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Remembering the past and moving on

Vani Doraisamy

At Chennai's fishing villages, a day of communal mourning



IN MEMORIAM: Boats with black flags lined up at Nochikuppam on Monday, the first anniversary of the tsunami. — Photo: M. Vedhan

CHENNAI: Candles in the wind. A community huddled together in collective grief. Unending vigil, haunted by memories of the tsunami. Black flags in boats. But most of all, a hint of moving on and a willingness to make peace with the sea.

Chennai's fishing community started remembering its 206 dead citizens on Monday even before daybreak. Hundreds of candles sprouted on the sands where, just a year ago , the waves had left a trail of corpses. The grief was strikingly understated.

Fishing holiday

Idle boats, cloaked in black flags, stood silent watch as the fishermen's panchayats had declared a fishing holiday. Most hamlets had a common spot — mostly a collage of photographs of the dead under a shamiana — where the community gathered in collective mourning. And then there were the silent, private rituals — a solitary lamp lit on the spot where a loved one lay dead, an offering of rice and milk to the waves that had swallowed up lives.

At Nochikuppam, the fishermen had scrawled a list of names on the sand and lit a candle against each. "Our way of paying homage to the dead and our respects to kadalamma. There were no dead here but so many bodies had washed up on the sand,'' remembered Valliamma, who is yet to recover from the trauma of seeing her hut dismembered by the waves.

Down the coast at Srinivasapuram, which had seen the dance of death at its starkest, the mourning was more intense as community youth gathered around a giant candle and read out the names of the 56 dead. "Most bereaved families have moved out and those that remain, are at the graveyard where the dead are buried," said Ganesan, whose left leg was twisted out of shape when a boulder crashed against it.

Despite seething anger at the state of their much-devastated temporary shelters, residents of Kannagi Nagar at Okkiyam Thoraipakkam found time to make a collective pilgrimage to the south Chennai beaches to offer prayers.

For Premkumar and Chandra, the day brought back sad memories of how their two little boys, Vivek (11) and Abinesh (6), had perished playing on the beach at Kovalam. "When the waves struck, Vivek, who was on higher ground, latched on to his little brother's hand and wouldn't let go. They were both sucked away. Had my eldest been a little selfish, he would have been alive now,'' the mother sobs, even as eight-year-old Priyanka, the only surviving child, silently hugs a photo of her brothers.

Along the northern coast, at the Kasimedu and Royapuram fishing harbours, what was palpable was not so much the grief but the desire to move on. "It's been almost a year. We need to forget,'' said Kasi Viswanathan, hoisting a black flag atop his boat at Anna Nagar.

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