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  Of Winners, Wave Rats and Whinos  


By: Narayanan Komerath
January 17, 2005

The Earth shrugged at dawn, and a ripple sped across the ocean. A hundred and fifty thousand human lives ended, and millions more were plunged into misery. Though many tried valiantly to save others, our preparations weren’t up to it. The Tsunami Warning Center realized that there was a tsunami when a Sri Lankan naval officer asked them if there were more coming.  Ocean buoys and warning systems might have saved a few precious lives, but not the vast majority. So lets leave that issue to the babus, mantris and gurus. The real story is in the victories of the human spirit:

Vijaykumar saw a tsunami warning in Singapore, did some rapid figuring, and phoned home – the fishing village of Nallavadu, pop. 3630. “That information spread out in the entire street. … Immediately they spread the information through public address system and blew the siren. Because of this all are safe with their families in this village.”

Mohan Phupalam and Dhanasagriran Godandapani alerted neighbors in Puthukuppam by yelling to them - as their fishing boat was being swept away. "Some were lying on the beach, having a chat. Others were repairing nets … Fortunately, people were too frightened to try to save their things. All the fishermen felt what Mohan felt; they understood. There is extraordinary solidarity in this village, there is blind trust in each other”

The residents of the Amrita Mission near Kollam – located right on the west coast beach – swiftly connected messages on the internet from Chennai, with the rising sea water at Kollam – and raced to save others. They had 13,000 people living within 1 kilometer of the sea – all survived. Then their relief efforts went into high gear.

Natasha Taylor recognized the meaning of a fast-receding sea outside her Phuket resort bungalow and got her family to run for the hills.  Martin Hambrook, ace surfer, rode the wave all the way to the second-floor restaurant of his Thai resort hotel – where he stepped off to safety.

Coast Guard rescuers in Chennai, their own ships damaged, hung out of helicopters and pulled several people out of the churning sea off Marina Beach – and kept going, scouring the sea all the way to Vishakapatnam, rescuing 25 people and retrieving 53 bodies by Monday.

Heroes by habit, all  – and for every such news story, there must be a thousand that we did not hear – and even more who gave their lives trying to save others against impossible odds. 

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”  had something to describe such human determination:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

to serve their turn long after they are gone,

and so hold on when there is nothing in you

but the will that says to them: "hold on!"

Maya, a thin unassuming 13 year old, held on - for two days to a floating wooden door, braving sea serpents and despair – 11 times, she saw planes approaching, but she waved in vain. Landing at the Car Nicobar beach, she followed IAF emergency instructions and asked to be taken to the Guard House (which no longer existed) and next the runway, which did.

Indian Army soldier Pradeep Kharab, bleeding from head and foot after being hit by wave-tossed iron rods, dragged ten children to safety at Car Nicobar. 

Housewife Malawati clung to a (fruitful) sago palm tree off the shores of Aceh until a Malaysian tuna-boat rescued her on Friday. She learned that she’s 18 weeks into her first pregnancy. "I slipped twice, but managed to hold on," she said. "I saw sharks around me but prayed they wouldn't hurt me. I'm very glad, very happy"

Anthony Praveen, 8, mustered the will to open his eyes and sit up as grave diggers prepared to bury him in Velankanni.

Murlitharan, 14, clung to a tree for 10 days before falling off – and being saved by a tribal woman, who kept him safe until IAF rescuers arrived in the Car Nicobar village of Tapai Ming – He is heading home to join his parents who are in a Chennai hospital.

Rizal Shahputra of Aceh stood up and waved and shouted at the container ship, MV Durban Bridge, 160 kilometers off the Indonesian coast on Monday, January 3. From a floating tree.  "At first, there were some friends with me.. After a few days, they were gone .. everybody sank."

Scientist MK Das, Chief Medical Officer at the Car Nicobar field station of Malaria Research Centre, is still holding his post - coordinating efforts to provide medical relief for survivors in the worst-hit islands. His wife and daughter were listed as missing.   

And the community responded.

By 10:30 on Sunday – 90 minutes after the first waves struck, with the waters still high and turbulent, volunteers had moved out to the stricken areas – saving numerous lives. By noon, eight tents and seven shamianas were erected on a field near one of the Auroville communities. “Two portable 5,000 litre tanks, two generators, a field kitchen with four cooking ranges, were put into service. Three of Auroville's load carriers, two tractors and two buses to pick up refugees were also commissioned... By 2 pm, 750 people were fed. Another 1,200 people were fed in the evening. Blankets were arranged as the night was cold and windy.”

Similar community efforts were underway, all along the stricken coasts. The government was allowed to help – but it is clear that no one waited for the government – and no one was hung up about the petty differences on which our media gurus are so hung up. By the 27th, Sewa Bharathi volunteers had distributed nearly 26,000 food packets in villages. 5 medical camps, over 50 temporary relief camps, medical vans, 700 Sewa volunteers removing over 1500 bodies, joined efforts with the Ramakrishna Mission at Kolachel, and the Vivekananda mission at Kanyakumari.

The task of removing and disposing of decomposing dead bodies from such disasters is crucial to starting relief efforts and saving the living – and is hugely under-appreciated. I am sure I would faint dead away at the first sight. “Arms came off when they tried to pull them..”. Municipal workers and even police, often recoil and run away – and our media experts of course love to imagine that this atavistic terror is “caste prejudice” etc. This is what the Sewa people and other selfless volunteers did - away from media glory, since there weren’t many Angrezi reporters traipsing around there, for sure. They also rescued some survivors from among the dead.

Large amounts of purified water packets, food, clothes and blankets were trucked to Nagapattinam. In Cuddalore, the local Jamaat and masjid fed over 3000 survivors, organized shelter for 10,000 – and helped bury or cremate the dead. Temples, churches, mosques, schools, colleges, missions – all became shelters to all who needed shelter. Women in Bangalore, the city that ships software and engineers all over the world, hand-rolled, cooked and packaged 25,000 chappathis per day into ready-to-eat meals “(three in a pack along with sachets of sugar and pickle”), and putting them on the 7pm express bus across to the east coast. Dr A Thanammai of Kolachel’s hospital went into action at 10:45 on Sunday – and at last check had been going 4 days with 3 hours of sleep each. Bharti Prasad of Delhi has been running her telephone and ham radio from Port Blair reuniting familes separated by the disaster – she had taken 3000 calls in the first few days. Dandapani Kadirvel, district engineer, is at his desk from 7:30AM to midnight, assigning donations of relief supplies to truck drivers.

The rickshaw pullers of Salem collected Rs. 3500 in “the form of coins of one, two and five-rupee denomination (imagine the hard work that went into earning that)  – to try to help others. When those paragons of Customer Service, the babus of the SBI- Salem Fort Branch, set the bank’s security bouncers on them, they protested and exerted their rights as citizens. Police intervention convinced the SBI to accept the Indian money and issue a draft to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund – their top Babus made sure the press reported their incredible generosity – they waived the bank draft charge!  The Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank sent food for 3000 people. “AIM for Seva” lodged and gave medical aid to 1,000 women and children and was feeding 3000 people in Koradacheri.

By December 30, AID-INDIA volunteers had started relief efforts; helping to coordinate relief supplies, drive delivery trucks, concentrating on 7clusters of 30 villages in South Tamil Nadu and around Chennai. They also provided gloves and masks to those removing the dead.

Muthaiah Muralitharan, Sri Lankan cricket star, leads a team, which has distributed over 200,000 meal packets – yet they were gracious enough to buy up the entire stock of an ice-cream vendor and distribute it to the kids in a relief camp.

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

and stoop and build them up with worn-out tools,”

Francois Gautier quotes Auroville resident Hannah: "I put so much work in this land and God took everything back, but he spared our lives and that is a miracle."  A week after the disaster, the catamarans of Nagapattinam were on the sea again, put back in business by Indian Army engineers. The Army also brought in mobile desalination plants, built bailey bridges, and cleared roads. Helicopters were taken in through Myanmar from where they could make the hop into the Andamans – a job that must have taken some intricate diplomacy.

The huge change that we saw was the swift common sense of cooperation: “The Administration has requested us to take charge of two relief camps in the vicinity of Port Blair.” Web “blogspots” simply posted information. “There are only 14 camps and around 40000 people are housed. All these camps are being run by us.” Volunteer organizations sorted out priorities: “Compared to other districts in Tamilnadu the damages suffered by Chennai city is on a lesser scale. But Media and NGOs are concentrating only on Chennai. Therefore Volunteers are engaged in relief work in areas like Pazhaverkadu and Kovalam...”

Wave Rats and Whinos

Human nature being what it is, there were the inevitable losers, preying upon the victims and survivors – or on the gullible but generous public. Reports started surfacing about looting in Thailand and predators in Indonesia.  A Connecticut journalist thought she was donating to a charity when she gave away the ownership of, only to see it being auctioned starting at $50,000. Her article about the “Wave Rat”, stopped that auction cold. The alleged “rat”’s mother defended her brat: "His intention was solely to give to tsunami relief."

Sri Lanka’s sufferings have been horrific, but some questions will be raised about their government’s attitude towards the northern and eastern areas. From the Sydney Morning Herald: “Pictures from the north and east of Sri Lanka are too horrific for Australian audiences, says the only aid agency willing to venture into the tsunami-devastated area. Most of the dead are children and rigor mortis has already set in, Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) spokesman Siva Sivasubramaniam said… Many of the victims were Tamils, displaced as a result of the Sri Lankan civil war and living in tents on the beach.” Other reports spoke of Sri Lankan Army personnel hijacking aid trucks headed for these areas.

In the US, the Pakistanis did what they do best – try to hurt Indians, even those battered by a tsunami. Their site which also lists such gems of truth as “4000 Israeli Employees in WTC Escape” (on 9/11/2001), “warned” generous donors against donating money which might get spent well: “Please remember the lessons of past natural calamities: Latur earthquake in 1993, Orissa cyclone in 1999 and the massive earthquake that shook Gujarat in 2001. Sectarian groups in the guise of non profits have swooped in on these areas engulfed in tragedy (funded in large part by unsuspecting donors in the US) and established their presence in the grief-stricken communities on the pretext of providing relief…  ”.

They cited a 2002 attempt by the ISI’s Communist “friends of South Asia” in the Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL), slandering the India Development and Relief Fund, with baseless accusations and innuendo. Example: IDRF was “anti-Muslim” - because it sent money to the families of New York firefighters killed in the 9/11 terror attack. Reasoning? "The victims were mostly non-Muslim and the perpetrators were all Muslims".  Their’ “Report” which they claimed to be the best they could jointly produce after “five years of meticulous research” was thoroughly refuted, exposed and laughed off inside a few days. Many of the FOIL’s “researchers” have since moved to more lucrative professions such as “Kashmir Researchers” pushing an “Andorra Solution” to reward Pakistani terrorism.

Apparently what hurt the Pakistanis most was the effectiveness of the grassroots organizations whom IDRF funded: “Because of their social and cultural affinities, such organizations are well equipped to intervene in on the ground activities.” Sadly, the Pakistanis forgot to list the exemplary relief efforts of Yahya Khan’s army in East Pakistan following the 1970 cyclone – where British Marines eventually forced their way on shore to rescue the dying survivors.

Clearly, the Pakistanis have reason to be worried – that Indian relief efforts would be as effective as that after the Gujarat earthquake, which won three international awards from world agencies. The for-profit “charities” which they “endorsed” would suffer by comparison. As an example, their “SINGH Foundation” boasted a 52.9% overhead – that’s before they paid for any charitable program at all, such as funding the living expenses of Ms. Teesta Setalwad and Mr. Javed Anand ahead of the Gujarat riots of 2002.  Coincidentally, the lead author of the hate attack against the IDRF is a Vice-President of the SINGH Foundation. In the years since they were exposed, references to SINGH in the “appeals” of the various FOIL “charities” have disappeared.

The university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign distinguished itself by displaying less honesty than the mother of the alleged “wave-rat”. A message bearing a university email address asked recipients to “circulate widely” the Pakistani whines. The sender “Ra” is listed as a member of the Editorial Board of “Ghadar – the Journal of the Forum of Inquilab Leftists”, and is cited for his columns in “The Illini” by other students for “repeatedly printed fabricated lies and quotes taken out of context from obscure sources and attributed incorrectly to Israeli leaders.” Gaiutra Bahadur of the Philadelphia Inquirer did what she could to propagate the lies.

AID-India Activist B. Sampath enthusiastically reported how “TNSF, DYFI and PSF” were working together. The DYFI and the SFI, listed as “principal mass organizations” of the Communist Party (Marxist) of India, profusely thanked AID-India for the free flow of funds to them. For once they had money to spare to help fellow-citizens, not just burn buses, wield cycle-chains, knives and iron rods, and kill policemen.  One does ponder their work ethic, remembering them sitting at the Baggage Claim exit of Kochi airport, extorting money from passengers who handled their own baggage. But from all accounts in the media, they are doing commendable work – they have at least been seen standing around in areas where supplies are being loaded. But here again, the political-officer types who apparently run AID took over. In a seamless integration of dishonesty and poor taste, AID baldly denied that any funds were going to the DYFI. They also deleted the statements on their website instructing that funds to libraries should go only to DYFI-approved libraries! So much for acknowledging those who actually helped.

Beth Duff-Brown of the Associated Press thought she was following a safe habit – joining the various “Multi National Charities” in bashing the Indian government and predicting that the GOI would “have to be pressured into accepting aid” and citing the awesome speed of the US effort for comparison: by Dec.30, American planes already have delivered 1,400 body bags to southern islands in Thailand. Was she in for a surprise! 88% of Indian readers supported the Prime Minister’s decision outright, while 12% asked for more care in delivering aid.  A whopping 0% agreed with Ms. Duff – her expected adulation base among the desi-angrezi media had evaporated. The reason is not far to seek. The desi-angrezi editors, having spent the past decade cursing India as “Hindu-nationalist”, “fascist” etc., suddenly find themselves in the position of “TASS”, the Soviet news agency: the government is their own party. After a habitual dirt-throwing start, Indian publishers and editors seem to have swung around faster than the tsunami. Thus even the Marxist paranoia about cooperating with America is now defended staunchly by the editors of the Free Indian Press. Eat your shoes in envy, General Musharraf!


If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

but make allowances for their doubting, too.

If you can wait but not be tired of waiting,

or being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated, don't give way to hating,

Forget the wave-rats, whinos and Political Officers - the big story is how Indians have come together as rarely before, to help not only their compatriots, but also their neighbors in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, and Indonesia. Our navy was the first help on the scene. The government swiftly relaxed foreign currency restrictions on relief work. The Chinese Ambassador promptly got his photo in The Hindu, paying the management. There’s a big change in India today – the Middle Class from the Propah Families, is actually coming out to help, and get their hands dirty.

“Chennai has never seen anything quite like this before. Lawyers, doctors, IT professionals and chartered accountants are taking one and two months of leave to clamber on trucks piled high with relief material and head to remote tsunami-struck villages to help volunteers find, lift and bury rapidly decomposing bodies. Young people are packing knapsacks and hitching lifts to the coast to offer both brains and brawn in an attempt to help devastated villagers. Students from city schools and colleges are sitting up late, sifting through and meticulously cataloguing the never-ending flood of food, vessels, clothes and money, coming from all over the world, everyday….In the slums, men and women, who can barely afford a daily square meal, are collecting Rs. 5 per head to help the tsunami victims. Teenagers from poor housing colonies are going from door to door, raising tens of thousands of rupees in the process. Along the coast, in every colony, people are collecting money to help neighbours who have lost everything”

That’s right. We ARE finally becoming a superpower. Of human compassion.

Veteran diplomat G. Parthasarathy said it best when he explained why India was in no hurry to bring the foreign Bwanas to save our people: “India's polite refusal to accept any foreign aid recognised that "foreigners could come in the way of our own relief efforts", Parthasarthy said.
"Ten foreigners come and work two hours a day and the world's media think they've sorted out our problems tickety-boo," he said. "We have the resources to manage our own situation." 

That statement did not draw any major whining from “The Hindu” or “The Times of India”.  Even the “waste no chance to bash the heathen wogs” Christian Science Monitor wrote in grudging acknowledgement: “Development workers on the ground suggest that the Indian government is coping without the kind of foreign help that's pouring into neighboring Sri Lanka. "If things were not going well here we would raise the alarm," says Corinne Woods, spokeswoman for the UNICEF. "But everything at this point is working just fine given the circumstances."

Oh! How the times have changed! It’s like January 1972 again – and it didn’t even take a war to unite us. 

The media hype and “blogs” will be gone in a week. The MultiNational Charities will move on in a month to more lucrative business opportunities. The Designer Charities will move on to more fashionable causes. The grief and the emptiness will remain each day, each hour, each second – and the shattered lives will take much longer than the shattered boats and huts to rebuild – also one small step at a time. Its fine to airdrop food – and truck-dump old clothes today, but dear reader – there’s no hurry. Please remember to support those who help the people to help themselves live and grow as healthy, educated, proud citizens. This year. Next year. And in the years to come.

Jai Hind!

Narayanan Komerath

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