Saturday, January 08, 2005

False Alarm

Yesterday, I witnessed the most affecting moment of our entire trip. I am used to the pictures of the piled up bodies, the children laid out in a row like so much firewood, the tangles of fishnets and fishing tackle under which lay more bodies, the children in the orphanages and hostels, the boats crushed, or still lying incongruously half a mile from the shore.
The work party had just finished shoveling out the two school buildings, swept them clean, repaired what furniture could be salvaged, arranged things as best as possible. Krishnammal is buying new books and furniture, and is sending a painting team to whitewash the buildings. We gathered all the school children who were wandering around, and with their teachers, held a small celebration. My brother the child psychiatrist served as master of ceremonies, as he was the only one who could navigate the various languages. There were songs and games. I taught the children a funny game called "Elephant and Palm Tree". Aliyah sang a stirring version of the Quaker hymn, "How Can I Keep from Singing?"
"No storm shall shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging,
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
Her voice (my, how it has grown!) brought the boisterousness of the crowd down to a dead silence. The leader of the Oriyans presented the head teacher with a cricket bat and ball, and a ring toss, and several other items that were much appreciated.
We went outside to play with the children. Watching the American attempting to look like he was playing cricket was a source of great amusement. Then someone came running, "A tsunami is coming!" The children, followed by the adults, ran to the house tops (I must admit that I didn’t, having done a quick calculation that a) it was 95% likely to be a rumor, and that with all the cellphones around, there was ample time for a warning if needed (one of the doctors connected to a tv station on his cellphone, and there was no news whatsoever), and b) at this distance, the last tsunami, which was 42 feet high at the point it hit the shore (you have to do some real imagining to find yourself below a 42-foot wave!) was only three feet high when it got to the school.
Eventually, I did climb one of the roofs just to see what all the scurrying in the surrounding area looked like. There on the roof was a small boy, no more than three-feet tall, who had been at the school gathering, and he burst trembling into tears. He had lost both his mother and father in the great wave, and now he believed the new wave was coming for him. I put my arm around his shoulder, and spoke softly to him in English, knowing that he wouldn’t understand a word, but I hoped that at least a little human contact might make a modicum of difference. Of course, I had the urge to take him with me, but that would serve my needs, not his. He needs to reconnect with what is left of his community, which is why he was hanging around the school to begin with.
We have received so many terrific offers of help, and I wish I could personally thank you all (and will when I get the opportunity): from a doctor in Bhutan trained in emergency relief, to a group of homeschooling moms making and selling natural child products. When Laura Coppo, the author of "The Color of Freedom" read of "Maharani (Queen) Krishnammal’s Petticoat Production Unit", she decided to contact the women of a national association of Italian wine producers – "The Women of Wine" – to specifically support this project. We are all extremely amused by this – Jagannathan has been repeatedly jailed in campaigns against alcohol. Krishnammal is much more open to this possibility. Immediately, out poured Tamil proverbs. Bhoomikumar contributed "Money obtained from selling a dog will not bark." We had breakfast with Krishnammal’s administrative director – Veerasami – who comes originally from a fishing community, and he contributed "The money obtained in selling dried fish will not stink." It sounds like one great "money-laundering" operation, but it will all be to good purpose. Krishnammal says the petticoats cost approximately $1 a piece to produce, and has already employed all 100 members of the tailoring unit (who all wear their own hand-made uniforms) stitching away. In fact, the tailoring unit has become so crowded, that she has decided to move some of the tailoring women right into the fishing villages to produce petticoats on demand. She is a like a great general (I hate military imagery!), mobilizing an army of compassion.
Jagannathan held a public meeting for the Oriyans, so they could ask him about his life and work, and he lecture them about prawn farm, mangrove forests, and the need for green belts. It turns out that the Tamil words for mangrove forests is "Alaiyathi Kadu", which translates as "trees that soothe the waves". Another "Ah-hah" moment – tsunamis and cyclones have hit Tamil Nadu before, and the people know the value of conservation practices and natural protections, and have literally incorporated it into their language. The government wants to build a giant concrete wall, a great boon for building contractors, and likely to be of virtually no use whatsoever against coastal flooding.
Jagannathan practiced his lecture on Aliyah last evening for about 90 minutes, in English, and then spoke to the workers in what Bhoomikumar says was flawless and excellent Hindi. (Where do these extraordinary language skills come from?) Then he showed them all how to spin on his Gandhian spinning wheel – the young people rarely see this nowadays, and they sang revolutionary songs from the 1970s, when Jagannathan was fighting and then imprisoned during Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties. He is in his element, and seems to have lost 20 years in a flash. Bhoomikumar notes that if this were a meeting led by Krishnammal, the songs would have more a folksy and quasi-religious cast.
Much more will follow. With thanks again for your prayers, thoughts, and contributions.


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