“Our grief won’t grow old”

India’s High Commissioner Nirupama Menon Rao reflects on December 26 and thereafter
"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)

Boxing 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.

My 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.

It 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.

Somehow 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.

I return 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.

Farzan 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.

Percy 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.

Little 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.

Arvind 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 lives forever.

There 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.

They 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.

In 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... .

There 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Buddha 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.

There 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 death.

There 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.

The 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 of God.

The 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 attack.

The 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.

At 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.

While 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.

I 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.

We 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.

Somewhere, 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.

And 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.

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