July 06, 2005

All down

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.


hemangini said...

Some nexus, some siphoning off of funds?? Please find out and tell...

Anonymous said...

I am the said Paul Astin whose students channeled funds through a local Indian NGO to build a playground, which has since been built. That is a very odd story about some foreigner having residents tear down their houses on the promise he would build new houses, though apparently not for everyone. Any other news to date?

Anonymous said...

Last week I visited Shanmuganagar. It is one of several villages I am assisting in partnership with a relatively small, local Non-governing Organization (NGO) called BLESS. This very effective NGO has been working in 25 of the tsunami villages around Cuddalore for many years prior to the tsunami. In the month following the tsunami I visited the Tamil Nadu coast numerous times and learned that the larger, international Non-governing Organizations (NGO) were overlooking whole villages and segments of the population like women and children. But BLESS had helped establish 782 Self-Help Groups that benefited over 14,000 people, mostly women and therefore had a good rapport with those who suffered from the tsunami. Shanmuganagar is one of several villages that will get more than band-aid relief assistance thanks to the efforts of BLESS.

It is truly unfortunate when a reporter fails to take the time to determine ALL the facts. It may make an interesting and provocative story to report that villagers were told to destroy their houses and then learn later that only some would get new homes. However, if Mr. D’Souza had talked to a few more people he would have learned what great good fortune had befallen this village, not the misfortune he incorrectly reported on this blog site. BLESS met with the villagers and informed them that a donor had offered to completely rebuild the village, making it a model community in all ways. This was very welcome news to the tribal people of Shanmuganagar. Everyone (none excluded) will get a new duplex home; the village will get a water system and a community center.

The village has not only agreed to this change, but whole heartedly endorses it. In order to start the transformation it was explained to the community that they would have to move their palm thatch houses to a new location temporarily while permanent, tsunami-resistant concrete homes are constructed for them. Mr. D’Souza’s visit apparently coincided with this dismantling and he talked with Mr. Narayanswamy who seemingly did not understand that everyone, himself included, will soon receive a new home.

The reason for my visit to Shanmuganagar last week was for the dedication of the playground that is alluded to in Mr. D’Souza’s report. Now there is a real story – one worth telling. Children in an elementary school in California wanted to express their love to children in one of the tsunami-affected villages. Those school children made a musical CD with their own songs on it and went door-to-door in their neighborhoods selling the CD with the idea that the proceeds would somehow benefit tsunami children. They heard of my efforts to build playgrounds in villages damaged by the tsunami and decided that is how they wanted to spend the money they had raised.

On July 26 we dedicated their playground and when the gates swung open, the children of Shanmuganagar rushed into the play area with whoops of joy and excitement. We watched some clamber aboard a merry-go-round and then stand there not knowing what it was supposed to do. One member of our group gave the merry-go-round a push and the children understood what this wonderful toy was. Later BLESS gave new bicycles to the children so they could ride to school and the men of the village were given large, insulated boxes to carry the fish they purchase from the fishermen to the nearby towns where they are sold.

During the playground dedication one village elder – perhaps it was Mr. Narayanswamy – gave a detailed history of the village. Next year he will have a new chapter to add to the story of Shanmuganagar; one the village will say was a turning point in their history.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Good to hear from you, Mr Astin. I'm planning a return trip to Shanmuganagar in September (if all goes well) and I hope to get a better idea of what happened there. Do you have an email address? Can I write to ask you a few questions? My email address at the bottom of this. note.

Anonymous, thanks for all your clarifications. You're right, I should have been more diligent about finding out more; put it down to the amount of stuff I had to follow up on on that trip, and then the deluge in Bombay last week.

But I will say this: I spoke to several people in S'nagar, and nobody was able to explain to me what was going on with the homes. It wasn't just Narayanswamy.

But if you give me a name and a contact number/email, I'd like to speak to you in greater detail about this, and possibly meet you on my trip to TN in Sept -- of course, if it is convenient, even visit S'nagar with you. Do you think that's possible?

Please send me a note at ddd AT rediff DOT co DOT in. Thank you for your interest.