Published: 26th December 2018
Surviving the Tsunami: Why Nagapattinam's survivors will never leave their town - or their ocean
On the 14th anniversary of the Indian Ocean earthquake that caused that horrific tsunami, we visit the historic coastal town to find out how the survivors had moved on - if they even had
Every year on December 26, the city of Nagapattinam in coastal Tamil Nadu falls silent, people come out to the streets together and slowly march to the shores. Some light candles, some sit in silence, some pray and some quietly weep. The people tell me that this has happened every year for the last 14 years.
There was the same sort of silence when the ocean suddenly receded several metres that fateful day, leaving the beaches bare. The unusual sight pulled curious people, especially children, closer to it and then the sky went dark. All the videos shot seconds before the Tsunami show people surprised, almost amused at how the ocean was behaving. It didn't seem to scare them, it lured them in and before they knew what was happening, it chased them inland and then swallowed them whole.
In India, Nagapattinam was the worst affected region. Out of the 10,000 odd people who were officially declared dead in Tamil Nadu, 7000 were from Nagai. To mark the 14th anniversary of one of the deadliest disasters recorded in history, we visited the coastal town to speak to some of the survivors and find out if things have gone back to normal.
Their answer was stark. And compelling.
"It hasn't happened 14 years since and it won't happen 14 years from now," they tell me. Whether they lost their loved ones or not, whether they lost their homes or not, whether they had been permanently handicapped or not, December 26, 2004, changed their lives forever and they say that normalcy is not a concept they are ever likely to experience in their lives.
Large Scale: The Tsunami waves that hit the shores on December 26, 2004 were between 65 metres to 100 metres high according to official records
The day the music died
When she heard shouts of "thanni varuthu" (water is coming), Meena Arokiasamy first thought the drainage had overflowed as it had two days ago. She dropped her son off at a neighbour's house and slowly went out and checked on it. It was fine. Then she heard the shouts again, so she rushed in and brought out a pot assuming people were saying water was coming in the taps. Water shortage is an acute, everlasting issue in Tamil Nadu, after all, and any drinking water is met with spare pots.
Surprisingly, the taps were bone dry. Puzzled, she called out to her mother. And then it happened. The next memory she has is of water hitting her with the wrath of god. "When I opened my eyes, I found myself stuck on the branch of a tree," she says with a shudder. The stump that braved the killer waves saved her life. Call it an act of mercy from mother nature herself, while a part of her was raining destruction. "Someone on a terrace managed to pull me into their home. I remember my clothes being torn, the sea had pulled away my sari," she concludes quietly.
WATCH: Memories of the Tsunami that struck in 2004 from the people of Nagapattinam
After she regained her consciousness, Meena went looking for her son and her mother. Till late that evening, she roamed the streets and the hospitals. The destruction that lay before her was acute. It was only in the night that she realised that a good part of the flesh on her thigh was cut. But she was too worried to care or tend to it, so she continued searching for her family.
Two days later, she traced her mother's body and five days after that, she found her son's body. "And just like that, I had no family, no mother, no son, no house...nothing. Absolutely, nothing," she says.
The suddenness of the tsunami is what still shocks many of the survivors. Vadivelu K, like any other 12-year-old, was out playing on that ordinary Sunday morning. Then his friends suddenly gestured to him to look at the ocean. In all his (then) 12 years of existence, he hadn't seen the water turn so dark. In hindsight, that should have served as a morbid omen. But Nagai's sons and daughters were used to seeing the ocean only as a provider. Not a taker.
Lost childhood: Both the boys spent the rest of their school life at a military school in Bangalore and were housed in the hostels there
Except, this time, the ocean's roles had been switched. The adults close by, sheltered the children and he cowered down like the others, watching the land he had always known get drowned by the might of the ocean. "I thought initially that it was a fire accident because it looked like smoke. Then when I saw the water coming, I was stunned. My friend and I pinched each other just to check if we were dreaming. I thought the whole world had been destroyed," he recalls thinking.
A couple of hours later, his father finally spotted him, "He didn't say anything except that our house had been washed away, I asked about my mother but he had no reply." It's a question that still remains unanswered. Vadivelu never found his mother's body.
Another 12-year-old, Akilan, was in a different part of the town. After waking up that Sunday morning, Akilan saw that his mother was doing household chores and sneakily slipped out to play marbles with his friends, "I knew if I stayed home she would make me do chores too, so I silently stepped out hoping she wouldn't spot me." That was the last time he saw her alive....two days later when he did see her, she was lying among a heap of bodies, naked - a grim reminder of how most families found their dead once the waves were done with them, "My father and I went to the shop, bought a sari, wrapped it around her and then we buried her," he tells us quietly.
Rajathi's story doesn't have any hint of romance to it. As we watch her tearfully piece together those memories, it's heartbreaking and encouraging all at once. The former because of the pain that still lingers and the latter because of how much she's managed since then. "On Sundays, we all relaxed as a family. It's a day when everybody gets to eat dosa fresh out of the tawa and watch TV while eating. It was just another Sunday, when the sky went dark I expected a slight weather change but nothing more," Rajathi says. Then they heard shouts, the same sort that Meena had heard, a girl kept yelling- "thanni varuthu!". As Rajathi, her husband and her two sons ran, she had only one thought in her head, "I didn't care if I died. I just wanted my sons to be safe. To survive," she says with a lingering terror in her eyes.
In honour: One of the memorials set up in the city of Nagapattinam, on Tsunami anniversaries, the people walk past this memorial on their way to the shores
Why they don't say Thanni varuthu
The girl who shouted out "thanni varuthu" has never said those words since. "Even if she has to say that there's water coming in the tap, she never utters the words. When I asked her about it, she says, "Vendam akka, antha varathaigal thiruppiyum solla mudiyathu" (I can't say those words ever again). She saved so many lives that day because she shouted those words but the magnitude of the destruction ensure that she can't say them anymore.
Strangely, their belief and reliance on the ocean was so immense that they didn't quite believe what had happened till they heard it from the authorities.
That day, Rajathi and her family survived but the incident continues to haunt them, "The water took away everything. It pulled away my clothes. We were standing there naked. The bodies floating around us were also naked. The ocean stripped us down, literally and emotionally," she says biting the edges of her sari to stop the tears from flowing. "We were hurled into the buses and taken away to Tiruvallur. Some of the people on the bus were just standing in their towels, "Kattuna pavadai oda vandanga" (people were standing with just their innerskirts), people had rushed out from their bathrooms pretty much entirely naked. When we reached the bus stop there was a voice on the loudspeaker that said that the ocean water had come flooding into Nagapattinam and the speaker urged the residents to take in those who were coming into the town because they were fleeing death. That is when we finally came to know what had happened. Till then we only heard people saying that water was coming but we had no idea where it was coming from" she said.
Thilagavathi Velayudham, another mother from Akkaraipettai, had also been praying like Rajathi. Of her three children, two were out on the streets, playing when the water flooded their homes. "The water just carried them away, right out of their home. She was only 14....my daughter... and my son was only 12. They were so young and I couldn't do anything," she said breaking down.
Incurable pain: Thilagavathy said it isonly now after 14 years that she is even able to talk about what happened that day, before this she would reject any request to narrate her story
The girl who lived
She didn't find their bodies in the mass graves but she did find the body of her three-month-old niece, who was shockingly still breathing. Shanmuga Priya is 14 today, as old as the Tsunami. When they found her, her aunt tells me that her insides were filled with sand. So much sand that it was coming out of her eyes. Survival was almost impossible but she lived. After she was rescued, her aunt remembers a lot of NGO teams offering to adopt orphans, they asked if they could take Priya too.
Today, Priya is living proof that the human spirit will survive just about anything. "You could have gone with them, you would have been living in a foreign country maybe and had all the things you don't have now," her neighbours tell her jokingly. She merely smiles. I ask her what she knows about Tsunamis. She goes on to give me a definition, "Tsunami is a Japanese word and it means big wave." Then I asked her if she remembers any family member using it before she learned it in school, she ponders for a bit and then says, "Every time I got in a fight with my aunt, she would tell me - I should never have rescued you from the Tsunami. That's when I first heard it," says the girl laughing.
One-third of the people who died in the Tsunami were children. There were several children who lost their homes entirely and they didn't have the chance to get adopted either. Some of those children landed up on the doorstep of orphanages. Sadhana (16), Meena (18) and S Soumya (18) are three such girls. All their life they've known the orphanage as their only home, they have no recollection of who their parents were or how they came to be in the orphanage. But they are all each other's best friend. "We're all sisters here so we've not missed being with our family," they say. Loneliness might soon engulf the three though, as they set out for college, preparing to live independent lives soon. But they will have all each other's back, they're sure.
The aftermath: Picking up the pieces
The reason why the 2004 Tsunami was devastating was that people were completely taken by surprise. After all, they'd never heard of a tsunami before then. Most of us probably hadn't. For all they knew it could've been a plane crash, an experiment gone wrong or some weird act of war. It was days before victims even learnt what a Tsunami was, "Nobody knew what it was called, no one had seen anything like it. We'd seen cyclones, but this, even the oldest man in the village had no idea what it was. No one had seen anything like this, let alone hear," Akilan says.
Mass Burial: Witnesses say it was at this spot that over 600 bodies were buried. Now a memorial and a boat construction area, prior to 2004 it was a fish market. That day fishermen, sellers, customers and tourists died
There was no Seismometer to alert them about the Tsunami. But the people here are not mad at the government. They believe the government did the best it could at the time. "When Gaja came, we were all alerted about it. So people kept themselves safe. Maybe if we knew what was going to happen, we would have had time to save ourselves but I'm not entirely sure about that. The speed and the might of the Tsunami was too much, it's hard to imagine escaping something like that," Akilan said.
Akilan and Vadivelu were among the many boys who were 'adopted' by the army men who came to rescue victims in Nagapattinam. "All those who lost their homes were sheltered in temples for the next few days. After a month or so, the army men had running races and conducted some quizzes. All the boys who did well were taken to Bangalore and admitted to a military school there," 26-year-old Vadivelu recalled.
Hundreds and thousands of homeless people were packed into the temples in the area and then in a couple of days, campsites were set up. "They did everything they could, we got three meals a day, clothes, shelter," says Thilagavathi.
The long road to rehabilitation... And the scars therein
Some stayed in those camps for a few months, some up to two years. The government also took steps to provide counselling but there was little else they could do to heal the people of their nightmarish experience. People like Rajathi say they didn't sleep a wink for the first three months, "Every time I closed my eyes I would start to get scared that the water would suddenly come in and wash away my children. So I didn't sleep in the night, neither could I sleep during the day. The fear was too gripping. I couldn't eat either. We had common toilets and hundreds were forced to use them, so I thought if I didn't eat then I wouldn't have to use the bathroom. That became life for the next three months."
To this day, Rajathi's son always carries a pair of clothes in his bag, "After seeing hundreds of people running out of their bathrooms and thousands of others getting stripped down to nothing, he now believes he should always be prepared for an event like that. Everywhere he goes, he has a set of clothes with him." Both of Rajathi's sons were set to write their public exam in 2004. Rajathi tells me with a smile that the teachers at the school they studied in came looking for her sons when they realised they had been missing, "Just when we thought their school year was ruined, like a God, a teacher came and took them in. They stayed there for the rest of the year, attended school and passed their exams," she says and then adds, "Just a few days ago, there was a wedding in that teacher's family, so my son took leave, came down and helped with every little arrangement." Gratitude sometimes runs deeper than ties forged out of blood.
Many of the families who were rendered homeless also lost all the money they had saved for events like weddings. If demonetisation showed us how many people didn't use digital cash and what not in 2016, you can imagine how cold, hard currency was the only way of life for the people of a Nagapattinam, 14 years ago.
Tsunami Union: Dhanraj and his wife had a Tsunami Kalyanam along with about 100 other people, today they have children and are living in a Tsunami settlement home
For such families, the government conducted mass weddings — or Tsunami Kalyanams. Dhanaraj and his wife got married this way, "We asked her family and they agreed. So we got married with several other couples that day. Isn't my wife very pretty, she just has really big teeth," he says teasingly, forcing her to hide her face behind her hands. This was a reminder for us that not all things bleak, remain dark and unwieldy.
New homes, new beginnings
Moving on is a term that is overdone these days. But, for the villagers, hope was the only thing that they didn't manage to lose. Despite witnessing the darkest of days, Meena began to see a ray of light in the form of tailoring classes. At the campsite, volunteers began to conduct tailoring classes and somehow Meena began to stitch her life together again. Today, she has her own little sewing machine in her house, that she was given by the government.
Today, all the residents of the Tsunami village she lives in, come to her with their saris and blouses. "The pain that I felt on the day of the Tsunami, I feel it even now but this sewing machine has helped me. It is my second chance at life," she smiled tearfully. Meena has a daughter now who is seven years old, the same age her son was when he was washed away. When we enquire about her, she proudly brings out photos of her Gopishree, "She's still very young but I tell her about the Tsunami and I tell her about what a sweet child her older brother was."
Beyond the Clouds: Meena is now an independent woman and even though she saw the greatest of tragedies she is trying to make life for her daughter better and wants her to become a journalist
Like Meena, many others have gotten started on this new phase of their lives. A large number of families housed in the Tsunami villages say Nagapattinam in some ways had changed for the better after the disaster. Prior to the Tsunami, Nagapattinam seemed to have been a largely ignored district, especially for the fisherfolk. Now they have better roads, facilities and most importantly, a roof over their heads.
Manjula Ravichandran and her family also live in the same village as Meena and like her, Manjula has also become a career oriented woman. She is one of the teachers at the Montessori/play school in the village. When asked to describe the facilities, she gives us a detailed account of the food that is served every afternoon, "Monday - sambar saadam, Tuesday - pulisaadam..." But for both Meena and Manjula, the only problem with living at Sellur, is that it is so far away from the shores. Their primary life giver, the ocean, was now out of reach for many of the fisherfolk. Some of the fishermen have also given up on fishing because the travel became too expensive, "Just the travel eats up 60-70 rupees every day. It is too much for us, that's why I've opened this tea stall," says Pandian, a former fisherman.
Another sad thing about the village is that from having a sea as their view all these years, the residents now have to wake up to a sewage-filled pond outside their homes. Some of the houses look renovated and freshly painted but others look weathered, at the point of crumbling - they had clearly not been painted or tended to in the last 14 years. Dhanaraj goes as far as to say that he would rather have died in the Tsunami then to be alive in the house that he lives in currently. "One more cyclone and this house will fall down. We have no patta (official document) for this land either. Day and night we have to look at this sewage, I just brought back my wife from the hospital. How can we have healthy lives if we have drainage flowing into our house and get bitten by mosquitoes day in and day out?" he questions. Thilagavathy doesn't want to complain about anything though, "I'm happy with whatever the government has done, but whatever anyone does my children are not going to come back. I can't forget that and I can't change that."
The Ship of Theseus - Will Nagapattinam ever be whole again?
Call it climate change or call it a catastrophe. All the survivors seemed to think the Tsunami completely changed Nagapattinam - both the land and its people. It was only after the Tsunami, that cyclones became such a regular happening in the coastal town. "An old man would tell us, in his time there would be a cyclone every five years or so, today there seem to be ten in one single year," Akilan said.
Bittersweet: Some of the Tsunami survivors have managed to maintain their houses, others who lost family members or livelihoods have not been able to do much for their homes or themselves
The people are only just recovering from the devastating cyclone Gaja, the agricultural land further inside the district have been completely wiped out, "These are coconut trees that have been standing for 100 years. All the trees that have fallen are those that take years to grow, now the farmers are at a complete loss," a passer-by says.
But no matter how many cyclones strike, the people say nothing can be as horrifying as the Tsunami. "Even today, when the sky gets a little dark, I have a small panic attack, a fear grips me. My son feels the same sort of fear...on such days, my phone never stops ringing. Throughout Gaja he kept calling, asking if I was home. Even the people in his office have asked him why he stresses so much despite knowing his parents are safe, but he just can't help himself," Rajathi explained. The suddenness of the incident is what has truly shaken the Nagapattinam people, "You and I are sitting here and talking right now. Just imagine the water suddenly gushing in and carrying you away. That's how it was. So even now when I hear even the slightest sound, I get up and check. I've become a light sleeper, the softest of noises wake me up," Meena says.
However, in some ways, the people have moved on and are able to talk about it more easily, like this bus driver in Velankanni. Noticing unruly passengers trying to get out of the bus before it reached the stop, he scolded them saying, "We were punished the first time in 2004, the second time in 2018. You wait and see, you're not going to survive the third time this happens!" Some stare in annoyance, some share a light laugh. It's a stage that some psychologists will call acceptance. Others, dark humour.
Nagapattinam is a battered and bruised region and so are its people. They fall down but they get up. Like the Ship of Theseus, parts of Nagapattinam disintegrate but the people put it back together, so does it remain the same?
We don't know.
Ocean God: Even the geography of the town has changed drastically, the people say the shore lines are much closer than they used to be "almost like it wants to kiss us", they say
Sometimes, the easiest way is to quit. Start over. Move away. It's a simple enough thing in this age of Instagram and hyper globalisation.
And so, I ask these survivors if they ever contemplate getting out of her. Moving to safer places? The tears all disappear, the answer is unanimous — NO WAY. "This is what we know, we are fisherfolk. There is no other profession we can learn or want to learn," Thilagavathy said. But does she have no anger towards the ocean? "It is what gives us our livelihood, how can we hate the ocean? The Tsunami happened but that doesn't mean we just get up and move. This is our home, this is where we belong."
Rajathi agrees, "I won't lie, sometimes I think if I should go back to my hometown in Madurai but then I think, no. Why should we get scared when everyone else has bravely stayed back? You can only find what you lost in the place that you lost it." Also now the people feel they are better equipped to handle a disaster, "Now we know who to call in an emergency. We know which neighbour has a scooter, which neighbour is a good swimmer. Now that the government alerts us if there is a danger so we can take care of ourselves better," she added.
For Akilan, moving out of Nagapattinam is unimaginable, "Even when I go out of town for five days, I get tired and run back home. All I want is the ocean and my friends, that's all I care about."
But what if another Tsunami were to come? To this Akhilan laughs, "Vandha Paathikalam" (We'll see if it comes).
And therein lies the answer. Nagapattinam will never give up. Nor will they ever leave.
The ocean is their one true love.