January 13, 2005

The Clothes Have It

Last week, I wrote here about how the Irulas of Shanmuganagar had quickly built themselves temporary shelters where they spent nights after the wave. The fear in their hearts, fear grown from running from the tsunami, had driven them to this; for the time being, they couldn't bring themselves to sleep in their own homes. And the interesting thing about those shelters was that they were built of flimsy poles and thin saris, patches of colour flapping in the breeze.

Interesting, but sad.

Clothes, like these saris, were a curious theme that ran through our journey through tsunami-devastated Tamil Nadu. You've no doubt heard plenty about how old clothes were singularly unwanted. Even on the path to Shanmuganagar, we passed a huge pile of them, so thick on the ground that kids were turning cartwheels on them, diving in headfirst -- a sight I would not have believed had I not photographed it myself.

Did the Irulas use those clothes -- must have been saris there -- for their little fluttering hideaways from fear? I asked Chitra and Veeramma, the two who showed me around the sari colony. No, they said, these saris tied to poles belonged to the Irula women. And why not use those dumped clothes? Shrugs, in reply.

Yet at a meeting of AID volunteers in Pondicherry, in which they were given some basic instructions before going into the tsunami zone, I heard a suggestion in just this vein. Babu, the local DYFI coordinator, told them that old clothes were being rejected. (Already evident, not quite five days after the wave). But he saw opportunity in that rejection, because he coupled it with two other facts. Old clothes were streaming in anyway, and something else was becoming an urgent need: toilet facilities. (Toilet facilities, that is, for both locals and the volunteers).

Use the discarded old clothes, said Babu, to make temporary curtains for privacy in the toilets you set up.

Now I didn't remember to look around to see if there were indeed new toilets anywhere that were festooned with old dresses, sweaters, or shirts. But this struck me as an extraordinarily good idea, and I'd like to know if anyone put it into practice.

One other mention of clothes. On my first day in Chennai, three days after the tsunami, I heard from Dr CS Ramachandran that the Rotary, after the first frenetic phase of distributing food, was gearing up to produce "Help Kits" for affected families. Included in those were saris. (New saris).

Did any of those end up fluttering from Irula poles? Unlikely, because the Rotary hadn't got to Shanmugapuram yet. But as Dr Ramachandran told us, it was Vibha Ravindran from AID who met him and gently suggested that just saris weren't enough. From then, Rotary's kits expanded to include bras and pavadais (petticoats) as well.

The lesson? Relief needs thought. Relief needs a willingness to adapt. If more of those involved with relief showed more of those qualities -- like Babu, the Rotary and Vibha did -- we might have seen less of those too-familiar piles of discarded old clothes.

Though the Irulas would still have a fear of the wave in them. How you relieve that, I don't know.


vivitsa said...

Saw your comment on the BITSian blog,must say a rel impressive blog you have in here..
btw,just wondering are u a BITSian too ?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Vivitsa, for your comment. Yes, I am a BITSian. EEE, 1976-81.

Anonymous said...

which BITSian blog are you talking about? am also a BITSian.

Dilip D'Souza said...


Check, for example, here and here.

Anonymous said...


Kumari said...

Relief does indeed need thought. What i saw when we sorted old clothes were how people just came and dropped bundles and bundles of clothes at AID offices...these weren't really bundles kept aside to be donated but more likely ones that were meant to be discarded. Getting rid of what you no longer need under a shroud of kindness may help to silence that nagging conscience, but does it serve the purpose? I guess we need to see a darker night and a brighter light before we truly wake up...