SOURCE: The New Yorker, January 10, 2005
No one who survived the tsunami that crashed into South India on December 26th describes it as a wave. The fishermen and villagers who live along the coast, and whose homes and livelihoods were swept away, speak of a “wall of water.” The wall came without warning, rising suddenly to more than fifteen feet, and, along with cars and refrigerators and cattle and jewelry, claimed a death toll that defied comprehension as it escalated through the week. By Thursday night, more than ten thousand were dead in South India, and well over a hundred thousand across Asia, making it one of the most devastating natural disasters in history.
The wave came later. It was a wave of people, crawling inland with babies and baskets piled on their heads and shoulders, searching for higher ground. These refugees settled into makeshift camps, in a band between the flooded coast and the hinterland. Just a few miles inland from the ocean, however, life seemed to go on normally. On the morning the tsunami hit, I was at home in the town where I grew up, Auroville, an international utopian community outside the old French colonial city of Pondicherry, near the coast. I first learned about the tsunami while surfing the Internet. That day, in my town, people went out to dinner, played cricket and soccer, and, just like residents of Tokyo or New York, watched the tragedy unfold primarily as a distant media spectacle. In a restaurant, just a few hours after the tsunami had struck, I encountered a dozen patrons in their Sunday best carrying on with their luncheon.
Over the next few days, as fears of aftershocks and more tsunamis subsided, that zone of normalcy began widening, creeping back toward the shore. A reverse wave of migration took place, with coastal residents returning to their ruined villages to salvage their belongings and take advantage of government aid. The roads were filled once again, this time with men and women in bandages and donated clothes, many clutching white cardboard sheets—their medical records. At refugee camps that had been set up a safe distance from the coast, the tents were taken down, the temporary kitchens disassembled. The tragedy was not exactly erased but had at least been quarantined, consigned to its origins.
On Wednesday, three days after the disaster, some residents had returned to the South Indian fishing village of Kalapet, near Pondicherry. Three men, one absent-mindedly delousing a child in his lap, sat on the remains of a boat and, glassy-eyed, surveyed the destruction. A few days before, the beach had been littered with corpses: at least twenty people had died in this village, and another fifty in surrounding hamlets; several more were missing. Now the corpses were in the morgue and the beach was a tangle of fishing nets, television sets, and punched-out cupboards. The thatch roofing strewn across the sand was drier and, at least on parts of the waterfront, piled in neat bundles. Motorboats that had been thrown up against coconut trees were back on the ground, their engines wrenched out and lying a few feet away.
Karunakaran, one of the men sitting on the boat, said that the village had been empty right after the tsunami, but now it was filling up again. Several political dignitaries—from Pondicherry, from New Delhi—had visited; they had promised a lot. Homes would be rebuilt, compensation would be paid to the injured. Families of the dead were each to get a hundred thousand rupees ($2,300), a princely sum in these parts. But, in order to claim the money, families had to produce a corpse—and many of the dead had been swept out to sea.
There was little sign on the Kalapet beach of the mass relief exercise being reported in the media. A few workers were loading a truck with the thatch bundles; a nun from the local mission, which had lost two children, was staring at the ocean with the same vacant look as the men. I couldn’t make out any international presence—no United Nations or Red Cross or Oxfam.
Up the road, in the government high school, a cluster of concrete one- and two-story buildings organized around a courtyard, the relief effort was somewhat more vigorous. More than a thousand refugees, primarily children but also their adult relatives, were crammed into the classrooms, and the walls were draped with clothes hung up to dry. The toilets were overflowing. In parts of the school, the ground was strewn with feces and plastic bags and clumps of fermenting rice. A sanitation worker threw handfuls of bleaching powder on piles of waste.
In the courtyard, amid the bleach clouds, the children chased each other. One was blowing into a kazoo; another played a harmonica. The headmaster surveyed them sourly. “There’s too much food,” he declared. “We’re being forced to throw it away.” He said that the government had been delivering batches of rice to the school every fifty minutes. Of course, most villages in the vast area struck by the tsunami weren’t nearly as fortunate as Kalapet. Parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and parts of Indonesia, where the death toll is much higher, had not even been reached by aid workers at the end of last week.
UNICEF estimated that children accounted for at least a third of the dead across Asia, and nearly all the students in the Kalapet school had lost a friend. But a teacher who had been summoned back to duty over the holidays marvelled at their cheerfulness. It was true: the schoolyard-turned-refugee camp was like a playground. Crowds gathered around a mobile water tank, chattering eagerly and tapping the pipes as government workers transferred the water to the school’s tanks. Girls and boys, freed from parental oversight, eyed each other nervously and giggled.
On a second-floor veranda overlooking the courtyard, some boys were chewing sugarcane and acting out roles from Tamil movies. One teen-ager climbed over the parapet and jumped to the ground, a drop of more than a dozen feet. “What are you doing?” the girls yelled. “You’ll break your legs.”
“People lost their lives—what do I care if I break my legs?” the boy shouted back, and he sauntered off, swinging his hips and singing a song from a movie.
The day before, local authorities had hosted a health camp at the school. The headmaster said that the relief work was going very well. Soon, he said, he would be conducting a household survey to account for the dead. At the back of the compound, two workers from the education department were going through the school’s attendance records, trying to build a preliminary list of the missing.
n Thursday afternoon, the wave of people headed inland again. The Indian government had issued a warning that another tsunami might be on the way. Scenes from just a few days earlier were replayed: entire families, mothers and fathers and grandparents and babies, suitcases in hand, making their way inland under the harsh midday sun. Motorcycles were streaking in from the coast, four (or even five) riders per bike.
The new tsunami, which local police said was approaching at three hundred m.p.h., was expected to hit the coast in another hour or two. Stories circulated that it had already reached Sri Lanka and other parts of India.
By midafternoon, it appeared that the rumors were wrong—an overreaction, perhaps, by a nervous government that had been criticized for not issuing a warning about the first wave. Down by the beach, a motorcycle mechanic tinkered with a gearbox and said he wasn’t planning to leave his workshop. But thousands had already left for higher ground. Up the road, in a refugee camp that had been deserted just that morning, it was all starting again.
Outside the high school, on the East Coast Road, there were fewer ambulances now, and more government welfare vehicles, than there had been in recent days. A policeman gave a boy some candy, and a man shouted into a public telephone that his brother was in the hospital, he had lost everything, and he needed to postpone his meeting.
Most of the shops were shuttered, but for the local electronics repairman business was brisk. His storefront was piled with television sets and videocassette players. A couple stood watching as the shop owner took apart a DVD player. The DVD was still inside, and the components were caked with mud.
“Go home,” the owner told the couple. “We’ll call you if we can fix it.”
“Where should I go?” the woman said, laughing. “I don’t have a home.”