January 03, 2005

Muddy Waters

The colour of the wave, Thirumurugan says ... and he looks around him, searching. He points to the painted strip on the bows of a fishing boat nearby. A dull orange, the strip. That colour, says Thirumurugan.

I don't know if it's because of this colour or the misery the tsunami brought, but every time Thirumurugan and others refer to the tsunami, they also speak of the "fire" in the water. As in, it brought "fire" in its jaws as it swept into Bommaiyarpalayam and out again. An interesting, and for what happened here, telling metaphor.

But the wave brought something less metaphorical as well. Mud. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, we've seen evidence of that -- mud inside clocks, mud inside pots, mud plastered on the floor of a room, mud stinking, mud everywhere. But here, the fisherfolk speak of it as bhoomi (earth), invariably with their hands cupped and doing a lifting motion, clearly saying to me that the wave scooped up the very bottom of the sea, the stinky muddy bottom of the sea, and flung it at them.

Palani Arumugam's daughter Madina, a gorgeous and alert two-year-old -- swallowed some of that mud. Over a week later, says Palani, she still brings bits of it out from time to time. Madina smiles up at me. I try not to think of her muddied insides.

And when this bhoomi-filled tongue of fire dressed up as a wave struck, it circled the houses -- more explanatory hand motions -- and then went back, taking huge chunks of their lives out with it. How far out? Two kilometres, says Thirumurugan. That's right, he says the sea receded two km out after the tsunami, a low tide to beat all low tides.


One sight here reminds me of what I once saw in Mangalwar Peth in the town of Phaltan. Taps in pits. Up and down the line of shattered houses here, there are newly dug pits in the sand, in which the local administration has installed handsome new grey and blue pipes. These supply water. The tsunami destroyed the previous supplies.

Two things about these pipes. First, they are installed sans taps, so the water flows out of them continuously. Unless the residents attach taps themselves, which some have done. Not a big thing to buy a tap and attach it to a pipe, but you wonder: if a municipality is willing to dig these pits and connect up these pipes and send water coursing through them, why is it unwilling to go that last step and stick a tap onto the end of the pipes? Who knows.

Second, why the pits? Because the pipes have to be low -- they are never above the level of the ground around the pit. Why so? Because the municipality sends water coursing through the pipes, yes, but at such a pitiful pressure that the outlet can be no higher than ground level. Even there, in too many of the pipes, the water trickles out so feebly as to be useless.

Low pressure relief, I suppose.

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