German Mary is 55 years old and she is cooking. The mildly surprising thing is that even though she is outside, the smoke from her cooking is so thick and stagnant that it is difficult to stand near her. "We ran from there, some of us were without clothes!" she says. The tsunami, that's what it did to her locality, on the Nagapattinam shore. Broke houses and, she says, tore clothes off some of the people, who had no way and nowhere to go back to, to find something to cover themselves.
German Mary is now in "temporary housing", another of those phrases that has taken on great meaning after last December 26. The colony she is in is on the road that runs between Nagapattinam and Nagore, and was set up by a NGO that has a prominent presence here. It's temporary, but you enter the area with a feeling if foreboding and despair: this place shows every sign of turning into a permanent abode for these people.
But first, about the cooking. The temporary shelters are just 12 by 10 rooms, walled with what are called "bison panels" (a trade name, actually): cement impregnated particle boards. The roofs are corrugated FRP (fibre-reinforced plastic). Why I mention these details is that these make the rooms small cauldrons: on an already warm Nagapattinam morning, it is noticeably warmer as soon as you step into Mary's home. Cooking inside there makes the heat unbearable, so she cooks outside (a sambhar, as we speak). But the passage between the rows of temporary shelters, where she sits cooking, is covered with sheets of plastic, just high enough for me to stand under.
The plastic was needed because when it rained, the ground between the rows flooded and turned into rivers of mud. So the plastic is something of a protection against the rain. But not a complete protection. And what makes things harder is the utterly foolish way the shelters have been designed -- I mean, apart from the use of the bison panels and FRP roofs. The floor inside each shelter is actually lower than the ground outside. That's right, lower.
So when it rains, each room in this colony of temporary shelters immediately floods.
Post-tsunami relief. Sometimes, what can you say.
So anyway, here's German Mary, cooking her sambhar, and the smoke rises up against the plastic and doesn't escape easily. She smiles at us as we cough and splutter.
Must be a thousand or more people in this particular set of temporary shelters. They came here in January, says Annama Rani who ha joined us, only a few weeks after the tsunami. They were told then that they would be here three months. It is now over eight months and nobody here has any clue about when they will move to their promised "permanent housing" (one more of those phrases). The Government and the agency concerned are trying to find land to house them, but have not succeeded so far. (Though it's not as if no permanent housing has come up -- of that, another time).
Meanwhile, as I said, this place shows signs of becoming permanent itself, and already. There are little shops, there are political and film posters up on the outside walls, there are screaming fights over water. But there's also the scaffolding.
On the first row of shelters, workers are busy erecting scaffolding in the shape of a roof above the whole bison paneled structure. For a second storey? No, says Gopal, the contractor. This is for putting thatched roofs over the shelters. "The FRP plastic, you see sir, it makes these houses very hot! Better to put up thatched roofs, much cooler. So Government has asked us to do it."
In ten days, says Gopal, they will have put thatched roofs on the entire colony. And -- he smiles in satisfaction -- it will be good enough to last a year. Yes, a year. Very temporary.
German Mary's room is sparse and tidy. On the wall, a calendar says "I, even I, am he that comforteth you." Funny, I'm not feeling too comforted.