Tomorrow another anniversary is coming around – and as the years pass the public memory gets hazier. For our family, it is a special time to think of each other and give thanks for being there for each other. For on that momentous day of 26th December 2004, we were all together (barring my daughter, son-in-law and 6month old Udai) standing on the beach at Hikkuduwa, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami hit!
The younger of my two brothers, Ananth was to turn 50 in early January. And to celebrate the occasion we had planned a four day outing to a seaside resort approximately 20 kilometers North of Galle. Galle, of course is familiar to all cricket lovers as it has a famous cricket stadium. My other brother, Gopal, who lives in Europe, had come with his wife and 3 children and along with Ananth his wife and daughter, our mother and I (in all 10 of us) we were to to fly out from Chennai to Colombo on Christmans eve.
The trip started with some drama. Sri Lanka has ‘visa on arrival’ for Indian nationals. We were to take a morning flight and after checking in, we reached emigration, only to find that the officer would not let my mother through! Her passport was an expired one. No amount of cajoling would, obviously, make him change his mind. So, my mother and I returned home and after ransacking the carefully stored treasures in her steel locker, I discovered her valid passport in 3 layers of cellophane wrap. So, we dashed to the travel agent (who was friend) and got another ticket organized and flew out on a later flight. The flight itself was of 70 mins but the 104 kilometer distance from Colombo to Hikkuduwa 3 hrs or more. Although the road was good and the traffic was orderly and disciplined, it had a single ane going each way. We reached the hotel in time to join the rest of the group at the fag end of a christmas eve dinner.
Christmas day dawned bright and beautiful and we relaxed, walked on the beach and caught up on all the news, as we met the European arm of the family only once every other year or so. The only disappointment that day was that we were not able to locate the Catholic church for my sister-in-law. THe resort was bThe plans were hatched for the next day to go out to the rocky promontory we could see a little out in the sea, where we were assured snorkeling was possible and coral viewing was an attraction. The day ended with a leisurely dinner at a nearly seaside shack restaurant. We met for breakfast at 8 am as planned and while reading the local English daily, Gopal commented on a news item about a conference in Hawaii that was discussing tsunami warning systems. He made some caustic remarks about academics types finding esoteric subjects and locations to have their discussions – a dig at my academic background. How ironic that was to be. In fact, I had never heard the word tsunami till then!
We assembled by the pool, which was on a raised promontory between the hotel and the beach. Although we had said 9 am to the boatman, we could see the tout hanging around the beach by 8 itself. Ananth and his wife went back to their room which was on the lowest floor (as was the one occupied by Gopal’s children). As we stood waiting for everyone to assemble, we observed that the sea level looked really high, higher than it had on the previous day. This struck us as odd, as we had been told that the low tide was in the morning and hence safer to take the boat out. And then as we stood there, each wave came up higher and higher and we started to retreat!
By the fifth or sixth wave, the water had come up to the swimming pool and we retreating as fast as we could into the lobby. The hotel staff were already directing people to the front of the hotel and up a flight of stairs to the terrace over the front porch. Nobody had a clue as to what was happening! But before we could traverse the lobby, the water was already around our feet – but like the saying ‘what goes up must come down’, for every wave that came in, it also had to go out. In the short space that that allowed us, we ran and I have this slow motion vision of the huge single sheet glass window of the hotel lobby crashing behind me as I ran- I was sure it would crash on me. In retrospect, it was like some dramatic scenes in a thriller movie.
We scrambled to the roof and my mother probably would not have made it if my large 6’+ nephew had not practically carried her up. And as we stood there on the roof, which faced the road away from the beach (which we could not see), we watched the road becoming an angry swirling river carrying away everything in its wake. Cars, computers (we had noticed a internet café across the street), fridges and everything else were floating like feathers.
When we paused, we realized that only eight of us were there – Ananth and Priya were not! Their daughter became hysterical shouting for them and as the tide receded Gopal and I went down to look for them – he to the poolside and I to the inner corridor, running and desperately calling their names. The corridor was a mess of broken glass, bits and pieces of furniture and mud – there were no longer any doors or windows in many rooms. And Oh! the relief when they responded!! Moments that are etched in one’s memory forever!
They had been changing their clothes, as the water crashed through the windows and they were carried up to the roof of the room. As the wave receded, the walls provide a barrier and prevented them from being swept away. They were dumped with a thud to the floor.Since there was an overall sense of panic and little idea of what more to expect, we rushed them upstairs to the terrace – Ananth only in pair of swimming trunks!! And then suddenly, as suddenly as it had come, it was all over – the ocean receded and there was an eerie silence!! Most of us were too apprehensive to venture down.
It was well past 10 am by then and the hotel was kind enough to allow everyone to use their telephone to make calls – those were the early days of cell phone and few of us traveled abroad with international roaming. I called my daughter, and since it was a Monday morning, everybody was busy with the daily routine and had not heard the news yet. Gopal had a Blackberry even then, and he could contact their families back in the Netherlands. Of course, it had hit Achei many hours earlier and so the international news channels were already flashing the news. No one knew how far it had traveled though! And everyone was relieved that we were all miraculously safe.
The next 36 hours were a night mare of another kind!! Since no one had experienced a similar event in their life times, even the oldest among the locals, no one was clear as to what to expect. Rumors spread that another giant wave was expected. When we tentatively moved down from the safety of the terrace, we found that nothing was left of the lobby or the kitchen, and bottles of beer and wine were floating around the pools of water left behind. The staff, in all their generosity opened up whatever they could rustle up to eat and asked us to walk up to a higher level – in the hills at the back of the town – where a friend of the hotel owner had agreed to let us use his house. All the stuff in the first and second floor rooms, where Gopal and his wife and my mother and me had ur rooms, were intact and we packed them and put them in the storage. Everything in the 2 lower floor rooms were either washed away or ruined. This included a new iPod my niece had got as a gift, and a new watch that Ananth had got as a birthday gift. Fortunately, the children’s passports were in Gopal’s room in the second floor and Ananth had their passports inside Priya’s leather bag – so they escaped getting lost or even ruined!!
So we made this trek, across the remains of the main North South railway line – which was a mass of tangled steel. We camped in the garden of the house – some 25-30 people of many nationalities. We sat there from mid-afternoon on the 26th which was a Sunday till late on 27th evening. Initially, the hosts tried to make tea for us, and circulate biscuits. But by late evening on Sunday, all the little local stores had run out of stuff or had closed and left due to the fear and uncertainty of the situation. There was one loo for all of us and we spent the night stretched out on the floor of the couple of rooms that they allowed us to use. We had little water and no food for most of the Monday.
We were getting dejected and restless, not knowing when a rescue vehicle would reach us. The first effort to send in a vehicle had not been successful. There as so much wreckage and debris on the roads that progress was slow and the rescue operation was conscripting all the vehicles, to move the injured. Finally, a van reached us late on Monday evening and the 104 km distance back to Colombo now took us 6 hrs to do!! We reached a hotel there and as we waited in the lobby to get rooms, we could see the dazed people wandering around – a Japanese gentleman looking in every hotel for his missing wife, a European couple who had lost their child and so many more…..
Much of what happened over those 48 hours is hazy in my mind. I think we ordered and ate some sandwiches, which was food after more than 36 hours. We had a disturbed and restless night of rest and reached the airport on Tuesday morning. There was no certainty about which flights were landing or taking off. The lounge was crowded with people of various nationalities, in tattered clothes, dazed and shaken. Many European countries had sent special flights for evacuating their nationals. In all the chaos, we finally managed to get the Air India flight to Chennai by the middle of the day!!! There was a young Englishman from the UK Consulate who was traveling barefoot and bare-chested with a totally ruined passport which had got soaked in the water. The immigration guy at Chennai gave him such grief that we had to step in and tell him in Tamil what the situation was like!!
These are the memories of the events of those three days as they have stayed with me. We also heard that one of the workers in our hotel was in the basement and was not found. The tout waiting for us on the beach probably never made it to safety. The restaurant where we had eaten the night before the tsunami was completely destroyed – we don’t know how many lives must have been lost. I am sure that as they read this, the others who were there, may not agree with all the details. But do the details really matter? What has stayed with me are the memories of my mother at 75 years spending most of the 36 hours sitting quietly on an plastic chair, my little niece not once complaining of hunger and the stoicism inherent in all of us to face adverse situations.
And so the holiday season is indeed special for us! The lasting emotion that I associate with this season is of gratitude tinged with sorrow – gratitude for the thousands of lives, including ours, that were spared and sadness for the thousands who did not survive. While my thoughts go out to their near and dear ones, i cannot express my gratitude for our good fortune.