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.