in an album nearby -- go up in flames.
Popping to sicken my heart.
Walking back, it's dark. I can't see what's around me, so I just step into everything. Slush, rot, whatever. Seems hardly to matter. Seems appropriate. I don't know how to have a happy new year.