Friday, February 11, 2005


Buongiorno! Krishnammal's deep and warm voice awakens me up at 5.30 a.m., as it was decided last night "to go to the villages" and to see what the tsunami really meant to them. The huge starry sky of Tamil Nadu is still dark, the air is still cool and pleasant as the LAFTI courtyard comes alives and the muezzin from the nearby mosque is chanting his first call to prayer. I sleepwalk onto the jeep and sit next to Krishnammal , who has been up and awake since 4 o'clock and is now repeating some Italian words to me, as we have decided to have a short lesson every day. She's a really clever pupil, with an amazing memory and a stunning talent for pronunciation.

By now everybody at LAFTI knows that I am totally chai-addicted and they amusedly let me indulge my addiction. So the first stop is at Kilvelur, stirring with life at 6 o’ clock in the morning, where I drink up two delicious chais; they an the beauty of the countryside at sunrise make me forget about my sleepiness .

Our jeep proceeds slowly along the bumpy, narrow, dirt street running across paddy-fields lined with coconut-trees and dotted with lovely ponds covered with lotus flowers. There is lively, non- stop Tamil conversation on board of the jeep; I don't understand a single word of it, of course, but I let myself be carried away by those rounded, rhythmical and, to me, mysterious sounds, and by the beauty of the landscape.

We stop at a tiny village where a small crowd immediately gathers around Amma. Shining eyes, swinging heads, they all listen to her as she apparently scolds a young woman - but gently and with some humour too, as it seems. Back on the road, I ask her what the problem was. She tells me that the young woman lost her mother in the tsunami and went straight to Krishnammal to seek relief without bothering to go to the Collector and get what she was entitled to. Krishnammal smiles and concludes: "These people are so lazy!" And that's why her role and her constant presence here are so important, valuable, and irreplaceable.

As we drive on, I start thinking that, besides being such a wonderful person, Krishnammal should also be a seed to be sown into Tamil Nadu fields (those that are still fertile and not yet salinised by prawn-farming) so that many more people like her may grow, gifted with that same blend of determination and energy, kindliness, deep faith, and compassion that makes her so special.

We drive on, and the countryside gets sadder and sadder and turns into some sort of a wasteland because now there are large rectangles of arid and cracked land along the road, some already filled with seawater to breed the infamous prawns. Just before reaching Nagapattinam, we stop to visit a dalit community that lives some hundreds meters from the coast ,but doesn't belong to the fishermen community and therefore is not eligible for tsunami relief. They are now surrounded by barren fields no longer cropped, but used for prawn farming that expose their wretched village to devastating floods. Out of the mudhuts come women, men, and children. They surround
Krishnammal and tell her about their misery. Because of the prawn farms, they lost their jobs as laborers in the fields, and during last season torrential rainfalls their miserable village was flooded with seawater. LAFTI helped them out with rice, fabric, and sambar powder, but Ama reassures them and promises that she won't let them down and will find the means to alleviate their poverty and hasten them to join the protest against prawn farming.

We finally get to Nagapattinam where I can see what I saw on TV back home and filled me with horror, pain, and compassion. Life has picked up again and goes on almost as usual, one would say: much of the wreckage has been removed, but there is still much left and I see people walking around and filling their baskets with scraps, bits of wood, objects, and whatever else they find. The Central Government built some temporary sheds. "How long will the people live in these?" I ask Krishnammal. Three months at least, she answers me. I try to believe her but I'm not convinced.

There are no boats at sea, nor fishing nets on the beach. People read the newspaper while watching a bulldozer removing wreckage; the children are back at school and a crowded train slowly goes by amid overthrown boats, badly damaged houses, and uprooted bushes. Under such a blue sky and in such bright sunshine, the whole scene looks almost unreal and it's hardly possible for me to even imagine the shock of the sudden tragedy.

I treat myself to yet another chai before leaving Nagapattinam while Krishnammal is browsing the paper and showing me the picture of herself and Jagannathan facing the crowd that came to attend the conference they called to protest against prawn farming a few days ago. It's 10 o'clock, and on the way back to Kuthur, Amma holds my hand in hers and yawning tells me that she's hungry now; then she leans her head onto my shoulder and takes one of her micro-naps .She'll wake up 10 minutes later as we stop in front of LFTI office, fresh and awake and ready to tackle a whole series of activities and people awaiting her as the day has just started - although she's been up and around for 6 hours already.


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