Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
By Vani Doraisamy Earlier this month, as the TV flashed visuals of Peshawar mourning its young and the mass cremations that marked the death of innocence, I was gripped by an eerie sense of recall. Ten years ago, I too had stood on a mass grave which had swallowed up the bodies of more than a hundred children. I am branded forever with that memory. Then too, children had died without realizing what had hit them. Then too, those that survived refused to believe that they were luckier than those who fell. In the February of 2005, more than a month after the tsunami had smashed into it, Colachel, the sleepy little port town in Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu, was still waiting for the waves to bring back the lost. And there were those that would never come back. Nearly a hundred and twenty bloated little corpses lay buried in an unmarked mass grave inside the local church, with a lone crucifix to mark the spot. I had told the parish priest I wanted to see the place, not quite prepared for the horror of hearing him say, “You are standing on it.” A hastily poured slab of concrete was what lay between me and 120 dead kids. I remember springing back , shaken to the bones. I remember how, for so many weeks after that, I would feel a cold chill running through me whenever I saw a child, any child. How does one make peace with those memories? How do you negotiate the remembrance of the pristine white Velankanni basilica standing unshaken against a by-then-clear blue sea when, just the night before, after having said their Christmas prayers, nearly 1500 pilgrims had been swallowed whole by the waves? How does one forget how they were now laid out in silent rows under an awning bathed in bright post-apocalyptic sunlight? I remember how numb I felt. Numbness would become my survival strategy for the next two months, as I traveled the coast of Tamil Nadu, looking for answers, on a journey that was intensely personal. I will remember those days for how intensely disillusioned I grew with my own profession, of how, for the first time in my life, I wished I had become anything but a journalist. To be fair, there were ever so many journalists who too had made it a personal quest to tell the tsunami stories to the world, without fear or favor of consideration. But then there were the others, the divas and the dons, for whom the dead and the destroyed become tools of self-aggrandizement, in whom the macabre theatre unfolding before their eyes triggered off their inner carrions. Like this celebrity anchor (yes, you guessed right, who else?) who perched a four year old newly orphaned boy from Nagapattinam on her knee for an evocative piece-to-the-camera and the moment the camera was switched off, dropped him like a piece of trash and moved on to more victim-mongering.  Or this yet another news anchor who repeatedly made seven year old Saravanan walk to and back from the sea to make him narrate how he had seen the waves suck in his twin brother, each time urging the uncrying boy to “show more action”. Or of how fisherman Velayudham from Cuddalore was made to endlessly repeat what he would have named his unborn son who perished within his mother’s belly when she was dragged from her sleep into the deep dark unknown from which she never returned. And then there was this godman whose multigeared PR machinery had invited each and every reporter doing the tsunami beat to attend a prayer-cum-healing meet for the survivors. When news broke (false alarm, it turned out) that another wave was heading that way, the first to flee was the swami. Or the swarms of NGOs who set up shop post-haste in the affected areas, some in tin sheds. In the next few months, flush with relief money, many moved into high-end offices, paid themselves hefty salaries and swung around in snazzy cars, while all around them the wretched of the earth still huddled among the ruins of their lives.  Not all was Orwellian, though. One also saw a bunch of young bureaucrats who, seized with the singular purpose of rehabilitating the victims, drew up strategies that proved remarkably effective, simply because those that drove them meant business. Communication infrastructure was restored and relief carried out with unflinching resolve. By contrast, when Hurricane Katrina tore into New Orleans eight months later, the mighty American relief apparatus was in such complete disarray. A year later, when one made the mandatory one-year-after rounds, one could see how much had changed all along the coast, how resilience had taken root, how people had moved on. The fishermen were back at sea, the women had banded into several self help groups, microfinance had thrown up several small business opportunities. Not that things had yet come full circle, but at least the raggedy bits were being rearranged with a resolve that can only be described as ‘karmic’. Nine years on, I have not gone back. Two years ago, a relief worker who I had known in those days made friends with me on Facebook. In the weeks after the 2004 deluge, she had led me to the broken home of young Victoria of Velankanni, a school topper whose parents had been washed away. Gone with them were her two brothers, all her Standard Ten textbooks and every hope of ever going back to school again. Her school had been ripped apart too.  When I met her, the only thing Victoria ever wanted was to be able to sit for her board exams the coming year and go on to become a doctor. I recorded her story in a news report and I remember receiving a call from a local Rotary club that wanted to help. I do not remember following up. Now, all these years later, the ex-relief worker told me Victoria had gone on to clear her board exams and eventually become a pharmacist. She had rebuilt her little home by the sea and was now a microfinance counselor.  I have no reason to disbelieve the aid worker. Somewhere, somehow, a wheel had finally turned. Vani Doraisamy is a journalist who wishes she could do journalism more. In the year ahead, she hopes--and threatens--to do just that. She twit-talks at @vanidoraisamy. Tweet Follow @vanidoraiswamy
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