Read. This. Page. It will upset you, disgust you, hopefully piss you off, but it will also tell at least part of the real story of what’s going on five days after the tsunami.
It’s five kilometres of hell, and it’s right here at Nagapattinum.
Kaviarsi studies — make that studied — in the sixth standard. Her schoolbooks lie a short distance away, and besides them lies a doll. The girl herself lies on a makeshift pyre on what used to be her home, her face totally blackened, her neck twisted upwards, the skin peeling off her legs like torn stockings. There is a large empty container of Pepsi lying just besides her, and four other bodies. And besides the pyre, towards the sunset, are five long kilometers of slushy wasteland strewn with dead bodies.
It wasn’t like this five days ago. We — me and two companions — are at a part of Nagapattinum called Akkarakadai, where a prosperous fishing community lived. This five-kilometre-long stretch of land was filled with houses, and had at its heart a bustling Sunday marketplace. The people here were well off — some of them had expensive fishing launches costing many lakhs of rupees. Then the tsunami came.
These settlements begin half a kilometre from the sea, across the road, but the tsunami swept everything away. Every single house was flooded away, all the way till the end of the stretch, and when I went there, I just saw one long expanse of slush. In the distance, there were pyres burning.
Dr Narasimhan, a man I’d wanted to meet, who heads a team of relief workers that has come down from Salem, told me when I called him that we had to walk into that expanse, beyond the pyres. “Walk towards the sunset till you find me,” he said, and we did.
It took us half-an-hour to traverse the half-kilometre or so until we reached him. The ground was like quicksand in parts, and our shoes would sink in with each step and resist our attempts to lift our feet again. We came across dead bodies on the way: a young girl in a basket, her limbs akimbo, and her face, with some dried blood on it, contorted in an expression that even Damien Hirst would have found too macabre. Three feet away from her lay a woman, with a frozen look of horror on her face, etched into an eerie permanence.
“In an unprecedented situation, you need an unprecedented response”
“For the next five kilometres,” Dr Narsimhan motion towards the setting sun, “you will find bodies everywhere. Only the distance you have walked so far — around half a kilometre — has been cleared of corpses. This is the furthest point till which bodies have been cleared. There is so much work to be done.”
“It’s five days since the tsunami happened,” I say. “Why is this place so deserted, why hasn’t all this been sorted?”
Dr Narasimhan sighs. “Sorted,” he asks. “All that the government has been doing is lining the streets outside with bleaching powder. They are not interested in coming here, they left this to the NGOs. And look at this.” He extends his hands towards me. “We’re doing all the work of moving bodies with surgical gloves made of latex, which are no protection against cuts and bruises.”