25 December 2012

Tragedy has rhythm, recovery too

‘Rhythm of the Sea’ by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe, published in 2007, Reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne.

How can one look at the sea, the waves and spray, the ships on the horizon, sunsets and sunrises, beach and shell when sea and wave have destroyed all or almost all?  That is a question I asked myself immediately after the Tsunami of 2004.  Then I remembered an anecdote about seafaring folk. 
A man asks a fisherman how his father, grandfather and great grandfather died and the answer on each occasion was ‘drowned at sea’.  ‘Aren’t you scared to go to sea?’ he asks again. The fisherman asks a question by way of response: ‘Where did your father die?’ The man says ‘In bed’.  ‘And where,’ the fisherman asks ‘did his father and his father before him, die?’ ‘In bed,’ he man answers.  ‘Aren’t you scared to sleep?’ Silence. 

One year after the Tsunami I went to Kalametiya, Hambantota, where the Green Movement of Sri Lanka built some 30 plus houses for families affected by the tragedy with funds collected by my sister who is domiciled in the USA.  There was a small ceremony, remembrance, planting of trees in memory of those who died, the shedding of tears.  I remember well a comment by a resident: ‘The sea took it all away, but it is the sea, again, that will yield a tomorrow’. 
Sri Lankans are resilient.  They take the blows, fall at times, but if they have life they stand up again.  And smile too.  Today, eight years later, there are still signs of the surging waves, the occasional sight of a house that’s lost its roof, doors, walls, furniture and occupants, but for the most part someone who did not know of the tragedy would be hard pressed to imagine the magnitude of what transpired on December 26, 2004.  Sri Lankans would know, though, for minutes after the tragedy the entire population, almost, was galvanized into a monumental rescue and relief operation, not by command but volition.  To those who know that the country turns into a dansala twice a year and are aware of a cultural norm to set aside difference to celebrate joy and offer strength and presence in times of sorrow, this would not come as a surprise. 

Everyone who lost someone or something has a story to tell about the Tsunami.  Everyone who knows someone who lost someone or something has a story to tell too.  When tragedy is of such proportion as was seen in the last days of that December it is next to impossible to gather all the stories or even read them all should such an exercise be completed.  What can be done is to collate a set of stories that capture that overwhelming and word-robbing time.  This was the modest task that Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe set herself a few years after the Tsunami.  ‘Rhythm of the Sea’ is the result of that exercise, a project sponsorted by the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce.  It is, naturally, a work which required the support of various individuals, all of whom are mentioned.  It is a book of text and image, Ramya handling the first while Denise Militzer (a WUSC University volunteer with the Ruhuna Rural Womens Organization in Hambantota) providing the latter, excellent pictures which contain an epic story of human endeavor.
Hambantota, Ramya says, is the backdrop against which ‘the lives of people and the progress of events following the tsunami’.  The book covers the moment and the aftermath, the grief and reconciliation with the fact of tragedy, the determination and tenderness of the citizenry who gathered themselves to shoulder the greater part of the relief and recovery effort and the largesse of the world that poured into Sri Lanka.  She mentions the institutional arrangement that managed relief operations, treating in passing the weaknesses therein and the opportunities squandered, applauding however the early work of the Centre for National Operations for averting in the first 72 hours what could have developed into a humanitarian disaster. 

She has missed, however, the ‘relief-hordes’ that arrived in numbers that India and other countries did not entertain, riding on tragedy to engage in proselytization of a kind that their own countries would never allow had the ‘gifters’ been, for example, of the Islamic faith.  Money poured in, but it had to be channeled either through the Government or I/NGOs.  The dollar/Euro hungry NGO operators were quick-footed enough to re-invent themselves as disaster-management experts.  There were bucks made in the process. Big bucks. 
But the focus of Ramya’s task was different.  Hambantota was the location and what happened there is what this book is mainly about.  A lot of painstaking research has been done in picking up the main strands of the tragedy and the post-tragedy recovery process.  It is the little things that cause most vexation.  Like the fact that it all happened on a public holiday.  Like the fact that the Tsunami didn’t differentiate between house and administrative building.  Ramya details how these were made negligible and how selfless courage and human generosity rose above ethnic and religious affiliation, and how the worst elements of human nature were overcome by the human spirit, which she demonstrates ‘tipped the balance’. 

There was loss.  Indescribable.  And yet, Ramya traces with splendid sensitivity the nuances of that fundamental aspect of tragedy.  There is enough basic information in this book to give the reader a sense of the numbers and the magnitude of the disaster as well as the resources available and secured and how they were deployed.  The narratives of key officials, community leaders and ordinary people are deftly woven into the text not as embellishment but as necessary complement.  Indeed, these narratives can be read (as they should and are) as the core of the overall human effort to stand up after taking a terrible blow from natural processes that was beyond their power to stop.    
Post-disaster work is not about providing food and water, medicines and medical attention, or providing shelter.  The magnitude of the disaster necessitated a rebuilding of a kind that one expects after the end of a war.  All of it happened from scratch. Literally.  The work moved from immediate humanitarian relief to comprehensive rebuilding of lives and livelihoods, the recovery of economic activity and re-building of institutions.  ‘Rhythm of the Sea’ shows how Hambantota did it, how life was infused back into desolate landscapes, how hope emerged from a coastline that had turned into a cemetery.   

Ramya brings all her well-established literary skills to turn a compelling story into one which inspires readers to recognize the vast stores of human energy, creativity and determination, and transform inspiration into something tangible and lasting. 
She collects the uncollected, i.e. things that the untrained and less-sensitive eye passes over.  ‘The conch shell collection’ is a case in point, the details of which I hold back for Ramya describes it best.  These are all real people with real names and real lives. And real losses of course.  Magnitude tends to obliterate name and turn it into number.  That’s necessary too because we are talking of vast amounts of money, provisions and personnel involved in helping vast numbers of displaced and distraught people.  And yet, it is the focus on the ‘real’ that makes this book different from other Tsunami accounts. 

Eight years have passed.  Ramya’s account was published in 2007, just three years after the Tsunami.  Even then, the transformation achieved was remarkable, especially (as Ramya observes) considering the strange incapacities demonstrated by the USA in dealing with what ‘Katrina’ left behind (or took away).  Hambantota is a different town, a different district now, clearly not only because of the post-tsunami work.  But the Hambantota recovery story is not uncommon to other coastal towns and districts. 
‘Rhythm of the Sea’ calls out for other narratives and narration, not just because it is good to remember things but for all the lessons learnt, not least of all the inhumanity that tragedy spawns but more than that the immense reserves of human goodness and the dignity that no wave, however tall, can crush. 

[Published in the FINE Section of 'The Nation', December 23, 2012]