When we turn onto the road that approaches Shanmuganagar, I start cursing. How often am I going to come here, so what’s the matter with me, why didn’t I bring this woman’s photograph? Yes, oddly enough the first person I see is the old woman with glasses, Kasambu whom I met and spent some time with in January. I have a lovely (even if I say so myself) photograph of her sitting at home in Bombay. Why didn’t I remember to bring it to give her?
Today, Kasambu is walking to Seepudupettai for something, and when she sees Nity and me, she breaks into the same broad toothless smile that nearly knocks off her thick glasses. Amazingly, she remembers us. I spend a few moments chatting with her, tell her she’s looking a little thinner than I remember, all the time trying to work out in my mind how I will get the photo to her. I can think of no way to do it but to return and give it to her myself, and I silently promise her, and myself, that I will. With that photo.
The last time we were in Shanmuganagar, none of the residents were living in their huts. Terrified by the tsunami, they had moved to little sari-and-pole shacks on the sandy slope just adjacent to their huts. Today, they are not in those flimsy shacks. But they are not back in their huts either. In fact, their huts are all gone. Flattened. Disappeared. As if they were never there. The sandy slope has a neat clutch of thatched huts; in other areas here and there in the village are more such thatched huts. That’s where the Irulas of Shanmuganagar now live.
But why? What happened here, why were their homes destroyed? 65-year-old Narayanswamy explains. Some man they all call Thatha (grandfather), a foreigner he thinks is from Sweden, is the only person who has been helping them here, with his organization. Other than him, nobody is willing to recognize Shamuganagar as an affected village in the first place. Anyway, this Thatha told them here that he would build them new homes.
Why new homes? That is unclear to me. Narayanswamy has lived here for over 50 years, and clearly remembers building his own house. “We made this place ready”, he tells us. The houses were not damaged by the tsunami. There were 62 of them in all, and on the Thatha’s suggestion, all were destroyed a few months ago. The villagers moved into the temporary thatched shacks I see around me. Chalk markings on the ground, staked down by little lengths of wood, show where the Thatha plans to build the new houses. According to Narayanswamy, he has said he will build only 40. The other 22 families will have to “adjust”.
Why did you break down your own house, I ask Narayanswamy. “Sir, the others were all doing it. Do you think I can stay there alone, when all the other houses are gone?”
I don’t know what to say. Something apparently bizarre has happened here, and I’m unable to find an explanation for it in my own mind.
There’s a balwadi in operation a few steps away. A board leaning against the wall inside says”The Children’s Village Playground at Shanmuganagar Village was built a a gift from the 2004-05 Sixth Grade Students of Mr Paul Astin at Topanga Elementary School in California, USA.” (Astin is not Thatha, I checked). The teacher, S Radhika, leads the kids in a rousing rhyme in triplicate. It goes thus: “Ring-AA, ring-AA roses / Pocket illa boses / Hussa, bussa / all down saar!”
And they all fall down. The kids, that is. Well, also the houses.