Monday, January 10, 2005

Tales from Cuddalore - 1

Sometimes, I think being a journalist is vulgar. Your curiosity kills their cat.


I have not often risen before the sun. This time I do. Up and shining. Raring to go. The Call taxi is unbelievably before time. In fact that was what woke me up. Fifteen minutes later, I am ready to go.
At Koyambedu, the beedi-smoking conductors blow thin wisps of smoke in your face. They are all selling their bus services. They only peg on the time factor - who is leaving first, because they all offer the same rickety ride, anyway. I pick one that leaves first. Which means I take a bus to Pondicherry and then, one to Cuddalore. There is so little space between the seats, that I, have a problem. I seldom do. However, it's not so bad as the loud music blaring from a speaker above my head. Blast! I should have sat elsewhere.
But then, there are other things on my mind: When will I get to Cuddalore, will Venkatesh of Hope Foundation be waiting for me? how do I begin? How do I spend two days...
I consider these questions and ignore the music.


At Pondy bus-stand, a friend turns up. He finds one other journalist going to Cuddalore. Though I would not have minded travelling alone, I welcome company. We travel together to Cuddalore.

I need not have worried. In Cuddalore, you trip over journalists - Indian, south Indian, British, American, North Indian...
Hotel Durai did not sound like the kind of hotel I usually stay in. There was no option, however. Thanks to journalists and aid workers, the rooms in the three big hotels are all taken. I get the last remaining room in Hotel Durai: A/C double bed, Rs 570 per day room rent, advance Rs.1000.
I start work immediately. Task One: find a reasonable cab driver to take us around. He would have to know the place as well. We are lucky to find Murugan. He was in the affected villages merely two hours after the tsnami was there, driving a political smallwig around. The rates are expensive though, hiked by the sudden influx of desperate strangers sniffing around for stories.


We leave almost immediately in the cab.
Thank god for Hope Venkatesh. He takes us to Sothikuppam, an island about 10 kms from the city. 23 children of Sothikuppam were washed away as they tried to run where they thought there was safety. Running from high ground, they tried to reach the wharf and take the ferry to the mainland. As they crowded around, a wave from the river swept them off, only leaving them dead on the shores a couple of days later.
I know there is a story in this. I cringe at the satisfaction it gives me.


We take the ferry to Sothikuppam and walk down to the shore. People are eager to tell their tales. My black spiral-bound book is a dead give away in this fishing village. Actually, I'm a dead give-away. I stick out. Hopefully, not like a sore thumb.
They take us around, showing us the village, its houses smashed by the waves, its women- their wails dying on their tired, exhausted lips. They are all eager to talk. And tell their tales again and again and again...
And I'm not tired of listening or writing it all down. I don't see how I can stop. After all, they are looking over my shoulder at my book, waiting for the blue lines to appear, in a script they cannot understand. I write in English.
As we leave, an old, toothless woman comes up to me. "My daughter died, her three children too. If only we had a bridge to the mainland, I will be playing with my grandchildren now," her voice breaks down. My throat goes dry. It is not only because there is a sun that's beating so furiously on my head.


Next stop: Devanampattinam.
The first deluge was on December 26. The second happened two days later. When the world in general, and journalists in particular, learned that Vivek Oberoi had adopted the village.
He is not in when we drop in. We wander off, to the beach, where the sea has scooped out the cement road. It is just blackened sea sand now. AGain, people want to talk. They come to you if you have a camera. I have one.
"Write my name down," "and mine", "what will you do for us?" They ask me questions in return. "I'm a journalist..." I begin and someone finishes for me, "Madam will write. What else do you expect her to do?" I'm touched. Deeply. I write that down too...


Swami Chidanand Saraswathiji sees me wandering around with my tell-tale notebook. He sends a litte boy out to summon me. Perhaps he saw my hunger for information. He spends nearly half an hour with us - this spiritual guru of the Oberois. As I make to leave, he invites me to his ashram in Rishikesh. "It is a beautiful place, "he tells me.


I go to a beautiful place next: Thalanguda. White sands, the beach, coconut palms lining the shore. You have to look further to see the damage of the tsunami.
The people welcome you again. They are grateful for the help that has come their way. A source of pride that one family has actually filed for and received a premature claim on life insurance. Machagandhi's family is happy that LIC had given them Rs 64,000 after Machagandhi was swept away by the tsunami. Strangely, I am happy too.

As I stroll on the beach speaking to Subramani, who is full of tales of how he and his mother ran from the waves, I see a luxury bus rattle down the mud track. It could have been a ship. At least, it was in better form than most boats lying in the sands there. A clutch of people tumble out, most of them white, few like us.
One man stands above the rest. He also seems very familiar. I rack my brains for an image from the past that would tally with this hulking Black American - don't have to think very hard. The jigsaw falls in place: Evander Holyfield. Four time heavyweight champion and the guy that got bitten on both his ears by Mike Tyson. A warmth gushes in me again. A STORY!

Holyfield is distant and I don't mean tall. He is, perhaps, shy. But he thaws. By the time he leaves the village, he is even smiling. I am smiling too. All the way to Cuddalore. A story, exclusive, perhaps global, with pictures. I cannot believe my luck!

I have sent my story and four pictures. Earlier, I had to run from photo centre to internet centre trying to copy my digital images onto a CD, trying to send the images to the office. At connectivity speeds that are possible in Cuddalore, it truly becomes trying.

After I have sent the story, I'm not relieved. A thought crosses my mind. My delight in the Holyfield exclusive rankles. It's not what I came here to write about. Tch!

Sometimes, I KNOW it is vulgar to be a journalist.



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