26 January 2005 ,Amritapuri
Today marks one month. One month since the tsunami came. One month since everything changed for millions in South East Asia.
250,000—this is the death toll. But what about the number of people sent into mourning? What about the number of people rendered homeless? What about the number who lost their source of income? Their ability to sleep through the night? For them—the survivors—one month ago everything changed. And for one month now they’ve been waiting for it to change back.
Each day many come to Amma, and their eyes say it all.
Death does not negotiate; it forces you to accept. And this is what is happening—slowly, with each passing week, the villagers are coming more and more to terms with the empty spaces left in their lives.
Now, it’s the other things—the things that are actually possible to fight—about which they are coming to Amma.
“Amme! What should I do?” one woman asked Amma a few days back. “My daughter just had a baby. She is staying at my sister’s house now, but I am not sure how long her husband will allow it. There is no proper place for her at the shelters. There is no privacy.”
“I can’t sleep,” another told Amma. “It is just one big room there with everyone sleeping together—the men, the women, the children. We’ve never lived like this before. My daughter is all grown up; it makes me uncomfortable. How many more days will we have to stay like this? With the turning of each day, our hopes are dying. Our house is still standing, but to sleep there is terrifying; its structure is no longer sound. Everything inside was washed away. The government is not interested. Amma, you have to look after us. You have to help us. If Amma even thinks it, I know it will happen.”
Amma says that when she hears such things, it pains her.
“It’s as if someone is lying in front of me who has been in an accident and I want to rush them to the hospital, but my hands are tied behind my back,” Amma told one of the ladies. “We are ready to build any number of houses, but the government won’t give us the plan or any guidance. There is no support corresponding with the level of the Ashram’s inspiration. We just need the government to give us the plan. They are not moving fast enough according to the pain and suffering of the people.”
Since the tsunami, the Ashram has built temporary shelters for some 250 families in the Alappad Panchayat alone—and for another 300 families in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. It has also lent five acres of land to the Kerala government for it to build temporary shelters on as well, and is accommodating 2,000 villagers at the Amrita University engineering college—despite the fact that Christmas vacation has long since ended. Amma says she was happy that the Ashram was able to get the shelters up so quickly, but that now she is saddened to hear the sorrows of the villagers. She is impatient to get the construction of the new houses started.
The villagers’ hardships are seemingly unending. With their fishing nets and boats lost or damaged beyond repair, the fishermen have no way to work. And even the ones who have the means to fish are not going out to sea. They say the fish are not where they are supposed to be, that the sea has strange undercurrents now, and even when they make a size able catch they are not able to sell it at a decent price.
Others villagers are finding themselves in awkward social situations—such as parents who had arranged the marriage of their children but now the groom or bride-to-be is dead. In some cases, all the money and jewellery for the wedding has been lost in the flood—or even their entire home. “How can my daughter get married now?” they ask Amma. “What can we do?”
Some women are in the final stage of pregnancy but have no proper place to rest. The sick have no chairs to sit on, no cots to lie down upon at the camps.
At the shelters, many of the men have begun sleeping in the open air, out of consideration for the women. “They are trying to be strong,” Amma says, “but many are suffering from depression.” They have no work, and they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
If it wasn’t for the food and the roof put over the head by the Ashram, who knows what they would be doing. In fact, on January 10th, when Amma walked from the Ashram to the Azhikkal in order to offer Her prayers for the dead, she was approached by a group of strong young men who were boiling with anger at how little help they were being offered by the government. They boldly declared, “If not for what you have done, Amma, we would have simply taken to terrorism!”
The Ashram has not stopped serving food since the day the tsunami struck—first at the 12 relief camps, then at the temporary shelters and at 22 food counters up and down the Beach Road.
But it has not been easy.
There is no way to calculate how many people will come to take food on any given day. Seemingly at random, one day it’s more, one day it’s less. According to the brahmachari in charge, one of the problems is the phenomenon of what have come to be known as “tsunami tourists,” people who take drives down Beach Road to view the damage and then—having no other place to get food—eat at the Ashram counters.
The brahmacharis preparing and transporting the food are under a lot of pressure. Amma has told them to make sure that not one serving spoon of food is wasted. So they have to be very careful not to make too much. At the same time, if they make too little and run out, the villagers may have to wait for them to cook more—this is also unacceptable.
The solution is a delicate dance: they prepare a set amount of rice and then keep the water to cook more on the cusp of a boil. The brahmachari in charge of transporting the food out to the Beach Road counters carries a mobile phone, and as soon as he is sure they need more rice, he puts in the call to the kitchen. The same thing is done with the curry. After the first batch is made, a base is prepared to which the final ingredients are added only if they get the call. If more is not needed, that base can be used for the next meal’s curry.
There are other pressures too. Amma has repeatedly told the brahmacharis doing this work that they must make sure that no strangers come into the kitchen, behind the serving counters or into the vehicles transporting the food. She is worried that some malicious person may try to contaminate the food. She has also told the brahmacharis that they should not eat until all of the villagers have been served.
The other day, the brahmachari in charge of the kitchen was conveying some of these problems to Amma during darshan. Amma agreed with him that the situation was difficult. “It’s only by grace that we’ve been able to do what we are doing,” she told him. Indeed, serving all these people—every day, three times a day, for one month now—would be impossible by human effort alone.
Amma explained to him that she feels the pain of the villagers. “They’ve been put into a position where all they can do is take what is offered,” she told the brahmachari. “They are unsatisfied in so many ways. Nothing anyone is offering them in this current situation is enough—work, money, shelter… At least we can fill their stomachs. Let them at least be able to say the word ‘enough’ three times a day.”
On the medical front, the Ashram doctors continue to work around the clock. Talking with the villagers these days, it is clear that the doctors have really created awareness amongst them regarding the possibility of epidemics breaking out and the methods to safeguard themselves against them. Again, Amma says, “It is only due to grace that no diseases have broken out in the village.”
The Ashram doctors have also been sending women in the final stages of pregnancy to AIMS for antar-natal checkups and deliveries. They’ve even arranged for seven women who lost all their children in the tsunami to go to AIMS to see if doctors there can reverse their contraceptive tubal-ligation surgeries. It is the hope of the couples and of Amma that they once again will be able to know the joys of parenthood.
And it’s not only the villagers of Alappad who’ve been coming to Amritapuri seeking Amma’s help. On three different occasions, people from various villages in Nagapattinam, the hardest-hit district in Tamil Nadu, have also made the pilgrimage to the Ashram. Some of those villagers said they were told specifically by M.J. Radhakrishanan, the District Collector of Nagapattinam, to go to Amma and ask for her help. In their district, many big companies have started constructing houses, but the villagers are insisting that Amma also should build some. She has agreed—adopting two villages and promising to build 2,000 homes in three villages altogether.
People have even flown all the way from Sri Lanka to supplicate to Amma for her grace and financial assistance. The other day, one such man came for Amma’s darshan with folded hands: “So many have died in our country, and now many of the survivors are committing suicide because of the intensity of their grief,” he said. “They need peace of mind and consolation.”
Amma has even received a letter of invitation to come to Sri Lanka from Sri. K.N. Douglas Devananda, a minister holding four offices in the country. “The devastation is unparalleled in our known history,” he wrote. “The victims need spiritual healing, solace, succour and blessing.”
Amma has said that She would love to build 3,000 houses in the island country—stressing that all are Her children, not just the people of India. But it is difficult to arrange the work, as according to Indian law the Ashram cannot expend funds in another country. For the time being, She has sent Swami Ramakrishnananda, Brahmachari Vinayamrita Chaitanya and a few other brahmacharis to look into the potential for Ashram assistance in the country.
As for Amma, one has never seen Her more busy. Even as she gives darshan, she is constantly dealing with various aspects of the relief work. And when darshan is finished, She continues all night long in her room—meeting with people in person and on the phone—government officials, village leaders, brahmacharis in charge of construction… Anyone who walks by can see that her light is on all night. She takes no rest at all.
Amma is impatient. Her prayers are the same as the villagers': she wants their houses up, she wants the men working again, she wants everyone’s life to be back on track. If everyone had this intensity…