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Meara Sharma & Henry Peck: A Non-Place by the Sea

When a storm destroyed Dhanushkodi, the government ordered it emptied. Fifty years later, we meet the people who stayed.

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Image courtesy of Meara Sharma.

By Meara Sharma & Henry Peck

On the night of December 22nd, 1964, a passenger train carrying 150 people left the south Indian city of Madurai for a tadpole-shaped island in the Bay of Bengal called Rameswaram. The train rumbled across the Pamban bridge, a cantilevered single track between mainland and island, 2.3 kilometers long, which, in the rising wind, swayed like a jumprope subtly gaining momentum. It sidled down the island’s spine, bound for its long, slender tail, where the bustling port town of Dhanushkodi projected into the water. Minutes before the train entered Dhanushkodi station, a 25-foot wave reared from the sea and swept its muscular tongue across the narrow stretch of land with such force that all six carriages tumbled, incontestably, into the churn.

Within hours, the storm, which would be ranked super cyclonic, had destroyed the Pamban bridge, leaving Rameswarams’s three thousand inhabitants marooned on the island. The boats and piers of Dhanushkodi’s port splintered and scattered across the turgid landscape. The cyclone bore down on the municipal buildings: the post office, customs office, hospital, and school, and gutted them all, casting their roofs like fishermen’s nets. In the town’s large church, the wind whipped through the nave and tore away swathes of stone wall. Against a section of contorted steel bridgework, a winch man and bridge inspector clung for twelve hours awaiting rescue. Nearly 2,000 people were swept up in the surge and lost to the storm.

The Government of Madras declared Dhanushkodi unfit for habitation.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, perhaps daunted by the recovery effort or fearful of another super-cyclone, the Government of Madras declared Dhanushkodi unfit for habitation. The island’s other towns, geographically more sheltered, remained livable, but Dhanushkodi, at the very tip of a spindly peninsula, became a non-place, destined to be defeated by the heaving sea. But despite this decree to disappear, despite the fact that the town would no longer have electricity or plumbing, some of the fishermen remained—nearly 200 families.

***

Nearly half a century later, we travel to Dhanushkodi as researchers, to investigate the work of Selco, an Indian NGO specializing in solar energy for rural areas with little or no access to electricity. Selco is piloting a “solar loan” project in Dhanushkodi, which allows residents to borrow money for the purchase of small solar energy devices, strong enough to run a lightbulb or two. There’s a grandness to the project’s ambitions: powering a town that a vicious storm, fifty years ago, rendered pitch-black.

Bathing in the waters of Dhanushkodi, where the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean converge, is considered a sacred cleanse.

The trip to Dhanushkodi unfolds like a ritual: the train floating across the Pamban bridge (repaired within 45 days of the storm, by February 1965), the bus weaving through the frenetic low-island towns, the semi-truck taxi spilling over with passengers from both cabin and roof, trundling through wet sand as far as its wheels oblige. Until finally we walk, flanked by ocean tumult, the opaque sky closing in on us. The few remains of the town—a mangled section of rail track, jagged brick rudiments of houses, the cavitied façade of a church—rise from the sand like strange, ancient trees, gnarled by salt spray and moss. Today’s structures, built of coconut palm thatch and mango wood, sway with the sea gales, inclining toward flexibility, or impermanence.

About 500 people live in Dhaushkodi today, and the solar lighting project, piloted on a dozen houses, seems a mild success. Prevati, a young mother, tells us how useful it is to have light in the evenings, to untangle the fishing nets, to attend to the baby, for the children’s homework. Sarajanam, wizened owner of the tea hut, the town’s principal gathering place, complains that the solar device keeps breaking, though we learn it is because he overloads the system by charging multiple mobile phones. Many families admit they prefer kerosene, despite the lower cost of solar overall, because they can buy it as needed, at about 30 rupees per day, whereas the solar device costs 500 rupees per month.

On this day the water is terrifying: frothing and gray, unreadable. Lashing at the shore. Sanmoa goes on. God. Sea is god.

Finished with questions about solar panels, we probe in other directions: the land, fishing, the fabled storm of 1964. There hasn’t been electricity in 50 years, Sanmoa tells us. He has a broad, gentle face, though his skin is wind-leathered, his teeth black. He was born on the island and eight years old when the cyclone hit. Afterward, the government provided a generator, but when locals asked for a permanent solution, officials took the generator back. The road to Dhanushkodi, nonexistent for decades, presents a related problem. In 1964, deeming the town uninhabitable could be justified by obvious hazard. Today, it permits willful neglect of the people who stayed.

Or never thought to leave. The sea is our livelihood, Sanmoa explains. Our life. Fishing—from small, colorful wooden boats, with the simplest of tools—is the only way to make a living in Dhanushkodi. On this day the water is terrifying: frothing and gray, unreadable. Lashing at the shore. Sanmoa goes on. God. Sea is god.

***

Hindu mythology tells of another bridge on this island, built by Lord Rama, the revered warrior at the center of the Ramayana epic. With the help of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, and his vanara army of monkeys, Rama laid a causeway of floating stones from Dhanushkodi to Sri Lanka in order to rescue his wife Sita, held captive by the evil ten-headed demon Ravana. This 28-kilometer channel between India and Sri Lanka is called Sethusamudram, “Sea of the Bridge,” and locals claim that Rama’s bridge was traversable by foot until the 15th century, when it too was destroyed in a cyclone. From above, the presence of the bridge emerges like a time warp. Satellite imagery reveals a submerged, shallow ridge and a vertebral chain of limestone shoals stretching from Dhanushkodi’s point to Mannar, Sri Lanka. As if charged with a preternatural life force, the path between the two land masses is vivid turquoise, against the deep-blue of the surrounding sea.

There’s a grandness to the project’s ambitions: powering a town that a vicious storm, fifty years ago, rendered pitch-black.

Legend says that after Lord Rama bore across his newly constructed bridge to Sri Lanka and defeated the demon Ravana, he destroyed the link between the two lands with a stroke of his victorious bow. The name Dhanushkodi, meaning “end of the bow,” derives from this triumphant deed. And today, the town’s spiritual prominence endures. We share our trip to Dhanushkodi with a couple of dozen young men clad in black and orange cotton dhotis, bare-chested, and carrying only a small pouch containing puja items like coconut, jaggery, and turmeric. They are Ayappas, worshippers of a particular strain of Hinduism who undertake a six-month pilgrimage to several remote Hindu sites across South India. Bathing in the waters of Dhanushkodi, where the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean converge, is considered a sacred cleanse, an opportunity to commune with one’s ancestors, and the ancient gods who graced these shores.

Only on land does he ever feel scared. With the sea he is at peace.

Dhanushkodi’s tiny temple, a haphazard structure with a corrugated steel roof, perches on the shoreline. The water runs right up to the seaward-facing entrance, and the space quickly fills with the wet ankles of Ayappa pilgrims. Purushottaman, the temple’s spry priest, patiently blesses all comers. He tells us he received an omen for the 1964 cyclone, and he is certain of another disastrous storm in the future. We ask if he has considered leaving. I am the priest, he says, unflinchingly. I have the mandate of doing all the pujas for the temple.

Purushottaman’s entire family was born in Dhanushkodi, his father the priest when the cyclone struck the village. During the storm, he stayed inside the railway building, the strongest in town, and remembers how the train paused before entering the station, waiting for the signal to continue. But the signalman had run from the rising waters, and the train, in that instant, was left squarely in the face of the tsunami. The bodies of the passengers on the train were never recovered, he says. Perhaps they were eaten by fish.

***

Many of the fishermen in Dhanushkodi speak of spirits. Spirits that catch passersby in the night and invade the body like a disease. The symptoms of a spirit can be headache and fever, we learn, hallucinations, or absurd out-of-character behavior. You understand you are not yourself, explains Muthukumar, a brawny fisherman with a thick black beard and a resonant voice. He recalls the man who thought he was being hit on the back with a wooden board. The young boy who began scolding and threatening to kill his father. The man who felt he was being pulled into the sand. When Muthukumar was seized by a spirit, he was able to speak languages he didn’t know, he tells us. Only the priest can help you if you encounter one. A mystical transaction occurs, and the paranormal is guided away.

Even after the cyclone destroyed the land, the spirits remained. They lurk along particular stretches of sand dunes, ones that everyone in town avoids at night. Muthukumar spends his days trawling for fish and heaving nets from the roiling sea, sometimes venturing out alone in his canoe. Is he at all afraid, knowing the sea’s power, knowing what it could do? Not at sea, he says. Only on land does he ever feel scared. With the sea he is at peace.

The fishing boats begin to land in the afternoon. Waiting for the boats is a truck, the only vehicle in Dhanushkodi, come for the evening catch. It has the same high clearance of the semi-truck taxi, but its deep cargo area contains not pilgrims but crates and crates of ice.

A chant rings out from a group of villagers stationed at the shoreline. A hymn of promise and bounty. They sing as they heave the boats up the beach and lug the fishing nets to the center of the village, treasure resting on their shoulders. At the truck, they sort the fish by variety and weigh them with a scale hoisted on a pole. The merchant from the truck pays the men with ritualistic efficiency, and covers the fish with ice.

Dusk approaches, and still the last fishing boat has not returned. The sea is implacable. Sanmoa and the others search the horizon for a sign of the boat, but nothing lifts above the incessant waves. On some nights a boat will not return. Near the truck, the merchant and driver sit and smoke. They will soon travel to the next town, and beyond, regardless of whether the last boat comes in. But they are the only route out until tomorrow’s truck comes, a daily lifeline for the fishermen. Any fish that arrive after the truck departs will not be marketable tomorrow.

The merchant knows to wait until the last hour possible; a late boat may be a full boat. Finally the sea delivers, kindly: the last boat appears, brimming with fish. The sailors sort, weigh, and transact, faith in the ocean rewarded. Tonight, the water sustains life; on other nights, it swallows life with the tides. No night has been so wild since the one fifty years ago, when the sea left Dhanushkodi a crush of ghostly remains. For those who have chosen life here afterward, the sea does, however precariously, provide. But amplifying their reverence for the sea, their belief in its fruits, is a recognition that all, at any moment, could be swept away. As Purushottaman the priest foretells, Surely something will happen.

Meara Sharma is Guernica’s senior interviews editor.

Henry Peck writes about culture and technology and works on human rights advocacy.

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One comment for Meara Sharma & Henry Peck: A Non-Place by the Sea

  1. Comment by Venkat on December 25, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Great piece! Most names have been misspelled –

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