The terrible loss of life in peninsular India from the Christmas quake and tsunami is a great human tragedy. My heart goes out to the tens of thousands of Indians who have suffered loss of family, of livelihood, and home and possessions. After the Republic Day earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, I wrote a column What the Thunder Said and I urged people to give. 'Datta!,' I said, echoing the Upanishadic commandment.
Today I say the same again. Give so that others may piece together their damaged lives. All along the coast, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and the Andaman chain, thousands have died as an unstoppable wall of water simply descended on them. We may never know the true death toll, as many of the affected were marginal, poverty-stricken coastal dwellers living in pathetic hovels. Entire families may have been wiped out and nobody would know, as they are outside the predatory state's purview.
Chennai was badly hit. Here are eyewitness accounts. A fisherman on the Marina who had lost his meager possessions but escaped with his life said: 'I don't know why God is testing us. It must be Kalikalam (bad times). The Kanchi problem, and today, this.' An old woman who lost a family member wailed, "We were so happy celebrating Christmas, why did this happen?" Thousands of distraught people from the desperately poor tenements were evacuated to safer ground, fearing further after-shocks.
The scene of devastation was a wasteland: cars, boats, the remnants of thatched huts, snack shanties on the beach, all floating like toys in the floodwaters and jettisoned like so much flotsam and jetsam in the wake of the receding water. Debris and sand everywhere on the streets. Bodies still being discovered and carried in for disposal. Especially tragic, the limp bodies of children being brought in by grieving parents. There might be hundreds of bodies washed out to sea, too.
In Kerala too, some areas I know, near Kollam where the backwaters open up to the sea, as well as the area around Ambalapuzha where the road is only a hundred yards from the water, have been devastated with dozens of deaths.
We now know what happened. But the old woman's question haunted me. Why this? There must be some reason not available to the mortal man. Is there some pattern, as Thornton Wilder explored in The Bridge of San Luis Rey?
A giant earthquake, of magnitude 8.1 on the Richter Scale, hit the Macquarie Islands between Australia and Antarctica off of Tasmania on Christmas Eve, December 24, at 2 am local time.
A gigantic earthquake, almost ten times more devastating at 8.9 on the Richter Scale, and one of the most powerful ever recorded, hit the coast of Sumatra on the day after Christmas, December 26, at 8 am local time.
The resulting tsunami rolled across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, hitting Sri Lanka, the Maldives, India and even Somalia all the way on the other side of the sea.
The worst toll in India was in the state of Tamil Nadu, where several thousand are missing and presumed dead. A tidal wave entered the Velankanni church in Nagapattinam, the centre of a widespread Madonna cult, and killed some 50 worshippers in the single most devastating incident.
I am not the only one who noticed the timing. Indeed, according to the ABC News story quoted above, Christianity's top cleric, the Pope, said 'the enormous tragedy made for a sad Christmas.'
Is something supernatural happening?
I pooh-poohed one T John when he claimed that the Gujarat quake was a sign from above, but now I am beginning to wonder.
The devastation by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, could it be a caveat from Up There about the atrocities being visited on the Kanchi Acharya? About adharma gaining ground?
There are mysterious forces out there that are not fully understood by our oh-so-rational selves. I am reminded of the strange signs and omens that historians recorded before calamities: for instance the rain of frogs in Vietnam preceding the cataclysmic war. Or the odd celestial signs that preceded the death of Julius Caesar.
It is said that the very elements can be affected by the mystical powers of sages who have acquired superhuman powers through meditation and sadhana. I think we should all tread carefully, for now we are treading on things we do not know.