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The return of the dead

Print edition : Jan 28, 2005 T+T-
in Thiruvananthapuram

IT was sunset, a week after the tsunami. The twilight breeze caressed the unexpected normality at Valiyathura fishing village, a stone's throw from the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. The beachfront wore its customary Sunday mood: women in conversational huddles, children scampering about, hip youngsters on their weekend rounds, inebriated card-players squatting on the pier.

A motley crowd had gathered at the edge of the beach, noses muffled with handkerchiefs and towels, peering curiously at the two sea-wrinkled legs that lay smothered in sand under a thatch. "It happens. Some fish are carnivorous," someone said.

The smell was overpowering, and the news spread.

A catamaran was hurriedly pushed into the rough-edged sea. Two men jumped in as it cleared the shore. "Can you swim?" someone shouted. Beyond floated a dark, lifeless form, partially clothed, moving aimlessly along the coastline. A few strong strokes with the paddle and the man up front lunged towards the figure. A warning rang from the shore: "Don't bring it here, please! This is our courtyard."

But the murky green sea was already frothing at the edges. The waves buffeted the catamaran with such force that it overturned on the beach. The `captain' dragged the body onto the wet sand. The crowd surged forward.

For days, men back from the sea had been full of stories of the dead bodies they had seen drifting along the Thiruvananthapuram coast, or dismembered bodies being thrashed about by the currents. They were worried that some of the corpses would get entangled in their nets. "But today the current is towards the shore," Xavier Lopez, the local ward councillor, said.

The leader of the police patrol party said that fishermen had already brought four other bodies to the shore that day in different parts of the city. "A young girl had bangles usually worn by women from coastal Tamil Nadu. The bodies do not decompose in sea water. But they start to smell immediately on reaching the shore. It is better for all that they get a burial in the sea that took them away."

The parish priest had a brief look, blessed the two souls, and left immediately. It was getting dark. An ambulance was on the way.

There were no further reports of the tsunami-dead reaching the shore. The city breathed a sigh of relief, at last.

The killer waves had left Thiruvananthapuram largely unscathed, though the water had risen and ebbed in several places. Twice after the tsunami, there was panic when television channels and government agencies aired warnings of another wave, triggering a refugee exodus reminiscent of war. People on the coastal road near the airport would not give way even for the Prime Minister's entourage. A few schools became "relief camps" for a couple of days. Then the fisherfolk in the State capital went back to the sea, their source of livelihood.