He had just hit the sack after a long night of Christmas revelry. Soon, P K Perumal was trying his utmost to fend off the horde of mosquitoes that took advantage of the coastal languor and relentlessly buzzed about his ears.
To beat off the tedium, he recounted the 'rational explanation' he had heard an aeon ago to himself: Why do mosquitoes hum in your ears first before biting? Doing so will infuriate the victim and raise his blood pressure, which will make it easier for the arthropods to suck blood!
He enjoyed the wisecrack an umpteenth time, and mechanically swished his arms about to foil the mosquito menace. How much he wished to squash these irksome creatures.
Besides the exasperating drone of the insects, only the periodic roar of the lapping sea waves disturbed the eerie, nightly silence. Since he could not slip in to sleep, as often happened, his mind drifted to that fateful day in July 1968. He had dedicated the prime of his youth to the motherland by serving in the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers of the Indian Army. A terrible accident in the Northeast upturned his life forever. In fact, the rescuers were surprised to find him alive in the wreckage of the vehicle that plunged downhill.
The tumble broke his neck and injured the cervical spinal cord. Though he recovered some strength in his arms through physiotherapy, he would remain a quadriplegic with paralysed limbs and trunk. He would need a wheelchair for mobility, and external help to shift from the bed to the wheelchair and vice versa. For life. Hardly anyone in his village knew that he had narrowly dodged death, and how uncomplainingly he had faced the ordeals all these 36 years, burdening his folks to the minimum.
A heavy splash of water broke his sleep. Vexed, he wanted to let fly at the offender for rudely rousing him this way, but found none. Diffused beams of daylight through the ventilator had lit up the room. To his horror, his room resembled a water tank and his cot was almost afloat in gushing water. The onrush had deposited his wheelchair against a wall. Before he could bat an eyelid, a wall caved in, the rafters collapsed and rested perilously above him. Stunned, terrified and unable to figure out what had descended on him, he screamed in fright, followed by a series of vocal SOSs.
Ineffectually. Obviously, his household had fled.
He could hear the hubbub and footfalls of stampeding people. To worsen the dread, another wall was about to slump and he felt as if the ground beneath him was subsiding. Feeling marooned and helpless, he closed his eyes in resignation, lay motionless, awaiting the worst of the worst.
Suddenly he heard the door being forced open. It was a passer-by who had heard his cries for help. This sinewy fisherman waded in and extricated him from the tangle. He then carried Perumal in his arms outside, and into a goods carrier brimming over with panic-stricken people.
The evacuees were driven to the Collectorate. As he needed medical care, Perumal was sent to a hospital where rumour and scaremongers were having a field day. He could not believe what was rebounding thick and fast. Luckily, the army medics and paramedics arrived by noon, and restored order and faith. Perumal revealed his military background, and the men in uniform made arrangements to make life as comfortable as possible for this disabled veteran.
Having recovered his sap, on the third day, Perumal told the army doctor of his desire to visit his devastated village. The doctor arranged for a wheelchair, transport and detailed two soldiers to escort him.
Perumal belonged to Sikkal, a nondescript village roughly 2.5 kilometres from Nagapattinam that bore the brunt of the tsunami. The sorry sight of his wrecked home triggered two streams of tears. The stench of putrefying carcasses assailed his olfactory nerves. Fishing equipment and paraphernalia were strewn, and some perched atop the vegetation and the ruins.
The howling winds and the deserted village accentuated the funereal ambience. This numbing silence of a graveyard reminded him of a battlefield minus the men-at-arms. An escort told him that at least 13 villagers were swallowed by the killer tidal waves. So this dance of death is called the tsunami -- a word that barged into his and the national vocabulary -- he mused. Why did Mother Sea do this to her children? He could not rationalise it.
Perumal had heard about cats with nine lives. This was his second close encounter with death. He allowed himself to forget the lugubrious surroundings for awhile, and had a mental once-over of his wizened frame. He could not but amuse himself at his 'indestructibility' despite the physical disability, and triumphantly raised his right hand, albeit stiffly, to twirl his handlebar moustache.
M P Anil Kumar is a former MiG-21 pilot.