January 02, 2005

3526 units and not counting

Anbudayalan kneels down and reverently wipes the sand from the inclined slab of concrete. The Tamil letters become clearer as he does, and then he stands and says, sadly but proudly: There. That's her name. That's Her name.

She is the goddess Mariamman, and this slab and some others lying in the sand are all that's left of the temple to her that stood here only days ago. Her name is painted on this slab, and neither Anbudayalan nor Joseph, two young boys walking around with us, want it obscured. As it is, by sand, when we get here. The now readable letters are now the only remnant, reminder, of the lady in what used to be Her home here. So Anbudayalan reads it out to me: Arulmuga Sri Mariamman Aalayam, Chinnavaikal.

Chinnavaikal is the village. In any other time, any other place, it would be a splendid vacation spot: palm trees and white sand, a constant gentle breeze, the blue water and the white waves of the Bay of Bengal lapping at the beach. But of course, as nobody needs reminding, a week ago that lapping mutated into devouring, and the sea rammed through the huts and palm trees here.

And tore Mariamman's abode to shreds. Nobody knows where her idol is.

We are the first journalists to come here, and that's possibly because Chinnavaikal is reachable only by boat, a half hour ride from Killai. Sun-streaked flying fish accompany us as we ride over, the occasional kingfisher diving in to take advantage. On a little stretch of deserted beach we pass, a deep suitcase and a teacup sit, unaccompanied by anything, or anyone, else. Nearing Chinnavaikal, we see two cows on the shore, one lying torpid in the sun, one nosing around desultorily. How did they survive?

When we reach, the residents are going about the business of picking up their shattered homes with a quietly grim purpose. Unlike in other villages we've been through, nobody comes over to speak to us, except the boys Joseph and Anbudayalan. But from their efforts and from what we see, we know what kind of fury erupted here. Oddly, my cellphone gets a strong signal -- but apart from that, there's pretty much nothing intact here.

The sand is littered with objects and palm fronds. Fishing nets are underfoot, entangled with all manner of things, identifiable or not. Still lashed to a palm tree is an electrical board -- meter, pretzel-twisted tubelight fitting, wires, piping. Elsewhere, we have found clocks stopped at 9:06 and the like, the time the tsunami struck. Here, the meter is stuck, at 3526 kwh. The electricity used at the time the tsunami struck.

Amazing to me, the glass casing of the meter is still intact, with only a few drops of water evident inside. More amazing, on the ground below the meter lies an enormous bulb. 500 watts, still intact as well. The filament is broken. Not the glass. How did it survive the wave?

One of those survival stories gets explained now, and it isn't a survival story. The cows swim over from the mainland at low tide every day, graze here for a few hours, and swim back.

But there's more to the survival story here: some 150 people were on the island that morning when someone's meter stopped at 3526. Only 15 of them died. I am floored by this figure. Not least when I see several of their huts, flattened against palm trees, reduced to nearly two dimensions. Somehow or the other, 135 Chinnavaikal-ites lived to tell their tales. How, when not even their Goddess managed that feat? How, when the wave roared over this tiny bit of land and onto the mainland a kilometre away and pulverized lives there?

Is there an answer in the quiet strength I noticed before, the manner in which these residents go about their efforts?

Anbudayalan calls out, that same note of sadness and pride in his voice. Joseph has found a plate. It's the plate they used for aartis at the temple, they tell me. Reverently, Anbudayalan wipes the sand from it.

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