Is he married yet?


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TAMIL NADU after the tsunami is the third time I’ve visited where a major natural disaster has struck: Orissa after the 1999 cyclone, Kutch after the 2001 quake, and now here. Something draws me to this, and by now, I often wonder what it is. I’ll admit, a certain level of voyeurism is part of it all: a fascination for the fantastic damage nature can do to us.

But only part. In the end, I think my greatest curiosity is for the truly spectacular human spirit you see in these situations: the way all manner of people from every part of the country – indeed, the world – spontaneously offer mind and muscle to helping the victims of calamity.

The personification of this spirit, for me, remains a young man called P.K. Gupta, whom I met in Orissa in 1999. Not so much for the work he did... but read on. At the time, PK worked at Citibank in New Delhi. As far as I could tell, he read the news about the cyclone, got up from his desk and caught the next train out to Orissa. With just the clothes on his back and a towel, he turned up in Erasama, the worst-ravaged district of the state, and asked to be put to work. And how he worked: for the next week, he tramped tirelessly from village to smashed village, collecting information, taking relief materials out, helping burn dead bodies, on and on. Then he went back to Delhi, to his desk at the bank.

Something about what drives a man like PK touches me somewhere very deep. And where great disasters happen, you see it every time, all the time. Young and old; Hindu, Muslim, Christian and everything in between; rich or poor; whoever it is, whatever their differences, for a few days they sink them all in the effort to help their fellow human beings who are in terrible distress. It’s moving and inspiring, and it’s why the days I’ve spent in these areas are some of the best days of my life.

But there’s another point here. My days in Orissa and Kutch taught me a lesson that I learned once more in Tamil Nadu: if that word patriotism means anything at all, it must mean the kind of selfless dedication I saw in people like PK. The simple urge to do something for your fellow human being, for no better reason than that he is your fellow human being.

ONE late afternoon in tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, we are struggling through a wasteland. There’s no other word for this vast soulless nightmare-scape of rotting slush, debris, ghastly smells, mud, nets and dog and cat and human carcasses. This is in Akkarapettai, outside Nagapattinam. It has taken us over an hour to negotiate the slime and stench to where Lakshmi Narasimhan – a tall, gently-spoken Salem doctor – greets the dusk with his team in the only way that makes sense in this post-tsunami miasma.

They pick up and burn the bodies.

This is only 500 metres from Akkarapettai – 500 hard-earned metres, yes, where we have never once been sure of what we are stepping in, rarely been sure it will take our weight. Nevertheless, it is just a small distance. But apart from this team that wears badges of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), a CPM-affiliated organisation – apart from them, nobody is out this far to do this unforgiving work. Nobody. From what they tell us, there are dead bodies strewn all the way to where the sun finally sets. Well, five kilometres in that direction, anyway. Forget the five kilometres, nobody wants to come out even the 500 metres to this spot. If that’s so, what will happen to those other bodies?

Just getting here, we’ve seen at least three bodies on smoking pyres, at least five others just lying around. One’s a little form, sex, age and even humanity wiped away, lying in a carton. How did it land in there? Sprawled in the muck nearby is another. Brother? Mother? Who? In front of us is a collapsed hut; one body lies on the thatch roof as if asleep. Two men lift the timbers and branches of the roof; there are bodies below. Nearly gagging from the smell, struggling with the weight and difficulty of this work, they pull one body out. A boy? They put him on top with the other one. The others, they decide after conferring briefly, are impossible to extract. Two men bring the two bodies from behind us, lay them on top as well.

Then they set fire to the roof.

As we stand in the dusk, noses covered against the stench but feet slipping in the slime, Veerappan, his wife Parvati, their daughter Pasupati, their sons Ganesh, Dinesh and Abhi – the names listed in a sodden exercise book at our feet – and two others possibly unknown to them but sharing their pyre, go up in flames.

Dr Narasimhan and his comrades are done for today. They are already planning where in the muck they will go, first thing tomorrow morning. We walk back, and all the way the doctor complains. Not about the work these men have voluntarily thrown themselves into, but about how difficult it is to get fuel. ‘Can you help us?’ he asks me. ‘Can you help us get some kerosene tomorrow so we can continue our work?’

TRAVELLING along Tamil Nadu’s tragically shattered coast after the tsunami, we heard plenty of stories of how communities had come together to help the victims. There were stories of discrimination and neglect too, but enough of the coming together as well. And one afternoon in Pudukuppam...

Driving through the village that afternoon, we found a dozen visibly exhausted Muslim men, all in white caps, resting in a boat and sipping tea. They had just finished distributing cooked food to the residents of the village. For the eighth day in a row.

How this happened was one of those gorgeous stories that great tragedies seem invariably to throw up. In nearby Parangipettai, a young man called Rafiq was going to be married at noon that Sunday, 26 December. That tsunami Sunday, of course. The food was ready, the decorations were in place, the guests had gathered, the festivities were about to begin.

But they didn’t. Suddenly, terrified villagers from coastal Pudupettai, Pudukuppam and other little villages poured into Parangipettai, running from the tsunami. In the ‘jamaatkhana’, the men from Rafiq’s wedding party swung into action, though not quite the action they thought they’d be involved with. They sent the guests into a side room, gave them biscuits and water, then turned to the desperate fleers.

They brought out the wedding food and distributed it to them. Then they began cooking more. And more and more. Eight days cooking, by the time we met them in Pudukuppam. Eight days that they had quietly and efficiently cooked for the villages of Chinnur, Pudupettai, Samiyarpettai, Velankarayanpettai, Kumarapettai, Panjakuppam, Shanmuganagar, Dalbastaikar and Pudukuppam.

On the menu today: lemon rice, to feed 300 people in Pudukuppam.

It’s lucky, says Mohammed Hameem who told me this story as he sat in the boat with his chai. It’s lucky that there was that wedding scheduled that day.

Lucky all right, but I had to ask. Did Rafiq ever get married? The men looked at each other in surprise. Cooking so steadily, none of them knew.

IN a noisy community meeting in Parangipettai, we speak to an impressive young sub-collector called Rajendra Ratnoo. Surrounded as we are by a minister, his entourage and several community leaders who have come to discuss relief, aware that he has many more urgent things to do than speak to us and so we had better be brief, we have a hard time interviewing this fresh-faced IAS officer. Besides, it is so noisy that we have to shout: never a good way to interview anyone.

Still, we hear enough to come away with the sense that Ratnoo is practical, sensible and, even then – just five days after the tsunami – has the situation in the district under control.

What’s more, this is an impression confirmed by various other people we meet in the area. Most say that the administration here in Cuddalore district, where Parangipettai is, has responded to the tsunami relatively well. That’s because of the work of the district Collector, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, and his officers like Ratnoo.

Back in Bombay, I call Ratnoo to ask a couple of questions. He answers the phone in the middle of a birthday party for his son – I can hear the chatter in the background. He has invited a number of children to the party. Nothing unusual about that – what’s a birthday party without lots of kids?

But this is unusual: his son’s party guests are children orphaned by the tsunami.

THAT PK spirit, I like to think. Tamil Nadu in the time of a tsunami: a thoughtful young bureaucrat, an indefatigably selfless doctor, and the men who don’t know if Rafiq got married. Tell me about patriotism.

Dilip D’Souza

* Dilip D’Souza was a Scholar of Peace Fellow with WISCOMP in 2004-05.