Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I'm still struggling to get my last bit of sleep despite the voices in the courtyard , the roaring engine of the truck and the barking dogs, when I hear the door of my room shake under the powerful banging of the typical Tamil-style wake-up call. T. Muttakumar informs me that the car is ready, waiting to take me to the famous (mangrove) lagoon, as organized and arranged by Krishnammal. so that I have something to do while she's away in Chennai.

By now I've learnt to ask the key question, that is, whether I have to be ready "immediately" and "immediately" I'm reassured that I don't need to be "immediately" ready. The term itself, although so much used and abused in India, should indeed be cancelled from the Anglo-Indian vocabulary as its meaning very rarely has any basis in the real world.

It's a wonderful, old Ambassador that is waiting for me in front of the LAFTI office, already blessed and perfumed by the burning joss-stick stuck in the dashboard. On board there's me, the driver, a LAFTI worker whose name I can't understand as he seems to be able to produce a single sound, some sort of a syllable-less vibration to answer any question I ask him, so I give up and decide to call him simply "trrtrtrrrtr" to make things easier; and Mariputhu, who is the most fluent in English.

After the indispensable stop at a chai shop just outside Thiruvarur, we drive across the gorgeous and by now familiar Tamil Nadu countryside, passing by small rural villages, huge and shady trees and rows and rows of tall and slender palms. It looks ever more beautiful when contemplated from the window of the comfortable Ambassador where I sit back and relax, happily exempted from the lively Tamil conversation that goes on among my three companions.

After some hesitations, a couple of wrong turns and some information gathered from meditative peasants, we get onto a bumpy direct road that from the green paddy-fields takes us out into a wide expanse of barren and cracked land that vanishes into the flat horizon where something is shimmering, like water, the lagoon perhaps or a mirage maybe.

We stop again and while the sun is rising higher and higher in the sky and the wind keeps on blowing, a long conversation/negotiation takes place with a man who appears from nowhere, looks a bit like a sadhu but is equipped with ropes, a sickle, and a water jar and goes on talking and talking and giggling from time to time.

Then a boy on a bicycle comes and leaves and, finally, I'm given a short summary of what has been discussed so far: first that we'll have to walk about four miles under the sun to reach the lagoon; then that a boat is being arranged to take us there and, finally, as the boat is not available, Marimuthu in his very concise English, gives me a very short description of what a lagoon is -water! - and invites me to use my imagination to visualize it as there's no way to get to the real one.

Then a third character materializes in front of us: a short and stout man on a motorbike who turns out to be in charge of one of those pumps that draws water from the canal and pours it into the wasteland to make salt - if I understand correctly what Marimuthu tells me in his minimal English.

For a second, the "imagination" option is considered again, but the next minute, there are three of us (the pump-guardian, Marimuthu, and myself) riding the motorbike to reach the mangroves.

Beside an imaginary line that marks the border of the wasteland starts the reforestation area where small mangroves are starting to grow along the narrow canals dug by the local Forestry Board. We leave the bike and proceed on foot through the low bushes until we reach the border of the mythical lagoon. We are five kilometers away from the ocean and 15 kilometers from Sri Lanka, I'm told. The sun is high in the sky now and beats fiercely on us but the wind is still blowing and now I can feel the distant smell of the sea in it and make out tiny seashells in the mud, and using my "imagination", I can see the coast and the nearby island, devastated by war and tsunami. A heron stands hesitantly on one leg, a worn-out boat is abandoned on the shore, some birds set off flying, all around us there is water, sky and the low skyline of the mangrove forest vanishing at the horizon.

Behind us, instead, beyond that imaginary line, which I fear the economic interests of a few will try to push further and further ahead, is the dried-up, gray, and cracked land destined to produce salt and breed the infamous prawns.

Just a visual consideration would be enough to condemn this environmental crime but unfortunately this is not purely an aesthetic concern. The damage is subtle and unstoppable, it seeps into the ground, kills fertility and vegetation, opens up the way to floods and consequent misery. And the old beat goes on: a few get richer and richer whilst India and its people are left with neither profits, nor jobs … nor prawns (!!!) but a sad expanse of wasteland.


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