India Uncut

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Despatches 16: The island of the goddess

At Killai we meet a gentleman called Tamilarasan. He lives in a village called Chinnavaikal, which is at the end of a narrow strip of land that curves outwards into the sea, and is effectively an island at high tide. He tells us that the village has been wiped out. He offers to take us there in a boat.

We walk to the shore as he tells us about the waves. Killai escaped relatively unscatched, but only because of the mangrove forest that lines the shore. The waves were neutralised by the trees, in a battle that does not take place so often. We reach the shore. The sea near us is blue, but turns green at the horizon. The waves were black when they came, says Tamilarasan, a description we have heard all across the coast. We wade over to the boat.

I think of that famous scene from Swades as we sit on the boat. Dilip is sitting in front of me with his back to me, Saransh in front of him facing us, and behind him the hull of the boat and the blue sky. Would Mohan Bhargava have been here? It doesn’t matter. Thousands of people are, working madly to ease that pain, without a back-story that will make it to Bollywood.

The water sparkles under the sun as Tamilarasan starts the motor, and we cut through the waves. All around me I see tiny glimmers of light in the water that seem to jump out of it, and realise that those are actually flying fish, all around us in the sea. As we approach a shore ahead of us, lithe white birds, perhaps terns, swoop down from the air to capture flying fish in their mouth in one deft move. There, a flying fish is dead. There, one more. And one more. Soon, they are statistics.

That shore is not the one we have to go to, though. It is just a strip of land that curves away as we go around, and keeps curving, as if the land is a snake being eaten up by the water. We turn, and turn, until we finally reach Chinnavaikal. We step onto the beach, onto beautiful soft sand. Ahead of us is a patch of coconut trees that runs across the length of what is, at the moment, a narrow island – when the tide goes down, we can walk across to another patch of land, and from there wind our way back to the mainland.

It is astonishing, and a blessing, that the tourists haven’t discovered Chinnavaikal. It is a beautiful virgin beach by the sea, with electricity poles the only sign of modernity. The villagers lived in thatched huts in the patch of trees. Every single one of them has been flattened. About 150 people lived here. Fifteen of them died, and the others survived partly because of the trees, which both fought the waves and gave the villagers something to hold on to. When the waves receded, the locals from Killai came over to rescue the survivors.

After walking past the remnants of many thatched huts, we come to a concrete structure – or rather, two walls on the ground. One of them has sunk into the mud, and a boy is on his knees there wiping it clean, trying to pull it out. “What are you doing?” we ask him.

“This is a shrine,” he says, “to the goddess Mariyamman. I am keeping it clean.”

Goddess Mariyamman is a goddess who is known for both her benevolence and her rage. Some compare her to Durga, but of all the Hindu deities, she is closest perhaps to being a female version of Shiva, who contains the same extremes. Benevolence and rage. Island paradise and tsunami.

I am an atheist, so I walk away from there, but if I was that boy, perhaps I would be cleaning that wall too, cleaning the goddess’s name that is painted on it. In times of such trauma, we need a crutch. Their belief in God gives them one that humans are failing to provide: hope.
amit varma, 8:32 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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