Day 33 (Part 3): ‘We have learnt to draw boundaries on water today’

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Unknown faces would pass by Kali all day. Some waited for him to finish his story. Some left without listening. Nonetheless, he stood there everyday making his voice heard, his presence felt.

“Today, I tell his story. It’s the least I could do to keep his memory alive. My father died five years ago. His real name was Kaliambalam. They begged him to leave the shores. For, they feared another cataclysmic event may claim his soul. He never left. A part of him is embedded in the oceans. His heart always belonged to Dhanushkodi. This is where he was born and this is where he died,” said Kumar as he showed us copies of his ‘certified guide’ license and newspaper clippings of his father.

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The 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake triggered a massive tsunami along the eastern coastline. However, it didn’t have any effect on Rameswaram. Apparently, water from the Indian Ocean receded 500 metres and the level returned to its usual position after four hours. “I caught glimpses of broken structures peeking through the ocean floor. They belonged to the old town that my father always spoke about. People warned me against going towards the coast. But I had to see for myself. More than one km of Dhanushkodi was submerged in 1964. In fact, the old railway tracks can still be seen under water,” he said.

With the area being prone to violent storms and unprecedented natural disasters, the government refused to rebuild the township in order to discourage residents from migrating to the coastline. For about two decades, only ten people lived here — Neechal, his wife and his eight children. Today, there are 236 families residing in two settlements. 110 lived near the harbour while 126 settled down near the defunct railway station. A few solicitous officials and authoritative figures have been coaxing those staying close to the Bay of Bengal to move to the other side. “There isn’t enough space for everyone. they can’t displace an entire settlement. Even if they come up with a solution and ask all of us to move, we wouldn’t. This is our home. This is where they we made our first memory and hope to live our last. Why would we desert a place that is smitten with our identity?” asked Kumar.

We asked him if they were worried about another possible tsunami striking the coast. To that, he laughed and said with absolute certainty there wouldn’t be another one. He felt if outsiders or the government interfered with their lifestyle or facilitate meaningless and unnecessary development, then it could lead to a tsunami of sorts, both metaphorically and literally.

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In conversation, Kumar mentioned that he was born into a Hindu family but he followed all religions including Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Beside the counter, worn out photographs of Jesus, Mecca and a few Hindu Gods were stacked up neatly on a shelf. He was the product of a million philosophies but no matter what spiritual path he chose for himself, it always led to kindness and compassion. “There should be a purpose to life. What’s the point of living mindlessly and dying one day? And, that’s what I try to teach my children every single day — the importance of being good human beings. We must learn to treat each other with acceptance and unconditional love. That’s all there is to life, isn’t it?” he said with a smile.

There have been numerous reports of fishermen being arrested by the navy for trespassing Lankan waters in the past. They attributed their actions to diminishing aquatic population due to overfishing on Indian shores. Kumar informed us that the population of fish hasn’t reduced at all. Owing to excessive use of heavy motor boats, the corals have corroded over the years. However, there hasn’t been a drastic change in marine life. “There’s enough for everybody here,” he said.

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While they procure most of their supplies from Rameswaram, for drinking water they usually dig a pit almost 1.5 metres deep in sand dunes all over the beach. The depression operates on a filtering mechanism that de-salinates salt water through natural minerals.

Out of curiosity, we asked him how he managed to differentiate between India and Sri Lanka in the ocean with no scientific gadgets or compass. He guffawed at our remark and reminded us that they all possessed traditional knowledge of maritime environments. “We are fishermen. We use our natural instincts to guide us back. We can never be lost in the ocean. No matter where we are, we will always find our way home. We can read the characteristics of wind and water with great ease. At night, if you happen to see lights ashore, it means you have drifted off in the wrong direction. Dhanushkodi doesn’t have electricity.  The whole town is enshrouded in darkness. Since, it was declared uninhabitable, the government cannot lay electrical lines here. I can take you to Sri Lanka on my boat some day. It isn’t very far from here but it might be slightly difficult to go there. For, we have learnt to draw boundaries on water today,” he said.

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….

Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

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