February 27, 2005

Fire and earth (Dilip D'Souza)

[Magazine section - The Hindu, Feb 27, 2005 ]


Fire and earth

Visiting the site of a demolition drive in north Mumbai, DILIP D'SOUZA found his mind going back a few weeks: to a previous encounter with `fire', rubble and, yes, awe.

Nature's fury ... this destruction saw the waves bringing "fire" and mud.

SOME distance from where I'm standing, with my new friends Dilip Kale and Mohammed Muslim Pathan, is what used to be the Osmania Masjid. At least one or two thousand people would sit inside here to read namaz, they've told me more than once. It was "registered", says Mohammed, though what it means to "register" a mosque, I have no idea. But given that it was "registered", he goes on, the Municipality should never have torn it down.

Mohammed seems more disturbed by the demolition of Osmania Masjid than that of his own home, whose flattened remains we have just picked our way through. I can't share that sentiment, but I keep that disinclination to myself.

`This was my home'

We are in Ambujwadi, an enormous area of North Bombay that used to be swampland and then was a slum for many years, and through December and January has been utterly razed to the ground. Razed, not by a tsunami, but by my Municipality's own men and their equipment. Vast destruction, not in far-off Tamil Nadu or Indonesia, but right here, 45 minutes from my home; and in many ways more complete than the tsunami managed. This was my home, Mohammed tells me. On a beach in Tamil Nadu only weeks ago, a man called Palani had said the same thing. Now as then, I get a feeling of wonder. Because where Palani pointed to, and where Mohammed points today, I can't even imagine a home. There's just a patch — sand there, sand here — that each man outlines with a reaching finger, and I'm supposed to mine their memories and construct for myself what they once called home. Imagine some kind of structure standing on a bare square of land. Sand. It's hard.

`Equal opportunity' demolition

Several mosques, temples and a couple of churches succumbed to Municipal bulldozers here. Equal opportunity demolition, this. In turn, my companions take me to each such site in the area and paint air pictures — like of their once-homes — of what each worshipful structure looked like, looking expectantly at me each time for some exclamation of religious horror. I still can't oblige: really, homes that were destroyed, people sitting on rubble, upset me much more than these once-abodes of the gods, such as they were.

But as we near the hillock of bricks, tiles and concrete lumps that once was Osmania Masjid, I head for it from one side, planning to clamber over the debris and survey what remains of the mosque. "Not that way!" shouts Mohammed. "Come round here!" He leads me along what used to be the path beside the mosque, to what used to be the main entrance. "Please," he says quietly but very firmly, "please enter from here."

Destroyed as part of urban renewal.

Even as rubble, Mohammed reveres this place. I clamber over the debris that used to be the main entrance, into what used to be this mosque.

Not far away, the Hanuman Mandir is now a broken and badly burned pile of mud, bricks and assorted other rubble. Dilip Kale says the Municipal workers tore down the temple and then set fire to the debris. Somehow, the idol survived. Charred along one side, it sits forlorn, on a mound of bricks.

What happened here, I ask.

After they were done doing what they had to in Ambujwadi, the workers and the police who accompanied them came back to the pile that was this temple. They dug out the idol. They set several bricks carefully on top of each other. They put Hanuman, charred Hanuman, reverently on the mound. Then they stood back, their heads bowed in respect and remorse. "Forgive us, Hanuman-ji," they prayed, "for what we did to you."

None of Hanuman's more-human, more-mortal, fellow-residents of Ambujwadi got such an apology. And I find my mind going back a few weeks: to a previous encounter with fire, rubble and, yes, awe.

* * *

What was the colour of the wave, I ask Thirumurugan. The colour ... he looks around, searching. He points to the painted strip on the side of a smashed fishing boat that lies nearby. A dull orange, the strip. That colour, says Thirumurugan.

Not mannu but bhoomi

I don't know if it's because of this colour, or because of the great destruction the tsunami caused, or something else altogether. But every time Thirumurugan and his friends here refer to the tsunami, they also say, quietly, that there was "fire" in the water. As in, the wave brought "fire" as it swept into their village, Bommaiyarpalayam, and back out again. (Much of the destruction happened when the wave receded, because it went out faster, and even more forcefully, than when it came in).

This idea of fire is almost as hard for me to understand as a wave being orange, though perhaps the two are related. Still, the people here speak of it. I look around me at the effect this wet fire-like thing had on this beach hamlet north of Pondicherry, and I know: it's an interesting metaphor, and given what happened here, a telling one. But the wave brought something less metaphorical else as well. Mud. Black, stinking, ugly mud. Wandering Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, we've already seen lots of the stuff — mud inside clocks, inside pots, lying on the floor of a room like a diseased carpet, underfoot in a Dante-esque stretch near Nagapattinam that was littered with bodies. Mud everywhere. But here in Bommaiyarpalayam, when the fisherfolk refer to it, they don't use the usual Tamil word for it, mannu. They speak of it as bhoomi (earth).

No Indian needs to be told the connotations of that word. And when they speak of bhoomi, when they speak quietly of fire, I cannot help but wonder: is there almost a tone of admiration here? The wave was monstrous in what it did, of course; but now, a week later, do these people have a respectful awe for the ocean that lashed at them? Is it as if they are saying, we take so much from this gentle empress that lies out there in the sun, sometimes she must take back?

I don't know, but I wonder.

Thirumurugan speaks of the bhoomi with his hands cupped and lifting upwards, as if referring to an emotion that comes boiling up from somewhere deep inside. Clearly, what he means is that the wave scooped up the very bottom of the sea, the muddy bottom of the sea that smells so awful, and flung it violently at them.

Nearby stands Palani Arumugam, holding his daughter Madina. She is two years old, pretty and alert. When the wave came, she swallowed some of that mud. Over a week later, Palani tells me, she still brings bits of it out after she eats. He uses the same hand motion to describe this that Thirumurugan does, to describe the wave. As he does, Madina smiles at me. I try hard not to think of black bhoomi coating her delicate stomach, nor of it belching its way out.

And when this bhoomi-filled wave came into Bommaiyarpalayam like a tongue of fire, it surrounded all the houses. Then it rushed back to sea, taking big chunks of Bommaiyarpalayam with it: cupboards, fridges, parts of walls, boats and more. And how far out did it go? Two kilometres, says Thirumurugan. Yes, after the sea roared into Bommaiyarpalayam, it receded two kilometres towards the hazy horizon. A low tide, Thirumurugan tells me in a hushed voice, like Bommaiyarpalayam had never seen.

And all that bhoomi at the bottom of the sea was visible for a long time.