Monday, January 03, 2005


Chengelput -

Krishnammal my mother meets us at the
Madras airport. There she is - looking 
exactly the same as she has for the entire 
27 years I have known her. When she was 
51, she looked old; now that she is 78, 
she looks spry. The usual dress - cotton 
sari (likely a hand-me-down from her 
daughter.) No jewelry. No shoes. You 
would never pick her out of a crowd until 
you confronted her enormous, all 
encompassing energy.

She is, to my way of thinking, surprisingly
serene, but then nothing surprises me 
about her anymore. She gives a big hug, 
and ushers us to the car. "Sathya (my 
sister the pediatrician) told me just to 
send the driver, but I must greet all my 
children," she says, I knowing that if 
you ask her how many children she cares 
for, she'll ask in return, "How many are 

Turns out she is in Madras, having just
returned from her center in Kuthur, in 
Nagai District, the area most affected by 
the tsunami, distributing flood relief 
aid. "The floods were terrible this year,
" she says, and explains that she has 
spent the last two months trying to 
convince the state government to act with 
greater speed, as there are several 
hundred thousand people close starvation. 
"There is no food and houses are falling 
down." For the past two weeks, or so it 
is reported in the press, she has been 
going door-to-door in the neighborhoods 
of the rich - singling out those in which 
government ministers live - in order to 
collect voluntary donations. She has 
collected 50,000 rupees (roughly $2,000), 
but the main purpose is to shame the 
government into action, which she believed 
she had done before the tsunami hit. On 
the evening of Christmas Day, she completed 
distributing rice and blankets among the 
poorest of the poor.

"The land will not hold water any longer
she says," attributing the problem to the 
destruction of the green belt brought on 
by the spread of prawn aquaculture. "Every 
year it is worse; first drought, then 
flood." About the tsunami, she notes that 
many, many have died, and she likely knows 
the majority of them, at least in Nagai 
District. "What to do?" she says, throwing 
up her hands, "we will do what we have 
always done. There is no point in crying 
on the battlefield." She doesn't have to 
say more. Many of her workers have lost 
family members. She has 67 nephews and 
nieces, and at last count, perhaps as 
many as 360 grandnephews and nieces, and 
somehow she seems to know where they all 
are. And there are hundreds of thousands 
of people who call her "Amma" (mother), 
and she knows them all.

There are ironies - so many! At Cuddalore,
many more died than would have even 5 
years ago, because only a fraction of the 
fishermen were at sea. Of all the 
fishermen who went out that day, not a 
single one suffered even a scratch. But 
the destruction of the local habitat, of 
the mangrove forests, had destroyed most 
of the fish breeding grounds, and the 
daily catch has dropped by as much as 
80%. As a result, the fishermen have been 
rotating their time at sea, so as to 
prevent overfishing. What will happen now 
is anyone's guess.

She says all the children at the youth
hostels are okay as far as they know, 
though many have no idea what has happened 
to remaining family members. But water is 
already very dfficult. Where children 
have some remaining family connections, 
Krishnammal is trying to send the children 
to them, to renew family ties in a time 
of grief.

My father, now 91, is virtually blind
(we wrote about how he lost his sight in 
the battle against the prawn farms in 
"The Color of Freedom"), and deaf in one 
ear, and sleeps a lot. But he too is in 
relatively good humor. The press has been 
calling him - he has been preaching about 
the need for a green belt near the shores 
for more than 10 years, and has been 
imprisoned numerous times to try to 
protect what little remains of a 
livelihood for the rural poor. His 
demons have been exorcised. "The prawn 
farms are all gone," he says gleefully, 
but then will cry himself to sleep about 
all the people lost to the great wave.

He is prepared for battle again, though
he doesn't yet see clearly which one. 
"The government will compensate the 
companies and the hotels and the 
businesspeople," he says, "but who will 
care for our people when the relief 
organizations go home?" Krishnammal 
shrugs. She knows that while he sleeps 
intermittently in the day time, he will 
stay up all night wrestling in his mind. 
He is a prophet, and will await his 
voices. When we tell him the name of the 
book about his life "The Color of Freedom", 
he says, "Bright color, no?"

My brother has come in from Cambodia. He
helps run the country's only mental 
health center for children, where besides 
working with children, he trains 
psychiatric nurses and social workers. 
He says most of the country's doctors and 
nurses and social workers were killed in 
the 1970s, and it has been slow-going to 
recreate the needed infrastructure.

We are not headed immediately to Nagai
District. There is nothing as yet to do. 
The workers here are already thrown into 
relief operations, and the government 
has closed the area to voluntary relief 
agencies until they figure out some plan 
of coordination. In addition, people just 
need some time to mourn, something that 
has been denied them in the immediate 
aftermath of the event. The local people 
find talk of adopting out the children 
offensive, this at a time when communities 
look to their children as their most 
precious remaining commodity. There are 
several teams experienced in earthquake 
relief in the north that are coming, and 
Krishnammal is on the phone incessantly 
helping them plan. "We do not want them 
to stay in hotels," she says, "but in the 
homes of the rich. This is the least that 
can be expected in this hour of need."

"Meanwhile we must plan to feed everyone,
" says Amma (with visitors having turned 
up repeatedly during the day, and more 
relief workers headed to her place from 
other parts of India. It is not clear 
whether she means the flood victims or 
those who are flooding to her doorstep 
seeking the next thing to be done. Knowing 
Krishnammal as I do, she likely means 
both, and it is not even, in her mind, 
a meaningful distinction. I asked her 
where she gets all the food to feed the 
endless stream, and she shrugs her 
shoulders. "God provides the food," she 
says, "that is the hard part. My only job 
is figuring out how to distribute it."

Dear Friends,

This picks up from the time on the 31st
when my Dad's last entry left off. We are 
trying to catch up, without too much 

At about 2pm, Sathya arrived back at the
house, telling us that she was going to 
visit a fishing village near the ancient 
temple of Mahabalipuram with the 
Ramakrishna mission, a charitable 
organization, to provide medical services. 
She invited us to come.

We set off for the village in the same
car that had brought us from the airport, 
heading out into more rural areas. We 
exchanged the powerful smells of Indian 
cities for the subtle, sweet scents of 
rice paddies. The colors around us were 
chiefly the rich, bright red of the Tamil 
soil, and the yellow-green of vegetation. 
Cows and goats crossed the highway. Water 
buffalo grazed along the roadside, and 
chickens pecked at whatever they could 

After a while, we passed a tollbooth,
which, before last week's disaster, had 
extracted money from tourists going to 
visit Mahabalipuram or one of the many 
posh hotels surrounding it. These hotels 
are gone now, washed away by a 40-foot 
wall of water, but the 6th Century Chola 
temple, built right on the shore, is 
still standing. It has probably seen 
many other disasters, and survived them 

After the tollbooth, it is not far to the
fishing village. As we approach, we see 
people living in tents flimsily 
constructed of palm leaves. Sathya and 
the other doctors go to their work, and 
two men of the village, one of whom speaks 
some English, accompany us down to the 
remains of the village.

The small village of Kookilamedu was
probably quite picturesque before the 
tsunami hit. The houses, those few left 
standing, are painted in bright pastel 
colors, pinks and greens and blues. Now, 
however, most of the houses are smashed 
to pieces. The first row, of new houses 
built barely 100 feet from the sea, was 
completely destroyed, so that I would 
never have known anything was built there 
if my guide had not told me.

I walk, carefully, around boats smashed
against poles or carried hundreds of feet 
into the woods (My guide tells me that 
many of these brightly painted boats were 
new, and cost about $1,200, a huge sum). 
Tangled fishing nets, broken tree trunks, 
dead chickens, children's clothing and 
shoes litter the ground. In this hamlet 
of 130 families, 150 people are dead. We 
pass the small village temple, around 
which the water parted, forming huge pits 
in the ground. The temple clock reads 
4:15, strangely keeping the right time. 
A volleyball net stands on the beach, a 
strangely incongruous sight amid the 
wreckage. The sea rushes in an inviting 

Fishing is the only thing these people
know, yet now they are afraid of the sea, 
and are moving the village to a kilometer 
away from the shore. Before the wave hit, 
one of the guides says, the water receded 
so far that all that could be seen was 
sand to the horizon. As we walk back along 
a ruined road, a woman, sitting in front 
of her badly damaged house where laundry 
is still hanging, begins to harangue the 
guides in Tamil. One of them explains to 
me, "She says I should not have brought 
you here. This village is an embarrassment 
to her." The lives of these people, 
without their boats or nets or houses, is 
very uncertain.

We return to the only undamaged building,
behind which Sathya and the other doctors 
are giving tetanus vaccinations and 
antibiotics to all of the villagers. 
Drinking water had been piped into the 
village, as it is too close to the ocean 
for wells, but now it must be trucked in 
from Chengalpattu, 30 miles away. Although 
the doctors are only giving tetanus 
injections today, they will return for 
cholera, typhoid, and dysentery.

Two girls, about eight years old, with
flowers braided into their black hair, ask 
me to take their picture. I ask their 
names, and then stumble over the 
pronunciation. They do much better with 
"Aliyah." Sathya has finished her work 
for now, and we return to her house, where 
Amma, Appa, and Bhoomi are waiting for us.

I will write again soon, when I can find a good way to describe Krishnammal.

In the Light,



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