Down, But Not Out

Down, But Not Out

“Siva, pick up the TV and place it on top of the almirah. Kadavule! Close the almirah first! Kanni, pick up those chairs and put them on the bed. Fast, fast, fast!” Catching her breath as she shouted instructions to her ten-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, Karuthamma ran into the house, shut the door and bolted it from inside.

The kids knew only too well not to ask questions to their mother when she screamed at them like this and did what they were told to do. 

“Get up on the bed and sit on those chairs now”, she continued. 

“Amma, I am frightened. Please tell us what happened. Why are you shouting at us?” Siva spoke out after exchanging looks with Kanni.

Karuthamma looked at Siva for a moment. I cannot show them that I am scared. She scanned their one-room house. What else can I save? Utensils are too many. Clothes are in the almirah. Her eyes went to the toilet at the far end. She closed her eyes, chanted a silent prayer and looked outside the lone window near the door. Her heart skipped a beat.

“Amma, why don’t you tell us what happened? Why is everyone shouting outside?” This time, it was Kanni.

Karuthamma turned around, climbed up the bed and sat on the chair near her kids. “Siva, Kanni, I don’t know how, but there is a massive wave of water coming from the sea and has destroyed many houses near the beach. Our house is made of brick and, I think, we can survive if we stay inside. Siva, whatever happens, you must not let Kanni out of sight, ok?”

As she uttered these words, water started seeping in through the door. Siva consoled Kanni, who had already started crying. “Kanni, don’t cry. We have to be brave. Remember what Amma always says, Amman will save us.”

Cries of help grew louder all around as more and more water gushed in through the door. In no time, an eerie silence engulfed the surroundings. Water level was continuously rising and submerged the bed in no time.

Karuthamma looked around the room. My wedding saree and his suit were on the bottom shelf of the almirah. Curse this sea! Luckily, the kids’ school uniforms & other clothes are in the upper shelves. Oh, Kadavule! All the food I cooked in the morning have been washed away. How are we going to get out of this mess?

Amma!” screamed Kanni as the door gave way and a huge stream of water poured into the house bringing along all sorts of debris – dish antenna, a small cycle, plates, and, of course, mud.  

“Quick, stand up on your chairs, both of you!” Karuthamma stood on the bed while the kids stood up on their chairs. The force was too much, but she somehow managed to stand upright and finally climbed up on her chair as well. But there was no respite.  

Karuthamma looked up to their thatched roof made of bamboo and wooden frames in the ceiling and tried to push the bamboo up. She then looked at Kanni, who had been crying non-stop all this while. “Kanni, come to me, my dear. Don’t be afraid”, and took her in her arms. 

“Kanni, your name is the same as Kanniamman, the Goddess in the temple – yes? Remember the stories which I told you about Amman? They are all true. Amman resides in all of us and makes us brave and strong so that we can come out of any hardship, understand? Look at me, Kanni. Do you understand? You have to be brave, ok? You see that wooden frame. I will lift you up. You climb on that frame and lie there face down, looking at me, ok? You will be safe there.” Kanni, sniffing away, did what she was told. 

Once, she was certain that Kanni was safe, Karuthamma looked down at Siva who had shifted to her chair. “Here Siva, come. You place your legs on my shoulder and hold the wooden frames with your hands. Don’t worry. The water will not come up anymore.” Saying so, she lifted Siva up, as the waves washed away the other two chairs and came up to her knees. 

The three looked around, completely horror-stricken. Within a few seconds, water levels had risen above Karuthamma’s waist now and she got the feeling that the chair will give way under her feet. “Siva, lift your feet and cross your legs around the frame tightly. Even if I move, you should not fall. Hold on tight!” 

In the next moment, the chair gave way. Karuthamma lost balance and was swept away by the current, but not before she had ensured that Siva was safe. Kanni and Siva screamed and tried to grab their mother’s arm, but failed. Luckily, Karuthamma knew how to swim. After a brief struggle with the current, she grabbed the wooden frame next to Siva and steadied herself.

The triangle shape of the thatched roof acted as an air pocket for the three. The water level did not rise beyond the height of the side walls. Kanni, Siva and Karuthamma looked at each other. 

“Amma, what are we going to do?” sniffled Kanni. Siva again tried to console her.

The kids are terrified. I have to pacify them somehow. We are still alive and that’s what matters. Amman, give me strength. 

A few minutes of silence passed by. Kanni seemed to have fallen asleep in her position. I just hope the thatched roof does not weigh down on her. Karuthamma swam up to Kanni and felt the bamboo above her. Its ok. It seems Kanni is comfortable. Thanks to Amman, the roof is light-weight.

“Amma, where is appa?” He had gone fishing early morning, didn’t he?” Siva’s sudden question pinched Karuthamma so hard that she looked the other way and closed her eyes. Amman, please!

At this, Siva started crying. “Amma, I am sorry. Like you said, Amman will take care of him. See, we are all still alive. Appa is strong, he will know how to take care of himself.”

Karuthamma held him tightly and kissed his forehead. “Yes, dear. Amman will take care of him. Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.”

The waves seemed to quieten up a bit. Karuthamma tried to peek out of a small opening in the bamboo roof, which acted like a skylight, but all she could see were half-broken houses everywhere. There was no sign of life. What is happening? Where is everyone? Were they swept away by the waves, or could they get themselves to safety? 

“Amma, What is that smell?” Siva immediately covered his nose with his hands. Karuthamma’s worst fears had come true. Their septic tank had overflowed and the refuse had made their way through the toilet and into the house. Water near the toilet, was slowly turning yellow with bubbles erupting now and then.

With whatever strength she had left, Karuthamma pulled portions of the bamboo roof near the small opening. “Siva, come and help me tear this portion off.” After a considerable time and effort, the hole became bigger. At least, we can breathe somewhat properly, she thought to herself. The sun was shining bright from above. 

A huge bubble erupted near the door and jolted them. Karuthamma looked for possible signs, but there were none. Sensing trouble, she decided to go under water. 

“Siva, don’t worry. I will not go anywhere. I have to see what is out there and I will come up immediately, ok?” Siva only nodded.

Taking in a gasp of breath, Karuthamma went down to investigate the source of the bubble. Was it a dog or a cat or worse, was it a shark which might have swam along with the tide? Something poked her from above. Stunned, she came up abruptly, to see that it was only Siva and he was frantically pointing towards something. 

A wide smile appeared on her face. It was a puppy, which Kanni and Siva used to feed and which always slept outside their house. “Vella kutty! Where did you come from? Come here, my kutty!”  The puppy swam to Karuthamma and started yelping and licking her face frantically. “Enough. Siva, take her with you.” Kanni woke up to the noise and was also happy to see the puppy.

Suddenly, Karuthamma indicated Siva and Kanni to be quiet. She felt that the water was slowly moving out of the house. “Quick, hold on to the frames tightly. The water is going back to sea. It will pull everything in its way.”

With each passing second, the flow gained force. All the waste, which washed into the house some time back – dish antenna, clothes, cycle and even their television, started flowing out of the house. 

“Amma, please hold on tight.” As Siva pleaded, Kanni started crying again. Karuthamma, with all her might, pushed her arm around the wooden frame and held tight. “Stop crying, you two. See, I am secure now. I will not leave you.”

But the force was too much. Her body was dragged, but Karuthamma held on for dear life. Through the opening on the roof, Karuthamma could see broken branches, electric poles, wires flowing through the narrow lanes, some getting stuck between a few standing houses. In course of time, many walls broke due to the rubble and left a trail of destruction.

I cannot let the sea take me away from my kids. I have to hold on tight. Amman, you are my only hope now. If I survive, I will break ten coconuts in front of your temple. 

With a heavy thud, a huge pile of debris dashed against their bamboo thatched roof and broke the wooden frame on one side. The three watched in horror as half the roof was completely ripped off and was carried towards the sea. However, even though the walls of the house shook with the impact, they stood their ground. Thankfully, their side of the roof was also safe. 

The amount of water going out of the house seemed unending. The overflowing refuse from the toilet also made its way out of the door. In the end, the floor was full of slush and mud. 

“Kanni, Siva, I will climb down and I will slowly bring you two down also, ok?” Both of them nodded. Karuthamma eased her grip from the wooden frame and landed on the bed. But the sea water had damaged the wood so much in that short time that it broke on impact.  Her fall was, however, cushioned by the mattress thereby saving her from any bruise. 

“Amma, are you ok?” Siva asked with concern.

“Yes, I am ok. Give me some time.” With that, Karuthamma steadied herself, wrung out excess water from her saree and looked up. “Come Siva, you first, jump down and I will catch you.” 

Once Siva was down, Kanni and the puppy also came down one after the other. 

“Ooh, what a bad smell this is!” grimaced Kanni, looking around. “Amma, how are we going to clean up this mess?”

“Don’t worry dear,” re-assured Karuthamma. “I told you, Amman will look after us and she has ensured we came out this tragedy alive. We will get this house in order slowly.” She smiled, picked up Kanni to her arms and kissed her. 

Siva picked the puppy in his arms and turned to his mother. “Amma, can Vella kutty stay with us inside the house from now on?” 

“Yes, why not? He needs us for his survival. We will protect her. Come, let’s go outside and look for your appa.”

Author’s note – The story is a work of fiction set in Akkaraipettai – a fishing village in Nagapattinam district, which bore the brunt of the tsunami on 26th December 2004. 
Glossary –

  1. Kadavule – My Lord in Tamil
  2. Amman, Kanniamman – refers to the Deity in Kanniamman temple in Akkaraipettai village.
  3. Vella kutty – Vella is white in Tamil and kutty refers to the puppy. So white puppy. 


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