January 01, 2005

No Thunder

In retrospect, the signs take on a whole new, wholly ominous, meaning. Every sign. The Thums Up logo fridge that lies on its side outside a shop: "I Want My Thunder" -- sideways, of course. "Hair Removing Centre". "Ear Boring Centre." "Name Inscribed on Sea Shell, Key Chain and in Fiber Rings." Everywhere I look, there are signs, and each one drills a new message into my head in the wake of, the context of, the tidal wave that barrelled through here and overturned that fridge.

And even that drilling into my head takes on new meaning.

Vailankanni is a "very holy" place. A blindingly white church not more than 200 yards from the shore, it was crammed with pilgrims on the morning of December 26th. More than a thousand, says Father Masillamani SJ, standing in the office with a small sad smile on his face. After the service, they went, as pilgrims to Vailankanni have always done, down to the shore 200 yards away. They went to have a bath in the sacred sea that, legend says, was the reason for the church in the first place -- the bath preparatory to having their ritual hair cut.

Then the waves started getting higher. "At first," says Father Masillamani, "they stood there and laughed at the huge waves." You can imagine the scene: hundreds of bathing pilgrims, haircut ready, laughing at the waves. They couldn't have laughed long. When huge turned to massive to monstrous, they ran. Here, there, anywhere but away from the wave. But it pursued them up the little alley lines with shops that ends back at the church, the same alley down which they had strolled so peacefully only minutes earlier. It struck them down before they got more than a few feet. It thrashed through the shops, turning them into matchwood and bits of toys and upturned fridges. And in at least one place, strewn human hair once for sale.

Several hundred pilgrims died here, says Father Masillamani. The church stands immaculately, whitely, at the head of the alley that spelled death that Sunday morning. As if sacredly immune to the violent power that rose out of the sea. But in the alley and the beach, immaculate would be a strange word. Enormous piles of girder-infested debris lie on the sand; flat platforms of once shops, now tsunami-ed and bulldozed; electrical cables snake through it all; crowds of crows flap gently from pile to pile as I try to make photographic sense of this through my viewfinder. And above it all, a miasma of smoke and sea-spray, an unsettlingly odorous miasma.

The shopkeepers are at work, though in a sort of slow-motion. The shock is evident on their faces. They are clearing out their destroyed shops -- one large bit of a window lands at my feet as I walk past -- and picking their ruined merchandise up off the floor. I step past the clumps of hair, and it's then that I start noticing the signs anew.

The context is the wave. The context is the hundreds who died here. Behind where Father Masillamani stands to talk softly to us, on a board there, are photographs of theones they found. It must have been hard to take these shots, harder to put them up for public display in this place of prayer. It is hard enough to look at them.

I really don't want my thunder if it can cause this kind of massacre.

Every day, all day, the church at Vailankanni offers a prayer for the 800 who were turned into grotesque photographs here. Think of them.

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