January 03, 2005

What they sometimes do

The things people do. We're in Bommaiyarpalayam, a seaside colony of fishermen on (yet one more) beautiful beach north of Pondicherry. There must be hundreds of houses here, and Thirumurugan, a wiry young man, is insistent about showing us pretty much every one. Bombay-le irindu patrikar vandirkango ("Journalists have come from Bombay"), I hear him saying over and over again. And I'm left sad by the things he and his neighbours do to tell the journalists from Bombay what happened to them. To drive home what happened to them. Though it's hardly as if we needed it driven home -- the destruction is evident, the pain on the quiet faces of those who lost children is evident. And yet... Here's a sample of how the women reacted to our visit.

There's Muthulakshmi, perhaps 45, whose son Viji is in the hospital ("serious condition", says Thirumurugan). She tells me a log from a catamaran struck her teeth, knocking one out. She shows me the gap in confirmation. The log also loosened another tooth. She grabs that one and shakes it in confirmation. Shake, shake, shake, until my appeals not to do this get through to her.

There's Anjalai, with 6 children, who sits on the ground and wails gently, rocking back and forth. Her sari is pulled up to above her knees -- ordinarily, a shockingly immodest way for a woman to sit, but in this case I can see why. Also hit by catamaran logs, but on her legs, she has bandages on both knees. She wants me to see them, beckons to me until I go over. As I get close, she stops beckoning and begins to untie a bandage, to show me the wound. Don't do that, I say. She stops, but then starts to pull the bandage down. Don't do that, I say again, sternly this time. Then she tells me her teeth were also broken -- they look fine, but perhaps she feels she has to keep up with the Muthulakshmis -- and she has gone deaf after the wave came.

There's Amurtham, who shows me a deep cut on her knuckle. There are signs of pus in it, it just doesn't look good. Why haven't you treated it, bandaged it, I ask. She didn't go to get it looked at when the doctors came, she says. With a faint smile. My Tamil can't manage telling her it might turn septic or gangrenous or whatever happens to untreated cuts, so I put it simply: you don't do something about it, your finger's going to drop off. She merely smiles some more.

There's Chelliamma, about 70, with an unhealthy pink cast to her face and on her cheek, a scar that looks like a blister that broke. She was hit by catamaran logs too. She says she has pain in her waist from the blow. She points to it. Then she suddenly unfurls the pallu of her sari, her blouse is nearly fully open, she pulls it up substantially -- again, shockingly immodest things for a woman to do -- and points to her waist once more.

And there's Miniamma, just as we are about to leave Bommaiyarpalayam. She offers us coffee. Nothing else.

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