Driving along the East Coast road from Madras down towards Pondicherry and Cuddalore, it looks as if a retreating army has passed by this way. There are clumps of used clothes scattered by the roadside. It's the same in the fishing hamlets by this now calm and placid sea. The good-hearted have ransacked their cupboards to aid the survivors but, not having much patience, dumped them with the thoughts: "here you are, help yourself, sort through what you want." These old clothes only add to the feel of ruin and desolation. The poor survivors of tsunami among these hamlets, though they have lost everything, need the dignity of patience in handing out charity. They don't want other people's kindness left on the roadside for them to scavenge through.
I was with the NGO, Cheshire Homes, along with Baskar, Maureen and Vasanthi, and a truckload of good quality clothes, new sarees and dhotis, rice, drinking vessels, plastic pots, milk powder, plates and cooking utensils. The items were donated by the residents, private individuals and friends, along with cash to purchase them, from the NGO Terre des Hommes, Denmark. Everyone wants to help, the frustration is the 'how?'
On the way south, we passed and were passed by any number of similar lorries, all with 'tsunami relief' placards, on the same mission. No doubt we all resembled a disorganised pygmy armada rushing towards a leviathan disaster carrying band-aids, when whole hospitals and godowns of food and medicines and lorry loads of cash were needed. We had heard there were pockets of desperation along the coast where people had slipped through the net of government aid.
The first hamlet we stopped at was Kalapet, near Pondicherry. Certainly, many of the brick homes, not more than 30 meters from the sea, were ruins. All the walls had collapsed, the roofs lay shattered, their owners moved around in the wreckage as if the homes still remained whole. A woman took me to her cooking area, then to where they had slept when the wave hit, a sad tour of a home she had been proud of and still remained in her imagination. She only had the saree she wore, a government hand-out. But her family were more affluent than those fishermen who lived on the beach in their fragile thatched huts. Scattered all along the beach, like natural flotsam on the sands, were brown, broken palms fronds. They were not as visually dramatic as a broken wall, a fallen roof, a shattered expensive resort with holidaying foreigners from European countries, but they too represented a family's loss of a home and relatives and I doubted anything could have been saved at all. Of course it had all come too suddenly and the greatest losses were the children who hadn't the strength to hold up against such ferocity.
A fisherman said the government had come and given them 2,000 rupees in cash, in sealed envelopes, and five kilograms of rice and a token. The token would have to be shown for further aid, and proof of their identities. But not all had been recipients. Queuing, at the best of times, is a difficult discipline in India. But Maureen,Vasanthi and Baskar, sitting in the back of the truck, optimistically, had them queue. The people were eager to be obedient, they needed the package put together by Vasanthi and Maureen - utensils, a drinking vessel, a water pot, a new sarees. We were told by, no doubt the local dhadha who brandished a list, that there 20 families in the hamlet but this number magically began to expand as the hand-outs continued. The queues, women in one, men in another, began also to dissolve into noisy chaos. I noticed the strongest and the loudest dominated the queue, the old and infirm were pushed aside.
And also once the package was received it was passed like a baton to a family member and the person returned to the queue for another helping. It was a natural trait, to get as much as possible, and, I doubt in similar circumstances, I would have behaved any differently. Both the women handing out the packages were aware of this happening. But the poor do not want shoddy goods either. When a couple of women were given damaged blankets, they returned them to the lorry, and received better ones. Further along the broken road another group were also giving out sarees, and ran out long before the Cheshire Homes had.
A young man asks us to visit his hamlet, beyond a grove of coconut trees. They too have been overlooked and I can imagine that all along this coastline there will be small, isolated communities, tucked away beyond sand dunes and groves that will be missed by government aid organisations. And, for all we know, they vanished off the face of the earth into the seas, leaving no trace apart from a few broken fronds. Would they be on any rolls, would they have ration cards, would they be on any voter registers? Being the dispossessed they were now doubly dispossessed. I worried and wondered what would happen to the billion dollars donated from the western nations and the many, many millions of rupees from our central and state government, collected from all of us so eager to contribute. The immutable law of money is that it flows to the people who have it or to the strongest who will fight for it.
By around two when the queue dwindled, we moved on down the coast past Cuddalore. We were warned that the police would not permit us to enter the coastal area. There were many policemen and women standing beside a barrier but they waved us through. Even here there were clumps of clothes dumped on the roadside, but there was only one taker who was sorting through them and choosing only those suitable for his purpose which was to wash and iron them, and sell them somewhere for paltry sum. It was better than nothing. The Cheshire Homes lorry handed out clothes and there were certainly many takers who had ignored the piles a few feet away. Another lorry pulled up and men in them doled out rice to everyone who wanted it. They emptied too quickly and drove away.
Further along the road, the destruction was more eloquent - boats piled up like matchboxes over 100 meters from the sea and, tangled in with the wreckage, an upturned Fiat. There was a larger police presence here and they watched the Cheshire Homes hand out their packages. A television crew stopped by to film them, probably the only media visitors. Nagapattinam draws most of them like a horrifying magnet and a day later, watching television, I saw the BBC too down there. But there was nothing dramatic in the background of that BBC reporter, just the beach, the sea and the fronds. The wreckage along the shore line is the same - fronds on the sand and further back broken up brick homes. Quite strangely, the telephone linesmen are hard at work, repairing all the lines and replacing broken posts that lead to the very edge of the sea.
It was past dusk when the lorry was depleted of its small treasures and, as we're returning to the main road, we stopped so I could photograph the broken boats and the Fiat. An ancient woman emerged from a house, followed by a child. She was crying as she had lost everything and no one had come to help her. The two women handed out rice, clothes, utensils, scraping the bottom, and the woman took them gratefully.
It was too little of course, and we were all aware of that. The needs will continue long after we've gone, they need to rebuild homes, no matter how simple and fragile, they need to re-stock, they need to mourn, they need to recover... it's an endless list of needs to be fulfilled. The irony is that they are "fortunate", their needs will be met, eventually. We have millions of poor who were not victims of the tsunami, and they will remain mired in their poverty.