Saturday, January 08, 2005


Dear Friends,
Yesterday I worked for the UN. No, actually I worked for two members of the UN press corps from Switzerland, or so their credentials said, though actually they were working for the Swiss National TV News. They were directed by the Swiss press bureau to a friend of Krishnammal’s in Chennai, who, in turn, sent them to us here in Kuthur. They are supposed to be working on a story about "the horrible plight of children affected by the tsunami", a real tear-jerker. It is a terrible plight of course, but their singlemindedness is somewhat annoying, in that they can’t seem to even imagine placing "the horrible plight of children" in a larger context. My dad and I tried to get them interested in the prawn issue (and we were making progress!) We would have gotten them to visit one of the farms, but Krishnammal was too tired to take them there. She has a bit of a cold.
Anyway, it is a very good thing that these people had someone to take them around, because otherwise they would have been totally lost. I am positively sure they would never have found the children they wanted to meet, and I am not even sure they would have made it to the Nagapattinam port and fish market, where the damage, even now when a lot of it has been cleaned up, is far beyond anything else they had seen. They rented a car in Chennai, their driver spoke almost no English, and had started to take them around to tourist destinations.
We stopped at a government-run orphanage, where we are not allowed to go inside. The District Collector has forbidden entrance (probably a good thing, given the crush of the media, and the fact that we get inside the gates is a tribute to Amma's powers of persuasion. We finally get to talk to some of the children, and learn that many of the older girls have only one set of clothes. Amma says she will talk to the Collector about this (successfully, it later turns out.). The children, especially the boys, are smiling as my dad discusses cricket and football with them, but I get the feeling that they are only laughing because no one has actually talked or listened to them in a long time. I suggest to Krishnammal that she should send Bhoomikumar, a child psychiatrist, here. And the children ask for Amma - their grandmother - to please come back. We will be returning. The TV folks get their footage of "the horrible plight of children affected by the tsunami."
We continue on to Nagapattinam. Our "UN" friends stop often to film the destruction. I had no idea how much time TV filming takes, and all of this film will be edited down to five minutes. My dad shows them the fish market, explains the height of the wave (at 42 feet, it went over the top of the two-story buildings nearest to shore), and introduces them to the head of the fisher folk community. The Sarvodaya team has cleaned out yet another school in the morning - this one a secondary school, and they are meeting with the children inside. Bhoomikumar helped dig out this school in the morning, and he, as the only member of this group who speaks English, Tamil, and Hindi, is translator for all of us. As we are playing with the children outside, suddenly there is a false alarm of another tsunami. Within seconds, the courtyard is empty, and the girl that the reporters were going to interview has disappeared. But they got more than enough film.
We return to Kuthur, where I, very apologetic, ask the cooks for a 3 pm lunch. Our cameraman, Carl, has never been to India before, and has never eaten rice with his fingers. He asks for a spoon, but no spoon can be found. Karnagi and the rest of the kitchen staff run all around the ashram, and finally completely avoid us. The only spoons are used for serving! Carl finally eats with his hand. Brigit relates how she was trying to get dressed in the morning but people kept coming into the office she was sleeping in unannounced. It must be a great shock going from such a private culture as Switzerland to a very public one such as India. My dad says that instead of shepherding TV people around, he had planned to spend the day fundraising (after some time at digging out), but before Carl and Brigit leave, they empty their pockets and give Amma more than 400 dollars. My dad says this is a first in his experience, as he has never known professional newspeople, while working on a story, to be particularly charitable. But they certainly couldn’t have done the story without us, and they have been moved and touched by Krishnammal’s work. We are hoping they come back to see the prawn farms.
That evening, after the digging team arrives, I try to learn to make chapattis (small, flat wheat cakes), but they keep coming out very strangely shaped, while those of my teacher, Aneema, are perfectly round circles.
After dinner, I am reading (the Journal of John Woolman, an 18th Century Quaker and anti-slavery activist) when Appa calls me. He, after asking what I did today, tells me the entire prawn saga and his involvement in it. I already know most of it, but I have wanted to hear it from his mouth. He also tells me his view of the tsunami: "I am very saddened that these people died. But also I am glad because the prawn farms are shut down. The Government did not enforce the Supreme Court order, so nature did!" That afternoon, Veerasami had come back from court, where his case had been postponed yet again. All of the LAFTI leaders had been arrested last year, and all of them, including Jagannathan, had been charged with attacking the prawn farms with weapons. In a reasonable world, of course, that charge would have been thrown out as ridiculous. Jagannathan is a 91-year-old man who is blind, mostly deaf, and slow-moving. (But, this morning I watched him do the yoga exercise Surya Namaskaram, the Greeting to the Sun, the first time he had done it in several months, with more flexibility than I have, and I am not so sure anymore.)
I have fallen behind in posting again. .
In the Light,


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