grief won’t grow old”
High Commissioner Nirupama Menon Rao reflects on December 26 and
"Grief never grows old
It falls with the rain
It's a late summer evening
A haunting refrain
And sorrow's an ocean
So deep and as cold
As the memories remind me
Grief never grows old."
(Mike Read, songwriter, in song ‘Grief Never Grows Old’,
composed after the tsunami)
Day, 2004 dawns quietly enough. In the old wing of the Kumara Krupa
guesthouse in Bangalore, the morning air is chilly -- a made-to-order-December-in-Bangalore
sort of day.
cellphone which I have forgotten to charge -- after all I am on
holiday -- suddenly crackles to life with the beep of a message
from a friend. The time of message - 9.25 a.m. Colombo time, half
an hour ahead of Bangalore. "Sea intrusion in Batti. Massive
damage reported. Unconfirmed." I read the message interpreting
it as yet another instance of water-logging in flood-prone Batticaloa.
But this is not a one-off. The phone rings again, and this time
the call is about the sea having gone berserk in a number of locations
along the Sri Lankan coast. A "sea attack" is how the
initial reports describe it. Radio and television networks have
meanwhile started reporting an earthquake in Sumatra and damage
from tidal waves in the Andaman and Nicobar islands of India and
in Sri Lanka.
is darkness at noon. And it has a new word to describe itself -
"tsunami". Not an alien word, but not something that happened
to "us". A word that was confined to Hokusai (Japanese)
woodblock prints, to the trenchant Pacific Ocean, and not to our
sea, not to our Goddess Sea, the ocean to which we gave our name,
the Indian Ocean.
on this Sunday, we find ourselves at world's end, with the bottoms
of harbours suddenly exposed, beaches shining with speckled sea
creatures and wondrous hues of shells from the innards of the sea.
A sea that waits for the little children to scream with delight
at this faerie world, to move closer… and, closer... and,
then swoops down on them, black, roaring and unforgiving.
to Sri Lanka. There is a pall of gloom everywhere. The stories about
the dead and missing populate the atmosphere around me. One account
haunts me constantly in the days ahead. The Faujdars and the Seetharamans,
both from India, holidaying at Yala on the southeastern coast of
Sri Lanka, are in their nightclothes in their rooms at the Yala
Safari Lodge, when the Jurassic roar of the sea ambushes them, carnivorous,
devouring, the quintessential, cunning raptor. The youngest offspring
of these families, Farzan, and Arvind, aged nine and seven, escape
the man-eating jaws of this carnivore that devours their parents
and other relatives.
is found on a tree, splayed, lacerated, but alive. Arvind is miraculously
unscathed. But the tsunami has twisted their lives forever. Farzan's
uncle from Mumbai, Percy, identifies the body of his mother, Farzan's
grandmother, who also died at Yala, from her heirloom ruby earrings.
Her body is mutilated, and unrecognizable, but the ruby earrings
remain, they have not been surrendered to the sea, the family keeps
them. Old Parsee goldwork and fine stones from deep within the earth
that the sea could not conquer, even as its water sloshed and flooded
the lungs of the 75-year-old woman who was wearing them.
and Kashmira, Farzan's uncle and aunt, are kindly people, the sort
you know are loyal and true to their family obligations. Farzan
is in good hands, but he is unaware of the tragedy that has suddenly
deprived him of his parents, grandmother and older brother. The
last time I speak to his uncle, two weeks after the tragedy, he
is still in hospital in Mumbai, recovering from his injuries, and
determined to get well, so that he can "go to Sri Lanka, and
look for Mummy and Daddy". A heartbreaking denouement to a
tragedy that is difficult to accept or explain.
Arvind on the other hand, keeps dialling his father's telephone
number, hoping he will answer. And when he does not, the seven-year-old
says flatly, "I know father is dead". His mother is missing,
and may never come home again. He does not talk of his older brother
who too, has perished.
wants to go now to America with Srinivasan, his paternal uncle,
who is a resident of Providence, Rhode Island. Farzan and Arvind,
hardy little pocket survivors, spared by the very ocean that swallowed
their families. I am haunted by their faces, and the facades of
cheerfulness that adults around them don as masks, so that the children
are not made immediately aware of the tragedy that has changed their
are many, many more children like Farzan and Arvind. Indian and
Sri Lankan children who have lost parents and are traumatized by
what happened on that black Sunday.
find what they believe is evidence, a few days later, posted on
the wall of the hospital at Tissamaharama, south of Yala, that Prema,
Arvind's mother, is dead. The face on the decomposed body is the
same, or at least approximates the face of the woman in the photograph
that is Prema's. An oh-so-typical "South Indian girl"
face, shot in a small street studio, with painted mountains in the
background, and no warning of the black wall of water that will
one day swallow her and then disinter her, bloated and decomposed,
body to be mass buried in an anonymous grave in Tissamaharama. I
think of the normal, uneventful life she left behind in Dubai, where
she lived, for a short Christmas vacation, and the cruelty of her
death and there are no answers to the "Why?" I ask myself.
the Millennium School in Dubai, the classmates of Ashwin, Arvind's
older brother who also died at Yala, post little memorial notes
on the school's website. Notes for Ashwin, who is described as a
dear, sweet boy, who had wanted to go to Kenya on safari, like his
closest school friend, but ended up in Yala. His great uncle, Natarajan,
who comes to Sri Lanka to search for Prema, asks me, "Why did
they have to go to Yala?" Always, after a tragedy, it is in
our nature to wonder how things could have been different if only
certain choices had not been made... .
is an odd irony about the Indian Election Commission identity card
that lands on my table one day. An innocuous looking, laminated
card, with some curling round the edges, simple black and white
with the name and picture of the holder so clearly imprinted, I
take some time in trying to place its provenance and establishing
why it has come to me. And then the split second bulb lights in
my brain - why, this is Farzan's grandmother, Soonu, imposing, dignified,
who had travelled to Yala with her elector's identity card, where
destiny cast its final vote for her.
sea is discriminating, it discriminates in favour of identity cards
and passports, so we may count the dead and missing, while it devours
mothers and fathers and children. And, when it makes exceptions
for the living, they are partial exemptions, one survivor in a whole
family, one Arvind, one Farzan, little will o' the wisps, carried
aloft by the very wave that snuffed out the lives of their families,
to be deposited on high ground, nobody's children... .I record the
stories of Farzan and Arvind because I have a first-hand knowledge
of their sad experience. The newspapers are full of similar tragedies,
and indeed, after a time, the similarity of the experiences involving
other little children, is apparent. The deluge that overwhelms us
now is that of grief, and a sorrow that is unable to comprehend
why we should have been violated and attacked in this fashion. This
is a grief that has no answers. It is elemental, deep, and profound,
like the ocean itself.
shoreline of Sri Lanka is one vast heap of debris, except where
the coconut palms sway in a sultry beguine. These palms, like the
animals who took to high ground well in advance of the tsunami,
have a how-to-survive-a-tsunami sequence programmed into their genetic
code. Not so us humans, vanquished thus by the sea, despite our
urge to conquer it, thinking that we understand its character and
its changing moods. And now, that it has revealed itself, frothing
and rabid, roaring and monstrous, we will have nothing of it. The
sea has died inside everyone of us. But its roar does not go away
easily, it populates our nightmares; the tsunami is gone, but the
cold sweat remains.
statues, mosques and a few Hindu temples and churches tell you of
the centuries-old life that populated these shores until that Sunday
morning. Not that the tsunami has spared all these structures.
is a temple at Navalady in Batticaloa which had its chariot hurled
like a torpedo to lie twisted on its side. There is a silence here
that even the vultures forget to punctuate. Only the colours survive
- the electric blue and violet of the temple walls, the green of
the mosque on the seashore at Kalmunai in Ampara with the dark green
Saudi Arabian flag adorning its inner walls, the upturned blue of
fishing boats tossed into living rooms, the terra-cotta red of twisted
train carriages at Telwatte, of the Queen of the Sea express, and
the white tourist buses half-sunk in the lagoon in Hambantota. So
many colours, painting a new Guernica of torment and sand-crusted
is the man in Batticaloa who commanded the wave to recede and succeeded
in outsmarting death. His name is Reverend Sanders, and he has become
a television hero overnight. All on the strength of his survival
instinct that told him to turn the boat he was travelling in with
children from the orphanage he runs by the side of the Batticaloa
lagoon, to face the oncoming tsunami. As the raging wave chased
him and his orphans across that very lagoon, the Reverend who is
no mariner, did what every sailor does on a stormy sea - he rode
his boat into the oncoming wave and onto life and salvation, as
it would seem hearing him articulate his story in evangelical accents
and biblical language.
wave came right behind him, and he turns, saying, "In the name
of my God, I command you!" and takes his boat into the swirling
wall of water that is ready to devour him and his 28 children, and
somehow, like Dracula, the killer wave is vanquished by the name
Reverend just managed to summon his God. The others who died across
the coasts of Asia were not so lucky. God was not looking when the
sea sneaked up behind the boys playing cricket on the Marina in
Chennai, or the pilgrims enjoying a balmy Boxing Day morning on
the beach at Vellankanni, by the Church of the Virgin. The cunning
sea, the cruel sea, moves across the globe like a Stealth plane,
picked up by no sensors because there are none for the nations in
the region, and then raises its giant cobra head for that final
fishermen populate this coast, kilometre after kilometre. They have
fished here for centuries, setting out from fishing harbours as
ancient as the country itself. Fishing harbours that welcomed Arab
dhows come for trade over a millennium ago. These fishermen have
had their boats and catamarans tossed by the surging waves, deep
into their backyards and verandahs, lying upturned and unclaimed.
Kalmunai, I see a boat that is half burned, not by a freakish twist
of nature, but because the villagers needed light and set it alight
to be able to see in the night, and to keep warm outside the ruins
of their houses. After the initial surge of fear and anger at the
sea, these fishermen are now reconciled to venturing out into the
ocean once again in search of fish. But the rumours run rife that
there are no fish off the seas in the east, at least, not the fish
they are used to catching. There are strange, new species, not native
to these parts being caught in the nets of the fishermen.
this may be a transient phenomenon, the lament of the fisherfolk
grows even stronger. For the fish they once caught, for the catamarans
and fibreglass boats shattered and flipped into places on land that
make them difficult to retrieve or refloat, for the missing in their
families and for the dead they have buried.
hope the ocean is satiated - that it has had its recompense. But
our grief will not grow old, nourished as it is by memories of December
26. And, I hope the ocean will not engulf us again with a similar
tragedy, that it will not blight our lives for another two thousand,
no ten thousand years. That it will permit us to trust it once again
as we did till Boxing Day, 2004. But right now, it is difficult
to watch it with anything but shock and awe, and a speechless, aching,
emptiness, even though the waters are calm and beautiful once again.
resolve to cling to high ground and build our houses away from the
beaches. But even as we refuse to heed the sea's call, we know that
we cannot resist it, that it can pull us out of the strongest of
grasps, and drag us across the surf because we cannot fight its
embrace, if it should choose to come out to us.
in the long forgotten histories of the human race, we know there
have been previous tsunamis. Maybe this was how ancient civilizations
suddenly vanished. Maybe the sea rose up and attacked them on a
similar, idyllic Sunday morning, and dragged them into the deep.
yet, those of our early ancestors, who survived that manifestation
of the ocean's wrath, went on with their lives after shedding tears
for the loved ones they had lost. So too, must we, dealing as before,
with birth, youth, old age, and death, and allowing that rhythm
to coexist with the sea, because that is the way of this planet,
our home, the only place of our arrivals and our exits. Is there
another choice? But the sea, the ocean, cannot take our grief away
from us. We will grow old, but not our grief.