The Religion & Culture Web Forum
Notes From the Field: Retrieving the Dead
by Kristin C. Bloomer (University of Chicago)
On the morning of Dec. 26, in Tamil Nadu, South India, I was supposed to be on the beach. I’d received two separate invitations to two separate beaches. I’d said yes to both. The first came from C. Rosalind, a 34-year-old single mother from north Chennai. (Many Tamilians go only by one name and if pressed give their father’s or, if they are a woman, husband’s first name. Rosalind’s father’s name is Charles.) Rosalind asked me to accompany her and her extended family, on Christmas night, to Velankanni, a town two hundred miles south of Chennai that, like Chennai, sits on India’s southeast coast, on the Bay of Bengal. Velankanni is home to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, a blindingly white, neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church, shrine, and pilgrimage complex that draws millions annually. Hindus and Christians, wealthy and poor, pilgrims and tourists, from India and beyond, come in waves, by the busload, the carload, the trainload, especially at Christmas and New Year’s, to fulfill vows and pray for health, marriage, children, and prosperity.
Rosalind, a Roman Catholic Tamil who wears her hair in a long black braid, is an ardent devotee of Mary. She has taught school, and used to run her own business, “Frederick Tutorials,” named after her eight-year-old son, “Freddie.” She closed the business down two years ago when she became too busy with Mary.
Rosalind believes – along with her family and community of followers – that she is regularly “occupied” by Mary; that is, she is possessed by Mary (though she prefers the word “occupied”). Mary comes to her in the form of a woman called “Jecintho.” The name, Jecintho tells Rosalind, means “queen of roses.” Twice a week, in a north Chennai neighborhood called Kodungayur, in a small white chapel that was once the family home, Rosalind holds prayer meetings and healing services for the hundreds and sometimes thousands of ailing people who come to her for succor. Twice a week at set hours, she kneels in front of the shrine’s altar facing statues of Mary and Jesus. She says the rosary, sings, and prays, along with a crowd seated on the floor behind her. Eventually, she starts rocking back and forth. She takes the hands of two female companions, who sit on either side. She rises to her feet with difficulty and begins to act as if she were an old-lady version of Mary.
She cocks her head to one side, shaking slightly. She leans, sometimes on a devotee’s head. She speaks softly, with a tremor in her voice, and prophesies in the form of a sermon. Then she walks up and down the shrine’s central aisle, laying her hands on every person who wants it. She sprinkles and then pours salty water on them. Sometimes she cracks jokes. She presses her hands all over their bodies and whispers secret messages into their ears. Sometimes, they say, she knows exactly where they have pain.
I accepted Rosalind’s invitation for Christmas night. She, Freddie, her extended family, and I planned to board a late bus and arrive in Velankanni in time for an early mass on the 26th. We were to stay in one of the guest lodges on the shrine campus near an estuary; we were to take an early morning dip in the sea. But the week before Christmas, Freddie came down with yellow fever.
“Freddie is in the hospital,” Robert, Rosalind’s tall, spectacled brother, told me when I phoned to confirm. “He is jaundiced. We have cancelled our trip.”
“We’ll go another time,” Rosalind told me from her cell phone at the hospital. Freddie was getting good treatment and doing better.
“Kunndipaa,” I said in Tamil. “Absolutely.”
The second invitation came shortly before midnight on Christmas, at a dinner party at the home of Georgette Corral, the U.S. vice consul in Chennai. It is a measure of how much wine we drank that I don’t remember the name of one of the other two guests. He was the son of a former Yugoslav ambassador to India, a large, balding but otherwise hairy man in tight jeans and leather loafers, a merchant who had suffered torture at the hands of anti-Titoites. He had come with Alison Emoto, a wealthy Indian woman, a clothier, sparkling, petite, and short-haired, like a cross between Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. It was Emoto who invited Corral and me to the beach the next day. She and the Yugoslav were staying at a friend’s place just south of Chennai; there would be plenty of food and drink and good company – and, ah, the beach! It would be R&R, she said, for workaholics like Corral and me: it had done wonders for the Yugoslav. When she asked me again, an hour later, I accepted, and Emoto and the Yugoslav drove me home in their Qualis – or rather, their driver drove me home in their Qualis. As we neared my south-Chennai apartment in the quiet seaside neighborhood of Besant Nagar, Emoto gave me her card. “Come to the beach tomorrow,” she urged. “Call me.”
At 6:30 a.m. I was shaken awake. Christ is born. The room swayed. Was I really awake? Was it something I ate? I blinked, and walked to the balcony. Had I gone to the roof and stayed awhile, I would have seen the sea rise and erase the shore, scraping off the stretch of light brown sand I am used to seeing daily from my window – the swathe that divides my neighborhood from the uncivilized sea. I would have seen water enter the street next to mine. Instead, having decided it was an earthquake, I waited for the floor to stop moving, and went back to sleep.
At about nine, I was awakened by a phone call. It was Corral. She was sorry but would have to cancel the trip to the beach house. She had phoned home after we left and found that her mother was in the hospital. She had been up all night, worried, and needed to stay by the phone. “Would you call Alison and give her my regrets?” she said. Sure, I told her. I didn’t think to mention the earthquake.
I waited to call, figuring Emoto would still be asleep. I opened my door and picked up the Hindu. I read it over a cup of coffee: on the front page, the 84-year-old Pope John Paul II clung to his kneeler, celebrating a mass in Vatican City offering prayers for calm and prosperity in the Holy Land. The story noted that in Bethlehem, where believers say the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus more than 2,000 years ago, Muslims and Christians were attending Christmas celebrations side-by-side: the Patriarch of Jerusalem had spoken to a congregation that included PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, in Kancheepuram, the police had issued a summons to the junior Acharya, the acting spiritual leader of one of the country’s most prominent Hindu Mutts, to appear for an investigation of another Hindu priest’s murder. The chief Acharya, for whom the junior is acting, was under arrest as a suspect.
I finished the coffee. The phone rang.
“Kristin, you don’t panic!” said Maheswari, sounding as if her voice was being squeezed into a tight container. Maheswari, a 30-year-old Tamil friend from across the street, is a fiery survivor, the widowed mother of two young girls who has cooked for and befriended many an American scholar abroad, since her teen years. “You don’t panic! But the sea, the sea is coming inside! They say the sea is coming inside! Everybody running.”
What? I said.
She slowed down, articulating carefully. “You don’t panic, but you pack. Maybe we move.” She told me to turn on the TV. She said she would call right back.
I looked out the window. The streets were almost empty, except for a few families loading suitcases into cars. I turned on the TV.
I started packing.
When I called Emoto, she was packing too, out at the beach house. Water was running into the living room, she said. A large, nearby house had already collapsed. She was heading back to her apartment in Chennai’s Mylapore, which in its central location between the Kuvam and Adayar rivers stands on slightly higher ground than the coast. Besant Nagar, my neighborhood, is at just about sea level and directly on the beach. My apartment building is about half a kilometer from high tide. “Call me if you need a place to stay, okay?” Emoto said.
Down the street from my apartment, the Ashtalakshmi Temple, dedicated to all eight forms of the divine goddess, sits on Elliot’s Beach, about 500 feet from the surf. Maheswari, a graceful, soft-featured woman with large brown eyes, light coffee skin and a compact build, was with her aged, slightly crippled father at the temple when the sea reared itself and came straight at them. When I saw her later that morning, recuperating at home from minor injuries after an auto-rickshaw collided with her scooter during the ensuing chaos, she told me the water came at them like a two-story-high wall. Maheswari had heard quickly through the grapevine about the waves; she had lived for many years in a slum on the beach between the temple and the local Roman Catholic Church, Annai Velankanni, which is dedicated to Mary. She lives another half kilometer inland now, in a pucca house across the street from mine, but when she heard something was up about the water, she had taken her father with her on her scooter to investigate. The ocean came rearing and roaring, opening its jaws like a giant tiger, she said, its white fangs rising higher and higher. She pulled her father onto her back, ran with him to the scooter and sped away.
In my neighborhood of Besant Nagar, as in others, pretty much anyone taking their early morning walk, or playing cricket, or jogging along the beach, or fishing for keep, or dipping in the ocean for the full moon or for Christmas (as is the custom here, in both Hindu and Christian popular religious culture), was swept away. Emoto and her Yugoslav friend, at the beach-house, survived fine. Plenty of others with beach homes – or beach huts – did not.
Rather than leave Besant Nagar for higher ground, as Corral and the U.S. Embassy advised, I headed the next day to Annai Velankanni Church, on the beach. “Annai” is a Tamil word for “mother”; Velankanni means “white virgin.” I can see the steeple’s red neon cross like a lighthouse at night from my patio. It is the sister church of the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni, Nagapattinam, and it shares the same mythic origins, including three miracle stories of Marian apparition. In two of the stories, a village boy encounters Mary alone on a beach, or under a tree: in one she fills his pot with milk; in the other, she asks for a drink from the leftover milk he is selling and heals his lame leg. In a third story, Mary rescues a boatload of 16th-century Portuguese sailors from a storm. A mysterious white light leads them to shore.
When I arrived at Annai Velankanni Church, Rev. Fr. Bernard Lawrence, the parish priest, was slumped in his office chair answering phone calls. He wore his usual white cassock and gold-rimmed glasses. His eyes were puffy; his voice, a bit hoarse. “No, ma,” he was telling a caller. The water hadn’t come into the church, nor had anyone in the parish died, as far as he knew. The slums within the parish boundaries had been flooded, yes, and households had been carried away. The priests had stayed there on the edge of the beach all night, amidst rumors of more waves. Like a sea captain, a parish priest is never supposed to abandon ship. If anything, he should tie himself to the mast and go down. Otherwise, he risks losing the faith of his people. He got off the phone. It rang again, as I was asking what I could do. This time, it was Rev. Fr. John Bosco, the local procurator of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni. Bosco, roused from his day-after-Christmas, post-mass breakfast by a strange crashing noise, had run to the rectory balcony and watched with horror as the sea ran up the sandy street and bashed bodies – most of women and children -- against the church wall. He needed help. Most people in Velankanni and nearby Nagapattinam were dead or had run away. Those who remained seemed incapable of anything but standing around watching bodies rot. The path to his church was strewn with hundreds of dead. Please come, he said. Bring lots of young men. And some stretchers. And some spades.
Outside, as I headed for my scooter to round up supplies, a handful of people knelt, hands clasped, facing a statue of Mary.
I raced around on my scooter buying boxes of surgical gloves, face masks, cotton wool, medical spirits, gauze, and antibiotic ointment. A local pharmacy owner lent me his teenage son to ride pinion and hold the boxes. When we delivered them to Lawrence, he handed me a wad of cash, and asked for more.
In Chennai, the tsunami was largely a middle-class story; you could see this by the cars dragged to the beach from parking lots and the types of shoes washed up in the sand. Gawkers abounded. The desolated beach became a strange sort of carnival. Relief workers drove up and down in flat-bed trucks, distributing free biriyani. By late morning, families were drying waterlogged rice, clothes and children’s school books in the sun. At night they returned to the temporary relief camps throughout the city.
By eight p.m. I was standing in the main hall of Besant Nagar’s Annai Velankanni Church, a backpack slung on my right shoulder, the left sleeve of my blouse rolled up, waiting behind about 30 young men for a tetanus shot. Some held onto each other, trying not to cry as they braced for the needle. Outside three vans waited, loaded with bags of donated clothes, rice, and packaged goods.
I moved to step into a front passenger seat, and Lawrence held out his hand to shake. “Blessed art thou among women,” he said with a smile. “Or, I guess I should say, ‘Blessed among men.’”
Father Santiago, Annai Velankanni’s assistant parish priest, a wavy-haired 30-year-old Tamilian with dimples, rode behind me all night in the van. After that, I followed him. With single-minded purpose, he led the way across the beaches of Velankanni, across hot tidal flats, the rubble of what had once been village settlements, through cool, shallow tributaries, past sand piles and coconut groves, toward tractors grinding in the distance, where we thought we might be of help. I lagged behind, giving wide berth to two pits where tractors were piling bodies. As we got closer we could see that two tractors were engaged in another activity: rather than digging mass graves, they were pushing tree branches and wood into piles, as for massive bonfires. They were building pyres.
“We should tell the Bishop about this!” one of the drivers shouted to Santiago over the grind of the motors and gears. He was referring to the un-Catholic practice of cremation. “We don’t want to get in trouble later!”
“Over there!” another man shouted, pointing across the flats and inlets to a group of low buildings and trees. Over there were still lots of bodies. The smell of death was heavy; its sickly sweet pungency growing. It gathered in eddies and pockets of air; we learned to use it, like dogs, as an indicator of where bodies might be buried in rubble.
By mid-morning, Santiago and I were sitting together on a halved boat, upended on the beach. The sun was dizzying, the stench rising with it. A bright green doctor’s mask hung from Santiago’s neck and orange rubber electrical gloves – the thickest thing I could find – covered his hands. The rest of us wore white surgical gloves, which tore easily.
“They got a body,” he said, squinting. Fifty feet away, a yellow back-hoe tore through a collapsed palm hut. We had been lifting rubble and sticking our heads into half-buckled huts all morning. Now we watched three Tamil men from our cohort, taught-muscled men in their early twenties, lift sand-and-mud-encrusted palm thatch and stoop under what remained of a roof. Their gloves gleamed in the sun, making their hands look pale and waxy against sinewy, opaquely dark forearms. They emerged, grasping an adult body. Its long head of hair hung black and sandy like seaweed. They laid the body on a canvas-and-bamboo stretcher and walked it gingerly toward us over piles of debris. I saw a shiny, bloated brown belly between folds of a dusk-blue sari.
“A woman,” Santiago said. He reclined into silence, beads of sweat trailing the edges of his thick black hair. It was perhaps the twelfth body I’d seen. Santiago had seen more.
“Today I saw a body…,” he said, his voice trailing off. He looked away. The waves, still angry, crashed fifty feet behind us. They and the wind drowned out most sounds, except those of tractors and trucks. They did not drown the stench.
“I saw a body,” he continued. “There was no flesh on the face.”
Man or woman? I asked. I didn’t know what else to say.
“It was a lady,” he said. “I think an old lady.”
You’ve probably seen many dead bodies as a priest, I said.
“No,” he said. “This is my first.”
We fell silent.
“Look, there is another body,” he said, calm, even-toned. “There.”
It was almost noon. We walked down the beach to find food and water. I asked him if the tsunami had tried his faith in God.
He glanced at me and pulled away slightly, smiling and swinging his hands with a laugh.
“God is not the reason for everything, you know,” he said. “Humans also create problems.”
“Such as cutting down forests, pollution, building atomic bombs…”
But you can’t say that humans created this tsunami, I said. A tsunami is an act of nature.
“I think there is a saying in the Old Testament,” Santiago said. “It says…oh I wish I could remember it exactly…. Basically, it says: It is foolishness to say we know God.”
We walked back up the sandy main path between rows of ruined shops, gutted, shuttered. People sat in doorways. Almost everyone walking toward us wore a blue surgical mask or a bright kerchief tied tightly over nose and mouth.
The church bells tolled noon, but something was off. They were tolling in sets of two. It was supposed to be three. Or was it? Or was my counting off?
We found shade at a table in front of the church canteen. I hadn’t eaten since a half pack of cookies at our midnight stop at a roadside parota stall. Now I pulled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my purse and offered half to Santiago. He declined. He popped a hole in a small plastic bag of purified water and drank it. Flies were everywhere.
At the other tables, dark-skinned locals sat smoking and talking, wearing plaid dhotis. A man in his late forties with lighter brown skin and sharp, north Indian features walked stiffly to a table and sat down alone. He wore an urban-style pale yellow sports shirt and trousers, a gold chain and a gold ring. He looked like a merchant.
He looked at me. I looked away.
“Gone!” he said to no one in particular. “Everything. Gone. Gaalli (empty). Ha! This, India.” He swerved around and held out his hands, making a swooping gesture toward the church, the shops, the trucks loading and unloading bags of rice and donated goods. “Kadal vunthe (the sea came), yellamAY gaalli-ayche (everything has become empty).” He spoke sometimes in Tamil, sometimes in English – perhaps for my benefit. He banged the table with his right fist. He banged and banged. “What, God?” He looked around, as if waiting for an answer. “What, God? God, yenge? (Where is God?)” No one answered. “God, nothing! God … NOTHING!” He dropped his head onto his arms and cried. Some men glanced at him; some averted their eyes. I stopped eating. He raised his head and wiped his eyes on his shirt collar. “Virgin Mary!! Ha! What is Virgin Mary?” He pulled a match box out of a breast pocket and asked the wiry, salt-and-pepper-haired guy to his left for a smoke. “Thambi (little brother),” he beckoned. The man quickly handed him a beedi, and the sweet smell of tobacco with a hint of marijuana filled the air.
The flies did not give up. They were all over my sandwich. The man looked at me. I looked at him. I looked down, pulled out a tangerine and peeled it. I handed half to Father Santiago, forcing it on him. I concentrated on the fruit. When I looked up again, the man was gone.
Why them? Why not me?
A few possible, but insufficient, reasons: I am, by “third world” standards, rich; I am American. I am in India on U.S. government money. The exchange rate favors me. I can afford an apartment with an ocean view in a strong, well-built building, in a neighborhood removed just enough from the sea. But it wasn’t money that kept me away from the beach that day. It was a friend’s son’s yellow fever.
What were the odds?
Chennai saw comparatively few casualties – 206 deaths and nine injuries of a population of 4.5 million. Nagapattinam, a largely fishing district, reported 6,063 deaths and 1,922 injuries in a population of almost 1.5 million.1 An estimated 90 percent of India’s more than 10,000 dead (this does not include the thousands more still missing) were from fishing families.2 Almost all of these – ninety-nine percent – were Roman Catholic, according to church officials. Most of these were women and children, as most of the men were out at sea, past the breakers. More than a third of the dead were children.3
A reporter from the United States called me on my cell phone four days after the tsunami. It was a surreal conversation – about how, if at all, people’s religious faith affected the way they dealt with the tsunami; how they reacted, what they were saying. At the end, she asked me three particularly difficult questions. Why I didn’t leave Besant Nagar, when the American Embassy advised me to? Why did I go to Velankanni? What did I believe? The first two were easy: I felt safe. I didn’t want to leave my Tamil friends – those relationships exerted a pull so strong it felt physical. The third was harder. I was raised Roman Catholic, and while the stories and beliefs of Catholicism hold great meaning for me, I find them, often, sadly lacking. I do not believe that any one religion holds all the world’s wisdom.
“Hmmm,” the reporter hummed into the phone. It was not her fault that I felt so angry.
The reek was dizzying as Father Santiago and I returned to the beach from the church canteen. I was struck by how empty the beach was, how completely flattened the landscape. The coconut and palm trees that still stood were decidedly bent, and the deciduous trees were mostly stripped of greenery. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Hiroshima after the war; the unidirectional force of the blast here was equally discernable. The energy released by this one sub-ocean earthquake, I read later, was equivalent to 9,500 of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima. Across this blasted landscape, a few local people picked amidst the rubble, or just sat. A family hunched on the foundation of what was once their house with a few possessions; two babies crawled on the cement. Old men crouched in their dhotis facing the ocean, staring. While many beach-dwellers were frightened to return, they did nonetheless. They had lived to be able to do so.
After lunch, I moved with three men into an area of flattened huts where we were told no one had ventured. We moved singly within the same area. I had a flashlight; the collapsed homes were so dense that they allowed in little or no light. I ducked under one roof and shined my flashlight on a half-collapsed cot -- my eyes were slow to adjust --some pots filled with wet sand; bright wall hangings of Mary in her popular local forms, wall hangings of Tamil goddesses; a church calendar; a book filled with Tamil prayers; a baptismal record. I moved on. The men also had found no bodies.
Together, we moved further into the settlement. An older man and woman perhaps lingered on the outskirts, behind a flattened home. The man beckoned us into what had once been a path between two huts. The woman crouched in the clearing outside, elbows on her knees and hands upturned to the blue sky, a vacant look on her sun-wrinkled face. “Gone,” she said in Tamil. “Everything gone.” This was what everyone who still spoke said.
I picked my way cautiously over the wreckage of wood, palm branches, boat parts, tangled fishing nets and lines, glad for my tetanus shot.
I stayed within range of Benjamin Mathew, a tall, 40-year-old shipping company clerk and a Roman Catholic who makes regular pilgrimages to Velankanni. He had been walking these shores with friends less than a week ago. As he walked, he wondered about the young boys who had worked in the hostel where he and his friends regularly stayed, and the fisherwomen who prepared food for them. He stuck his head into the collapsed annex of an otherwise still-standing hut, gingerly lifting away some of the palms.
“Oru papa!” he said, recoiling. A baby. I was looking over his right shoulder at what I think was a small arm, but the light was bad, and whatever he had seen was beneath a large layer of wood and palms. We were both silent. He stooped down again, looking, and said, loudly, “Inge onne!” Here is one. “Oru papa irukke!” It’s a baby.
“Inge va! (Come here!),” the old man shouted from behind. He went to fetch help.
“A baby!” “A child!” Variations of the Tamil cry passed from one worker to another outside the settlement. Several men from our group emerged from around the corner, picking their way through the debris, along with the old man. While Benjamin and Charles worked on freeing the dead child from beneath the collapsed walls and roof, I backed into the attached hut. Charles had asked for my gloves – he had somehow lost his – so I had the perfect excuse to shrink away.
The hut looked much like the others I’d glimpsed. A man’s clothes – a pair of belted trousers and a few shirts – still hung from hooks to the left of the door; a woman’s and child’s clothes – a few sari petticoats, blouses, small dresses – draped over a wooden rafter. It appeared that the interior had been entirely untouched by water. On a dusty shelf over a bed rested two identical passport-sized photos of a woman who appeared to be in her thirties, and a laminated voter I.D. card of a woman aged 60. A zipped plastic money purse contained six thin, light metal rupees that looked like they were from another century. I thought of collecting these things to deliver along with the child’s body. But it felt wrong to move them. I returned to the sunlight, where Benjamin and two other men were working hard at prying the highly compressed palm shingles off the child. I shooed away a rooster and climbed down into another partly-blocked entrance.
I stuck my head out of the hut long enough to see them carrying the child’s body away on a sheet of bright orange plastic. By the time I had fully emerged, they were out of sight. The old man handed me the purse that I’d seen in the attached house. Inside it he had placed the photos and voting card. I don’t remember what he said, but my bodily reaction was to make sure these items did not get separated from the girl’s body.
The woman crouching outside the settlement motioned that the men had gone toward the sea, and the main access road.
They were far ahead. I could see the orange tarp bobbing with each of their steps. I accelerated into a walk-run, keeping my eye on the tarp, not wanting to draw more attention to myself than was already the case, my being the only white woman on the beach, taking huge strides in my Tevas and big t-shirt over pajama pants, my blonde hair twisted up in a clip. I neared a row of about 25 policemen standing at intervals of ten feet on an up-raised asphalt path that wound round a partly demolished latrine. They stood with their backs to the ocean, watching the activity on the beach, legs wide, hands clasped behind. As I ran-walked by them, the first two officers in the line-up met my gaze, and I did what I have become accustomed to in India, looking down and using my peripheral vision to avoid collisions when I pass a man or see one approaching. They may look at me, but I may not look at them. I had no idea why the police were there or what they were doing to help. Clearly they were following someone’s orders.
By the time I caught up with the men holding the orange tarp, they were being led to a more private place – a small cement building – where I later realized police were taking photos for identification. The building stood beside an open sort of “staging ground,” where more people seemed involved in collecting and burying the dead than I had yet seen. Then I realized that most people were simply standing, watching. A few held cameras. There was shouting as trucks came and went. One police officer raised his stick to threaten an old man in a dhoti who had approached him – I wasn’t sure why.
I opened the purse and looked again at the card. “Election Commission Identity Card. Name: Anjammal. Father/Mother/Husband’s name: Thangavel. Age on 1-1-1995: 60. Address: 4/29A2 Velankanni, Velankanni Nagamiapart IV, Kilvelur (TR); Nagapattinam (District).”
A red diesel tractor pulling a flat-bed on wheels (like those used for hay-rides) put-putted along the beach and backed up, parking in front of me. A man standing in the flat-bed opened the back and I saw human and animal bodies lying together side-by-side. Some of the human bodies were half-dressed. Skin of various shades of brown and white shone waxily in the sun. Men and women’s bodies had been thrown together indiscriminately. In this place where even married men and women are not to be seen touching, where only men can hold hands in public (and often do), where men and women sit on opposite sides of the bus and where even brothers and sisters are sometimes encouraged not to make physical contact – this pile-up seemed particularly disrespectful. Dogs, goats and cats – bloated, their fur looking sticky with salt-water – lay piled with them in the flat-bed’s left-rear corner. As the truck filled, animal and human bodies became one, large, undifferentiated heap.
To my left, a few men with towels wrapped around their heads and a woman in a ragged sari carried furniture and household items from various directions and loaded them onto a bicycle rickshaw with its own small flat-bed. The rickshaw carried a mattress, a table, two chairs, an electric grinder, a “mixie,” and a large stone pestle. It looked like looting to me, but it may have been a house owner reclaiming his possessions, which had been scattered all over the beach. In any case, no one seemed to mind. A gray-haired woman who had tied a piece of gauze around her head and nose, looked at me and, with an edge of disgust, summed it all up: “Onnumee kidaikkaathe.” There’s not one thing left.
A man stepped out of the building into the sunlight carrying the body of a girl. I think it was the child Benjamin found. She was perhaps four years old. She wore a tattered pale yellow dress. She was white in places where her outer layer of skin had fallen off. Her eyes, bulging out of her head, were for the most part white. The man held her by one arm and one leg and the rest of her hung stiffly by his knees. The man stopped long enough for people to take pictures – and when I did not, he stood expectantly in front of me. I pulled out my camera and clicked the shutter. Then he swung her body into the truck, where it landed with a thud.
Behind the man with the girl walked several others, carrying a stretcher with the body of a very large, very bloated man whose face was bloody and disfigured. He too was photographed. Again, the pallbearers stopped – seemingly for me, as I was closest to the truck. Everyone waited. I took another picture – and another, as the men lifted the stretcher and handed it over to the man on the flat-bed, who took one end. There was much yelling: the man was difficult to lift. Finally, with much effort, he was turned and dumped, face down, on top of a woman, next to the girl.
A mangy white-and-tan bitch, long, shrunken tits hanging from her abdomen, walked by me and past a dead goat, faced the ocean and howled. She just stood there, crying and howling. I held the bank purse to my chest.
In the late afternoon, I went back to the basilica and priests’ residence. I went directly to the hallway in which people had erected a large board covered with photographs: pictures of the dead, taken before mass burning or burial. These pictures, to be claimed by family members, would be the only evidence, for those who did not witness burial or see the body, that their loved one(s) had in fact died. I joined the crowd and immediately recognized a photo of the man I’d seen thrown on the flat-bed truck. I did not find the girl. Many of the pictures had already been removed by family members who had claimed them for identification.
I approached a man sitting at a small table to the right of the board. He was middle-aged, balding, compact, with an uncle-ish face; he wore a pressed shirt and gold watch. He rested a hand on a notebook open to a list of names.
I excused myself and told him about the bag I held, its contents, where I had found it, that it came from a house in which a young girl had been found. At first he seemed reluctant to accept it, or perhaps less-than-optimistic that it would help with her identification. (Now, knowing how far bodies and household items were thrown, I can see the unlikely possibility that the girl belonged to that house.) But the gesture was perhaps more for me than for her. A younger man standing to my left seemed to take pity on me and intervened. He encouraged me to leave the bag. Yes, he said, it certainly may help with identification. The older man softened and changed his mind. He opened the bag and examined the contents. He said he would personally do his very best to see that it was claimed by the proper people. He would tell them about the girl. I remembered my own photo, and made a mental note to follow up with the local priest.
Back at the van, the boys were tired but in good spirits. Henry Raj, a dark, sharp-tongued 25-year-old in a purple football shirt, said it was easy for him to continue to believe in God. “It happened in the sea, did it not?” he said of the earthquake. “If it had happened on land, it would have been much worse. It is God’s gift that it happened in the sea.”
Charles, a 20-year-old in shorts and a bright rugby shirt, barged into our circle, held his white-gloved hands toward its center. “Look! Still shaking,” he said, smiling. He pantomimed lifting a dead body, shuddered, and turned away. I checked with him a few minutes later. It was no act. His right hand, especially, was still shaking.
Albert, 20, preppy-looking and light-skinned, with wire-rimmed glasses, seemed surprised to be asked if he still believes in Mary.
“Of course!” he said with a big smile. He said he prays to her every night. “Whenever I go to church, I go first to pay a visit to Mary. Before any important work, I go . . . . I love her as my mother. In the Bible itself, Jesus said, ‘If a child asks for food, the mother will not give stone.’ Without asking, the mother knows the child’s needs. The mother alone can know.”
An hour outside of Velankanni, the driver stopped the van so the men could bathe in a river. It was getting dark. In the front seat, I closed my eyes. The men sang the rest of the way home, Tamil film hits and love ballads, complete with percussion. While they crooned, I watched the countryside and villages roll by. Piles of clothes – kilos and kilos of them – had been dumped by the roadside. Otherwise, business seemed to go on as usual.
I spoke to Rosalind upon my return. She sounded glad to hear from me. Her inland neighborhood of Kodungayur was not affected. Freddie was out of the hospital. “I think he may have saved us,” I said.
“That’s what we have been saying,” Rosalind said. “When will we see you again?”
I said I didn’t know. First, I had to go down to Nagercoil and Kanyakumari and some fishing villages along India’s southern coast.
“Oh,” she said. “Are you going for relief or research?”
Both, I said.
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