“Sometimes, there’s a pattern to what we do. Sometimes, there isn’t. But life remains the same on the shores,” said Kumar as he stood outside his home. Swept away by a gust of wind, the dunes fell apart in a distance. Wreaths of gritty cloud swayed over town as the tides shot a baleful glance towards the coast. The air was sultry and the pale morning light reigned in the narrow streets.
A scuffling mob of children surrounded the ruins as tourists wandered through the town. Some huddled together visibly distraught by the heat while a few glared at piles of planks stacked in a corner. Pressing onwards towards the tea stall, we asked Kumar if the community received tsunami alerts from the marine coastguard in 2004. He let out an impish cackle and said, “Nobody had the faintest clue of what was going on. Their systems are quite rudimentary and we weren’t cautioned at all. Perhaps, we could inform the navy of impending calamities for we have a far greater understanding of tides and winds.”
Despite the town suffering a major disaster in 1964, no precautionary measures have been put in place to warn the settlements residing on the coastline. We wondered if the locals ever felt vulnerable to the temperament of the ocean or the bay. “We are merely specks floating alongside the mighty seas. Only those who abuse and disrespect nature’s abundance shall attract its wrath. We aren’t intimidated by water at all,” he said sipping on his tea.
Furrowing his brow, his voice tinged with worry as he spoke about mysterious creatures of the ocean who surfaced every once in a while foretelling signs of exploitative human activities; one that may result in catastrophe if left unperturbed. “Five years ago, an injured whale washed ashore in Dhanushkodi. I think its tail got trapped in a propeller. We informed the officials immediately and requested them to send in a team to treat its wound. The whale eventually succumbed to its injuries and died on the shore. Its skull is buried beneath my home,” said Kumar.
According to him, there exists within every creature traits and characteristics that distinguish themselves from others. They spent years observing mannerisms of aquatic animals including their defense mechanisms and complex behavioural attributes. He then went on to explain how molluscs like octopodes and squids discharge a cloud of black ink to escape from predators. “It is quite cumbersome to catch an octopus. We lower a plant at least two metres below the surface and let it rest in water for about an hour or so. This attracts shoals of fish that these creatures usually feed on. Sometimes, we manage to trap at least two adults in the net. However, if we fumble they end up signalling their mates by squirting ink all around the plant,” he said as he gestured a fisherman to join us.
Although his first encounter with a bloated puffer fish left him thoroughly amused, his fascination with lobsters led him to discovering an unfettered world of undersea beings. The ecological rhythms build an aura of primordial harmony that resonates within the depths of the ocean. “Their sounds and appearance alter with every knot. For instance, as you go deeper into the Bay of Bengal, the water is bathed in dual colours — white and blue. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean has four colours – deep bluish black where live the corals and octopodes amongst other animals; dark blue where crabs and lobsters reside; the whiter spectrum that houses millions of tiny fish and the deep blue zone wherein one would normally find creatures of gigantic proportions. I have also come across schools of dolphins leaping out of the water as they swim against the current. They are quite protective of their tribe and never abandon their family.”
His face crinkled into a feeble smile as the fisherman seated beside us plied him with a barrage of questions. His name was Ponnarase but everyone called him Usilampatti. Entangled within his mind were a maze of memories; some created, some borrowed. And, within its darkest corners, he sought remnants of those that faded away…
Twenty years ago, he accompanied a group of immigrants who set sail in a dinghy from Sri Lanka to Dhanushkodi during the Eelam War II. Civil unrest had reached crisis levels when the Lankan government failed to meet the demands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The conflict led to one of the most brutal massacres orchestrated in the history of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka.
Not only did the proliferation of government sanctioned death-squads resulted in indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings but it also aided in fragmenting the social and moral fabric of a society that was intrinsically acclimatised to cruelty. Warranting a response, the LTTE cadres assassinated the then president Sri Lankabhimanya Ranasinghe Premadasa and instigated the infamous Battle of Pooneryn near Jaffna lagoon.
“He is an orphan. He doesn’t remember if he ever had any family. One fine day, he reached the shores and wandered aimlessly from one town to another till a family took him in. They gave him food and shelter. He lived with them for a while in Usilampatti. But he found himself drawn to the coast. So, he returned to Dhanushkodi years later and decided to settle down here. Every morning, he spends Rs 100 to go to Rameswaram to buy a newspaper worth Rs 2. He keeps the community informed of current affairs and encourages people to read. To him, this is a ritual that must be honoured every single day till he breathes his last,” said Dharmar.
In a few hours, we walked towards Kumar’s home when the discussions veered towards illegal smuggling and peddling of drugs between Lankan and Indian shores. As we strode through coir structures, they spoke in hushed tones of their little brother who was captured by the Lankan navy a few months ago. He was thrown into a maximum-security prison along with a few fishermen. Kumar’s eyes regarded his brother with a look of sympathy as Dharmar maintained a grave and solemn expression. The startled seriousness of his features crumbled as he recalled that fateful night.
“He was duped by a group of thugs and miscreants. After a few drinks, his friends suggested they go fishing at midnight. They offered him some joints and he was in no state to make an informed decision. Although he was hesitant, they forced him to steer the boat away from the Indian shores. They told tall tales of an exotic variety of fish that could only be captured at that hour. Once the boat crossed the maritime boundary, the Lankan Navy pursued them relentlessly. They found several kilograms of ganja in their possession and were taken into custody immediately. His friends were peddlers and they exploited his naiveté. A packet of marijuana costs five times the normal rate in Sri Lanka. They were all prosecuted and my brother was sentenced to three years in prison. By the time we were informed, it was too late. He is now imprisoned in a different country and is struggling to survive. We managed to catch hold of a lawyer who has assured us that he will do everything in his power to get his sentence reduced. I only wish I could have done more for him,” said Dharmar as he looked away and led us into an alley.
We said our last goodbye and as we packed our luggage into the jeep, Kumar and his family walked towards us with a heavy heart. The solemnity and grace of the ocean reflected in their spirit. The kids gathered around us looking inquisitively at the vehicle. We fished out our binoculars from the bag and handed it over to them. “This is fantastic. Now, we can spot the Sri Lankan navy from a distance and turn around without getting caught,” said Dharmar, with a chuckle. They seemed quite taken with their latest possession. We held each other for a while till we could no more and promised to return some day.
Dharmar and his wife decided to join us till Rameswaram. They introduced us to his mother and the entire family who lived together away from the shores. Hiding behind his grandmother, Rajamani gave us a sly smile as he posed for a few photographs. They insisted we join them for lunch but we had a long way to go. We politely declined their offer and headed towards the city.
And, so we took off that afternoon, bidding our farewell to a ghost town where unheard whispers of souls beckoned to be released, where we sought refuge in the arms of benevolence amidst those who revered divinity and mankind without any judgement; where every moment surpassed the purity of human spirit…
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