Monday, February 07, 2005

Amitav Ghosh's Tsunami Stories

Amitav Ghosh
It has now been more than six week since the earthquake-tsunami struck this part of the world. Unsurprisngly, most of the headlines have moved on to other stories - the curse of presentism. But the long, long struggle to reclaim livelihoods and dignity amidst the wreckage goes on as before.

I have only just come across this series of essays by the celebrated Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. In January he went to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands just after the devastation and wrote three articles about what he found there. They have now been published in The Hindu. In Part One, Overlapping Faults, he points to the semi-colonial relationship of the Islands to India in order to give a sense of the logistical difficulties faced by those responding to the catastrophe:
... as with many colonies, they represent a distended and compressed version of the mother country, in its weaknesses and strengths, its aspirations and failings. Over the last two weeks, both the fault lines that underlie the islands seem suddenly to have been set in motion: it is as if the hurried history of an emergent nation had collided here with the deep time of geology.
In Part Two, No Aid Needed, he stumbles across a man whom he calls just The Director, who was looking for survivors from his family. Ghosh offers this account of how The Director heard of the loss of his family:
He learnt from his son that the family had been in the bedroom when the earthquake started. A short while later, a terrifying sound from the direction of the sea had driven the three of them into the drawing room. The boy had kept running, right into the kitchen. The house was built of wood, on a cement foundation. When the wave hit, the house dissolved into splinters and the boy was carried away as if on a wind. Flailing his arms, he managed to take hold of something that seemed to be fixed to the earth. Through wave after wave he managed to keep his grip. When the water receded he saw that he was holding on to the only upright structure within a radius of several hundred metres: of the township there was nothing left but a deep crust of wreckage. "And your mother and sister?" the Director had asked. "Baba they just disappeared...". And now for the first time, the boy began to cry, and the Director's heart broke because he knew his son was crying because he thought he would be scolded and blamed for what had happened.
And in Part Three, The Town By The Sea, Ghosh and the Director find nothing but rubble, the detritus of a life; no survivors, except for the Director's son. Ghosh ends his essay with this tribute to the spirit of the Director:
There are times when words seem futile, and to no one more so than a writer. At these moments it seems that nothing is of value other than to act and to intervene in the course of events: to think, to reflect, to write seem trivial and wasteful. But the life of the mind takes many forms and after the day had passed I understood that in the manner of his choosing, the Director had mounted the most singular, the most powerful defence of it that I would ever witness.
Read the rest (via Aliran)


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