When LTTE sank a Lankan ship, it brought unexpected cheers to fisherfolk of Dhanushkodi, the place where Rama built mythical Setu

Borderlands
Travels across India's Boundaries
Book Excerpt 

My first visit to Dhanushkodi was on a balmy January afternoon in 2008. But this eerie ghost town, poised, as it was, on the southernmost tip of peninsular India and as close to Sri Lanka as you can get from the mainland, had stirred my imagination much earlier. Few places in the world can cast as hypnotic a spell on you, especially by sheer virtue of their geographical location and mythological antecedents, as this sparsely populated, cyclone-ravaged region.

Dhanushkodi is supposedly the point where Lord Rama, of the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana, commanded his army of apes to build a stone bridge across the Palk Strait, enabling him to reach the island of Lanka (later known as Ceylon and then, Sri Lanka). There, he would engage its ruler, the ten-headed Ravana, in a fierce battle and vanquish him, returning in triumph to the mainland after rescuing his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king who had abducted her. Once he crossed, Lord Rama destroyed the bridge, using the tip of his bow. And that, apparently, is how Dhanushkodi – meaning, ‘tip of the bow’ – acquired its unusual name.

Thousands of Hindus, devotees of Lord Rama and believers of the Ramayana, visit Rameswaram, the nearest temple town, and Dhanushkodi to perform the last rites of their loved ones in the hope that the souls of the departed will find peace in the afterlife. I went to Rameswaram looking for peace not for departed kin, but to appease my own restless soul. The thought of travelling to the very end of a vast, densely populated land mass seemed to promise what I so fervently sought.

A bumpy twenty-minute ride in a four-wheel-drive van with fifteen other passengers brought me to land’s end – a slender strip of sand battered by the sea and buffeted by gale-force winds that made even a short walk virtually impossible, but for the shelter afforded by the few huts that sold souvenirs and snacks. In that strange, harsh terrain, I met families of fishermen who lived a life pared down to the barest minimum; for them, electricity, healthcare, educational facilities and basic sanitation – necessities we took for granted – were alien concepts; they did not even possess an identity card to prove their nationality.

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Summa jaallya irikalam, sir,’ Mari declared, as we stepped off the bus seven years after that first visit.

This was not the first time that my local guide was uttering those words since our introduction the day before. But I was still clueless as to what he meant; what was so jolly about going to a remote fishing hamlet that had no electricity, healthcare facilities or treated potable water, let alone shops, hotels and bars – in other words, nothing, apart from a 100-odd fishermen and their families living in squalid little tenements within touching distance of the sea? But I kept my thoughts to myself. I needed Mari’s help to make it to the hamlet and, more importantly, to get out of there in one piece.

Bus Route Number 3, supposedly connecting Dhanushkodi with Rameswaram from where we had boarded, was never actually meant to go anywhere near what remained of its proposed final destination. It dropped off its last passengers at its chosen halt – five kilometres short of the cyclone-battered town at a place called Mukuntharayar Chatram or M.R. Chatram. No state transport was available beyond this point.

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We left the school campus well past noon and not before Mari, who considered the school his pride, had pointed out in great detail every little development that had taken place over the last nine years. By now, I had covered the list of places I planned to visit and the people I wanted to interview in Dhanushkodi. Yet, I felt as though I had missed out on something.

So we walked back to the Santhanamari tea shop which was now deserted, devoid of even the flies that were such a nuisance earlier in the day. Muniasamy was playing with his five-year-old grandson Muthu, who refused to attend school, claiming that it was so much more boring than his grandfather’s tea shop.

Outside, all the bustle of the morning had died down. The women who had surrounded the fresh-water hole, busy with their washing and cleaning, were nowhere to be seen, while the men, aged between eighteen and eighty, either dozed or huddled together in little shacks and played cards.

‘This is what the men here do,’ Samy informed me. ‘They work hard all morning and earn their money; later in the day, they gamble and drink it all away, until their pockets are empty.’

Until a few years ago, the most popular man in Dhanushkodi was Kali, an octogenarian well-known to the media who claimed to have survived the 1964 cyclone through his sheer strength and grit. He would describe his ordeal to tourists with great zeal, while providing them with pure drinking water from a coastal aquifier pit. His gigantic physique and intimidating beard had made him a darling of the media which projected him as Dhanushkodi’s symbol of resilience. But that famed storyteller was now dead.

While discussing Kali and his allegedly dubious legacy – locals suspected the stories were fabricated and the man had been nowhere near the scene when the cyclone struck– Samy brought up the name of another old-timer from these parts.

‘You could try talking to the blind man Muthandi,’ he suggested. ‘He has been around longer than most Kodi residents and knows a great deal about what happened here in the past.’

Muthandi’s hut stood at the far end of the settlement, close to the ruins of the old town. He was inside when we arrived, seated on a coir mat in a dark corner, staring at the blank wall in front of him. His broad shoulders and agile legs seemed weathered by the years, but his face was sharp and youthful.

‘He is completely blind and can’t see even in broad daylight,’ Mari explained.

‘My father was such a healthy man,’ Muthandi’s second son told us, as he helped the blind man out of his hut. ‘But all these years, he has whiled away his time smoking beedis and playing cards. It was mainly because of his addiction to cards that his eyesight failed and his health deteriorated. He has lived here all his life and is now 64. He was around fifteen when the cyclone wiped out everything.’

Mari, Muthandi and I settled ourselves on a mattress under a karuvelan tree. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked the blind man to share the details of his life with us and turned on my voice recorder.

‘I was born in Munthazh and came to Dhanushkodi with my parents when I was just seven years old,’ he began. ‘We never went to school in those days. Within a year of arriving here, I got a job on the shore that involved pulling boats out of the water when they returned from fishing trips. I was paid ₹7 for a day’s work. This was a magnificent town back then. Here, on the very spot where we are now seated, were two huge mounds of coal for the steam engine. One contained fresh fuel, while the other was made up of used coal. Behind those mounds was the main pier, where passenger ships docked. Hundreds of passengers would arrive every day and take the train to the mainland. Two ships sailed between Talaimannar and Dhanushkodi twice a day, morning and evening. All of it was destroyed in a night.

‘I still remember that day so well. There was nothing ominous about the sea until 4.30 p.m. A mild drizzle started in the evening and it gradually intensified. The wind continued to gather momentum and by nightfall, it had acquired terrifying force. The tidal waves were so high, they simply swept Kodi away. An entire area of the town, covering at least three-and-a-half square kilometres, was submerged.

‘Fishermen like us were not as badly affected as the other residents, for we were protected by the huge sand mounds on the shore,’ Muthandi went on. ‘Crawling behind our boats for shelter, we waited out the storm. By early dawn, the western winds had begun to blow, offering us a much-needed reprieve. The weather calmed and we were safe. Had it not been for those winds, the sea would have devoured the entire area.

‘It was not until the next morning that we found out about the tidal waves toppling a train from its tracks and learnt that a large chunk of the island had been submerged. We were told that thousands of people had died. But there were far fewer casualties in the fishing community. I have not seen the sea in such fury since.’

Describing the horror of those moments, Muthandi stared at the sky, as if he could visualize every single, traumatic detail.

‘The next day, we were all taken to camps in Mandapam and provided food and shelter for a few weeks. Then they allotted us new homes in the Pudu Road Junction area. But I could not bear to stay away from our hometown, away from this sea which is our source of livelihood. I returned to Kodi just two months after the cyclone had struck and have been living here since. Life was peaceful for a few years after my return, as we quietly went about our fishing activities. Technological advances were taking place and more and more mechanized boats were being introduced by fishermen from Pamban, Rameswaram and Kodiyakarai areas. The fishermen in Kodi had switched over to blast fishing by using explosives obtained from the mining companies in this region. But everything went haywire after the war broke out. ’

‘Tell him how you lost your eyesight,’ Mari urged.

‘During one such fishing trip,’ Muthandi continued, ‘I mishandled the explosive and its dust penetrated my left eye. Later, I consulted a local healer who would pour some herbal juices into the injured eye. But when I finally went to the town hospital, I was told that all the nerves in the eye had died and that I would never be able to see again. It was mainly because of the local healer’s poor judgement and chosen mode of treatment that I lost my eyesight. In those days, we were ignorant about the white man’s medicine. But what I have suffered is nothing compared to the torture we endured at the hands of Sri Lankan Navy officers. My eyesight is long gone, but this eye doesn’t hurt any more. Yet, the stinging pain in my back keeps recurring.’ Muthandi turned on his side and pointed to a spot on his body. ‘They kicked me all night in the same spot – all thirteen of them – till my back broke.

‘As the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army escalated, our life became hell. During those years, officers of the Sri Lankan Navy would pick us up at random and beat us brutally. Even the memory of those days makes me shudder.’ Muthandi’s face worked with inexplicable emotions and his voice trembled. ‘I have been caught many times by the Sri Lankan Navy and forcibly taken to their ships. They would never take us to their country, as is the case now, but would thrash us on their ships, until we were bruised and bleeding, and then send us right back. While torturing us in this way, they would hurl abuses at us, blaming us for helping the LTTE.’

Muthandi remembered, in particular, a one-legged Sri Lankan Navy captain who was the most brutal of them all.

‘He was the most notorious, nondi captain. I owe this to him,’ he observed, pointing to his ribs.

Even as Muthandi described his ordeal, Mari, who had been patiently listening to him until then, suddenly sprang to his feet and hurled abuses at the Sri Lankan Navy officers.

‘Those bastards should be stripped naked and shot!’ he seethed. ‘Those officers are riddled with communal hatred, especially the young ones. They despise Tamilians and think we all belong to the LTTE. I have been nabbed several times by their navy, sometimes even in Indian waters, and brutally thrashed. My private parts have been mutilated and I have been forced to do things that nobody should ever be made to do. You people don’t know about it, but every fisherman here has been exposed to sights they can never forget in their lifetime.’

As Muthandi and I remained silent, he went on, ‘In 1992, five steamers with Indian fishermen were intercepted near Katchatheevu by the Sri Lankan Navy. At the time, I was just a teenager like him.’ Mari indicated Muthandi’s second son, who had joined us under the tree where we sat. ‘We were taken to their navy vessel at around 8 p.m. and subjected to rounds of beating by one officer after another, until we could barely move.

‘Then another group of naval officers seized two fishing boats bringing in refugees, one carrying the men, the other, women and children. After forcing the women and children to board the navy ship, the officers opened fire on the other fishing vessel. All the men who were on it – some of them mere teenagers – were killed and their boat was sunk with a grenade. Their mothers, wives and daughters watched the horror from the Sri Lankan ship they had been forced to board. This happened before our very eyes.

‘The officers would later molest the women. If they resisted, the officers grabbed one of us and tried to force us on the women. They stripped the women and brushed their private parts against our bodies. If we turned away, we were beaten up. I even saw one of those officers tear open a pregnant woman’s stomach.’ Mari’s voice had grown louder.

‘The Sri Lankans – one should never forgive them! They are all butchers and only we, who have been through the horror of facing them, know how much they hate us,’ he continued. ‘For an entire month after that incident, I could neither eat properly nor enjoy a night’s sound sleep. When we returned to Dhanushkodi after our traumatic experience, we found severed hands, dismembered torsos and other body parts washed up on our shore. It was such a ghastly sight that I have never been able to go fishing since.’

I asked Mari if they had reported the incident to the Coast Guard.

‘We always do,’ he replied, ‘but they merely blame us for straying into Sri Lanka’s waters. And like those navy officers, the Coast Guard too beat us for the same reason. Our troubles ended only after the LTTE came to know about the incident. Exactly a fortnight later, the Tigers bombed that Sri Lankan Navy ship.’

‘It was after that ship was sunk that LTTE songs and slogans became popular here,’ Muthandi volunteered, cutting into Mari’s account. ‘People realized that even if the Indian Navy failed them in a crisis, the Tigers would come to their rescue. So many similar incidents have taken place since then and, as usual, we have always been blamed by both the Indian and Sri Lankan navies. It is only now that our officers have become more sympathetic towards us. Earlier, they would never stand by us in an emergency, because they suspected all fishermen were involved in smuggling medicines, diesel and other essential items to the LTTE.’

Mari, who had managed to compose himself by now, conceded, however, that the officers could not be blamed entirely, as smuggling of drugs, fuel, medicines and other essential items had been rampant between Rameswaram and the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka for generations. With just 18 nautical miles separating the two countries, fishermen in boats equipped with a twin-engine motor could reach the other shore in mere minutes without a passport, visa or any form of documentation whatsoever.

Anyone with a little daring and driven by the spirit of enterprise could make a quick buck, every once in a while, smuggling clothes, medicines and other goods that were in demand in the other country.

‘It is an open secret that the navies of both countries are well aware of these rackets,’ Mari remarked. ‘Locals in Rameswaram know for a fact that most of the town’s wealthier residents actually started out as smugglers and later diversified into other businesses. With the war in Sri Lanka escalating, the demand for a different set of contraband items, such as prosthetic limbs, painkillers and even aluminium bars, soared and most fishermen set sail with these goods, instead of fishing nets, returning home with gold bars or cash in Indian currency.

‘The number of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Navy peaked during this period, as they were well aware of how deeply entrenched were the contacts made by the Tigers in the Rameswaram area. Initially, Tamil fishermen, who were largely seen as LTTE sympathizers, were tortured and killed by the Sri Lankan Navy. Later, however, owing to the intervention of the Indian government, the torture stopped; when found trespassing in Sri Lankan waters, the fishermen were simply shot to death.’

After the war ended, the Sri Lankan Navy had apparently stopped shooting Indian fishermen, arresting them, instead, and remanding them to judicial custody in Sri Lankan prisons. The practice continues to this day. Fortunately, Dhanushkodi’s fishermen, who still use traditional country boats, have been spared this ordeal; the Sri Lankan Navy now targets only mechanized fishing vessels.

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