The Irulas, I've always heard, are a tribe of rat-catchers in Tamil Nadu. So I am just slightly surprised to hear that they also fish, though apparently they don't go out to sea but are riverine and estuarine fishers. And because they fish, they have been affected by the tsunami.
And since they don't usually live near the coast but some distance inland -- at least here, south of Cuddalore -- they have not yet figured on any Government lists of affected people, even though they have had deaths and lost fishing equipment. So my old friend Nity Jayaraman (who has this must-read article on what he calls the "greed of giving") is working with some organizations here to get the affected Irulas onto those lists.
Some of them live in a village called Shanmuganagar, reachable after you turn off the main road south of Seepudupettai and walk the last 750 metres or so. When we get there, we find their thatched huts to our left, and on a patch of sandy ground to the right and slightly higher than the huts, several flimsy makeshift tents made of poles and -- get this, saris. Saris. Therefore this is a colourful little place. Saris, sometimes safety-pinned together to stretch further between the poles.
Why these tents?
Well, that Sunday the Irulas -- men, women and kids -- packed some food as usual and went out to fish as usual, to where the river Vellar meets the sea. Not the usual, the tsunami pounced on them. They dropped everything -- nets, boats, food -- and ran. How they ran, says Veeramma as she cooks a sambar. All the way home to Shanmuganagar, about 1.5 km. Even 80-year-old Kasambu, a frail lady with a wide toothless grin and heavy black spectacles, ran, though some still-unknown Irula hand helped her all the way. And while she made it, two mothers of young girls died -- Selvi and Shanta.
All the way home, the water pursued them. Though of course it grew steadily weaker, it nearly reached Shanmuganagar.
And it's the fear of that experience that sent the Irulas scrambling to build those sari-robed shelters. They are afraid to spend the night in their own homes. "After all," says Chitra, mother of a two-year-old, "if we're at home and the water comes again, we'll have to run but we won't know which kid to pick up, or which of our things to take. So we sleep under these saris, because at least then we can see the water coming."
Kasambu's nephew Perumal echoes this. "We have great fear in our hearts, sir," he says, thumping himself above the heart so hard that I worry this scrawny young man will fall over. "Until that fear goes, we'll stay in these tents. We don't have cars and buses to escape if the water comes again. We'll have to walk."
But there's a price that fear extracts: Suffering the cold at night here. Lying down to sleep on the sand or on a mat or even another sari, when the cold comes out of the ground and through a sari and into your bones. Eating on sand, such that the stuff gets into all your food and you know you are feeding it to your children.
So I say to Perumal and Chitra and Veeramma, there's no need to feel any fear now. You must go back to sleep in your homes. The water won't come again. Believe me, the water won't come again!
They tell me, "We have great fear in our hearts, sir."
And so it will continue. Days in the huts. Nights under saris.