The old woman lifts up a polyester dress, holds it against herself, shakes her head, and drops it back into the pile. No, it won't fit. No, it's not me. No, I don't like polyester. No, I wear saris, not dresses. No, not even a tsunami will make me wear want someone else's discards. Which is it?
Your guess. The dress lies there on the ground.
Yesterday -- Thu Dec 30 -- the Tamil Nadu coast was thrown into a frenzy by a sudden warning of one more tidal wave. Driving to some relief camp in Chennai, we were turned away by cops who didn't want people using the beach road. In the smaller towns and villages -- like this one, Seepudupettai -- the people ran. As they had run five days ago, with a wall of water gnawing, snarling, at them. But this time it was just the scare, and no wall came. But still, the village emptied out in no time.
An unknown team of relief workers in their truck, presumably oblivious in the truck to the tsunami warning, drove into Seepudupettai at this time. They had a load of used clothes to hand out. But with the village empty, they had nobody to hand the stuff out to. So they dumped it -- the whole load -- around a statue in the centre of the village, a statue of the great Tamil Nadu hero, Annadurai. (The nearby MGR statue was left unclothed).
The villagers came back. They found this pile of clothes miraculously in the heart of their village.
When we got there, we found several young men lounging in and on the clothes, eating bread by the loaves some other team had handed out, hamming for my trusty Contax. And we found the old woman, curious about a polyester dress some unknown Indian woman in Bombay or Calcutta or Trichy or Jaunpur had swept from her wardrobe as her response to a distant monstrous wave.
Curious, but uninterested. Tsunami or no tsunami.
In the once French enclave of Karaikal, south of that other once French enclave of Pondicherry, two policemen directed traffic across a bridge. I noticed two things: one, their bright red kepis, a reminder of that French heritage; and the traffic crossed very gingerly.
Why gingerly? Because the bridge has been damaged. Traffic flows in only one direction at a time, for part of the way over metal plates laid over whatever cracks there are in the bridge. And why was the bridge damaged? Three large boats, lying to the side below the bridge, are the answer. Five days ago, they were borne up the creek that leads out to sea, borne up like some all-conquering champion sportsman might be borne, and flung bodily at the bridge. As if to wreak vengeance at this French-built bridge.
That flinging, from the tsunami. Of course.
My mind quails at the strength of this beast from the depths below, that it slams boats into bridges like this. I try desperately to find an angle for my photo that will capture that quailing, that strength. And then I see it.
At the end of a pole that sticks out from somewhere on one of the boats, there's a small plastic holder. In it, there's a bulb. A glass bulb. Intact.
In Nagapattinam, we see a repeat of this boats at bridges trick. This time, on a scale that leaves me breathless. Numberless boats, in every size possible up to a solid long barge, crashed up against the bridge like so many toys tossed aside by a bored kid. Some have evidently sailed over roofs to land right in the middle of town, by the road. Keeping them company are oerturned trucks and roofs shattered as boats flew. How this destruction? Better question: who is going to clear it all? How? Fluttering proudly from most boats' masts are tattered Indian flags. Dozens of them, streaming and waving in the mellow afternoon sun. And then I see it.
On nearly every boat, there's a cabin. Glass panes. Most of which are intact.