By Bronwyn Curran
CUDDALORE, Tamil Nadu, Oct 18: An early monsoon breeze sweeps through the Cuddalore orphanage, electric with excitement. It’s the eve of Diwali, and the main hall where 72 tsunami orphans and semi-orphans eat, sleep, play and learn is fast emptying as relatives arrive to take them home for India’s annual Hindu festival of lights.
Over in the corner, Anita and her brother Parbithan watch quietly as the other children are swept into the arms of gift-bearing relatives and melt away into the firecracker-punctured afternoon.
“One of the ladies from our village will come to get us. We’re sure,” Parbithan insists.
But no-one has contacted the matron to make arrangements for collecting the pair.
“They’ve been sad all day, watching the other children leave,” says matron Jamuna, who has run the Cuddalore Government Special Home for Tsunami Children since January 2005. Cuddalore was one of three districts in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state worst-affected by the December 2004 tsunami.
UNICEF is supporting the Tamil Nadu government’s efforts to monitor all children orphaned by the tsunami until the age of 18.
“We are working with the Department of Social Welfare to make sure they’ve put in place a system to track the orphans, to ensure that government grants for the orphans are being spent on the children and to see that their education is taken care of,” says Barbara Atherly, UNICEF’s Tsunami Coordinator for Tamil Nadu.
Anita and Parbithan were 4 and 6 when a lady from their village deposited them at the orphanage. Their father had disappeared in the tidal wave. Their mother had died of illness before. No relatives have ever come to visit.
For months the pair had nightmares and wet their beds. They were among the most withdrawn of the children. Two years on, they are more animated and playful. But they still never let go of each other.
“They even go to bathroom together and sleep together. If her brother’s not around, Anita starts crying and vice versa,” says orphanage worker Sangita.
“They used to be scared of everyone. They cried all the time, they used to bed-wet. Now they’re OK. They’re adjusting.
A day earlier, the five Krishnamurti sisters were picked up by their widowed father and aunt. Their father placed them in the orphanage because he couldn’t afford to raise them on his own.
Unlike most fishermen widowed by the tsunami, Krishnamurti, 37, put off remarrying for more than a year. A few months ago he found a 35-year-old bride.
“Many women didn’t want to marry me because I have five daughters already,” he said.
The Diwali weekend will be the girls’ first meeting with their new stepmother. It will also be their second chance only to visit their mother’s grave.
Krishnamurti was fishing when the tidal waves tore ashore and shattered his village Pudupettai. Far out at sea, he was unaware of the tsunami.
“We came ashore in the afternoon and everything was gone. I couldn’t find my village. I wandered for days. On the third day I found my five girls in a neighbouring village.”
On the same day he discovered the fate of his wife Kaniyama, who had been on the beach selling fish when the tsunami hit.
“A friend came and told me that her body had washed up in his village inland, about three kilometres away,” he recalls.
“I was very depressed for the first year. I was angry that she left me alone with five children. Now I am coping.”
Krishnamurti is inspired by a government scheme to offer financial incentives to girls who complete the 10th grade.
“The government has promised to help find them jobs if they stay until 10th grade, or a scholarship to continue their studies, so I’ll keep them here until then,” he said.
The administrator of Cuddalore district, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, says all students in tsunami-affected areas who go beyond 10th grade will get 300 rupees (6.8 dollars) a month.
“We are going to have a silent revolution in the coastal areas due to this. It’s an investment for the future.”
Cuddalore is a model district in the long-term rehabilitation of tsunami-affected areas in India, where more than 12,400 people were killed, 730,000 were left homeless, and 480 children were orphaned. In Cuddalore, not only have all 2,323 families who lost homes been resettled in new permanent houses, district authorities are also building new homes for other vulnerable people.
“Over 3,500 houses are completed so far. We’re now building for people who are in thatched sheds or houses vulnerable to cyclones,” says Bedi.
Krishnamurti and his bride have settled into their new home in Pudupettai, more than 70 kilometres from the orphanage. When he can afford it, he visits his daughters once a week. Krishnamurti’s childless sister Kamasala, 40, lives close by and is a devoted visitor.
This Diwali, Aunt Kamasala is taking Sivapriya, 11, and Angelakshmi, 8, to her home while Krishnamurti takes Sivaranjini, 14, Banupriya, 10, and Jayapriya, 5.
Driving home to Aunt Kamasala’s home in Thangaluda, a traditional Tamil fishing village, Sivapriya is bursting with excitement.
“I can’t wait to see my uncle. He is dark and handsome. He is very funny when he’s drunk.”
The car pulls up and Sivapriya and Angelakshmi rush into the damp-stained concrete home. Uncle Mariappan, 45, clutches the girls in his arms.
“They are like my very own daughters,” he beams softly.
Around the corner in Thangaluda, sisters Vijitha, 11, and Vijyashree, 9, are relishing their release from the orphanage. The girls cried so heavily every day for more than a month, that the matron urged their father to take them home.
Viswanathan, a fisherman, also lost his wife to the tsunami. He had thought putting his girls in the orphanage was the best way to care for them.
“Now I’m happy we’re altogether and they’re back home.”
Vijitha was grief-wracked for her mother for months. She threatened to kill any new bride her father chose. Viswanathan, 34, cancelled his first post-tsunami engagement. Later he found another fiancée and married Kayalvizhi, 25, in February 2006. On the eve of Diwali she is six months pregnant.
“At first my daughters were not happy about my remarriage and the coming baby. But now they’re adjusting,” says Viswanathan.
Vijyashree, the youngest, is excited about the new baby. “But Vijitha is not very happy about it,” she says.
Social workers caring for tsunami-affected children after school hours say several children complained about their new stepmothers.
“There was a girl who was not allowed to go to school because her stepmother wanted her to stay home and care for the newborn. We counseled the stepmother but she said ‘We need her here to take care of the baby’,” recounts Yesuda, 31, who supervises 20 UNICEF-supported after-school care centres in Cuddalore.
Teachers say the children have adjusted.
“For the first few months the students were terrified. Even small sounds would scare them. Slowly they’ve recovered through counselling,” says Rajalakshmi, 45, a teacher at the Thalanguda Middle School.
Six of the school’s eight teachers were trained with UNICEF support in psychosocial counseling.
“It has really improved their state of mind,” says deputy headmaster Gyanasekaran, 39.
The rate of school dropouts has declined, while earlier dropouts are returning to school, he adds.
“A lot of children in this village used to leave at 10th grade and go fishing. Now a lot more are staying on.”
Back at the orphanage, Anita and Parbithan chant traditional Tamil clapping songs with other children still waiting for someone to take them home:
“My sister will come, and she’s wearing two braids/ My brother will come and buy me flowers/ My uncle will come and braid my hair…”
“There are no signs of trauma now,” says matron Jamuna.