'How are you feeling today?’ asks Dr Ignatius Victor in Tamil. This sounds strange, coming as it does from a Nicobari working on the island of Teressa, a place disconnected even from the main Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On being asked where he learnt Tamil, he promptly replies, “In Pondicherry.” This was where he studied medicine some years ago, and where he even picked up some French.
Ignatius’s clinic is inside a tent. Opposite it, in another tent, is the isolation ward, where five children who have contracted measles are quarantined. The tents had originally been provided by the Unicef to serve as make-shift schools following the tsunami that almost submerged the island on December 26, 2004.
Ignatius remembers being jolted out of his sleep by the massive earthquake that night, almost two years ago. He and his wife had hosted a big Christmas party the night before and he first thought that he was swaying only because of a hangover. But the trembling persisted. Then, he heard his wife shouting, followed by a chorus of voices that were getting more audible: “Water, water, run. The sea is rushing in on the land, run.” In a moment, the ‘hangover’ was gone and the world began to condense.
Eighteen months later, he is grateful that he is alive, but unhappy that he lost his hospital. The construction of the new primary health centre is taking far too long. “Cest la vie,” he adds cheerfully.
Coconut and the camera
I don’t know if there is any other place in the world that has a coral road. The road stops as one reaches the backwater; a temporary bridge of assorted material, including wood, takes one across. Actually, there are two bridges, both temporary, both waiting to be made permanent by the ‘Department’. Since the village of Minouk is across the creek and the stream is difficult to wade through, the tribals decided to assemble this bridge. No sooner had we crossed the bridge than we met the village captain, Zedrack. He retraced his steps to escort us to the village. When we reached his house, we were offered the biggest, the greenest and the juiciest coconuts I have ever had. By the time we finished them — to not do so, we feared, would be considered disrespectful — our stomachs were ready to burst.
Through our delightful drinking bout, Zedrack sat laconically observing us. I was so fascinated by his Buddha-like expression that I wanted to capture it for eternity. On seeing my handycam, he came alive and quickly pointed to the fact that there were newer and more sophisticated models available in the market and he was planning to buy one very soon.
Walking on water
The tsunami had smashed the jetty in Teressa, making sea travel from this island even more adventurous. Ships drop anchor a couple of kilometres away from the shore. People who want to climb aboard have to travel in an indigenous outboat, which stops some 10 feet away from the shore, depending on the tide.
They then wade through waist-deep water to clamber on to a boat. How easy or difficult this is depends on the person’s agility, age and health. The boat takes about 20 minutes or more to reach the ship, where, once again, one’s physical fitness is tested. One has to climb the ship, which is rocking in rhythm with the sea waves, hoping and praying not to go in through the gap between the boat and the ship. This adventure does not respect gender, age or illness. Of course, those who travel by the official helicopter miss out on the joys (and travails) of this exciting voyage.
The man walked away too fast for me to catch a glimpse of his face as I pondered over the slogan on his black T-shirt: ‘I can give headache to aspirin.’ For a long time, I speculated about what his role in the recovery of Teressa could be.
Shubhash Misra heads Unicef’s Tsunami Recovery Program in Andaman & Nicobar