The rites of passage

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The help offered to the tsunami victims must be substantial enough to help them live as they used to.

Maurya: (raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her) They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me. ... I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.

- From Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge.

WHAT stays is the intolerable grief and anguish. The majority of those who died on December 26 last year lived because of the bounty of the sea. Most were fisherfolk; both men and women either went to the sea to bring back the fish, which the women sold, and that was how they lived. Some earned from the tourists who came, selling them little souvenirs, or serving in the restaurants and resorts that lined the sea. The sea gave them life, sustained them.

They knew the sea could be violent. Not infrequently there would be storms and some would die at sea. But the rest lived on as best as they could. It was like a mother to them, a nourishing mother who could sometimes be cruel and harsh. But they knew no other and lived by her and owed her their living.

And then in one day the sea rose and wiped thousands of them off the earth, killed many thousands, destroyed villages, homes, roads, and everything else that nurtured those who lived off her bounty. Even those used to her occasional cruel ways could never ever have imagined this dreadful ferocity, this enormous power. She has returned to her usual restless calm, and the crash of breakers on the shore is no more than it has always been. But even so, there is in that sound a menace now, a darkness behind the blue of the heaving water, a threat of terrible destruction beneath the sound of the surf.

Yet, it is to her that those who have survived, have been spared, will return, and once again earn their livelihood from her. The fish have to be brought in for their families - the men will sail out in their frail boats, return laden with the bounty she provides and the women will sell them on the shores. But it is not likely that they will not hear the cries and the wailing, the sobbing and the keening and the screams that will have marked the day the sea turned from being a giver of life to destroyer. Not only here in India, but across the sea in other countries now joined in the grim fraternity of loss and sorrow.

Grief is a private affair and will remain in the hearts of those touched by this horrific tragedy. But life has to be lived, work has to go on and this is the aspect that needs swift attention. The sea's violence has not ended with the killing and maiming of the thousands it caught up in its waters; it has extended to disease from polluted drinking water sources, which can still cause death; it has extended to bridges and roads washed away, to houses razed to the ground, to all the possessions of families having gone into the seething mass of water that struck the shores of so many countries like a vicious snake.

How very frail man looks at such times. How pitiful his possessions, the things that he surrounds himself with to live his life. A fisherman stared at the plinth of what was his home, at one vessel lying amidst the mud and sand that lay piled around it; an Indian Air Force officer looked at a piece of metal stuck in the branches of a tree and said softly, "I think that was my fridge". A sodden photograph. A piece of a broken chair. A torn sari in the bushes. A child's shorts half buried in the wet sand. These were parts of what made up homes, and those homes made up communities in which there were good times, and tensions and disagreements and festive occasions. Births, marriages, deaths. And now, these are pitiful little objects, and the memory only of death.

We have, necessarily, to live with calamity. It may be an earthquake, or massive floods or this kind of destructive fury from the sea. We who survive, or are not touched by calamity because we are far from it, must understand that we may have been far from those that have occurred in the past. But all of us, without exception, live in the shadow of calamity. It is a realisation that must underlie our consciousness at all times.

True, we will have happy times with our friends and relatives; true, there will be holidays and festivals. But behind them all we need, I think, to know that there is most certainly a fragility, something we were born to, which none of us can escape. We may not suffer from any in our lifetime; but the fact is that we can. If we do not, someone we know will, or some relative or friend. To use T.S. Eliot's words in The Hollow Men:

Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow For Thine Is the Kingdom Between the emotion And the response Falls the Shadow Life is very long

What we can, and must do is rebuild our lives and homes as best we can, and continue living. Those who cannot, who have nothing with which to build, need to be given all the help they need. And this is the sad fact that we often come across; some help is given, but it is never ever enough. Those responsible simply must realise that the help to be given must be substantial, enough to give the person not just a room, or some grant, or foodgrains, but a means to carry on living as they used to. The private grief can never be removed; but short of that whatever is needed has to be given. It was not done after the earthquakes in Latur or Gujarat; something was done, but that something was not adequate. Instances of splendid work by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or individual officers are inspirations, true, but they must be the norm, not the exception.

This is the challenge that has to be taken up in the coastal regions of South India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Not of bringing relief - that will, no doubt, reach soon enough - but of rebuilding and restoring homes, roads, boats, ways of life. It may be a daunting prospect, but it has to be looked at squarely and work begun as soon as possible, methodically, according to well-thought-out plans. Only then will we have coped with the havoc the sea wrought on those whom it nurtured for so long. Not coped fully; we can never do that; but to the extent that is humanly possible, conscious always that nature can and will at some time or the other unleash such terrifying destruction on us, if only to make us conscious of our fragile existence.

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