Mr. Krishnamurthy Sankaran, the tsunami coordinator of Seva Bharathi Tamil Nadu, Nagapattinam, sent Gargi text messages on our international telephone, which Gargi did not know how to respond to. So she just telephoned him and announced our arrival.
From the get go, Mr. Sankaran let us know that Seva Bharathi is a Hindu NGO that functions under the auspices of RSS, a politically conservative, religious organization. He made sure that we would not do any counseling because in his view missionaries in the name of counseling are converting tsunami survivors to Christianity, telling them that the tsunami was God’s punishment. Mr. Sankaran was relieved that Gargi is a Hindu and reassured that we only intended to do what he wanted us to do. We repeatedly told him that we truly appreciated Seva Hearth’s rehabilitation work. Mr. Sankaran often remarked that the secular (non-religious) Indian government and Western-oriented NGOs overlooked the work of his Hindu organization. Given his meaning of counseling, we considered it best not to give Mr. Sankaran our Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder information and intervention manual and CD.
In a self-help group in Seva Bharathi, women were sorting leftover stainless steel and aluminum utensils and pots and pans into categories. All displaced fishermen and villagers had already been provided for, and some women had started kitchen stores with such donated utensils. The leftover utensils were now being prepared for storage and intended for distribution at another emergency.
In a nearby building, young women were learning to use sewing machines so that they can become tailors. An adjacent room was shared by both a doctor and a homeopathic practitioner. We were excited to find one roomed labeled as “Neuro Therapy.” Here aches, pains, and somatic complaints are cured with ayurvedic medicine and meditation. At a computer lab, young girls were learning Microsoft Word.
Water desalination was occurring in a tank donated by the private TATA industry. Huge containers all over the camp showed markings of UNICEF and US AID.
We went to a one-room elementary school. We distributed crayons and papers and, presto, all 30 children were drawing tsunami pictures (giant waves crashing on boats, people, and huts). We went to the Nagapattinam beech, where boats were being repaired and young boys were collecting boat debris. We saw overturned, grounded boats. We saw the Nagapattinam Bridge being repaired because two of its sections had been brought down.
On December 26, at about 8.20 a.m., the Director of Seva Bharathi at Chennai had called an outreach officer in Nagapattinam on his cell phone. The outreach officer answered from the Nagapattinam Bridge. The director was told that one giant wave had hit the banks of Nagapattinam, and that the officer and some people had rushed to the bridge for safety. At that very moment, the second wave hit, that brought down a part of the bridge. Within half an hour Seva Bharathi and its volunteers were rescuing and helping victims.
We drove over a temporary bridge of sand bags located about 2.5 miles away from the sea shore-that’s how far the tsunami reached. Mr. Sankaran took us to Kancheepuram. Here at the beach, he showed us a spot where he, other relief workers, and volunteers buried six hundred bodies. To arrange for the burial site, an underground gas tank was first removed, which continues to remain above ground now. Seva Bharathi was the primary relief organization that pulled bodies from the debris and the only organization that was equipped with personnel (Brahmin priests) and knowledge to perform the last rites, according to Hindu traditions. Mr. Sankaran said that at least 50,000 people were killed at Kancheepuram, but that the government for whatever reason has not provided an accurate death toll. It was a crowded Sunday morning, the day of the tsunami, when children were playing cricket on the beach, and daughters and wives were buying fish to prepare for Sunday lunch, the best meal of the week. Along the beech at Kanjeepuram, little palm tress have been planted and named after the dead as memorials.
The Seva Bharathi orphanage is called the House of Love and Affection. Children at the House range between 5 years to 15 years. Their caretakers are just a few years older than the children, and were themselves orphaned. Life at the House follows a strict daily routine. The children were clean, well-dressed, and healthy. They were wearing jewelry. Their hair was well-oiled and braided. We took for them a boxful of sweets, which they loved. We sat on the floor and did lots of drawings. The girls did patterned, geometric drawings, at which they appear to be well practiced. Miko showed how to make origami. In no time origami figures were popping out, more complex and finer than what Miko claimed she could do. While the children at the elementary school drew only tsunami waves, the girls at the House mainly drew flowery patterns and happy villages in which houses had no windows. However, one child drew her mother who died in the tsunami. She shyly gave this picture to Gargi. Linda played handclapping games, ring-around-the rosie, and the hokey pokey. The girls just loved the games, and sang and laughed aloud with Linda. Then, followed prayer time. The children washed up, sat on the floor, and facing a shrine, they sang hymns. Each song was often led by a little one and followed with a chorus. It was amazing to hear rich, powerful voices coming out of little bodies. Sitting on the floor cross-legged was tough for Gargi. While she fidgeted and shifted balance, Linda had fallen into an alpha trance.
At the Women’s Center, about twenty women reside, cook, and sew clothes for income. Some engage in outreach in the Seva Bharathi rehabilitation camps. There were more prayers in the Center led by the women. Gargi does not remember when she last prayed so hard.
Mr. Sankaran would be grieved if we did not inform you that Seva Bharathi has the best-built temporary shelters, with thatched roofs and corrugated sides that are sunk into the earth, keeping insects and vermin away. He showed disdain for the lesser shelters of other NGOs. We had a twelve-hour day at Seva Bharathi. We had lunch, tea, and dinner with them. Mr. Sankaran insisted that we drink Seva Bharathi’s desalinated water, which other NGOs do not have. We concurred with every wish of Mr. Sankaran and have a local friend and colleague here. All said and done, Seva Bharathi was well-organized and maintained and the staff looked in pretty good shape because they awaken at 5.30 a.m. and join exercise drills led by an adolescent troop leader.