Monday, December 1, 2008

Fighting disasters with humour, camaraderie

This post is all about personal experiences.

After the Oberoi Hotel operation, commando Karamjit Singh Yadav handed a card to commando Bharat Singh who had a part of his ear nipped off by a bullet fired by a terrorist.
The card simply said “Life is too short - 2 inches.” Signifying how close they came to getting shot.

But the message caused a lot of good natured ribbing by Singh's colleagues.
No one would believe these men only a couple of days ago darted through dark corridors, matching bullet for bullet at a bunch of young guys pretending to be grown ups.
If they laughed reading the card now, the commandos wept for Major Unnikrishnan who lost his life trying to save one of them.
It reminded me of another disaster four years ago when a beaten and shattered bunch of people laughed at themselves when they did not know what else to do.
December 2004, the tsunami ravaged parts our southern coast and engulfed withing hours whole thriving villages of fishermen. I was sent to cover the disaster 7 days later and as any paradropped journalist from Delhi, beelined to Cuddalore district where portions of a coastal village was swept away in swirling waters.

I did not know Tamil and my famous hand gestures are still spoken of by the village elders.
When I met the Panchayat head and tried to coax details out of him through my local colleague who also acted as an interpreter, he appeared baffled.

After 15 harrowing minutes and much amusement of the locals who gathered to watch a journalist from Delhi make a fool of herself, I got some facts and figures and decided to call it a day.
It was only when I turned to go away, did he call out to me, in chaste Hindi, asking me to visit any time I wanted and that I was very welcome.
Many of the villagers joined in his laughter as I gaped at him in shock. These are the men who had lost their family members in the tsunami, their boats and livelihood and still they smiled in unadulterated pleasure at the humour in my predicament.
When I stopped fuming I realised that they had every right to laugh. I was a visitor from the distant and posh national capital and had assumed that I would sweep in amidst their tragedy, get cold and hard details and walk out regally. They obviously didn't think so.

And the surprise showed in their eyes as I smiled back at the panchayat and thanked him in Tamil. Gotcha!
To reach the island of MGR Thittu I waded in waist deep sea water for over a kilometre and all the while the locals who walked along with me to retrieve their soggy belongings from destroyed huts joked with each other and teased me about the quick sand that I might step into.
When I gulped and asked them about the quicksand, they replied laughingly and assured me that they were not as dangerous as the coastal snakes.
At the hastily erected community kitchens, the young monks from Ramakrishna Mission ate sitting on the ground with the fishermen. It was pongal, a festival of abundance and the happy cries were missing.
The children played hopscotch inside the camp ground, apparently thrilled to bits about something. I asked a girl who looked about 11 years old the reason behind all these very sneaky smiles.
"Our school is washed away. All our school books are gone."

At the village of Devanampattinam, where actor Vivek Oberoi camped to help the villagers, my introduction of "I am from PTI (Press Trust of India)" was greeted with very hopeful smiles.

I was amazed at my own popularity, till one doctor in Oberoi's camp pointed out that the people thought I was sent by the Port Trust of India with some news about their boats.

These were some of the glimpses of the aftermath of the tsunami as I experienced. the pain of losing lives and livelihood was there, but so were these snatched moments and I am glad I saw both.

Thank god that men, through the bloody ages, have not lost their sense of humour, something that keeps them going when nothing else will.

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