Like every weekday, 35-year-old Chintamani was waiting for 1pm when her son would come over for lunch from his school nearby. Almost on the dot, little Rajashekhar emerged at the other end of the alley, half hopping, half skipping his way. The spring in his step is not uncommon for a 7-year-old on a lunch break but on this particular Thursday, he was happier than usual because his father, who is often out at sea during the day, went to pick him up.
Rajshekhar is the couple’s only son, though not their first. “If he was here, we’d be preparing to send him to college now,” said Chintamani about her first child, Pannerselvam, struggling to hold back her emotions. The day the tsunami struck the couple lost both their children – a boy, 6, and a girl, 5. The destruction was such that only one photograph of the boy was found. The only image left of the daughter was in their memories.
“I had just washed clothes and was putting them out to dry. When I turned around, my home was gone. We never found the bodies,” said the father, T Shankar.
Almost a third of the casualties that day were children, leaving distraught parents reeling under trauma and a void many did not imagine could be filled since the mothers had had tubal ligations done.
Officials found an answer in recanalisation surgeries – a rather risky operation that rejoins fallopian tubes in sterilised women. The state government began a much-publicised initiative to fund the operation for poor parents. “It was an important psycho-social tool. The surgeries gave them hope”, said J Radhakrishnan, who was the collector of Nagapattinam district when the tragedy stuck. Radhakrishnan is now Tamil Nadu’s health secretary.
“The void was too much,” Chinatamani said, now teary-eyed, as she picked up Rajashekhar. The boy was conceived two years after the operation.VIDEO: The joy of being parents again after tsunami
“Only holding your own child can fill that vacuum”, said Aryamala of the same neighbourhood. She and her husband lost four children – two girls and two boys.
They now have an 8-year-old son, P Vimalan. The couple, like the other two we interviewed, managed to recover a lone photograph of only one of their children – in this case, the eldest daughter’s.
“He often asks about his sister. We tell him he should worship his departed siblings”, Aryamala said.
In a house on a parallel street, 7-and-a-half-year-old Karishma does the same. She looks up at her now dead elder brother’s photograph which is kept in the midst of little idols of gods and goddesses. Her parents lost two children: boys aged 3 and 5. "We have told her they will be reborn one day", said the mother Mahalaxmi.
Concerns were raised over the programme’s moral standpoint when it was launched in 2005, with activists wary of the pressures being put on the women, many of whom were past their reproductive prime.
But for the couples who faced the guilt of not being able to save their children, the surgery ‘saved us from being a wreck’.