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Coming to terms with the sea after the tsunami

The sun was shining brightly and the idea of a swim was very inviting to Yassen Murugan, Porvel and K Hariharan. The three boys, who live in a kuppam (fishing village) in Chennai, took off their clothes on the beach and were just about to enter the sea when one of them hesitated. “The waters look rough. Let’s wait,” he said. The next moment everything turned topsy-turvy. The sea seemed to boil up and a catamaran that had been moored on the beach was suddenly atop a very large wave. The boys sensed something was wrong and ran away as fast as they could.

S Rajeshwari, a young girl was busy grinding chutney in her home on the beach when her friends suddenly said: “Look at that wave.” Rajeshwari looked up and saw a huge wall of water that engulfed them and swept away everything. “My mother screamed for my father who had gone to fetch water, and we all fled.”

Later, these children learnt that an earthquake near Aceh in Indonesia had triggered a tsunami, or giant waves. These waves, some as high as 10 metres and travelling at great speed, penetrated 300 metres to three kilometres inland, affecting not just their village but hundreds of others along the Tamil Nadu coast. The tsunami also devastated Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and even parts of Africa.

It was a day the children will never forget. The sea, a familiar friend, had suddenly swept away the thatched roofs of their homes and the swirling waters had washed away all their belongings. But at least in their village no lives had been lost.

The children of Ururkuppam and Odaikuppam, along with their families, took shelter in their school -- the Olcott Memorial High School in Besant Nagar, situated around 750 metres from the beach. Slowly they came to grips with their fears. Some of their classmates gave them clothes to wear. The Theosophical Society and other relief organisations gave them cooking utensils and food. For over a week they lived here, sharing their feelings with one another, describing what had happened.

When school reopened, on January 2, their headmistress Lakshmi Suryanarayanan distributed crayons and paper and asked them to draw what they had seen. One girl wrote a poem in Tamil expressing her pain: O sea, O sea, I thought you were my friend…

When the children moved back into their rebuilt homes on the beach they were still worried. “Even the familiar sound of the tide coming in is now frightening,” said one young boy. Then they learnt how a tsunami is caused and realised that it takes time for the waves to travel. They were reassured by the fact that a tsunami warning system was in place.

In March, a few months after the tsunami, the police came to their fishing village and issued a warning to them because a second earthquake had struck Indonesia. The children again took shelter in their school, but went back home the next day. Their fathers had stayed behind in the village, confident that they knew the warning signs. The children said: “We now know that the sea seems to recede before the giant waves strike.”

Two books in Tamil brought out by Akanksha -- The Giving Sea and A Small Boy and the Sea -- were distributed to the children to read in their summer holidays. A booklet brought out by the Tamil Nadu government also deals with the tsunami and tries to allay people’s fears. In some fishing villages, theatre troupes like Koothupatarai staged street plays using traditional mythological figures. One of them depicts Yama, the god of death, as a huge tidal wave that is eventually vanquished by Ganesha. The theatre troupes also inform the children and people about issues that have been raised after the tsunami.

One of the main issues relates to the relocation of fishing villages. The Tamil Nadu government wants to provide relief only to those fishing villages that will agree to relocate to a distance of 500 metres from the coastline because of guidelines laid down by the Coastal Regulation Zone. But fishing communities all along the coast are united. They do not want to move.

The children too want to live on the beach so they can continue to participate in all the activities connected with fishing. They want to help bring in the catch, spread the nets out and help their mothers dry the fish that is not sold.

Tamil Nadu’s fishing community, known as the meenavars, have developed a very powerful connection with the sea. The fishermen say that just by looking at the colour of the water they know where a fish shoal is and what type of fish are in the shoal. They do not want to give up this powerful link by moving away from the beach.

Most sons of fishermen begin going out to sea with their fathers when they are about 12 years old. They also attend school. They learn from the fishermen how to skilfully whirl the net and then throw it into the water. It is sometimes hard work, and when they first go out the rocking boat makes them seasick. But most of them are clear that even after the tsunami they want to become fishermen. Desappan, a young boy, says that the sea has given them a lot. “Even if we learn a profession we want to live by the sea so that if there is no work we can always go fishing.”

The boys learn to swim when they are very young, but many girls do not. This is because it is believed that going to sea is a man’s business and that women must only wait by the shore till the men return with the catch. Sadly, because of this many young girls and women drowned in the tsunami.

Now, several civil society organisations working to help the people are asking women and children to learn how to swim. They are working to ensure equal opportunities for both boys and girls.

While there were not too many deaths in Chennai, this was not the case in the districts of Cuddalore and Nagapattinam where lots of children were orphaned and many lost a brother or sister. The Tamil Nadu government has taken all the orphaned children under its care and psycho-social workers and doctors have been trying to help them cope with their pain and loss.

Dr P Manorama, who works in Purukuppam near Cuddalore, explains how the children were encouraged to articulate their feelings about family members or friends they had lost. They were asked to record this in a memory book. Several women who had lost their husbands or children came and interacted with the children, so it was a shared experience. Some children receive counselling from trained workers. They are being encouraged to go back to doing whatever they did before the tsunami struck. To return to school and to take part in the special sports or recreation activities that have been planned for them.

All over Tamil Nadu, as in several parts of the world, children have shown remarkable courage and resilience. They have learnt to accept death, loss and fear. They know the sea has a violent side but it can also be large and giving.

-- Freny Manecksha

July 2005

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