After the heartbreak of the killer waves

After the heartbreak of the killer waves
When he lost his three children to the tsunami on what was his 40th birthday, engineer K Parameswaran (in blue shirt) and wife Choodamani (in peach sari) opened their large home to children orphaned by the hungry tide. They now have 37 wards, including those who lost parents more recently, as well as two sons of their own.

My rented car comes to a halt along a dusty, derelict village road lined by small stores hawking biscuits and bottled water. Skinny black goats graze by the wayside. A thin, greying man sits alone on a boulder, idly eyeing the afternoon traffic.

"This is the closest we can get to Nallavadu beach, Madam," my driver Jaiprakash Kalirajan, 40, says, looking up from the GPS app on his Samsung phone. "Do you have an address for where you have to go?"

All I have are a million memories. And a 10-year-old photograph of a grim-faced young woman sitting with two small boys before their wrecked beachside hut.

Days after the Indian Ocean tsunami pulverised thousands of coastal hamlets in more than 14 countries a decade ago, I visited Tamil Nadu's Coromandel Coast, which bore the brunt of the disaster in India. More than 18,000 people died there, mostly in the coastal towns and villages known till then for beautiful beaches and fresh seafood.

I returned there last week, hoping to catch up with the survivors I met and wrote about in this newspaper immediately after the tragedy and, once more, a year later, in December 2005. But I have no address.

I hold out the photograph to the man on the boulder, asking in broken Tamil: "Do you know her?"

Mr K. Selvan peers intently at the photo and seconds later looks up, yelling excitedly in English: "Tsunami! Tsunami!" He gestures for us to follow him.

In less than 10 minutes, we are staring at an impressive double- storey house with a blue-and- gold-flecked iron gate. It's unlocked but no one seems to be home. Unperturbed, Mr Selvan takes off again, muttering that she must be visiting her mother nearby.

We follow him and a couple of barefoot children tag along, asking for chocolates. Suddenly, we turn a corner and there she is, squatting by the roadside, chatting cheerfully with a group of friends.

I cannot believe my luck. This is serendipity.

'I NEVER WANT TO LIVE ON THE BEACH'

As I smile at Ms Vijaylalitha Kandan, 35, and wave the photograph at her, recognition dawns immediately. "Singapore pattirikayalar," she exclaims, using the Tamil word for journalist.

When we first met a decade ago, the young mother was on her haunches, sifting furiously through wet debris in her wrecked thatched hut, searching for the phone number of her husband, B. Kandan, 36, an electrician in Singapore.

Although he knew that his family was safe, he had no idea that their home had been destroyed, their cash and worldly possessions all consumed by the turbulent tide.

The Straits Times ran a pair of stories and photographs about the couple's plight, describing the homeless mother with two young sons in India, and her husband's anguish at being unable to go to his family - he was too poor to leave his job in Singapore.

Their story struck a chord with readers of The Straits Times immediately. Thanks to their generosity, Mr Kandan was able to go home by mid-January 2005, armed with an air ticket, a bagful of clothes and around $7,500 in cash. Top on his agenda: reuniting with his family and starting to build a house that would withstand the waves, should a tsunami strike again.

Ten years on, Ms Vijaylalitha, now 35, proudly leads me to her spacious new home, which the family moved into earlier this year.

The mud floor of a decade ago has been replaced by polished granite. Instead of the crude thatch door, she has an ornate wooden one carved with an image of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, the harbinger of good luck and prosperity.

The house is a good 15-minute walk from the sea. "I never want to live on the beach - it's too dangerous," she explains.

These days her biggest preoccupation is to ensure that her two sons, Abhi, 14, and Ashwin, nearly 11, get a good education. Both go to a private English medium school, funded by their father's hard work. "This house and their education - that's all we spend our money on," she says.

Abhi, who will take the Indian equivalent of the O levels next year, dreams of becoming an engineer. His father is still in Singapore.

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