January 04, 2005

Those Who Have

A three-wheeler put-putts into Pandala Salai, on the outskirts of Nagore. Two men sit in it, and in the back are plastic two-kg bags of rice. Even before it rolls to a halt, the residents swarm over it, hands reaching in for the rice, reaching out to the men. For a while they do their best to hand the bags out in some reasonable manner, but the way they are engulfed, there is no way to do so. It isn’t even as if they give up. The bags are simply torn from them before they can impose any order.

The fighting and arguing. High-pitched women’s and kids’ voices, aggressive men, a woman fragrant with alcohol as she runs unsteadily to get her share, the older folks elbowed and kneed aside. Even so, many of those who surround the vehicle come away with rice, it is still not clear to me how. When the three-wheeler is empty, the two men look shell-shocked and drive off. But for long minutes afterwards, the arguments and recriminations continue, several people turning to me – the outside observer clearly uninterested in rice – to seek my commiseration.

“You pushed me!” “Can’t you see I have this little girl to feed?” “I deserve more!” On and on they argue, choice Tamil abuse flying freely back and forth between these people who were and are neighbours, who have to live with each other even after a tidal wave has swept through Pandala Salai. One complains to me about the others – they made me fall, she says, and nobody gave me any rice.

Everywhere I look, I can see people carrying the bags of rice, some disappearing into their homes or what’s left of them. Dozens of bags of rice. Yet nearly everybody in sight complains about the others’ behaviour.

And I’m standing there thinking, why must tragedy be compounded by indignity?

In Pattinacherry village, we met a young man who had clearly thought about all these issues. He walked around with us for a long time, explaining how this way of doing relief ends up rewarding the strongest, the ones who have already got stuff; that the best way to distribute material is to do it quietly, carefully identifying the ones who most need help. That’s what he is doing, he says – he has a car full of stuff to hand out, but he will first walk through the village and speak to a lot of people, then decide whom to help.

Fine. We get talking to 19-year-old Lekia, who lost her mother to the tsunami. She speaks much the same language, telling us how “those who have” (here she uses the specific Tamil phrase over and over) end up getting most of the aid. Four of her friends and a couple of older men nod as she talks, occasionally piping up to corroborate some point.

Suddenly, the young man runs to his car and returns with a wad of 500-rupee notes. He puts Rs 4000 – yes, four thousand rupees – into the girl’s hand and tells her it’s for her to use as she wants. In one idiot moment, this man with the sensible ideas has utterly changed the dynamics of the community here. The four friends and the men begin muttering, then asking us loudly why only she got the money, then arguing with her. She announces just as loudly that she will just not share.

There’s no way to retrieve the situation, so we walk away. The young man keeps saying “Sorry, sir” to me, I’m not sure why. His damage is done.

Those who have. They get. They - we - do stupid things.

No comments: