The Tsunami of December 2004

The Tsunami of December 2004
Date of Publication: 2005-06-14

The Town By The Sea

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are one of those quadrants of the globe where political and geological fault lines run on parallel courses. Politically the islands are Union Territories, ruled directly from New Delhi, but geologically they stand just beyond the edge of the Indian tectonic plate. Stretching through seven hundred kilometres of the Bay of Bengal, they are held aloft by a range of undersea mountains that stands guard over the abyssal deep of the Sunda trench. Of the five hundred and seventy two islands, only thirty six are inhabited: 'the Andamans' is the name given to the northern part of the archipelago while 'the Nicobars' lie to the south. At their uppermost point, the Andamans are just a few dozen miles from Burma's Coco Islands, infamous for their prisons, while the southernmost edge of the Nicobars is only a couple of hundred kilometres from the ever-restless region of Aceh. This part of the chain is so positioned that the tsunami of December 26, 2004, hit it just minutes after the coastline of northern Sumatra.

Despite the hundreds of kilometres of water that separate the Andamans from the Indian mainland, many of the relief camps in Port Blair, the islands' capital city, have the appearance of miniaturized portraits of the nation. Only a small percentage of their inmates are indigenous to the islands; the others are settlers from different parts of the mainland: Bengal, Orissa, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. If this comes as a surprise, it is only because the identity of the islands - and indeed the alibi for the present form of their rule - lies in an administrative conception of the 'primitive' that dates back to the British Raj. The idea that the these islands are somehow synonymous with backwardness is energetically promoted in today's Port Blair. Hoardings depicting naked 'primitives' line the streets, and I heard of a sign that instructs onlookers to 'Love Your Primitive Tribe.' In most parts of the mainland, these images would long since have been defaced or torn down, for the sheer offensiveness of their depictions: not so on these islands which are more a projection of India than a part of its body politic; as with many colonies, they represent a distended and compressed version of the mother country, in its weaknesses and strengths, its aspirations and failings. Over the last two weeks, both the fault lines that underlie the islands seem suddenly to have been set in motion: it is as if the deep time of geology had collided here with the hurried history of an emergent nation.

The mainland settlers in the camps are almost unanimous in describing themselves as having come to the islands in search of land and opportunity. Listening to their stories it is easy to believe that most of them found what they were looking for: here, in this far-flung chain of islands, tens of thousands of settlers were able to make their way out of poverty, into the ranks of the country's expanding middle class. But on the morning of Dec 26, this hard-won betterment became a potent source of vulnerability. For to be middle-class is to be kept afloat on a life-raft of paper: identity cards, licences, ration cards, school certificates, cheque books, certificates of life insurance and receipts for fixed deposits. It was the particular nature of this disaster that it targeted not just the physical being of the victims but also the proof of the survivors' identities. An earthquake would have left remnants to rummage through; floods and hurricanes would have allowed time for survivors to safeguard their essential documents on their person. The tsunami, in the suddenness of its onslaught allowed for no preparations: not only did it destroy the survivors' homes and decimate their families; it also robbed them of all the evidentiary traces of their place in the world.

On January 1 2005, I went to visit the Nirmala School Camp in Port Blair. The camp, like the school in which it is housed, is run by the Catholic Church and it is presided over by a mild-mannered young priest by the name of Father Johnson. On the morning of my visit Father Johnson was at the centre of an angry altercation. The refugees had spent the last three days waiting anxiously in the camp, and in that time no one had asked them where they wanted to go or when; none of them had any idea of what was to become of them and the sense of being adrift had brought them to the end of their tether. The issue was neither deprivation nor hardship - there was enough food and they had all the clothes they needed - it was the uncertainty that was intolerable. In the absence of any other figure of authority they had laid siege to Father Johnson: when would they be allowed to move on? Where would they be going?

Father Johnson could give them no answers for he was, in his own way, just as helpless as they were. The officials in charge of the relief effort had told him nothing about their plans for the refugees. Now time was running out: the schools in which the camps were located were to re-open on Jan 3. Father Johnson had no idea how his school was to function with more than sixteen hundred refugees camping on the grounds.

Realizing at last that Father Johnson knew no more than they did, the inmates reduced their demands to a single, modest query: could they be provided with some paper and a few pens? No sooner had this request been met than another uproar broke out: those who'd been given possession of pens and paper now became the centre of the siege. Crowding together, people began to push and jostle, clamouring to have their names written down. Identity was now no more than a matter of assertion and nothing seemed to matter more than to create a trail of paper. On this depended the eventual reclamation of a life.

Standing on the edges of the crowd was a stocky, thirty-year-old man by the name of Obed Tara. He was, he told me, from the island of Car Nicobar, a member of an indigenous group whose affiliations, in language and ethnicity, lie with the Malay peoples to the east. But he himself was a Naik in the 10th Madras regiment of the Indian army and was fluent in Hindi. On December 10 he had set off from Calcutta, where his unit was currently stationed, in order to travel to Car Nicobar. Like most Nicobarese people, he was a Christian, a member of the Anglican Church of North India, and he'd been looking forward to celebrating Christmas at home. But this year there was something else to look forward to as well: he was to be married on the first day of the New Year (the very day of our conversation).

On December 26, despite the celebrations and merry-making of the night before, Obed Tara, like most members of his extended family, rose early in order to attend a Boxing Day service at their church. Their house was in the seafront settlement of Malacca, just a few hundred metres from the water. Their neighbourhood was the commercial heart of the township, and their house was surrounded by shops and godowns. They were themselves a part of the market's bustle; they owned a Maruti Omni and operated a long-distance phone booth in their house. In other words, theirs' was a family that had been swept into the middle-class by the commercial opportunities of the last decade.

That morning, as the family was gathering outside the house, the ground began to heave with a violence that none of them had ever experienced before; it shook so hard that it was impossible to stand still and they were forced to throw themselves on the ground. Then the ground cracked and fountains of mud-brown water came geysering out of these fissures. Like all the islanders, Obed Tara was accustomed to tremors in the earth, but neither he nor anyone else there had ever seen anything like this before. It took a while before the ground was still enough to regain a footing and no sooner had he risen to his feet than he heard a wild, roaring sound. Looking seawards he saw a wall of water advancing towards his house. Gathering his relatives, he began to run. By the time he looked back, his house, and the neighbourhood in which it stood, had vanished under the waves: two elderly members of the family were lost and everything they possessed was gone, the car, the phone booth, the house. The family spent a couple of night in the island's interior and afterwards the elders deputed him to go to Port Blair to see what he could secure for them by way of relief and supplies.

By the time Obed Tara finished telling me this story, there was a catch in his voice, and he was swallowing convusively to keep from sobbing. I asked him: "Why don't you go to the army offices and tell them who you are? I am sure they will do what they can to help you."

He shook his head, as if to indicate that he had considered and dismissed this thought many times over. "The sea took my uniform, my ration card, my service card, my tribal papers; it took everything," he said. "I can't prove who I am. Why should they believe me?"

He led me to the far side of the camp, where another group of islanders was sitting patiently under a tent. They too had lost everything; their entire village had disappeared under the sea; salt water had invaded their fields and taken away their orchards. They could not contemplate going back, they said; the stench of death was everywhere, the water sources had been contaminated and would not be usable for years.

The leader of the group was a man by the name of Sylvester Solomon. A one-time serviceman in the Navy, he had retired some years ago. He too had lost all his papers: he had no idea how he would claim his pension again. Worse still the bank that had the custody of his family's money had also been swept away, along with all its records.

I told him that by law the bank was obliged to return his money and he smiled, as if at a child. I wanted to persuade him of the truth of what I'd said but when I looked into his eyes, I knew that in his place, I too would not have the energy or the courage to take on the struggles that would be required to reclaim my life's savings from that bank.

In the same camp I encountered a Sikh woman by the name of Paramjeet Kaur. Noticing my notebook, she said: "Are you taking names too? Here, write mine down..." She was a woman of determined aspect, dressed in a dun-coloured salwaar-kameez. She had come to the islands some thirty years before, by dint of marriage. Her husband was a Sikh from Campbell Bay, a settlement on the southernmost tip of the Nicobar island chain, less than a couple of hundred kilometres from northern Sumatra. Like many others in the settlement, her husband belonged to a family that had been given a grant of land in recognition of service to the army (to distribute land in this way is a tradition that goes back to the British Indian Army and its efforts to engage the loyalties of Indian 'sepoys'). But Paramjeet Kaur's in-laws came to the Nicobar islands well after independence, in 1969, at a time when agricultural land had become scarce on the mainland. They were given 15 bighas of land and a plot to build a residence. The settlement that grew up around them was as varied as the regiments of the Indian army: there were Marathis, Malayalis, Jharkhandis and people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

"There was nothing there but jungle then", said Paramjeet Kaur. "We cleared it with our own hands and we laid out orchards of areca and coconut. With God's blessing we prospered, and built a cement house with three rooms and a veranda."

The strip of land that was zoned for residential plots lay right on the sea-front, providing the settlers with fine, beachfront views. It was no mere accident then that placed Paramjeet Kaur's house in the path of the tsunami of Dec 26th: its location was determined by an ordering of space that owed more to Europe than to its immediate surroundings. The sea poses little danger to the smiling corniches of the French Riviera or the coastline of Italy: the land-encircled Mediterranean is not subject to the play of tides and it does not give birth to tropical storms. The Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, on the other hand, are fecund in the breeding of cyclones, especially the latter. This may be the reason why a certain wariness of the sea can be seen in the lineaments of the ancient harbour cities of southern Asia. They are often situated in upriver locations, at a cautious distance from open water. In recent times the pattern seems to have been reversed so that it could almost be stated as a rule that the more modern and prosperous a settlement, the more likely it is to hug the water. On the island of Car Nicobar, for example, the Indian Air Force base was built a few dozen metres from the water's edge and it was so laid out that the more senior the servicemen, the closer they were to the sea. Although it is true that no one could have anticipated the tsunami, the choice of location is still surprising. Cyclones, frequent in this region, are also associated with surges of water that rise to heights of ten or fifteen metres and their effect would have been similar. Surely the planners were not unaware of this? But of course, it is all too easy to be wise after the event: given the choice between a view of the beach and a plot in the mosquito-infested interior what would anyone have chosen before Dec 26, 2004?

On the morning of that day Paramjeet Kaur and her family were inside their sea-facing house when the earthquake struck. The ground unfurled under their feet like a sheet waving in the wind and no sooner had the shaking stopped than they heard a noise 'like the sound of a helicopter'. Paramjeet Kaur's husband, Pavitter Singh, looked outside and saw a wall of water speeding towards them. 'The sea has split apart' (samundar phat gaya), he shouted, 'run, run.' There was no time to pick up documents or jewellery; everyone who stopped to do so was killed. Paramjeet Kaur and her family ran for two kilometres, without looking back and were just able to save themselves.

"But for what?"

Thirty years of labour had been washed away in an instant; everything they had accumulated was gone, their land was sown with salt. "When we were young we had the energy to cut the jungle and reclaim the land. We laid out fields and orchards and we did well. But at my age, how can I start again? Where will I begin?"

"What will you do then?" I asked.

"We will go back to Punjab, where we have family. The government must give us land there; that is our demand."

In other camps I met office workers from Uttar Pradesh, fishermen from coastal Andhra and construction labourers from Bengal. They had all built good lives for themselves in the islands - but now, having lost their homes, their relatives and even their identities they were intent on returning to the mainland, no matter what.

"If nothing else," one of them said to me, " we will live in slums beside the railtracks. But never again by the sea."

How do we quantify the help needed to rebuild these ruined lives? The question is answered easily enough if we pose it not in the abstract, but in relation to ourselves. To put ourselves in the place of these victims is to know that all the help in the world would not be enough. Sufficiency is not a concept that is applicable here: potentially there is no limit to the amount of relief that can be used. This is the assumption that motivates ordinary people to open their purses, even though they know that governments and big companies have already contributed a great deal: this is why no disaster assistance group has ever been known to say 'we have to raise exactly this much and no more.' But when it comes to the disbursement of these funds the assumptions seem to undergo a drastic change, and nowhere more than in out-of-the-way places.

In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, although the manpower and machinery for the relief effort are supplied largely by the armed forces, overall authority is concentrated in the hands of a small clutch of senior civil servants in Port Blair. No matter the sense of crisis elsewhere, the attitude of Port Blair's officialdom is one of disdainful self-sufficiency. On more than one occasion I heard them dismissing offers of help as unnecessary and misdirected. Supplies were available aplenty, they said; in fact they had more on their hands than could be distributed and there was a danger that perishable materials would rot on the airstrips.

This argument is of course, entirely circular: logically speaking, bottlenecks of distribution imply a need for more help, not less. But for the mandarins of Port Blair, the relief effort is a zero sum game in which they are the referees. What conceivable help could their subjects need other than the amount which they, the providers, the mai-baap, decide is appropriate to their various stations?

Are supplies really available aplenty, throughout the islands? The tale told in the relief camps is of course, exactly the opposite of that which echoes out of the lairs of officialdom. Most of the refugees had to wait several days before they were evacuated. Forgotten in their far-flung islands, they listened to radio broadcasts that told them their nation was rushing aid to Sri Lanka and had refused all outside help as unnecessary: for the thirsty and hungry there was little consolation in the thought that these measures might help their country establish itself as a superpower. In Campbell Bay, according to several reports, refugees were moved to such fury by the indifference of the local officials that that they assaulted an officer who was found ushering in the New Year with a feast. Accounts of this incident, confirmed by several sources in the coastguards and police, were characteristically denied by the civil authorities.

In Port Blair, relief camps are the main sources of aid and sustenance for the refugees. These are all sustained by private initiatives: they are staffed by volunteers from local youth groups, religious foundations and so on, and their supplies are provided by local shopkeepers, businessmen and citizens' organizations. I met with the organizers of several relief camps and they were unanimous in stating that they had received no aid whatsoever from the government, apart from some water. They knew that people on the mainland were eager to help and that a great deal of money had been raised. None of these funds had reached them; presumably they had met the same bottlenecks of distribution as the supplies that were lying piled on the runways. That it should be possible for the people of a small town like Port Blair to provide relief to so many refugees is the bright side of this dismal story: it is proof, if any were needed, that the development of civil society in India has far outpaced the institutions of state and the personnel who staff them.

The attitude of the armed forces is not the same as that of the civilian authorities. At all levels of the chain of command, from Lt. Gen. B.S.Thakur, the commanding officer in Port Blair, to the jawans who are combing through the ruins of Car Nicobar, there is an urgency, a diligence and an openness that is in striking contrast to the stance of the civilian personnel. Indeed, the feats performed by some units speak of an exemplary dedication to duty. Consider for example the case of Wing Commander B.S.K. Kumar, a helicopter pilot at the Car Nicobar air base. On December 26, he was asleep when the earthquake first made itself felt: his quarters were a mere thirty metres from the sea. Not only did he manage to outrun the tsunami, with his wife and child, he was airborne within ten minutes of the first wave. In the course of the day he winched up some sixty stranded people and evacuated another two hundred and forty. His colleague, Wing Commander Maheshwari woke too late to escape the wave. As the waters rose, he was forced to retreat to the roof of his building with his wife and daughter. Along with twenty-nine other people, he fought for his footing on the roof until all were swept off. He managed to make his way to land, but was separated from his wife and child: two hours passed before they were found, clinging to the trunk of a tree. Of the twenty-nine people on that roof, only six survived. And yet, despite the ordeal, Wing Commander Maheshwari flew several sorties that day.

Considering the diligence of the armed forces and the enthusiasm and generosity of ordinary citizens, how is the attitude of the island's civilian administration to be accounted for? The answer is simple: a lack of democracy. As a Union Territory, the Andaman and Nicobar islands have no legislature and thus no elected representatives with any clout apart from a single Member of Parliament. Elsewhere in India, in any situation of crisis, officials have to answer to representative of many levels: a failure to act would result in their being hounded by legislators and harried by trade unions, student groups and the like. As Amartya Sen has shown in his work on famines, these mechanisms are essential to the proper distribution of resources in any situation of extreme scarcity: in effect, the political system serves as a means by which demands are articulated. The media similarly serves to create flows of information. These are precisely the mechanisms that are absent in the Andaman and Nicobar islands: there are no elected representatives to speak for the people and the media have been excluded from large swathes of territory. It is not for no reason that on the mainland, where these mechanisms do exist, the attitude of administrators in the affected districts has been more sensitive to the needs of the victims; the officials there have been substantially more open to the oversight of the press and to offers of help from other parts of the country.

It is common for civil servants to complain of the perils of political interference: the situation on the islands is proof that in the absence of vigorous oversight many (although certainly not all) officials will revert to the indifference and inertia that are the natural condition of any bureaucracy.

Clearly the Central Government is aware that there is a problem, for the relief operation was restructured on Jan 2, reportedly at the personal intervention of Sonia Gandhi. What is more, several senior members of the ruling party have been dispatched to the outlying islands, not just for token visits, but to make sure that the supplies are properly distributed. These are welcome first steps, but it is essential that the Central Government moves quickly to create a more responsive and efficient disaster relief operation in this region, not just for the management of this catastrophe, but for the long term. For if anything can be said with any certainty it is that the tsunami will not be the last seismic upheaval to shake the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In 1991, after lying dormant for two hundred years, the volcano of Barren Island, off the coast of the Andamans, became active again: there are reports that it erupted around the time of the earthquake of December 26th. On September 14, 2002, there was a 6.5 magnitude earthquake near Diglipur in North Andaman Island: now there are unconfirmed reports of a minor eruption in the same area. The signs are clear: no one can say the Earth has not provided warnings of its intent.

In Port Blair I found the tsunami's effects on the outlying islands could only be guessed at. The refugees in the camps spoke of apocalyptic devastation and tens of thousands dead; the authorities' estimates were much more modest. There were few, if any, reliable independent assessments, for the civil authorities had decided that no journalists or other 'outsiders' were to be allowed to travel to the outlying islands. The reasons given were those of the battlefield: too many resources would be spent on their protection. But there was no battle under way in the islands and the dangers of the tsunami were long past. Public ferry and steamer services linking Port Blair to the outer islands were in operation and had plenty of room for paying passengers. And yet journalists, Indian and foreign, were forcibly dragged off these ships at the behest of the authorities.

On January 1, 2005, there was an unexpected parting in this curtain of exclusion. The reason was that a couple of senior members of the ruling party had come to Port Blair with the intent of travelling farther afield. It was quickly made known that an air force plane would be provided to take the ministers, and a retinue of journalists, to the island of Car Nicobar the next day. This island, which is positioned halfway between the Andaman and Nicobar chains, is home to some thirty thousand people: it also houses an air base which makes it something of a hub in relation to the more southerly islands.

Hoping to get on this plane, I duly presented myself at the airport, only to find that a great many others had arrived with the same expectation. As always in such situations, there was considerable confusion about who would get on. After the ministers had boarded, a minor melee ensued at the foot of the ramp that led to the plane's capacious belly. Knowing that I stood little chance of prevailing in this contest, I had almost resigned myself to being left behind when a young man in a blue uniform tapped my elbow and pointed across the airfield. "You want to go to Car Nicobar? That plane over there is carrying relief supplies. Just go and sit down. No one will say anything."

I sought no explanation for this unsolicited act of consideration: it seemed typical of the general goodwill of the military personnel I had encountered on the islands. As if on tiptoe I walked across the tarmac and up the ramp. The plane was a twin-engined Soviet-era AN 26, rusty but dependable, and its capacious fuselage was lined with folding benches. The round portholes that pierced its sides were like eyes that had grown rheumy with age; time had sandpapered the panes of glass so they were almost opaque. The cargo area was packed with mattresses, folding beds, cases of mineral water and sacks of food, all covered with a net of webbing. There were some half dozen men inside, sitting on the benches with their feet planted askew beside the mass of supplies. I seated myself in the only available space, beside a short, portly man with thick glasses and well-oiled, curly hair. He was dressed in a stiffly-ironed brown safari suit and he had an air of irascibility that spoke of a surfeit of time spent in filing papers and running offices. He was muttering angrily when I came aboard: "What do those people care? What have they ever done to help anyone...?" Of all the people on that plane he was perhaps the last I would have chosen to sit beside: I was keen to make myself as inconspicuous as possible while he seemed determined to draw attention to himself. It could only be a matter of minutes I thought, before the airmen evicted him. Inexplicably, they did not.

When the engines started up, my neighbour turned his attention to me. "These big people think they are so great, but what help have they given?" I assumed this to be a general expression of disgust, of the kind that is to be heard on every train and bus in the country. But then he added suddenly: "Let them go through what I have gone through. Let them suffer, then they would see..."

This hit me with the force of a shock: his well-laundered safari suit, his air of almost-comical self-importance, his irascibility - there was nothing about him that bespoke the victim. But I understood now why the airmen had ignored his rants; they knew something about him that I did not and this was their way of showing compassion.

In the meanwhile the tirade continued: "If those politicians had suffered as I have, what would they do? This is the question I want to ask."

I winced to think of my first response to his mutterings. "What exactly has happened?" I asked. "Tell me."

He did not want his name used, so I shall call him 'The Director'. This indeed was his official title: he had been posted to the island of Car Nicobar in 1991, as the Director of the island's Malaria Research Centre and had lived there ever since. He was originally from Puri, in Orissa, and had been trained at the University of Berhampore. During his tenure in Car Nicobar he had married and had two children: a son who was now thirteen, and a ten-year-old daughter. His home was in Malacca - the seafront township I'd heard about in the camps - and his office was just a few minutes' walk from where he lived. In this office he had accumulated a great wealth of epidemiological knowledge. Car Nicobar had once been rife with malaria, he told me. In an island with a population of just thirty thousand, the annual incidence had been as high as 3810, even as recently as 1989. But during his tenure he had succeeded in bringing the rate down to a fraction of this number. It was clear, from the readiness with which he quoted the figures, that he was immensely - and justly - proud of what he had achieved during his stay on the island.

On December 25, 2004, the Director was in Port Blair, on his way to New Delhi. Since he was travelling for official reasons, he had left his family in Malacca. He spent the night of December 25th in the Haddo Circuit House, which stands close to the water. On the morning of the 26th he was woken by the shaking of his bed. He stepped off to find the floor heaving and realized that an earthquake had hit the town. As he was running out of the building, his mobile phone rang. Glancing quickly at the screen, he saw that his wife was calling from Malacca. He guessed that the earthquake had struck Car Nicobar too but he was not unduly alarmed. Tremors were frequently felt on the island and he thought his wife would be able to cope. The Guest House in the meanwhile, was still shaking and there was no time to talk. He cut off the call and ran outside; he would phone back later, he decided, once the tremors stopped. He waited out the earthquake outside and when the ground was still at last, he hit the call button on his phone. There was no answer and he wondered if the network was down. But he had little time to think about the matter because a strange phenonmenon had suddenly begun to manifest itself before him: the water in the harbour had begun to rise, very rapidly, and the anchored ships seemed to be swirling about in the grip of an unseen hand. Along with everyone else he ran to higher ground.

The islands of the Andaman chain rise steeply out of the sea and the harbour and waterfront of Port Blair are sheltered by a network of winding fjords and inlets. Such is the lay of the land that the turbulence that radiated outwards from the earthquake's epicentre, manifested itself here not as an onrushing wall of water, but as a surge in the water-level. Although this caused a good deal of alarm, the damage was not severe.

It was not long however, before it occurred to the Director that the incoming swell in Port Blair's harbour might have taken a different form elsewhere. The Nicobar islands do not have the high elevations of their northern neighbours, the Andamans. They are low-lying islands for the most part, and some, like Car Nicobar stand no more than a few metres above sea level at their highest point. Already anxious, the Director became frantic when word of the tsunami trickled down to the waterfront, from the naval offices further up the slope.

The Director knew of a government office in Car Nicobar that had a satellite phone. He dialled the number again and again: it was either busy or there was no answer. When at last he got through, the voice at the other end told him, with some reluctance, that Malacca had been badly hit. It was known that there were some survivors, but as for his family, there was no word.

The Director kept calling, and in the afternoon he learnt that his thirteen year-old son had been found clinging to the rafters of a church, some two hundred metres behind their house. Arrangements were made to bring the boy to the phone and the Director was able to speak to him directly later that night. He learnt from his son that the family had been in the bedroom when the earthquake started. A short while later, a terrifying sound from the direction of the sea had driven the three of them into the drawing room. The boy had kept running, right into the kitchen. The house was built of wood, on a cement foundation. When the wave hit, the house dissolved into splinters and the boy was carried away as if on a wind. Flailing his arms, he succeeded in taking hold of something that seemed to be fixed to the earth. Through wave after wave he managed to keep his grip. When the water receded he saw that he was holding on to the only upright structure within a radius of several hundred metres: of the township there was nothing left but a deep crust of wreckage.

"And your mother and sister?" the Director had asked.

"Baba they just disappeared..." And now for the first time, the boy began to cry, and the Director's heart broke because he knew his son was crying because he thought he would be scolded and blamed for what had happened.

"I was strict with him sir," the Director said, his voice trailing off. "I am a strict man; that is my nature. But I must say he is a brave boy; a very brave boy."

Having spent thirteen years on the island, the Director was well-acquainted with the local administration and the officers on the air base. Through their intervention he was able to get on a flight the very next day. He spent the day searching through the rubble; he found many possessions, but no trace of his daughter or his wife. He came back to Port Blair with his son the same evening and the two of them moved in with some friends. Every day since then he'd been trying to go back, to find out what had become of his wife and daughter but the flights had been closed - until this one.

"Tell me," he said, his voice becoming uncharacteristically soft. "What do you think: is there any hope?"

It took me a moment to collect my wits. "Of course there is hope," I said. "There is always hope. They could have been swept ashore on another part of the island."

He nodded. "We will see. I hope I will find out today, in Malacca."

With some hesitation I asked if it would be all right if I came with him. He answered with a prompt nod. "You can come."

I had the impression that he had been dreading the lonely search that lay ahead and would be glad of some company. "All right then," I said. "I will."

At the airfield in Car Nicobar, the Director arranged a ride for us on a yellow construction truck that had been set to the task of distributing relief supplies. The truck went bouncing down the runway before turning off into a narrow road that led into a forest. Once the airstrip was behind us it was as though we had been transported to some long-ago land, unspoiled and untouched. The road wound through a dense tropical jungle, dotted, at intervals, with groves of slender areca-palms and huts mounted on stilts. Some of these had metamorphosed into makeshift camps, sprouting awnings of plastic and tarpaulin. It was clear that the island's interior was sparsely inhabited, with the population being concentrated along the seafront.

Earlier, while the plane was making its descent, I had had a panoramic, if blurred, view of the island, in the crisp morning sunlight. No more than a few kilometres across, it was flat and low, and its interior was covered by a dense canopy of greenery. A turquoise halo surrounded its shores, where a fringe of sand had once formed an almost-continuous length of beach: this was now still mainly underwater. I saw to my surprise that many thick stands of coconut palms were still standing, even on the edge of the water. Relatively few palms had been flattened; most remained upright and in full possession of their greenery. As for the forest, the canopy seemed almost undisturbed. All trace of habitation on the other hand, had been obliterated: the foundations of many buildings could be clearly seen, on the ground. But of the structures they had once supported, nothing remained.

It was evident from above that the tsunami had been peculiarly selective in the manner of its destruction. Had the island been hit by a major cyclone, not a frond would have survived on the coconut palms and the forest canopy would have been denuded. Most human dwellings on the other hand, would have retained their walls even if they lost their roofs. Not so in this instance: the villages along the shore were not merely damaged; they were erased. It was as if the island had been hit by a weapon devised to cause the maximum possible damage to life and property, while leaving nature largely unharmed.

We came to an intersection that was flanked by low, whitewashed buildings. This was the administrative centre of the island, the Director explained; the settlement of Malacca lay a good distance away and we would have to walk. After getting off the truck, we came to the District Library, a building of surprising size and solidity: like the surrounding offices, it was unharmed, but a medical camp, manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border force, had sprung up on its grounds, under the shade of a spreading, moss-twined padauk tree. The Director spotted a doctor, sitting in a tent. He darted away and slipped under the tent's blue flap. "Doctor, have you heard anything about my family?" he said. "I've come because I heard some survivors had been found..."

The doctor's face froze and after a moment's silence, he said in a tone that was non-committal and yet not discouraging, he said: "No news has reached me - I've not heard anything..."

We continued on our way, walking past the airy bungalows of the island's top officials, with their well-tended gardens. Soon we came upon two men who were sitting by the roadside, beside an odd assortment of salvaged goods. "That's mine," said the Director, pointing to a lampstand of turned wood. "I paid a lot for it; it's made of padauk wood." There was no rancour in his voice and nor did he seem to want to reclaim the object. We walked on.

A few steps ahead the road dipped towards a large clearing fringed by thick stands of coconut palm: as with many small town maidans, there was a plaster bust of Mahatma Gandhi standing in its centre. So far, on our journey from the airport we had seen no outward sign of the damage caused by the tsunami, but now we had arrived at the outer periphery of the band of destruction. Mounds of splintered planks and other building materials lay scattered across the clearing, and the red-white-and-green fence that surrounded the bust of Mahatma Gandhi was swathed in refuse and dead coconut fronds. Everywhere, evidence of the tsunami's incursion could be seen in pools of water that had turned rank over the last few days.

At the far end of the maidan, a fire was blazing among the coconut palms. The warehouse that supplied the island with cooking gas had stood at that spot. The tsunami had swept the warehouse away, leaving the canisters exposed to the sun and a fire had ensued. Every few minutes the ground shook to the blast of exploding canisters.

Oblivious to the fire, the Director stepped away to accost a passer-by who was wheeling a loaded bicycle. Over his shoulder, he said to me: "This is Michael; he worked in my office." Michael was a sturdy, grizzled Nicobarese, dressed in green shorts and a grey shirt. Laying his hands on the bicycle's handlebars, the Director said, in Hindi: "Michael, listen - has there been any news of Madam? You know what she looks like: have you seen any trace of her?"

Michael dropped his eyes, as if in embarrassment, and answered with a tiny shake of his head. Lowering his voice, the Director continued: "And have you heard anyone speak of a girl, roaming in the jungle?". When this too failed to elicit an answer, he went on: "Michael, I need your help. Bring some men and come. I need to dig through the rubble to see if I can find anything." Even as he was speaking, his attention shifted to the contents of the plastic bags that were hanging from Michael's handlebars. Flinching, he let go of the handlebar. "Michael!" he cried, "What is all this stuff you've picked up? You should know better than to take things from over there - they may contaminated."

Michael hung his head and wheeled his bicycle silently away.

"They're all looting," said the director, shaking his head. "I've heard the bazaar in Port Blair has received three sackfuls of gold from the islands..."

In the clump of burning palm-trees, yet another gas canister exploded. It was close enough that we could feel the rattle of the blast in the debris under our feet; a shard of metal struck an onlooker, fortunately without injury. Oblivious to the flames, the Director hurried towards a spot where a mound of mangled household objects lay piled, having been pushed through the screen of coconut palms like dough through a sieve.

"Look, that's mine," said the Director, pointing to a blue Aristocrat suitcase made of moulded plastic. It had been hacked open with a sharp-bladed instrument and its contents were gone. The Director picked it up and shook it. "I saw it the last time I was here," he said. "It was already empty. Everything had been looted." His eyes moved over to a steel trunk, lying nearby. "That's mine too. Go and look." Stepping over I saw that the trunk's lock had been forced open. On the side, written in large black letters, was the Director's name and designation.

"You see," the Director said, as if in vindication. "Everything I've been telling you is true. These things were all mine."

A short distance away a wooden cabinet lay overturned, and heaps of paper could be seen spilling out of its belly. The Director beckoned to me. "See - there are all the records from my office. Thirteen years of research: all gone." We went to kneel beside the cabinet and I saw that the papers were mimeographed data sheets, with the letterhead of the Malaria Research Centre imprinted on top.

Somewhere among the papers I spotted some old photographs. Somehow it was a matter of great relief to me to come upon a few retrievable mementoes and I was quick to draw the Director's attention to the pictures. On examination it turned out that most of the pictures had been defaced by the water, but I found one where he, the Director, could be seen standing among a group of people. I held it out to him and he took it with an indifferent shrug. "That photo was taken at the air base, I remember." He let go and it fluttered into a puddle of stinking water.

"Don't you want to keep it?" I said, in astonishment.

"No," he said simply. "It means nothing. These are just work pictures."

Then suddenly his eyes lit up. "Look," he said, "my slides..." A drawer had come open, shaking loose several decks of white-rimmed photographic slides. Most were sodden with water, but some were dry and had preserved their images. To my untrained eyes, the pictures appeared to be of bacteria, hugely magnified by the lens of a microscope. The Director sorted quickly through the slides and chose a dozen or so. Close at hand there lay a roll of unused plastic bags, that had been washed out of a drowned shop and dried by the sun. Peeling off one of these bags, he placed the slides carefully inside before fastening his fingers on them.

"Your home must have been nearby?" I said.

"No," came the answer. "The wave carried these things right out of the town. My house is still a kilometer away, over there."

I had imagined that his possessions were bunched together because his house had stood nearby: this was an indication of how little I understood of the power of the surge. Its strength was such that it had tossed the Director's house aside, picked up his belongings and punched them through a kilometre of dense habitation.

The location the Director had pointed to was on the far side of the burning coconut palms; it was evident that to get there we would have to pass quite close to the fire, which was now spreading rapidly. We set off almost at a run, and soon came to a point where our path was blocked by a fallen tree. He clambered over, hanging on to his slides and I followed. The fire was now less than a hundred metres to our right and as I was climbing over when there was another detonation, followed by a crackling, whooshing sound. I fell quickly to the ground and shut my eyes. When next I looked up, the Director was still standing, looking down at me with puzzled impatience. "Come on, come on - that's where we have to go: over there."

When I rose to my feet I had my first glimpse of the seafront where the town of Malacca had once stood: till now it had been largely screened off from view by the coconut palms. On a stretch of land a couple of kilometres long, there were now only five structures still standing: the staring, skull-like shell of a school that had lost all its doors and windows; a single neatly whitewashed bungalow in the distance; an arched gateway that had the words 'Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Park' painted on it; a small, miraculously unharmed Murugan temple, right beside the sea; and lastly the skeleton of a church, with a row of parallel arches rising from the rubble like the bleached ribs of a dead animal. This was the structure that had saved the life of the Director's son. The palms along the seafront were undamaged and upright, their fronds intact, but the other trees on the site had lost all their leaves and a couple had buses, cars and sheets of corrugated iron wrapped around their trunks. If not for the tree-trunks and the waving palms, the first visual analogy to suggest itself would have been Hiroshima after the bomb: the resemblance lay not just in the destruction but also in the discernible directionality of the blast. But there the parallel ended for the sky here was a cloudless blue and there were no wisps of smoke rising from the ruins.

The Director led the way across the debris as if he were following a route imprinted in memory, a familiar map of streets and lanes. Despite a stiff breeze, blowing in from the sea, an odor of death flowed over the site, not evenly, but in whirls and eddies, sometimes growing so powerful as to indicate the presence of a yet-undiscovered body. Stray dogs, rooting in the ruins, looked up as if amazed at the sight of human beings who were still ambient and on their feet.

We came to a point where a rectangular platform of cement shone brightly under the sun. The Director stepped up to it and placed his feet in the middle. "This was my house," he said. "Only the foundation was concrete. The rest was wood. My wife used to say that she had moved from a white house to a log cabin. You see, she was from an affluent family; she grew up in a bungalow with an airconditioner. She used to teach English in a school here, but she always wanted to leave. I applied many times, but the transfer never came." He paused, thinking back. For much of the time that we had been together his voice had carried a note of sharp but undirected annoyance; now it softened. "There was so much she could have achieved," he said. "I was never able to give her the opportunity."

I reached out to touch his arm but he shook my hand brusquely away; he was not the kind of man who takes kindly to expressions of sympathy; I could tell from his demeanour that he was accustomed to adversity and had invented many rules for dealing with it. The emotion he felt for his family he had rarely expressed; he had hoarded it inside himself, in the way a squirrel gathers food for the winter: loathe to spend it in his hectic middle years, he had put it away to be savoured when there was a greater sense of ease in his life, at a time when his battles were past and he could give his hoarded love his full attention. He had never dreamt - and who could? - that one bright December day, soon after dawn, it would be stolen, unsavoured, by the sea.

I began to walk towards the gently lapping waves, no more than a hundred meters away. The Director took fright at this and called me back: "Don't go that way, the tide is coming in. It's time to leave."

I turned to follow him and we were heading back towards the blazing palms, when he stopped to point to a yellow paintbox, peeping out of the rubble. "That belonged to Vineeta, my daughter," he said, and the flatness of his voice was harder to listen to than an outburst would have been. "She loved to paint; she was very good at it. She was even given a prize, from Hyderabad."

I had expected he would stoop to pick up the box, but instead he turned away and walked on, gripping his bag of slides. "Wait!" I cried. "Don't you want to take the box?"

"No," he said vehemently, shaking his head. "What good will it do? What will it give back?" He stopped to look at me over the rim of his glasses. "Do you know what happened the last time I was here? Someone had found my daughter's schoolbag and saved it for me. It was handed to me, like a card. It was the worst thing I could have seen. It was unbearable."

He started to walk off again. Unable to restrain myself, I called out after him: "Are you sure you don't want it - the paintbox?"

Without looking around he said: "Yes, I am sure."

I stood amazed as he walked off towards the blazing fire, with his slides still folded in his grip: how was it possible that the only memento he had chosen to retrieve were those magnified images? As a husband, a father, a human being, it was impossible not to wonder: what would I have done? what would I have felt? what would I have chosen to keep of the past? The truth is nobody can know, except in the extremity of that moment, and then the choice is not a choice at all, but an expression of the innermost sovereignty of the self, which decides because nothing now remains to cloud its vision. In the manner of his choosing there was not a particle of hesitation, not the faintest glimmer of a doubt. Was it perhaps, that in this moment of utter desolation there was some comfort in the knowledge of an impersonal effort? Could it be that he was seeking refuge in the one aspect of his existence that could not be erased by an act of nature? Or was there some consolation in the very lack of immediacy - did the value of those slides lie precisely in their exclusion from the unendurable pain of his loss? Whatever the reason, it was plain his mind had fixed upon a set of objects that derived their meaning from the part of his life that was lived in thought and contemplation.

There are times when words seem futile, and to no one more so than a writer. At these moments it seems that nothing is of value other than to act and to intervene in the course of events: to think, to reflect, to write seem trivial and wasteful. But the life of the mind takes many forms, and some time after the day had passed I understood that in the manner of his choosing, the Director had mounted the most singular, the most powerful defence of it that I would ever witness.