Father of Handmade Matches



"We invite all on the occasion of honouring our Founder
Sri. KAKA. A. SHUNMUGA NADAR
on his Centenary Birth Anniversary by releasing a
Commemorative postal cover at
Sivakasi Master Printers Association Hall,
Sivakasi on 29-1-2005

There's so much wonderful writing around, and today I don't feel that I can write at all, and even if I did, what? Talk about fiddling while Rome burns: eating peppercorns while the world convulses. I can hardly bestir myself to put titles to these word-bites. So here are two places I have found recently, where people are writing beautifully, in very different ways:

BridalBeer - about living in Calcutta, foreign-returned, under pressure to get married. Quotes old Hindi film songs (with translation). Is vivid and funny.

Her Little Bird - just read it, and find out for yourself.


Speaking of the convulsing world, two recent Google referrals made all those pathetic requests for "pron" look wholesome:
Pictures of Tibetan Women Torture Equipment
pictures of indian women urinating

Sometimes I think I shouldn't even look at them.
via moleskinerie: I spent a good chunk of the day looking at this amazing sketchbook: Carnets de digestion. This page expresses a lot about the way I've been feeling lately, especially after reading this Seymour Hersh interview (via Cassandra Pages and Laughing Knees)

Taste

I went to Suriya Greens, and bought tomatoes, big white onions in a small net bag, potatoes, zucchini, yellow peppers, carrots, black eggplants, strawberries. I gave up non-vegetarian food for the New Year (assuming that eggs are honorary vegetables), and since then vegetable shapes and colours have appeared more sensuous, colourful, inviting, than ever before.

I bought a bag of fresh peppercorns, clustered thickly on their stems like beads. We make it into a simple pickle: corns still on the stem, lemon juice, turmeric, salt. I chewed a green sphere and submitted to its explosion of dark heat and flavour. Fifteen minutes later the right side of my mouth, where I bit down on it, still burned; but softly, just to remind me.

Raincoat; and spikes

Yesterday and the day before, we saw (twice) one of the best Indian movies ever. It was certainly no less than the great films of Adoor Gopalakrishna, Benegal, Ray, etc.: Raincoat, by the Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh (I love Bengali names – Rituparno is such a pleasure to say). During most of the film there are only two characters on screen, both of them played by mainstream Bollywood actors who are here just very good actors: Aishwarya Rai, who, in mainstream films, often looks doll-like and shallow – but who can also be bruised and fragile; and Ajay Devgan, who started out as an "action hero", but who has been getting better and better, and who doesn’t put a foot wrong here.


According to Ramesh, the story comes out of a Bengali romantic tradition, in which two people love each other, perhaps even from childhood, but the girl is married to someone else, and the boy never marries at all. In the most popular version of this paradigm, Devdas, the hero quickly drinks himself to death. In this version, the two characters have both failed, or been failed by, life, but they go on, as people actually do. One afternoon they meet again, talk for a few hours, and part. That's most of the story. It was quiet, delicate, intimate.

There were so many small, perfect things in this film. Some humour, no melodrama. Most of the film is set in a musty room full of dark furniture, on a dark, rainy Calcutta day with the windows closed. The sound of rain, and street noises, form the soundtrack much of the time, with some haunting semi-classical songs in the background at other times. Flashbacks are golden, bright, full of colour. Annu Kapoor has a small but vivid role as the landlord, which reminded me again what a good actor he is. The screenplay was so carefully written that everything is explained, loose ends are tied up. The plot twist, inspired by O. Henry, is made believable, because you are prepared for it...

Go see this film! Or get the DVD. Everyone should see it!

Listen to Songs from Raincoat (the song Mathura Nagarpati, a hymn about Krishna, sung in the background by Shubha Mudgal is haunting and beautiful)
A (fairly dull) interview with Rituparno Ghosh (not his fault – silly questions)
A review


Since I started writing this blog, I have had three spikes in the number of visitors (modest spikes -- this is a very small establishment): first, when I linked to articles about the suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani; then, after the tsunami (which was comforting, because at least some of those people were wondering what had happened to me); and now, courtesy of the recently-departed actress, Parveen Babi. Death and disaster. Sex would do it too, obviously, if that were on offer here: how many desires I have failed to satisfy, for pictures of 'Aishwarya Rai without chaddi (underwear)' and such…!

More Fear

My staff ran in a panic yesterday afternoon, but toward the ocean, to find out whether their houses and families were safe. How long will it take for the aftershocks to stop?

Panic in Chennai, Nagapattinam
CHENNAI, JAN. 24 . An earthquake of the magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale was recorded this morning off the West Coast of the Great Nicobar Island.

This was the 140th aftershock since the Sumatra earthquake of December 26, 2004 including the 58 tremors in January. ...

... the impact of the earthquake was felt in many parts of Chennai such as St. Thomas Mount and Santhome.

This morning's tremor triggered panic among some people in the city who feared that another tsunami might strike Chennai. ...

Potholes

I got a good, rueful laugh from this -- from Selective Amnesia:
Madras [i.e. Chennai] is famous, as most people will know, for its potholes. There's even a joke in which a man asks another man "where does this pothole lead to?"

More on Implicit Assumptions and Biases

I had earlier linked to an online test for implicit assumptons and biases. There's an extremely interesting article in Sunday's Washington Post about how the test came to be devised: See no Bias: "Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced. Now a new test provides powerful evidence that a majority of us really are. Assuming we accept the results, what can we do about it?"

It should be obvious that many or most or all of one's assumptions are strongly conditioned by one's culture; but the article contained a wonderful image of that idea: "The Implicit Association Test measures the thumbprint of the culture on our minds," says Banaji, one of three researchers who developed the test..."

(Thanks, Julianna.)

Parveen Babi

Parveen Babi, one of the most beautiful, and notoriously troubled, Hindi film stars of the seventies (coincidentally, one of the stars of Amar Akbar Anthony, which I mentioned yesterday) has died.


This is from The Telegraph, Calcutta:
Parveen Babi lived on screen as the face of the bohemian Indian woman and died the ultimate lonely star behind locked doors.

One of Hindi cinema’s first glamour girls, who starred in some of the biggest hits of the 70s and 80s — often opposite Amitabh Bachchan, as in Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony — was found in her Juhu flat today, probably two days after she died.

Parveen Babi, who lived alone — not allowing in visitors or even a servant — had not opened the door of her flat for three days. Noticing newspapers and milk bottles piling up, the secretary of the building, Riviera, called police. The cops opened the door with a duplicate key to find her dead.

The police ruled out foul play or suicide. “The post-mortem report is yet to come out, but it seems she died a natural death. It appears she died 40 hours before her body was found,”

...

The svelte and sophisticated actress, who was unafraid to smoke or drink on camera when these were taboo, led the life of an absolute recluse because she was afraid people were trying to kill her.

Rarely seen in public since she suddenly left the country in the early nineties to return three years ago, Parveen Babi’s last appearance was at a media conference in 2002 when she said she had evidence against Sunjay Dutt in the 1993 blasts case. But she did not appear in court to give evidence. Parveen Babi also claimed that many people, including Bachchan, were trying to kill her. She denied the charge later and the case was dismissed .... (more)

And from The Hindustan Times, Controversies Surrounding Parveen Babi:
Early 70s: Parveen Babi first became controversial with her sensational interviews. She was the first heroine to openly take drugs and talk about it. Like many in her generation, Babi openly advocated free love. She gave candid quotes about her affairs with married men like Danny Denzongpa, Mahesh Bhatt and Kabir Bedi, whom she even ran away to Italy with. However, it is alleged that she was madly in love with superstar Amitabh Bachchan and unable to bear him rejecting her advances, she fell into a vicious circle of unsatisfactory relationships.

Mid 70's: Bizarre stories about Babi began making the rounds in film glossies. She was allegedly suffering from Schizophrenia and believed that there was a giant conspiracy against her and that people wanted her dead. She was involved in an intense and destructive relationship with Mahesh Bhatt and suffered a nervous breakdown.

1979: Babi sought mental and spiritual solace through alternative contemporary spirituality. She followed Osho the Indian "Love Guru" for a few years and became involved with the teachings of UG Krishnamurti. Meanwhile, the relationship with Bhatt ended and he made Arth, a semi-autobiographical look at his extramarital relationship with Babi...(more)

Legs


No spindly legs here! They are organic, bulbous as the outgrowths of pipal trees -- on the left, a faux-village coffee table (!?!); on the right, a cane settee


From The Hindu: Reservations keep fishermen from sea


Boats lying idle in a fising harbour in Chennai - Photo: R. Ragu

...It has almost been a month since the tsunami struck. Not all boats, especially in Chennai, were destroyed or damaged by the giant waves. Ministers and officials have been trying to encourage fishermen to resume their operations. But there seems to be reservations among them about resuming their livelihood, for a variety of reasons. ...

"The waters are not clear. People do not want to eat fish. They think it will be infected. What is the use of going out to sea now? ...

On another front, officials, non-governmental organisations and veterinarians are trying to drive home the message: "Fish are safe for eating." Some organisations are planning to conduct fish-eating demonstrations to infuse confidence in the people that fish have not been infected in the wake of the tsunami.

The Chennai Corporation launched a "eat fish" campaign with a special buffet for corporators.(more)

Some Links

Dilip D'Souza's blog, Death Ends Fun, has a charming piece about a visit to his grandfather's abandoned house, on Montieth Road in Chennai: Swishing my bat.

And his latest entry, about jazz in Bollywood, links to a fascinating article: Remembering Anthony Gonsalves. One of the first Hindi films I saw was Amar Akbar Anthony. No one who saw it could forget Amitabh Bachchan singing 'My Name is Anthony Gonsalves,' but I'm sure few people knew that there was a real Anthony, a Goanese musician, arranger and composer who worked in the film studios of Bollywood. The article is about Anthony Gonsalves and other musicians who brought jazz influences into Bollywood film music.

(For those who don't know it, Amar Akbar Anthony had one of the most ridiculous plots of all time: three brothers, separated at birth and raised by foster parents in three different religions. Grown up and reunited through a series of improbable coincidences, they end up lying side by side in hospital beds around their injured mother, also recently rediscovered, all donating blood to her at the same time, with the blood-filled tubes flowing direcly from their bodies to hers! It was a triumph!)

Another link: Still Waters Run Deep - watercolour paintings by Indian contemporary artists.

Okay, one more: Another Subcontinent: South Asian Society and Culture

Slither

Slither


There's a Good Snake in the compound, the gardener says.
He speaks of it with gesture and whisper.
I rear my forearm inquiringly,
cup my hand for the flared hood.
He moves in response.
We threaten each other.

The women who work in the house
had urged me to hire him: He's young,
they said, and not too dark.
A country boy, he'll work hard.

When I give him instructions
he puts his palms together,
bows quickly and looks awed, or frightened.
He's very strong, he carries a machete.
He says it's for the cobra.

I walk in the garden and hear my echo,
the start and sudden stop of rustle, slither,
in corners where dead leaves gather.
We two gods keep uncertain pace together.

The Ocean of Stories

People are so afraid – today Selvadurai came running with a rumour that the water had risen again, and caused terrible destruction on the Marina. Mary became frightened, of course, because her son lives near the Lighthouse. Then, within a few minutes, Chinnaraj came from outside to say that it was all a rumour, but that the police had come to check the beach. These rumours rise and spread like fire.


There's another one that seems more plausible to me: some people living in the Srinivasapuram slum have relatives in Kalpakkam, where the nuclear plant is. The plant is right on the ocean – part of its cooling system involves seawater, and water did apparently rush into an intake pipe and flood something, and the town was evacuated, and many people there were drowned. But since then, officials have been making reassuring noises and saying that nothing has been damaged. But Mary said that people from Kalpakkam have told their relatives here that a pipe has broken, and gas has leaked, and if you smell that gas you die.

And Lakshmi saw on the TV news a big ship that had broken in half, and one half went this way and one half went that way, and a helicopter was shown, lifting up two people from the deck. And this has been woven into the larger story, of the malevolent sea, which cannot be trusted at all at the moment.

Mary, being a devout Christian, is inclined to think that it’s the Last Days. I said, “Then you shouldn’t be afraid, you should be happy.” But she grinned and looked abashed, and muttered something about her grandchildren.

Who can blame them for their fear?

I was feeling sorry about all this, and also thinking about how much of my life is a story related to me by someone else. Perhaps this is true for most of us – we may get our stories from friends, blogs, newspapers, TV – and maybe it’s lucky for us.

I thought of the minor Greek philosopher whose work survives only in palimpsest, and imagined him having a kind of half-life in those half-erased letters, trapped behind another layer of words that are brighter, more legible, and felt that I might be the same. And remembered one of the figures which caught my imagination in childhood, the Lady of Shalotte, weaving away the time, looking at images reflected in the imperfections of a pre-industrial mirror.

But I must come back to these fancies another time: we’re having dinner guests, with, doubtless, their own stories to tell.

Some Links

Trashlog - beautiful photographs of trash, one piece each day

flickr India images

India Uncut - The Tsunami Posts
At the end of December 2004 and the beginning of January 2005, I travelled through the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu, India. These are the posts from just before, during and after my trip that I wrote for my blog, India Uncut.

Photo Friday - a new photo challenge every Friday

Smithsonian Education: Landscape Painting: Artists Who Love the Land

Draw!
The resource has been split into two main sections: "Thinking, Looking and Drawing" which introduces the ideas behind the skills which make up drawing, and "Making a Drawing" which helps students question what a drawing is, and how they can push drawing further.

Illustrations and animations accompany each page, and drawing exercises designed to widen your experience of drawing.

I saw it on Follow Me Here -- Project Implicit: tests to root out your hidden biases and automatic preferences. Also has some country-specific sites, including one for India.

Indian Textiles
, part of Dana's Textile Travels

Tired

I can’t think of anything entertaining to write about. Some bad news: the moonsoon has failed again in the region around Chennai, though farmers in southern parts of the state have had a good harvest. And I read today that in a number of places along the coast, the (already depleted) groundwater has become saline after the tsunami. So, another year of water problems.

A couple of days ago Mary showed me two colourful plastic dishes, a steel spoon and two steel tumblers. Some private donor had driven down the road handing them out to everyone – part of a tsunami relief effort. She said that there was so much to be had – rice, dal, tamarind, clothes – if only she could go out and get it. I felt that she was silently reproaching me because she had to work instead of going foraging. I said, "But you haven't lost anything. That aid isn’t meant for you." For the rest of the day she was silent, but clearly not happy. The next morning, she brought me a pawnbroker’s receipt – she had saved to buy a couple of small bits of gold, which she had planned to keep as a nest egg. But after the tsunami, when her son lost most of his possessions, she had pawned the gold to buy new school uniforms and such for her grandchildren. She said, "Even though I haven't lost anything, my son has. And I had to help them. So now my gold is gone." Well, I felt guilty, of course -- it's very easy for me -- and we're going to get her gold back for her. But it raises the question, where does one's responsibility end? For Mary and many others, there is no dividing line between her and her grown-up, earning son. We should be as ready to help him, though we have no direct connection with him, as to help her. If he needs some electrical work done, we should lend her (interest-free, payable in very easy monthly installments) the money to give to him. Which would be okay, perhaps, if we were a company, or a bank, but as two people in a household we feel that there should be limits. And why is the flow only in one direction? Shouldn't the son repay his mother out of his salary? But tell us that it's for children’s school fees, etc., and we melt.

Just now Mary came in once again with donation stories: The maid next door, Kala, dislikes Mary. Why? Because Mary was brought into our house by our late cook, Shanti. Shanti's daughter, Raji, had a philandering husband who ditched her and took up with Kala. So,obviously Kala must hate Mary, right? Anyway, there have been several private groups coming around to offer post-tsunami aid, and in each case Mary has tried to get some for her son, while Kala has told the donors that Mary doesn’t qualify. Last week some foreign group came and said, We'll build houses for you, and you pay us a small monthly fee. Mary gave her son's name, and agreed to pay the fee out of her salary. Kala removed it, then put in thirty names of her own, including all her relatives. Etc. This kind of story makes me so tired. Where is the right and where the wrong in it? Who is telling the truth? And it's all in a language which I understand imperfectly.

So that’s why I haven’t written anything for a couple of days.

At the Khadi Bhavan

I went to Khadi Gramudyog Bhavan (Khadi Village Industries House) to buy the white cotton khadi (hand-spun, hand-woven cloth) kurta-pajama that Ramesh wears to sleep in. The kurtas are made of thin, soft cotton which is very comfortable. (When they wear out, we cut them up to use for hanging yoghurt, to drain out the water before making shrikand or dip. I recently discovered that they also make good paint rags for my watercolours.)

The store is old-fashioned, selling the kinds of products which Mahatma Gandhi advocated for village self-reliance: mainly cloth (all of it khadi), but also some foodstuffs, traditional medicines, handicrafts, bedding. Above the shelves where goods are stacked, printed signs admonish: "Even one drop of untruth will poison the entire milk ocean of truth."

On the way out I stopped at the silk counter, and bought a couple of lengths of raw silk for kurtas for me. One bolt which I liked -- a rough grey with white flecks -- didn't have enough fabric left for a kurta. The man behind the counter said, "You know, if it's machine-made fabric you can place an order for 5000 metres and it's no problem. But with khadi, we go to the weaver and buy whatever he has produced, and then half of that goes for ready-made garments. So we're often out of stock. And when someone comes and asks for something, and we don't have it... I feel a little sad."

Several Things

There was a dog show in Chennai recently, and hence a number of dog-related articles have appeared in the newspaper. Return of the Rajapalayam is about attempts to promote indigenous Indian breeds, including one from our state of Tamil Nadu: the Rajapalayam hound, which looks like this, and has a skinny tail curled up over its back, and is doubtless better suited to the climate than the magnificent, thick-coated German shepherds which I admire and sympathise with, whenever I see them:




I saw it on Language Hat: Bollywood for Skeptics, which has a number of things about Bollywood movies, and some things about Hindi and Urdu in the movies; and also a selection of Hindi film songs in MP3 format. Everyone's selection of favourite songs would be different of course, but there are three songs here by my favourite composer, A. R. Rahman: Chaiyya Chaiyya, from Dil Se, which is one of the best songs ever (picturised on top of a moving train, the music is full of train sounds); Radha Kaise Na Jale, from Lagaan, which was nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar a couple of years ago; and Taal se Taal, from Taal.


We were coming inside in the evening after badminton, and I said, "Look! Frogs!" – mud-brown, walnut-sized, chasing flying insects in the light from the verandah. Ramesh rolled his eyes, thinking that it was my usual childish thing of crying out Look at this! Look at that! I said defensively, “No, it's not that. It's that we haven't seen any frogs for several years, and I was afraid that it was because of the Great Worldwide Amphibian Die-off!" He became insincerely solemn and said, "Oh, yes, I see, I see."

A Passage to India

Elck of The Vernacular Body, which is always beautifully written, has been writing lately about a visit to India. With beautiful, enigmatic black and white photographs. Bombay / Mumbai is a big, scary city to me, because I don't know it well -- though Ramesh has plenty of relatives there. But reading, I am reminded of the crows, which afflict us here as well; of stunningly beautiful sweepers; of a bustling life that seems like chaos but isn't, in a different way from the seeming chaos of Chennai...
A lovely poem from The Writer's Almanac:

Teaching a Child the Art of Confession

It is best not to begin with Adam and Eve. Original Sin is
baffling, even for the most sophisticated minds. Besides,
children are frightened of naked people and apples. Instead,
start with the talking snake. Children like to hear what animals
have to say. Let him hiss for a while and tell his own tale.
They'll figure him out in the end. Describe sin simply as those
acts which cause suffering and leave it at that. Steer clear of
musty confessionals. Children associate them with outhouses.
Leave Hell out of the discussion. They'll be able to describe it
on their own soon enough. If they feel the need to apologize
for some transgression, tell them that one of the offices of the
moon is to forgive. As for the priest, let him slumber a while
more.

by David Shumate, from High Water Mark: Prose Poems © University of Pittsburgh Press.

What We Did on Our Vacation

We went to Bangalore, where the weather is much cooler than it is here, and stayed at the Taj West End hotel. The hotel is beautiful, full of huge trees and plants and birds. I did some sketching and painting in my artless way, the first time I’ve tried it outdoors. Here are a few pictures and random notes:


The hotel has old and new buildings. I love the old, with their red tiled roofs and carpenter's gingerbread trim. This is the original main building of the old hotel


Dec. 24: Muzak in the dining room: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Since the only other foreigners were British and Australian, it appears that the sole target of this song was my wincing self.


On the verandah of the old building


Dec. 26: Spent much of the day looking at disaster news on TV, and anxiously phoning friends in Chennai.

A snatch of conversation at dinner, referring to a prominent local politician: “My friend, who’s a famous shikari (hunter), says that Dharam Singh is bison gone wrong.” (I love that! So Teddy Roosevelt! Now, how to use it in conversation… )


Another old building, containing offices




The view from our verandah (that green isn't right at all! It's more like parrot green. But that's okay, I'm telling myself, because the trees are full of parrots, whose throaty warble is an essential part of this place for me.)



The tree that is seen to the right of the picture above -- a tremendous gul mohur, whose canopy rises far above the part that I have drawn. That person is not intended to be me, but to indicate scale. Everything that I draw leans to the left.


Jan. 3: A friend asked me how I had first reacted, on arriving in India, to the sight of people relieving themselves in public. He was about to conduct some foreign businessmen to several Indian cities, and wondered how he could shield them from this. I said that one adjusts to things. He said, “I went to a fair once in America. You know how they have these portable toilets? I had to use one, but when I opened the door – oof, the stench was terrible! I couldn’t bear it! At least here you can go in the open.”


A bit of the living room of the suite where we stayed, and the window onto the front verandah



One of the lamps that light the pathways. Palms and elephant-ears (which look like that because I have trouble getting the colours to be dark, so I kept putting new washes on top of old, and it got messy... but I forgive myself).

Afterward 2

I wasn't here when it happened, and everyone has seen too many pictures anyway – but since this blog is primarily about a life in Chennai, here are a few newspaper pictures and links to articles about the city:


People running from the waves
- photo for The Hindu by Bijoy Ghosh



A section of Marina Beach

Marina saved Chennai from going the Velankanni way:
But for the Marina and the Cooum, Chennai might have met the fate of Velankanni, coastal town in Nagapattinam district where a large number of people died in Sunday's tsunami, say oceanography experts.

As the Marina has developed 1,200 metres over the years, it served as a buffer, protecting densely populated areas such as Triplicane and Chepauk... In contrast, Foreshore Estate was the worst affected, as the terrain was flat and had no protection...


A fishing boat moored to an electric pole on Kamarajar Salai
- photo for The Hindu by S. R. Raghunathan



Families wait for relief at Srinivasapuram, Foreshore Estate
(link to article) - photo for The Hindu by V. Ganesan


And from Mahabalipuram, just south of Chennai: The Shore Temple Stands Its Ground:


The Shore Temple, photographed a few minutes
after the tsunami struck

Some structures and rocks, perhaps the components a of a complex of which the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram was originally a part, came into view when the sea initially receded from the shoreline before the waves hit back with brute force on December 26, ... The giant waves smashed the groyne wall built in the 1970s and made of big blue metal boulders on the shore, tore down the fence, flooded the lawns and entered the Shore Temple. "The Shore Temple rises from a bedrock and that saved it. ... The waves dislocated the foundation of the bali peetam (sacrificial altar) in front of the Shore Temple. The boat jetty/flight of steps and the miniature shrine and the Varaha sculpture at the basement of the Shore Temple, which were discovered by the ASI between 1990 and 1993, were flooded...

Afterward

We arrived home on the afternoon of the fourth. The city looked completely normal, as though nothing had happened. Mary the cook, Chinnaraj the gardener, and Selvadurai the watchman, were sitting on the ground chatting, just outside the gate. We asked if their families were safe, and if Lakshmi the maid, who had just gone home, was safe. Selva said that on the 26th morning, the windows in our house rattled when the tremor came. Chinnaraj’s house was flooded, and he and his family had spent several days in a church which had been opened to the displaced. Mary’s son’s house was flooded; he and his family stayed in our house for three days. But they were all intact.

The next morning Lakshmi arrived. She looked thinner, and strained. She lives in Srinivasapuram, the hardest hit part of Chennai – a slum which is very close to the sea, on low-lying land. Within Srinivasapuram, fishermen live right on the edge of the beach, many in palm-leaf huts. Slightly farther inland are huts and more solid buildings, where most of the residents are house servants, laborers, construction workers.

Lakshmi said that it was Sunday morning, so everyone was resting at home. Suddenly, without warning, water came at them from two sides – the sea on one side, and stagnant, filthy water from a backwater on the other. In some places it rose to four feet, but in her house it came up about waist high. Whatever was kept below that washed away; other things were stowed in metal suitcases on a high shelf, and survived. She and her three children got out and moved to higher ground. The fishermen were the worst hit: their huts were completely destroyed, and many of the older people and the children were killed (the same story everywhere: the elderly and the children). A number of churches and temples, and some private homes, were opened for people to stay in. Many people had camped out in our street, she said, and people in the neighbourhood gave them food. She went to stay with her sister in Mylapore (because we have too many mosquitoes!), and walked every day to our house, where she had lunch and coffee; and to her neighbourhood, to see whether her house was safe. She said, that’s all I’ve been doing – walking and walking.

After several days the area had dried out, and police allowed the residents to return. Then, almost immediately, there was a false warning of more tsunamis, and everyone was driven out again. Just two days before we returned, the people who still had houses had finally moved back into them (though many are still homeless, and there are many who are injured or ill). Lakshmi and her neighbours had not received any government aid. She said, whenever anyone comes, even to give a torchlight or something, the fishermen say, keep away! This is only for us.

She said, I’m so frightened, I can’t sleep at night. It could happen again, how would we know? The government people told us not to go back there, but where else can we go?


Late last night there was a sudden loud, crashing sound. Maybe someone had set off firecrackers, but it was very late. I went to the window. Beyond the garden, the road was completely empty. It was so quiet, there was no sound but the wind in the trees. I looked for Selvadurai. He had gone to sleep on the ground beside the gate. In the dim light he looked like a heap of cloth, or like one of the bodies we have seen every day on TV.

It hasn’t rained since Divali, but it’s still the monsoon season: there is a constant breeze, and every leaf was moving, rustling slightly. I thought of Lakshmi, startled awake by every sound. The continuous stirring of leaves and branches, which is usually beautiful to me, was portentous, frightening. I pulled the curtains abruptly, and turned back to the brightly-lit room.