Now in Class 11, Meenu was a toddler when she was found under a run-down bridge in 2004 and handed over to the then Thanjavur collector, J Radhakrishnan.

When Meenu met Appa TN IAS officer surprises toddler he saved in 2004 tsunami
news Human Interest Sunday, December 16, 2018 - 11:05

Tamil Nadu Health Secretary Dr J Radhakrishnan was visiting a nearby town when he realised that he hadn’t met Meenu for more than 3 years. He decided to drop in to meet her as a surprise, and when they met, she called him “Appa”, and he turned emotional and his eyes welled up. Meena, or Meenu as he likes to endearingly call her, is the baby girl he had rescued in Nagapattinam during the deadly Tsunami 14 years ago. The two hadn’t met since 2015 until the top officer decided to surprise her by dropping in at her school during an official trip.

“I was on a visit to Sithathur. Suddenly, I realised that I hadn’t seen Meenu in so long. I immediately called up the Natarajan Damayanti School where she studies and said I am coming to visit,” Radhakrishnan told TNM.  The meeting ended with both the bureaucrat and the now 16-year-old Meenu laughing, sobbing, recollecting memories and discussing her future until he had to bid adieu. “She even called me Appa,” Radhakrishnan adds happily.

Fourteen years ago, it was destiny and a group of well-meaning locals who brought Meena into Radhakrishnan’s life, a gesture he can perhaps never forget. Found alone under a run-down bridge near Keechankuppam days after the Tsunami battered the coastal town of Nagapattinam, the toddler was handed over to the care of Radhakrishnan and his wife. 

“I was then the collector of Thanjavur and had come to Nagapattinam to help with rescue operations. Meenu was 2 years old and soon became my wife’s favourite,” Radhakrishnan adds. 

In 2004, the Tsunami claimed more than 6,000 lives in Nagapattinam alone. Countless houses were lost, 73 seaside settlements washed away and nearly 2 lakh people were put up in relief camps across the state. Out of this, there were 99 little boys and girls in the district who lost either one or both parents to the disaster. Bereft of a family, these children’s future was in the government’s hands.

“The former CM late J Jayalalithaa called me and asked me to help set up an orphanage under the Tsunami Rehabilitation Project for these kids immediately. Thus, the Annai Sathya Illam was built, where the children found a home,” he says. 

For the first few years, Radhakrishnan and his wife would visit every week. Over the years, this reduced to once a year and then once in two or three years. The children were put in the able hands of Social Welfare officer late Suryakala at the orphanage. “With Meena being the youngest of the lot, she was everyone’s pet,” Radhakrishnan adds. 

“My wife and I would keep going to meet all the children. One of us would carry Meena while we played with the other children. Now almost all of have left the orphanage,” he says.

Some of the children at the orphanage found new homes after their extended families claimed them in the subsequent months. Others who were older went away to study and eventually moved out of the Illam after getting married. 

Meena is the last of the 99 original children who are staying at the hostel. She is in class 11 and wants to study commerce after completing high school. “No one ever came to claim her. Sometimes, I feel the trail of a natural disaster dies down over the years. But then I rethink when I see kids like her,” Radhakrishnan adds.

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