In the villages we pass, clocks that have stopped working tell a story of their own. At Puddupettai, it is 8.40 am. At Chinnavaikal, it is 9.05. At Pandagasalai, it is 9.26. All along the coast, village by village, time stopped on December 26, 2004.
Taste of honey
At Killai, a village between Chidambaram and Cuddalore, women gather to collect sacks of rice from a house. Walking away is a little boy with three butterflies in his hand. "What are you doing with the butterflies," we ask him.
"Looking for honey," he says.
Hell and high water in goddess' island
At Killai we meet a gentleman called Tamilarasan. He lives in a village called Chinnavaikal, which is at the end of a narrow strip of land that curves out into the sea, and is effectively an island at high tide. He tells us the village has been wiped out. He offers to take us there in a boat.
We walk to the shore as Killai tells us about the waves. He escaped relatively unscratched, but only because of the mangrove forest that lines the shore. The waves were neutralised by the trees, in a battle that does not take place often.
We reach the shore. The sea is blue near us, but turns green at the horizon. The waves were black when they came, says Tamilarasan, a description we have heard all across the coast. We wade over to the boat.
I think of the famous scene from Swades as we sit on the boat. Dilip is sitting in front of me with his back to me, Saransh in front of him facing us, and behind him the hull of the boat and the blue sky. Would Mohan Bhargava have been here? It doesn't matter. Thousands of people are, working madly to ease the pain, without a script that will make it to Bollywood.
The sun sparkles on the water as Tamilarasan starts the motor, and we cut through the waves. All around me I see tiny glimmers of light that seem to jump out of the water. I realise they are actually flying fish. As we approach the shore ahead, lithe white birds, perhaps terns, swoop down to capture flying fish in their mouth in one deft move. There, a flying fish is dead. There, one more. And more. Soon, they are statistics.
That shore is not the one we have to go to, though. It is just a strip of land that curves away as we go around, and keeps curving, as if it is a snake being eaten up by the water. We turn and turn, until we finally reach Chinnavaikal. We step onto the beach, onto beautiful soft sand. Ahead of us is a patch of coconut trees that runs across the length of what is, like at the moment, a narrow island when the tide goes down. We can walk across to another patch of land, and from there wind our way back to the mainland.
It is astonishing, and a blessing, that tourists have not discovered Chinnavaikal. It is a beautiful virgin beach by the sea, with electricity poles as the only sign of modernity. The villagers lived in thatched huts in the patch of trees. Every single one of them has been flattened.
About 150 people lived here. Fifteen of them died; the others survived partly because of the trees, which both fought the waves and gave the villagers something to hold on to. When the waves receded, the villagers from Killai came to rescue the survivors.
After walking past the remnants of many thatched huts, we come to a concrete structure, or rather, two walls on the ground. One of them has sunk into the mud, and a boy is on his knees wiping it clean, trying to pull it out. "What are you doing," we ask him.
"This is a shrine of the goddess Mariyamman," he says. "I am keeping it clean."
Goddess Mariyamman is known both for her benevolence and her rage. Some compare her to Durga. But of all the Hindu deities, she is closest perhaps to being a female version of Shiva, who has the same extremes -- benevolence and rage, island paradise and tsunami.
I am an athiest, so I walk away. But if I was that boy, perhaps I would be cleaning the wall too, cleaning the goddess's name painted on it. In times of such trauma, we need a crutch. The people's belief in god gives them one humans are failing to provide: hope.
Amit Varma is travelling around the disaster-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog,India Uncut. This article has been adapted from one of his posts.