A village by the sea
The people of Pattinacherry have known the sea all their lives and have no illusions about it. But after the tsunami struck, what would be tough to handle is the trauma and restoring confidence in their vocation, says SUBASH JEYAN.
Incongruous in the rice fields, but an indication of the ferocity of the tsunami.
THILLAI RAYAR PATTINAM, shortened in wayside boards to T.R. Pattinam, is like any other road-front small town on NH-45A between Karaikkal and Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu. As you come down a bridge and the highway makes a sharp turn to the right, you almost miss a small access road leading off in the opposite direction to a village by the sea you can see a couple of kilometres away. I notice it because there is a youth on a moped preparing to go down to the village.
Destruction in Pattinacherry
His name is Thirumurugan and that village is Pattinacherry, a satellite village of T.R. Pattinam. He is from a neighbouring village and is going to Pattinacherry. It is the worst hit village in Karaikkal he tells me as he adjusts his face mask. His own village, just a kilometre or so along the seashore, has escaped with relatively minor damage, he says. He agrees to me coming along with him but soon our bikes come to a halt because there is no road ahead. Just a 10-metre-wide chasm where there was a road before and where the waves of the backwaters were gently lapping against broken bricks and rubble. This is a new road, Thirumurugan tells me, built within the year.
We come back to the highway and take another road to the village. Even before you reach the village you get a hint of the things to come. Lying incongruously in the rice fields are a boat and a catamaran, a couple of kilometres from the sea. As you enter the village, you notice the destruction immediately. A few concrete structures are still standing and the main street of the village is strewn with trees and rubble. Most of the houses, including concrete ones have been flattened. Boats are strewn around everywhere.
We park our bikes and pick our way among the rubble. A few men from the Land Survey office are going around taking notes. Some men from the Electricity Board are re-laying the electric line in the main street. The village had three streets, says Thirumurugan. There are no signs of the other two. As we walk down to the southern end of the village, we see Lombardini diesel engines strewn around everywhere. There is a ridge protruding a feet above the ground along the beach. That used to be a protective wall to prevent the sea coming in, says Thirumurugan. Huge concrete blocks from the wall are lying all over. Further down are the remains of what used to be a casuarina grove. Just a clutch of stumps now.
The village is totally deserted, like all villages along the shoreline, says Thirumurugan. We come back to T.R. Pattinam, to the temple where some of the people from Pattinacherry have been put up. Others have been taken to unused theatres, schools and kalyana mandapams. In the temple there are a couple of vans from a private aid trust, distributing groceries, stoves, utensils. Almost a week after the tsunami, the people are still dazed, sitting around the temple pond in groups. And there is a smell of arrack in the air as the men talk, the few that are willing to.
Women, the victims
Some service providers -- more interested in recording their generosity.
Kaliyaperumal, an elder of the village, says the village has lost around 170 people. A majority of those are women, he says. How come, I ask. The boats had just come in with the catch, he says. And it is the women who take the fish to the market and they were all there. About 20 people are still missing. Quite a few people were in the casuarina grove when the waves struck. Though some houses have bathrooms, lots of people still use the grove, he says.
Dhanapal, a man in his twenties, says his father was in the beach when the waves came. Most young people on the beach made it to safety but my father couldn't, he says. Lots of people also succumbed to the concrete slabs from the protective wall flying around when the waves hit.
No boats left
Rathinaswamy, a man in his forties, says there were about 150 boats in the village, big and small. The bigger boats were operating from Nagapattinam. Not a single boat left, everything we had is gone. How do we start life from scratch at forty? he asks. We are no longer young and can't work the way we used to work. We don't even want to go back to the sea, he says. Dhanapal echoes the same sentiment. It was a total surprise, he says. If the seas are going to be rough or if there is going to be a cyclone, we can usually make out the clues in advance and take necessary precautions. We didn't have a clue about this one, he says. A lot of houses in the village have TV. Even if we had an hour's warning, we could have saved a lot of lives, he says. Even in the midst of such personal tragedy, there is a thought for others. We hear it is worse on the Nagapattinam side, they say.
The relief efforts, though they look unorganised, seem to be taking care of their everyday, short term needs, though they still use the open spaces beyond the village for their toilet needs. The highway, right from Chennai, is full of trucks and vans from all over India, carrying everything from medicines to food to plastic buckets. Not all of it seems to be reaching the really needy though and some private aid groups had brought along video cameras and were as much interested in recording their generosity as in distributing food.
The physical reconstruction, one hopes, will eventually happen though governments can get their priorities alarmingly wrong. On the highway in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), for example, a dozen men were busy repainting and doing up bridges and road signs. The government has promised to replace all damaged boats and construct new houses in Pattinacherry. What would be tough to handle is the trauma, restoring confidence in their vocation. The people of Pattinacherry have known the sea all their lives and have no illusions about it. They know it can be destructive. But when something that has been the basis and foundation of their lives turns a stranger overnight, the resulting confusion and fear can be paralysing. Till they are helped to cope with that, they won't be returning to the sea.
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