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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Despatches 23: Cold drinks

You would think they were touts at a tourist place. As soon as we reach Bommaiya Palayam, a small fishing village near Pondicherry, three men, Thirumurugan, Natarajan and Sundar, rush towards us and begin speaking to us simultaneously. As we stand there bewildered they start arguing among themselves about who will “show us around”. Thirumurugan seems to win, though Natarajan follows us around, and keeps butting in to contradict his fellow fisherman.

As we start, Thirumurugan asks us for money. We tell him, patiently, that we are journalists, and we have no money to give him, we just want to write about what has happened here so that more people know about it. He nods.

Bommaiya Palayam is right by the sea, and there used to be a line of huts about 30 metres from the shoreline, and then a road, and then more huts. That first line of huts has been decimated. We wouldn’t know there was one there if we hadn’t been told. Thirumugan takes us one by one to a large number of damaged huts, where people tell us what happened to them. He takes particular care to carefully enumerate everything that’s been lost in each house, as if we are government suveyors.

We see some boats in a clearing that are packed with mattresses, blankets and utensiles. “Whose boats are these?” we ask.

“Oh, these are not our boats,” Thirumugan say. “Our boats were all washed away. These came in with the waves. All our boats are gone. Please write that down.”

Somehow I don’t find Thirumugan to be particularly credible, so as Dilip sticks with him, I walk around on my own. I start a conversation with a gentleman named Kumar.

“I was in Dubai for seven years,” he tells me. “I saved some money there and came back here, but now it’s all gone. Boat is gone, house is gone, everything is gone.” Men like Kumar often don’t keep their savings in a bank – he just had some gold at home, and that was taken by the sea.

“Have you received any relief so far,” I ask him.

“Government came and gave 4000 [rupees] to each of the affected people,” he said. “They also said that will give boat later. Let us see.”

They have, however, received aid from Auroville, in nearby Pondicherry, who came everyday and fed these people. “If not for Auroville,” he says, “we would have died.”

Dilip now approaches me with Thirumugan in tow, who asks him, again, for money. We start heading back towards the road. Then Kumar runs up to me from behind and touches my shoulder.

“Would you like some cold drinks?” he asks.

We say no. We shake his hand, wish him luck, and then we’re on our way again.
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