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All It Takes
September 19, 2005
Eight months later, I remember that evening like it was yesterday. The expanse of rubble and slush in Akkarapettai, behind Nagapattinam, stretched before us all the way to the setting sun. Spirals of smoke dotted the area; smoke from pyres for people killed by the wave.
We had to make our way across the slush to meet a team that was, this late in the day, still hard at work building those pyres and cremating those bodies. Hard work getting to them, primarily because of the difficulty of getting through the slush.
We finally managed it only when one of them came to meet us and told us to follow him. He was beyond the squeamishness we felt, and simply sloshed through it. It was the best way. Soon, we reached the team.
And we reached them just in time to watch them pull a couple of bodies out of a once-hut, put them on top of the thatched roof, add one or two more bodies lying nearby, and set fire to it all. The last rites for one more destroyed family and a few destroyed neighbours.
Part of the team was a journalist and filmmaker, R. We chatted briefly, exchanged addresses, and then went our separate ways. I hardly expected to see R again.
But this week, I did.
Like so many of us, R had been drawn to the tsunami-ravaged area to help in whatever way she could. But unlike the rest of us, she stayed on in Nagapattinam after the immediate relief operations -- body burning and so on -- were over, and took an interest in the longer-term issues.
At some point, she found a few kids begging in the bus station. She spoke to them, and then went with them to their homes. Their "homes". Before the tsunami, this little community lived in shacks on the seashore. Those were flattened by the wave, and the people settled into tents in a small city park near the bus station. It was from here that the kids were going out begging.
At that time, nobody had recognised these people as tsunami-affected. The focus was -- and in fact largely still is -- on fishing communities who were affected by the disaster. Fishermen were badly hit, true; but there were many non-fishing communities that were affected as well. Yet it took a long time for the government to understand this and to acknowledge that these others were victims of the tsunami.
Like the people in tents in the Nagapattinam park. This was one of the barriers that the park-dwellers were up against. The other was that they are from a usually nomadic tribe, the Adhiyans. Like such tribes across the country, they face enormous prejudice from fellow citizens. As the weeks and months passed after the disaster, these old prejudices surfaced.
R was distressed that the kids from the park were out begging. Yet she found that begging was nearly routine in the community. Some parents even sent their kids as far as Kerala to beg. Nearby Vailankanni, home to the famous shrine, was a favourite spot, especially during festivals that attract hordes of pilgrims, likely in a generous mood.
So R, concerned about these people, wanted to get their kids off the streets and into the local school system. This was the immediate priority. In trying to accomplish this much, she ran into that second barrier. The other students and the teachers did not want these kids in school. They would hit and abuse them: "shit-eaters" is one of the more endearing terms they had to endure. Naturally, the Adhiyan children did not want to stay in these schools where nobody wanted them anyway.
In the end, R realised the only option was to set up a school for the kids herself. Dipping into her savings and tapping her network of friends, she established a trust, rented a house in Nagapattinam's Marai Malai Nagar, and got going.
Today, the house is overrun with lively, friendly, inquisitive, sometimes unruly kids. But there are also several young women teaching them, and R says the kids are gradually learning, taking an interest in their education.
I could tell you more about the kids and their school, or about what they are learning and how. But that is not my purpose in writing this here. What I saw at this little school is one more example of a theme I've run into before: often, all it takes is one person.
You have a community that is ignored by the government -- in the case of these people in Nagapattinam, the government will not even acknowledge that they are who they claim they are, Adhiyans. You have great prejudice directed even at kids. You have the compulsion to send children out to beg.
You see all this, and you wonder: how will this ever change?
Answer: often, all it takes is one person. One person to take an interest and treat the community as just more human beings. It sounds like a small thing, but it really isn't. R's willingness to stand up for these people, and then to invest herself in educating their kids, is a very big thing.
How big? Well, here's one final thing R told me. At one point, she was looking for something she could teach the women of the community, to give them some small opportunity to earn some money. Someone suggested making rope: a simple matter of twisting strands of coir together. But the Adhiyans themselves shook their heads. Not so simple. "We don't have the brains to do this," they said to her.
That's the kind of image these Adhiyans have of themselves, that R and the teachers at the school have to work to overcome in addition to all else there is to overcome. That's what prejudice can do to its victims.
Yet you see the kids at this school, and you know again: all it takes one person.