The Dark

We drove to Anna Nagar, to dinner at a friend's house. It had rained for much of the day, and was still drizzling lightly. Santhome High Road was blocked off, and traffic diverted to the beach road. Santhome gets flooded quite quickly when it rains, but I was surprised, this had not happened before.

It was the first time I had driven on this stretch of the beach road since the tsunami. It runs very close to the sea, but it is not scenic: it is where the fishermen live, an extended village, squeezed between the city and the ocean. The pavement is narrow, two lanes only, and ends abruptly, without any kind of footpath on either side. Palm-thatch huts are put up very close to the road, and people live more on its edges than inside. If you drive there in the daytime, mothers are bathing children, or washing clothes, from buckets close to the car wheels; children play, people sit, or stand and talk. There are goats and chickens. The beach side is littered with nets, drying clothes, junk. For many it is the village latrine, though there are a couple of public latrines in the shape of a steamship, with a funnel.

Last night, creeping along in the dark, with no illumination but the lights of the vehicles, I could see little. At the southern end, where we entered, the place seemed as heavily populated as before. This is part of Srinivasapuram, an area which the government wants to empty out, to send the residents to its new slum clearance project in Thoraipakkam. (Thoraipakkam: my gardener comes to work from there every day with tales of criminal rule, extortion and violence, the poor preying on the poor, where the police are paid off and see nothing.)

As we drew closer to the Lighthouse, we could see big empty areas where the people had already been removed, and the place had been bulldozed into piles of rubble. But on the other side of the road, the beach side, were rows of terrible huts, just plastic sheeting on casuarina poles, and straw mats, and people's possessions. I guessed that they must have refused to be moved: the fishermen have claimed that it is their ancestral right to live by the sea. They must have been soaked in the rain.

At our friends' house, a tiny bat was hanging from a recessed light fixture in the ceiling. It had flown in through an open window. They had tried to encourage it to leave, but were afraid of hurting it. Its body was only about three inches long. It hung from one delicate foot, its wings wrapped around its body. It was swinging slightly, and shifting its wings in front of its chest, so that it looked as if it were wringing its hands in agitation. It was still there when we left, still restless.

This morning I saw in the paper that Santhome High Road was blocked off because a five-storey building, which was being renovated, had collapsed. No one was living in it, but several workers were trapped in the rubble. At least three of them were killed.

Last night the world seemed precarious, a place of darkness. Which it is, for so many. Most of the time I just don't notice.

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