This is a piece I wrote for the first anniversary of the tsunami. I was given all of three days to shoot this story and with almost a month of rain and floods, I had little time to research what was really going on in the tsunami-affected areas. I employed three strands in my story to give viewers a big picture – that the men turned lazy, that women are pulling their weight with help from banks and donor agencies and a strong culture of self-help groups, and that the grief for individual families is still very raw and fresh. Its been re-written in parts to make it a print script. Here it is.
Across Tamil Nadu's tsunami-ravaged coast-line some scenes are common – women gathered in groups – some are weaving baskets, some others are making soaps, somewhere else they’re making dolls, yet another group is making slippers…. the list is long and the road has been hard. But many of these women of the tsunami have shown that the path to salvation is through self-help.
When Palamma returns with her large metal carrier – you know shes been at work selling fish. She didn't make much money today but shes grateful that her familiar routine has been restored. This routine has returned after months of struggle. The fishermen were first beset by a fear of the ocean, then they were happy to live off generous NGO and government doles. But their inaction was making Palamma and many fish-sellers like her - desperate. So she and the other women in the hamlet started applying pressure on the men. Palamma says, “We told them not to be scared and to overcome their fears. We said, the tsunami wasn’t going to come again so they should start their regular fishing and then slowly things began.”
The collector of Nagapattinam, Dr. J Radhakrishnan, a man responsible for reducing the turnaround time on restoring livelihood says that Palamma’s hamlet of Nambiar Nagar set off a trend. “'When the catch came and it was so huge the word went around to the other hamlets. The catalystic role played by the women in that hamlet was perhaps very critical for the other hamlets to realise the bounty available in the sea for them to follow suit and then it caught on like fire and people went fishing... this is one area where I am very thankful to the fisherwomen.”
But fishing activity is going through its annual lean season again and today in most villages you’ll find groups of men at street-corners playing cards.
But a once highly insular fishing community has learnt one very hard lesson – the importance of an alternative livelihood – another skill that can sustain them. Women have shown the lead by coming together in these self-help groups to learn new skills and men are now seeing its virtues.
Sister Lily Pushpam from an NGO called the Daughters of Mary Immaculate has been training self-help groups (SHG’s) for the past 12 years. We met her as she was beginning training with a new group of women. She says the burden of the times is shared unequally. She observes, “Men actually have become lazy because after the tsunami NGO's and voluntary organisations have given enough materials....so their mentality today is to ask of whoever comes from outside. They ask for money or materials. The first question is always - what are you going to give?”
But womens groups are also more successful because of their higher credit-worthiness and SHG’s in Nagapattinam have already saved upto 6 crore rupees! It's real empowerment for people like Kavitha. She had been a housewife till the tsunami forced her out, because it killed her husband. After learning printing she makes about 2700 rupees a month – enough to sustain her young son and her. She prints bags that carry the brand name of the products made by the women of Nagapattinam – 'Alai Magal' or 'daughter of the wave'. Then Kavitha's along with the products of hundreds of other groups travels to a specially set up market called ‘Rural Bazaar’ and also to exhibitions in different cities. Through the bazaar one group has even received an order of candles worth 5 million rupees from Netherlands. But the scenario is not entirely optimistic. The difficulty lies in finding and sustaining markets for these products. The district administration has come out with a brochure on all the available products but even they are nervous about the challenges. Dr. J Radhakrishnan says, “What we are worried about is the capacity of these SHG's to manage the requirements of the market once they attain the quality.”
If you want to help you should visit a store called ‘Tsunami ka dukaan’ that has opened recently in Pondicherry. (Its very close to Goubert Avenue. Ask for an art gallery called ‘Aurodhaan’ and they’ll direct you.) The process of the governments disengagement from rehabilitation can only begin once people start patronizing such stores. This enterprise shown by the victims has had both monetary and psychological benefits. Its helped soothe traumatized minds where hope and despair can be easy bedfellows.
I found that the people most desperately searching for a new reason to exist are parents who lost all their little children to the tsunami. One such couple is Selvi and Vijaykumar. The couple lost all their five daughters to the tsunami. But life throbs inside Selvi again. She was one of 50 women who underwent a surgery to reverse an earlier sterilization operation. Only four women have been able to conceive so far and Selvi is one of them. But having this baby will be very different for her. Her husband remains slumped in mourning, a strong smell of alcohol surrounds him, he speaks reluctantly and his face contorts with grief at the mention of his five girls. The name of ‘Sneha’, his favourite daughter, is etched across his heart. He says, “I just drink to forget….i loved Sneha because she was just like a boy. Very boisterous and playful. No matter what time I came home, she’d be awake, waiting for me. She would only go to bed after I bought her a little trifle.’
Vijaykumar has contemplated suicide very often. But somewhere deep inside he does hope to be holding his sixth child soon. Palamma hopes to be making more money once the lean season gets over and the women who are diligently employing their new skills are hoping their products will continue to inspire clients. For now, if you're looking for hope, you'll find it in Nagapattinam.