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Overlapping faults

Amitav Ghosh, the internationally renowned novelist, visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands recently to see for himself how the system and ordinary people have coped with the devastation caused by the tsunami of December 26. This is the fi rst in a three-part series of special articles for The Hindu. The second and third articles will be published on Wednesday and Thursday.



CHRONICLING THE DEVASTATION: Amitav Ghosh with Paramjeet Kaur. — Photo: By Special Arrangement

THE ANDAMAN and Nicobar Islands are one of those quadrants of the globe where political and geological fault lines run on parallel courses. Politically the islands are Union Territories, ruled directly from New Delhi, but geologically they stand just beyond the edge of the Indian tectonic plate. Stretching through 700 kilometres of the Bay of Bengal, they are held aloft by a range of undersea mountains that stands guard over the abyssal deep of the Sunda trench. Of the 572 islands, only 36 are inhabited: `the Andamans' is the name given to the northern part of the archipelago while `the Nicobars' lie to the south. At their uppermost point, the Andamans are just a few dozen miles from Burma's Coco Islands, infamous for their prisons, while the southernmost edge of the Nicobars is only a couple of hundred kilometres from the ever-restless region of Aceh. This part of the chain is so positioned that the tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit it just minutes after the coastline of northern Sumatra.

Despite the hundreds of kilometres of water that separate the Andamans from the Indian mainland, many of the relief camps in Port Blair, the islands' capital city, have the appearance of miniaturised portraits of the nation. Only a small percentage of their inmates are indigenous to the islands; the others are settlers from different parts of the mainland: Bengal, Orissa, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. If this comes as a surprise, it is only because the identity of the islands — and indeed the alibi for the present form of their rule — lies in an administrative conception of the `primitive' that dates back to the British Raj. The idea that these islands are somehow synonymous with backwardness is energetically promoted in today's Port Blair. Hoardings depicting naked `primitives' line the streets, and I heard of a sign that instructs onlookers to `Love Your Primitive Tribe.'

In most parts of the mainland, these images would long since have been defaced or torn down, for the sheer offensiveness of their depictions: not so on these islands which are more a projection of India than a part of its body politic; as with many colonies, they represent a distended and compressed version of the mother country, in its weaknesses and strengths, its aspirations and failings. Over the last two weeks, both the fault lines that underlie the islands seem suddenly to have been set in motion: it is as if the hurried history of an emergent nation had collided here with the deep time of geology.

The mainland settlers in the camps are almost unanimous in describing themselves as having come to the islands in search of land and opportunity. Listening to their stories it is easy to believe that most of them found what they were looking for: here, in this far-flung chain of islands, tens of thousands of settlers were able to make their way out of poverty, into the ranks of the country's expanding middle class. But on the morning of December 26, this hard-won betterment became a potent source of vulnerability. For to be middle-class, in India or anywhere else, is to be kept afloat on a life-raft of paper: identity cards, licences, ration cards, school certificates, cheque books, certificates of life insurance and receipts for fixed deposits.

It was the particular nature of this disaster that it targeted not just the physical being of the victims but also the proof of the survivors' identities. An earthquake would have left remnants to rummage through; floods and hurricanes would have allowed time for survivors to safeguard their essential documents on their person. The tsunami, in the suddenness of its onslaught allowed for no preparations: not only did it destroy the survivors' homes and decimate their families; it also robbed them of all the evidentiary traces of their place in the world.

On January 1, 2005, I went to visit the Nirmala School Camp in Port Blair. The camp, like the school in which it is housed, is run by the Catholic Church and it is presided over by a mild-mannered young priest by the name of Father Johnson. On the morning of my visit Father Johnson was at the centre of an angry altercation. The refugees had spent the last three days waiting anxiously in the camp, and in that time no one had asked them where they wanted to go or when; none of them had any idea of what was to become of them and the sense of being adrift had brought them to the end of their tether. The issue was neither deprivation nor hardship — there was enough food and they had all the clothes they needed — it was the uncertainty that was intolerable. In the absence of any other figure of authority they had laid siege to Father Johnson: when would they be allowed to move on? Where would they be going?

Father Johnson could give them no answers for he was, in his own way, just as helpless as they were. The officials in charge of the relief effort had told him nothing about their plans for the refugees. Now time was running out: the schools in which the camps were located were to re-open on January 3. With the date almost at hand, Father Johnson had no idea how he was going to manage his students with more than 1600 refugees camping on the grounds.

Reclaiming identity

Realising at last that Father Johnson knew no more than they did, the inmates reduced their demands to a single, modest query: could they be provided with some paper and a few pens? No sooner had this request been met than another uproar broke out: those who'd been given possession of pens and paper now became the centre of the siege. Crowding together, people began to push and jostle, clamouring to have their names written down. Identity was now no more than a matter of assertion and nothing seemed to matter more than to create a trail of paper. On this depended the eventual reclamation of a life.



IDENTITY LOST: Obed Tara (right) and a relative. -- Photo: Amitav Ghosh

Standing on the edges of the crowd was a stocky, thirty-year-old man by the name of Obed Tara. He was, he told me, from the island of Car Nicobar, a member of an indigenous group whose affiliations, in language and ethnicity, lie with the Malay peoples to the east. But he himself was a Naik in the 10th Madras regiment of the Indian army and was fluent in Hindi. On December 10 he had set off from Calcutta, where his unit was currently stationed, in order to travel to Car Nicobar. Like most Nicobarese people, he was a Christian, a member of the Anglican Church of North India, and he'd been looking forward to celebrating Christmas at home. But this year there was something else to look forward to as well: he was to be married on the first day of the New Year (the very day of our conversation).

On December 26, despite the celebrations and merry-making of the night before, Obed Tara, like most members of his extended family, rose early in order to attend a Boxing Day service at their church. Their house was in the seafront settlement of Malacca, just a few hundred metres from the water. Their neighbourhood was the commercial heart of the township, and their house was surrounded by shops and godowns. They were themselves a part of the market's bustle; they owned a Maruti Omni and operated a long-distance phone booth in their house. In other words, theirs' was a family that had been swept into the middle-class by the commercial opportunities of the last decade.

Day of Tsunami

That morning, as the family was gathering outside the house, the ground began to heave with a violence that none of them had ever experienced before; it shook so hard that it was impossible to stand still and they were forced to throw themselves on the ground. Then the ground cracked and fountains of mud-brown water came geysering out of these fissures. Like all the islanders, Obed Tara was accustomed to tremors in the earth, but neither he nor anyone else there had ever seen anything like this before. It took a while before the ground was still enough to regain a footing and no sooner had he risen to his feet than he heard a wild, roaring sound. Looking seawards he saw a wall of water advancing towards his house. Gathering his relatives, he began to run.

By the time he looked back, his house, and the neighbourhood in which it stood, had vanished under the waves: two elderly members of the family were lost and everything they possessed was gone, the car, the phone booth, the house. The family spent a couple of nights in the island's interior and afterwards the elders deputed him to go to Port Blair to see what he could secure for them by way of relief and supplies.

By the time Obed Tara finished telling me this story, there was a catch in his voice, and he was swallowing convulsively to keep from sobbing. I asked him: "Why don't you go to the army offices and tell them who you are? I am sure they will do what they can to help you."

He shook his head, as if to indicate that he had considered and dismissed this thought many times over. "The sea took my uniform, my ration card, my service card, my tribal papers; it took everything," he said. "I can't prove who I am. Why should they believe me?"

He led me to the far side of the camp, where another group of islanders was sitting patiently under a tent. They too had lost everything; their entire village had disappeared under the sea; salt water had invaded their fields and taken away their orchards. They could not contemplate going back, they said; the stench of death was everywhere, the water sources had been contaminated and would not be usable for years.

The leader of the group was a man by the name of Sylvester Solomon. A one-time serviceman in the Navy, he had retired some years ago. He too had lost all his papers: he had no idea how he would claim his pension again. Worse still the bank that had the custody of his family's money had also been swept away, along with all its records.

I told him that by law the bank was obliged to return his money and he smiled, as if at a child. I wanted to persuade him of the truth of what I'd said but when I looked into his eyes, I knew that in his place, I too would not have the energy or the courage to take on the struggles that would be required to reclaim my life's savings from that bank.

Paramjeet's story

In the same camp I encountered a Sikh woman by the name of Paramjeet Kaur. Noticing my notebook, she said: "Are you taking names too? Here, write mine down..." She was a woman of determined aspect, dressed in a dun-coloured salwaar-kameez. She had come to the islands some thirty years before, by dint of marriage. Her husband was a Sikh from Campbell Bay, a settlement on the southernmost tip of the Nicobar island chain, less than a couple of hundred kilometres from northern Sumatra. Like many others in the settlement, her husband belonged to a family that had been given a grant of land in recognition of service to the army (to distribute land in this way is a tradition that goes back to the British Indian Army and its efforts to engage the loyalties of Indian `sepoys'). But Paramjeet Kaur's in-laws came to the Nicobar islands well after Independence, in 1969, at a time when agricultural land had become scarce on the mainland. They were given 15 bighas of land and a plot to build a residence. The settlement that grew up around them was as varied as the regiments of the Indian army: there were Marathis, Malayalis, Jharkhandis and people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

"There was nothing there but jungle then," said Paramjeet Kaur. "We cleared it with our own hands and we laid out orchards of areca and coconut. With God's blessing we prospered, and built a cement house with three rooms and a veranda."

Questions of location

The strip of land that was zoned for residential plots lay right on the sea front, providing the settlers with fine, beachfront views. It was no mere accident then that placed Paramjeet Kaur's house in the path of the tsunami of December 26: its location was determined by an ordering of space that owed more to Europe than to its immediate surroundings. The sea poses little danger to the smiling corniches of the French Riviera or the coastline of Italy: the land-encircled Mediterranean is not subject to the play of tides and it does not give birth to tropical storms. The Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, on the other hand, are fecund in the breeding of cyclones, especially the latter.

This may be the reason why a certain wariness of the sea can be seen in the lineaments of the ancient harbour cities of southern Asia. They are often situated in upriver locations, at a cautious distance from open water. In recent times the pattern seems to have been reversed so that it could almost be stated as a rule that the more modern and prosperous a settlement, the more likely it is to hug the water. On the island of Car Nicobar, for example, the Indian Air Force base was built a few dozen metres from the water's edge and it was so laid out that the more senior the servicemen, the closer they were to the sea. Although it is true that no one could have anticipated the tsunami, the choice of location is still surprising. Cyclones, frequent in this region, are also associated with surges of water that rise to heights of 10 or 15 metres and their effect would have been similar. Surely the planners were not unaware of this? But of course, it is all too easy to be wise after the event: given the choice between a view of the beach and a plot in the mosquito-infested interior what would anyone have chosen before December 26, 2004?

On the morning of that day Paramjeet Kaur and her family were inside their sea-facing house when the earthquake struck. The ground unfurled under their feet like a sheet waving in the wind and no sooner had the shaking stopped than they heard a noise `like the sound of a helicopter'. Paramjeet Kaur's husband, Pavitter Singh, looked outside and saw a wall of water speeding towards them. `The sea has split apart' (samundar phat gaya), he shouted, `run, run.' There was no time to pick up documents or jewellery; everyone who stopped to do so was killed. Paramjeet Kaur and her family ran for two kilometres, without looking back and were just able to save themselves.

"But for what?"

Thirty years of labour had been washed away in an instant; everything they had accumulated was gone, their land was sown with salt. "When we were young we had the energy to cut the jungle and reclaim the land. We laid out fields and orchards and we did well. But at my age, how can I start again? Where will I begin?"

"What will you do then?" I asked.

"We will go back to Punjab, where we have family. The government must give us land there; that is our demand."

In other camps I met office workers from Uttar Pradesh, fishermen from coastal Andhra Pradesh and construction labourers from Bengal. They had all built good lives for themselves in the islands — but now, having lost their homes, their relatives and even their identities they were intent on returning to the mainland, no matter what.

"If nothing else," one of them said to me, "we will live in slums beside the rail tracks. But never again by the sea."

How to quantify?

How do we quantify the help needed to rebuild these ruined lives? The question is answered easily enough if we pose it not in the abstract, but in relation to ourselves. To put ourselves in the place of these victims is to know that all the help in the world would not be enough. Sufficiency is not a concept that is applicable here: potentially there is no limit to the amount of relief that can be used. This is the assumption that motivates ordinary people to open their purses, even though they know that governments and big companies have already contributed a great deal: this is why no disaster assistance group has ever been known to say `we have to raise exactly this much and no more.' But when it comes to the disbursement of these funds the assumptions seem to undergo a drastic change, and nowhere more than in out-of-the-way places.

In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, although the manpower and machinery for the relief effort are supplied largely by the armed forces, overall authority is concentrated in the hands of a small clutch of senior civil servants in Port Blair. No matter the sense of crisis elsewhere: the attitude of the officialdom of Port Blair is one of disdainful self-sufficiency. On more than one occasion I heard them dismissing offers of help as unnecessary and misdirected. Supplies were available aplenty, they said; in fact they had more on their hands than could be distributed and there was a danger that perishable materials would rot on the airstrips.

This argument is of course, entirely circular: logically speaking, bottlenecks of distribution imply a need for more help, not less. But for the mandarins of Port Blair, the relief effort is a zero sum game in which they are the referees. What conceivable help could their subjects need other than the amount which they, the providers, the mai-baap, decide is appropriate to their various stations? — Amitav Ghosh

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