It's been 4 days since I was back from the Tsunami-affected regions of South India. And even as the killer waves recede to the inside pages of newspapers, I am still struggling to make sense of what I saw.
To give a day-by-day synopsis of our journey would be impossible simply because the images we saw ran riot in our minds; too overwhelming and numbing to keep a chronicled record of.
On the 31 st of December, five of us who had volunteered for relief operations in Chennai and neighbouring areas, embarked on a trip we wish we never had to take. For most part of our stay, we were distributing rice, daal, bed sheets, mats, soaps etc to the affected villagers along the eastern coastline. Most of them were lying on the burning sand, with a flimsy plastic sheet acting as a roof above their heads. It's difficult to fathom what they felt as they saw us approaching their misery. Was it hope? Was it indifference? Was it gratitude? I guess most were still too shocked to express an emotion.
There was this one village where we were to exhaust the last of out relief supplies. In the beginning, the villagers maintained complete decorum by standing in a queue and waiting for their turn to receive their packets. These were people who furnished their ration cards, which we ticked to prevent any duplication.
Once this lot got over, the ones without the ration cards started coming in. Fearing that they may not receive the supplies, they refused to form a queue, which resulted in complete chaos. We were running out of ideas to distribute amongst them in an orderly fashion. Marking their palms with a pen proved futile. So did distributing coupons that could be redeemed from the back of the truck, where we were standing.
Before we realised, there was a mob of more than hundred villagers, which had completely encircled our truck. Suddenly there were people pulling me from everywhere, begging, pleading and vehemently demanding their share. It reminded me of one of those photojournalistic shots where a hundred pairs of hands are outstretched towards just one. It pains me to think that I even had to shout at them, hoping that would push them back. But my voice drowned in their rancour just as easily as their families were drowned in the waves. It reached a point where I had lost control over my hands. They just naturally reached out to those whose faces screamed more than their throats.
It's the closest I have ever felt to being hypnotised.
To prevent an imminent stampede, we kept moving the truck every hundred metres or so. Finally as we doled out the last of our packets, we decided to leave. Only to see that the entire mob ran after us, men and women, young and old alike. Not even you mother can make you feel as important. We realised just in time that we were also carrying some utensils. But too scared to stop, we ended up tossing them out of the moving truck into the hands of those whose legs refused to give up till we were no more in their sight.
Once, there was this elderly woman who, after receiving her packet, came back again for clothes for her grandchild. Since we had already given her some before, we tried to explain to her that the distribution has to be fair. But she didn't relent to our logic and kept requesting for more. I managed to pick out some clothes, which would fit a 5-year old girl and handed them over.
To understand what happened next, imagine your grandmother touching your feet.
On the last day we surveyed the Karaikal district of Pondicherry. That's when the extent of the devastation truly hit us. Only an air raid could explain what we saw.
It was tough balancing ourselves, as we tiptoed over at least 3 feet of rubble. The only things that could be seen standing were coconut trees and the bunch of us. Even the concrete houses were reduced to powder. Strewn around the beach were personal belongings of those who once lived there. Music cassettes, utensils, clothes, photographs were the only clues of the destroyed civilisation. What disturbed the eerie calm were three women who were still in mourning. One of them was standing with a young girl on the rubble of what was once her home. She was beating her stomach repeatedly and spewing abuses at the sea. Even though we didn't understand the language, we knew that no man in history would have ever abused another man as much.
She had lost her husband and six of her seven children.
One of the few structures that had somehow survived gave us goose bumps. Inside was a boy not a year older than 10, cleaning his home. This was an ordeal since the waves had brought a 1-foot thick layer of sand, spread across the floor. What was even harder to explain was an ominous layer of sand lying untouched on the ceiling fan.
In fact, even the ones who knew how to swim couldn't keep their heads above water, since the muddy waves sucked-in those who didn't drown on their own.
Further away from the coast, one could see boats, trucks and other vehicles lying smashed and broken like toys, in fields, which were at least 2 km away from the sea. Driving past a desolate medical college, we saw lab reports, notebooks and answer sheets floating on the water logged fields.
Some fishermen weren't too taken aback by the loss of life or their boats and nets. What they couldn't come to terms with was the fact that the sea had deceived them; the sea which had been their benefactor and god for generations. It was like someone whom you've loved and trusted for all your life suddenly stabs you in the back.
These scenes will never fade from memory. It's still tough to grasp that water could suddenly rise up to more than 20 feet and commit a massacre. Suddenly, everything else in life seems so insignificant and trivial. Humility comes easy once you've witnessed such scenes. But it's so wrong that more than 1,50,000 people had to die to teach us this lesson.
- Rishabh Kaul