Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Meeting

Amma’s meeting went well. There were about 175 volunteers, representing as many as 40 villages, some ravished by floods, others by the tsunami, and still others being destroyed slowly from the seepage from the now-ruined prawn farms. First there were songs – new ones about the tsunami, older ones about the plight of the landless. These were accompanied by a tavil, a large two-headed drum, played with a stick and two fingers on one side, and on the other with five fingers with what appeared to be thick porcelain rings upon them (I imagine these were originally made of rhinoceros horn). There was also clarinet, very old, with a sticker of Jesus with an open heart on the bell. Between sets, the clarinetist, with the assistance of the tavil player, applied a thick coat of glue to the reed – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had been using the same reed for a decade. Appa gave a speech on how the villages must all take a vow to work together through thick and thin. I gave my speech, beginning with the difficulties of my clothing choices (I went with the shirt and dhoti), my scolding of Amma for not teaching me proper Tamil, and how I discovered I was a Tamil 27 years, just one who happened to be born in America. (Applause line.) I related the tale of how I first met Amma and Appa, and why my nickname is "rice-and-rasam man", and how Aliyah first met Appa for the first time when she was 3, and he in the Madras City Jail. And then I launched into my main theme (prompted by Krishhnammal) about how no one can give another social justice – you have to take it. I related Amma’s dream – an end to the mud huts of the poor. I ended with an apology for any mistakes in my mother’s translation, which caused great laughter, and the speech was well received.
Later, the army met to plan. Each village leader stood up and described what difficulties there might be in rebuilding the village houses. Some were ready to begin, only needing to get the brickmaking operations going, and to bring in Amma’s masons and carpenters. Still others would have to negotiate with the higher castes to be allowed to build on higher ground, as the current locations wouldn’t sustain a foundation, and it would be washed out in a flood. A few, with the help of the Collector, would need to move their villages entirely. All were suffering the effects of hunger primarily brought on by the pre-tsnumani floods, wiping out both employment, and harvests from their own fields.
The village leader of Papakovil was there. Papakovil is the dalit settlement built right on the beach in Nagapattinam next to the higher caste fisherfolk of Akkarapethi. They took the full brunt of the tsunami, perhaps more than any other village in the area, and yet had received no aid from anyone whatsoever, and were unlikely included in any of the official accounts of the dead or missing. Now the collector and the aid agencies were proposing to move the remaining folks to one of the relief camps.
The leader of Papakovil is a courageous man, and the strain showed clearly on his face when he spoke. From what I could make out, after long deliberations the village has refused to move to the temporary relief camps set up by the government and the relief agencies, or to accept outside aid except for what is absolutely necessary. Instead, he came to the meeting to ask for help in moving his entire village. He sees the writing on the wall – if they move to the "temporary" relief camps, they may never get out. Their traditional employment -- not as fisherman, but as carriers and helpers -- will likely never be regenerated. So he wants to resettle his people, have them build their own permanent housing with Krishnammal’s army, and, above all, to build a school. The dalits have been treated badly in the local schools south of Nagapattinam even before the tsunami, and he sees that only in educating the children do they have a future. The adults may all be unemployed for a long time to come (perhaps forever?), but at least they will be building a new existence for themselves. His address was very moving, and I was extremely sorry for my lack of Tamil. The villagers from the flood plain – already with virtually nothing to their names -- extended a warm welcome to him, and pledged to help. Krishnammal is going to see the Collector about finding land for the new permanent homes for the people of Papakovil.
Tsunami relief brings into strong "relief" the fissures and fault lines in both local and global social orders. On the global scale, the international relief agencies claim for themselves the right to go virtually wherever they wish, set up camps where they like, dole out aid as they decide, and, in some cases, feed the adoption mills of the West. The Indian government agencies are thankful for the assistance, but they openly wonder what would happen if they acted similarly when there are earthquakes in, say, the United States. Could Indian adoption agencies send their agents to Santa Cruz, California, to arrange the adoption of migrant Hispanic laborers hit hard in the earthquake of 1989? How would they be received if an Indian aid agency sent over a plane load filled with chappaties and sambar, and hired trucks to distribute them? Or dropped sarees or cookware by the side of the road without talking with anyone they expected to receive them?
Then there is the fissure between the rich and the poor. Who gets the assistance – the owner of the house, or the tenants? What happens in the case where the owner occupies the house with five other tenant families? And what about food? Some of the poor residents of the temporary shelters in Chennai were quoted in the paper as saying they had never eaten so well in their lives, so well in fact that it was playing havoc with their digestive tracts, and physicians had to be called in. Was the tsunami the answer to their prayers for something to eat? Or was it to receive a set of old encyclopedias, published in English, as was found in one relief bundle?
What is the proper role of insurance? You can insure a fishing boat, or a prawn farm, or beachfront hotel, but what about a mud hut, or income generated by small-scale tidal fishing, or basketweaving based on a continuing supply of marsh weeds?
The man from ASHA was amazed by what he saw. "I came to find out what could be done to aid in tsunami relief," he said, "and now I see there is a tsunami in this area all the time." I explained to him in detail how thin the lines actually are between the tsunami victims, the flood victims, and the prawn farm victims (the victims of "free trade"), and made arrangements for him to visit the lands left barren by the prawn farms himself. The irony is that, in supporting the World Bank plans, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization backed the prawn farms as a way of providing "protein" to the poor. In South India, a kilogram of export prawns costs approximately 400 rupees ($9 U.S.) or 33% more than the 300 rupees per month Krishnammal is paying her army in her food-for-work program. I asked the villagers whether anyone had ever eaten a tiger prawn, and they looked at me as if I’d come from Mars!
Meanwhile, Krishnammal has taken to providing at least temporary employment to the weavers of the fishing baskets. "I don’t need to go to meetings when I can help directly," she says, "I just call up the Collector, and make sure the NGOs don’t get in way." She already has a plan for marketing.
Today, a new relief team arrived from Uttar Pradesh in northerm India. They are apparently quite experienced, having worked previously after the last earthquake in the Gulf of Kutch in western India. Jorgen our Danish friend went out with them, cleaning and sweeping streets and ditches, and came back all sun-reddened and a changed man. "I expected to stay on one more day," he says, "but now I will stay five." Local residents, still in shock, came out to help the clean-up team. Jorgen was particularly moved by the sight of hundreds of cassette tapes, with the tapes unraveled like tangled nets, on the roadway. "I can’t get out of my mind what might have been on those tapes," he says, "a child’s favorite music? Or someone’s memoirs? We clean up all we can, but like the tapes, we know that nothing will ever be the same again." I remind him what I told him when he arrived on his first day – he had come for a reason, though it was yet to be discovered what that reason is. "Yes, you were right," he says in a broad Danish accent. I make it a point to teach him the two words that can always ensure one’s survival in Tamil Nadu, "vallaipallam" (virtually unpronounceable, at least by me, but which means "banana") and "podum" (with which Jorgen has trouble, meaning "enough", as in "don’t put anymore on my plate or I will burst!") We send him to take a shower – it is likely that he has been working among raw sewage, as we had at the schools. Several of the workers had become sick, and required antibiotics. I expect Jorgen will be staying longer 10 days, if we can rope him into the army of compassion. He is employed as a primary school teacher, but is a skilled carpenter, having built two homes for his family, and I can picture up among the rafters as the new homes in Aathur go up.
That evening, we take a tearful farewell, with Aliyah promising to return this summer. There is more work for her to do, and I exact a promise from Krishnammal that she will teach Aliyah proper Tamil! When we get off the overnight train in Chengelput, who should we find but one of LAFTI’s drivers Muttukumar? It turns out that Krishnammal has been stockpiling relief supplies – mostly food and medicine, but also more cloth for petticoats – at 12 different locations in the Madras area, and Muttukumar has been gathering them up to ship to Kuthur, on the theory that when the relief agencies are gone, and the government loses interest (one already senses some of this in the newspaper), the people will still have access to what they need.


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