Sunday, January 16, 2005

Tales from Cuddalore - 2

Perhaps I am writing because I must. Not simply because I want to, but because I have to.


I toss and turn in bed all night. Hotel Durai has surprisingly clean linen, but my room juts out on to the main road; town buses are blaring all night. It is like a blessed sound and light show!

I screw my eyes shut. To ignore the world would be to invite the darkness home. Tonight, the darkness overwhelms me. I don't mean the night.


Driver Murugan is there at the appointed time. I have risen early again, but today I'm neither bright nor full of beans, unlike yesterday. Yesterday is aeons away.

Murugan makes for Killai, close to Pitchavaram mangrove forests, where he assures me I will not be "disappointed." I'm surprised at how quickly he has latched on to my journalistic requirements. I check the mirror to see if my curiosity shows on my face.

Killai is about 60 kms away from Cuddalore town and an hour's drive away, passing through Chidambaram.

I read the New Indian Express that I found under my door in the morning. Vani Doraisamy has written a rather fine piece about how the media have behaved not quite unlike performers in a circus. I message her immediately, telling her how glad I am that someone wrote about it. As I send the message off, my signal dies.

I look outside, through the window, at clutches of people waiting outside relief centres, vans cruising past with banners strung across their front, policemen on duty watching the road, and then, the sea. My car's black-tinted pane makes them seem darker than they actually are.


I must have dozed off. I wake with a start as the ambassador reluctantly drops anchor. We are in Muzhukuthurai's abandoned beach. Only one house stands, its frontage battered by the waves. A cycle stands on the porch, a policeman's cap hangs carelessly from the handle bars, his khakis bundled up more carefully on the carrier behind.

I'm looking around for people to talk to. A little distance away, I spot two guys, one brushing his teeth with a twig, the other looking at me. I walk towards them. The man chucks his twig away, and releases his lungi from its fold at his knees. Respectfully. Before I can ask he says, "10 people died in this village. But still, property has been badly damaged."

I'm a little slow to pen this down. I'm looking around at the pristine white shore, dark blue tide slowly snaking past, the coconut grove - making the tsunami seem like a lie. The tooth-cleaner interprets my awe as disinterest. Eager to please, he says, "See there, MGR Thittu. Over 100 people died there and the village was washed out," he says pointing east, as if brandishing a trophy.

How can people tell? Muzhuthurai is as important as M.G.R.Thittu. It should be. Is it?


I have to wade through a nameless river to take the ferry to M.G.R.Thittu. I whip up my flair-bottomed stretch jeans, roll it up to my knees, and take in my breath as the cold water laps gently at my feet.
There are a few people on the boat already- waiting for me. I climb in and sit gingerly on the edge of the boat, as Murugan holds my bag. I realise the people on the boat- locals returning to their ghost island - are staring at my legs. I don't seem to mind...

I cannot explain how or why everyone is concerned about the 'outsider' in this place... even in their deep loss...

S.Thiruvengadam rents out earthmoving equipment. He is in Muzhukkuthurai to help out with relief and insists on coming across to M.G.R.Thittu with me. Bouncer-like. What is he going to protect me from?
"Come back in an hour," the boatman says. "Or you will have to walk a long way to reach the boat."
I'm touched.


M.G.R.Thittu is indeed a ghost island. Up front, it looks even more deserted than it does from the mainland. Settlers on the island came when M.G.R. landed there, some thirty years ago, when he was shooting for his movie, "Idhayakani". Since then, or because of this, it has prospered. The village even has a primary school, a balwadi and a ration shop. Ironical what a little connection can do to a village that is merely a sand bar (Manal thittu = sand bar).
Unbelieveable what a tsunami can do: the houses have been plucked from the foundation, a fibre boat sits atop two coconut trees with browning fronds from when the sea washed them...

Kuppama is sitting at the pedestal of the MGR (can it be another) statue in the village, lamenting at the sea. My camera cannot cover her and the statue. It must be of 'publishable quality'. I'm forced to ask her if she can stand up. I feel guilty. She obliges, readily. It makes me feel worse. I must click, nevertheless. I do.


Murugan suggests we take the East Coast Road. Not ours. Theirs. " It runs right through the coastal stretch of Cuddalore - villages that have been most affected," he explains. He need not have bothered, the trail of destruction speaks for itself... Parangipettai, Indira Nagar, Pudukuppam... The montage repeats itself with stunning regularity, stark, like Eliot's Wasteland. To me and my Canon A400, it seems that the ravages intensify with every exposure...


There is a crick in my neck. It hurts. More than that, my neck hangs weary. The albatross is around it. It sneaks into my heart as well, weighing it down. I am the Modern Mariner - I harbour a guilt acquired on the shores.

I must tell my tale... again and again... until the bird drops off...



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