Thangaraj and Muthulakshmi and their 2-year-old son Dhanas are gathered around two vessels. Both have water in them, both have small (3-4 inch long) fish in them. Muthulakshmi and Thangaraj pick a fish out of one vessel, scrape the scales off the bodies, drop it into the other vessel.
Where is your house, I ask. "We don't have one now," says Thangaraj. "We lived for 40 years in a house there" -- he points to a sort of flatter, harder area in the expanse of sand around us -- "but that was torn down some months ago." Was it damaged in the tsunami, I ask. Thangaraj looks at me as if I was stupid. "The water didn't come to our houses!" he says. So why destroy it? He shrugs. "We were scared, and they promised us new houses."
And it's true, here in Shanmuganagar there are at least three brick and concrete houses coming up. Thangaraj expects to get one of those, on the site where his 40-year-old house once stood. In the meantime, I want to know, where does the family sleep? "They gave us this temporary shack," says Thangaraj, "but now they are using it for all the engineering" -- meaning the equipment for the construction. "So if it doesn't rain, we sleep there" -- he points to where his old house was -- "and if it does rain, we go in and lie down with the engineering."
But what happened, I persist, still baffled by just why there are new houses being built here in Shanmuganagar when the old ones were not damaged.
Clearly my Tamil is inadequate, because Muthulakshmi seems to think I'm asking about what happened on that December 26, and starts to tell me. Then she suddenly stops, and also stops cleaning the fish.
"Telling you all this," she says, and she shakes her body to make sure I understand, "I am trembling inside."