Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lest we forget.....

They said she was barely four months old when they first saw her. The great wave had tossed her into a bramble shrub. There were thorns in her hair and scratches on her face.

Of her parents, there was no trace. Two days later, they found her brother who had sought shelter with a neighbour.

Today, Abhinaya is everybody’s darling. At the Cuddalore government orphanage, she is the prima donna. She is perhaps the most written about tsunami orphan in Tamil Nadu. When I first saw her, she was so fascinated by the camera of the photographer who accompanied me that she would let out a loud joyous cry every time the flash bulb popped. A child’s simple joy and behind it the greatest tragedy of our times.

One feels apologetic to write about the tsunami by simply saying, `Two years have passed….’

For me, it was a personal journey of self-discovery that took me to every godforsaken tsunami hamlet in the State, relentlessly looking for scraps of human dignity among survivors. My well-intentioned, but still-born blog notwithstanding, one day I hope to come terms with those memories which, for all of us journalists who were doing the rounds then, will be a curse we will have to bear till the end.

How does one come to terms, for example, with the memory of firemen pulling out from the sand near the Marina the bodies of six boys, who had been buried head first, and who had been playing boisterous street cricket when their lives ended?

Or a rescue worker in Cuddalore quietly carrying what appeared to be a white gunny sack and when you drew close, you found it was the wave-bleached body of a five-year old girl in a lace frock?

Or the surreal scene at the Velankanni shrine where, under all that Christmassy-glitter of the little coloured lamps strung across the shamiana, nearly two thousand bodies lay? Some of them had come from as far as Orissa and had to be buried almost immediately because their corpses had started falling apart.

Or the memory of the bleakness in eight-year-old Vigneswari’s eyes when she said her wave-dead father--a fisherman in Nagapattinam-- had promised her a gift for her birthday but now she did not have anybody who would ever buy her a gift?

Or the Christ-like stoicism of fisherman Victor in Akkaraipettai who, though both his children were still missing, had gone around collecting food packets to feed other frightfully hungry children?

Or the memory of the mass grave in Kanyakumari’s Colachel? We had been told there was a children’s’ grave inside the compound of the parish church and Father Stanley had pointed us to beyond a closed gate. We reached there and found just a raised Cross on a simple, cement platform. We looked around in vain for the graves when somebody informed us that we were already standing on them.

A cold shiver shot through us. Underneath our feet, behind the cement platform, lay the bodies of nearly 150 children. They had all been brought there to rest by their parents who had held decomposing son-flesh and daughter-flesh in their hands and still retained sanity to give them a decent burial.

All one can do now is crave the blessedness of forgetting….

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Federer and friends

Were it not for the jostling, pushing, shoving, screaming, ranting--in one word, playing true to form--media men, it was almost impossible to believe that a celebrity had come visiting. Federer, however, retained poise and grace and was more than willing to play from the heart in Cuddalore.
Children, it seems, are closest to his heart and the man had the humility to admit he can still learn from them. One almost thought one would see a replay of the Brad Pitt episode, but was glad that this time the mediamen were less paparazzi-like and not so celebrity-hung up.
All they had wanted was to do their job--capture Federer and girlfriend Miroslava `Mirka’ Vavrinec with the tsunami kids--and get out but were not allowed to as the UNICEF seemed to think every newsperson was a paparazzi and did their darnedest to keep the national media away while allowing Reuters and AFP free run.
It was then that all hell broke loose and one almost feared for Federer’s safety as the policemen (some of whom admitted they did not know who it was they were supposed to be protecting) seemed to enjoy the free-for-all. ``We will not let Federer get out of Cuddalore", yelled one scribe while another vowed he would snatch the Reuters/AFP cameras and break them to pieces.
"You are trying to sell photographs of our kids to newspapers abroad to grease your slimy fingers and raise money,’’ one said.
Finally, all was well that ended well. Am not a Federer fan at the best of times--am more the Stefan Edberg/Pete Sampras kind, with a dash of Agassi--but must say the children were taken in by his transparent earnestness and touching honesty and responded with a spontaneity only kids can muster.
``Do you speak Tamil?’’ one asked, "Have you seen Rajinikant movies?’’ another wondered and "Will you buy me a mithai?’’ one cajoled.
Little Abhinaya--by now almost iconic among the tsunami orphans, more about her in the next post--blew him a kiss and Federer was thrilled to bits.
Managed to get some cute pix. Will post them soon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The strange case of Santhi Soundarajan

Those of us who thought vultures were becoming extinct, needn't have worried: seems they have morphed into camera-toting newsmen, feeding off the last morsel of flesh. Vultures, may they forgive us, are noble birds and, am sure, have more finesse in them than what was on display when Santhi surfaced at the Tamil Nadu Secretariat.
Was not there myself but colleagues said Santhi, praise be to her, retained her composure and did not break down, even when the questions grew carrion-esque: ``The tests said you do not appear to be a woman....so what are you?" and "How does it feel to be called not-a-woman?"
And the headlines reeked of rotten flesh too: ``State government stands by shamed Santhi"/``Dude looks like a lady"/ "Middle distance runner caught in middlesex controversy"
There was even more blood-letting elsewhere: ``Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan has failed a gender test. Could this be a cause of global warming?" somebody asked on Yahoo!answers.
What were not asked were questions about the politics of testing for gender and personal identities.
Does "having more Y chromosomes than you are allowed" make one less of a woman, though Santhi was born a woman, lived a woman and almost never underwent a sex change surgery? If, as one vernacular daily claimed, she had never attained puberty, is she gender-challenged? For laughing out loud!
And pray, what exactly are `secondary sexual characteristics of a woman?' If a battery of gynaceologists, endocrinologists and hemotologists decrees that one is not woman-enough because of a fluky chromosome, then does it negate all those painful years Santhi went through, overcoming hellish odds, to get where she is? For pity's sake, and this in the age of post-Germaine Greer?
Somewhere along the way, there were helpful hints too: that Santhi could be the victim of malnutrition as she grew up amidst a very Indian poverty that suppressed certain gender manifestations. Santhi could most certainly not have competed with men and won, so how does one set standards for being a woman athlete? So, what happens if, for example, a male athlete fails a gender test (there are NO such tests for men, one is told) and is told he hits neuter-ground?
Amidst all this, Santhi has found support at home turf.. When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi,before honouring her, asked her if her conscience was clear, Santhi replied with a simple, yet profound, `Yes.'
A lesser woman would have crumbled.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dolce vita!

Caught Russell Crowe in action in Rome....or rather a pathetic apology for him. A gladiator with a tattered gown, whose only sustenance for the day was a haggard cheroot which he kept drawing on whenever he could take a break from being killed.

A sobering snapshot just outside the awesome Colosseum. A reminder of how history pays, even today. When the boy in the picture had his fill of the sword and moved away, the man turned towards us and offered to get killed by us too. The kill would have cost us ten bucks. We move away, deeply insulted.
This is how Rome reinvents history, in very public spaces where Euro-wary tourists attempt to take back home vignettes of one of the world's bloodiest arenas. Sinatra would have loved the situational humour.
Elsewhere in other remote and forgotten corners, you find illegally-staying-on Bangladeshi hawkers littering pavements like discarded confetti. In one of the world's most culturally alive cities, the disowned migrant exists in a closed-out corner where neither tourist cameras nor the long arm of law can reach. The law knows they are there, but doesnt bother too much: the big city feeds on their horribly underpaid services for peddling its time-machine-ness.
But then there are the smart ones too: we come across one such, a Pakistani Big Boss who runs an umbrella store in one of the streets leading to Roma Centrale. Almost all of them under his employ are fellow Asians and living on in Rome illegally as unlike other European cities, the policia here leaves them alone. Every morning, they fan out across the city, selling everything from umbrellas to salted acorns, returning home at night to the memories of families that exist in an unreachable corner of the world.
You search in vain for their smiles, but find instead only the dark misery of a bottomless cavity.