Weathering the World: Recovery in the Wake of the Tsunami in a Tamil Fishing Village 9780857452009

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Table of contents :
List of Figures
1. Processing Disaster and Recovery
2. The Field: Entrance and Emergence
3. The Dwelling: Homes and Hazards
4. On Forecasting: Wind and Water
5. Responsibility: Agents and Agencies
6. Confusing Hardships: Onslaught and Opportunity
7. Materialisations of Loss: Monument and Memory
8. Everyday Life: Tsunami Time
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Weathering the World

Studies in Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology General Editor: Roy Ellen, FBA Professor of Anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury Interest in environmental anthropology has grown steadily in recent years, reflecting national and international concern about the environment and developing research priorities. This major interdisciplinary series is a vehicle for publishing up-to-date monographs and edited works on particular issues, themes, places or peoples which focus on the interrelationship between society, culture and the environment. Volume 1 The Logic of Environmentalism: Anthropology, Ecology and Postcoloniality Vassos Argyrou Volume 2 Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India Götz Hoeppe Volume 3 Green Encounters: Shaping and Contesting Environmentalism in Rural Costa Rica Luis A. Vivanco Volume 4 Local Science vs Global Science: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development Edited by Paul Sillitoe Volume 5 Sustainability and Communities of Place Carl A. Maida Volume 6 Modern Crises and Traditional Strategies: Local Ecological Knowledge in Island Southeast Asia Edited by Roy Ellen Volume 7 Traveling Cultures and Plants: The Ethnobiology and Ethnophamacy of Migrations Edited by Andrea Pieroni and Ina Vandebroek Volume 8 Fishers and Scientists in Modern Turkey: The Management of Natural Resources, Knowledge and Identity on the Eastern Black Sea Coast Ståle Knudsen

Volume 9 Landscape Ethnocology: Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space Leslie Main Johnson and Eugene S. Hunn Volume 10 Landscape, Process and Power: Re-evaluating Traditional Environmental Knowledge Edited by Serena Heckler Volume 11 Mobility and Migration in Indigenous Amazonia: Contemporary Ethnoecological Perspectives Edited by Miguel N. Alexiades Volume 12 Unveiling the Whale: Discourses on Whales and Whaling Arne Kalland Volume 13 Virtualism, Governance and Practice: Vision and Execution in Environmental Conservation Edited by James G. Carrier and Paige West Volume 14 Ethnobotany in the New Europe: People, Health and Wild Plant Resources Edited by Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, Andrea Pieroni and Rajindra K. Puri Volume 15 Urban Pollution: Cultural Meanings, Social Practices Edited by Eveline Dürr and Rivke Jaffe Volume 16 Weathering the World: Recovery in the Wake of the Tsunami in a Tamil Fishing Village Frida Hastrup

Weathering the World Recovery in the Wake of the Tsunami in a Tamil Fishing Village

Frida Hastrup

Berghahn Books New York • Oxford

First published in 2011 by Berghahn Books © 2011 Frida Hastrup All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without written permission of the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Hastrup, Frida. Weathering the world : recovery in the wake of the tsunami in a Tamil fishing village / Frida Hastrup. p. cm. -- (Studies in environmental anthropology and ethnobiology v.16) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-85745-199-6 (hardback : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-85745-200-9 (e-book : alk. paper) 1. Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2004. 2. Tsunamis--India--Tamil Nadu. 3. Natural disasters--India--Tamil Nadu. 4. Tamil Nadu (India)--Social conditions. 5. Tamil Nadu (India)--Environmental conditions. I. Title. HV636 2004. I4 H37 2011 363.34’94095482--dc23 2011018042

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Printed in the United States on acid-free paper. ISBN: 978-0-85745-199-6 Hardback E-ISBN: 978-0-85745-200-9


List of Figures Acknowledgements

vii viii

1. Processing Disaster and Recovery The Disaster and the Everyday Local Worlds and Recovery Figure and Ground in Disaster Anthropology Transformation and Future Trajectories Book Outline

1 4 8 12 14 15

2. The Field: Entrance and Emergence Arrival Emergent Fields Mapping Place and People Fieldwork on Foot A Walk around the Village The Lay of the Land

18 20 23 26 30 34 40

3. The Dwelling: Homes and Hazards Build Back Better Bereavement and Moving On Homing In

42 44 50 56

4. On Forecasting: Wind and Water Weather or Not The Landfall of Disaster Dropping the Anchor Forecasts and Precautions In a Climate of Changing Tides

59 61 64 66 71 73

5. Responsibility: Agents and Agencies Local Level Humanitarian Support On the Limits of Community Recuperating Subjects

78 83 90 96

vi  |  Contents

6. Confusing Hardships: Onslaught and Opportunity In Need of Repair Certifying the Future The Ties That Bind Rallying for Safety Projecting Progress

98 100 104 108 111 114

7. Materialisations of Loss: Monument and Memory Monumental Memories The Materiality of Loss On New Plots 8. Everyday Life: Tsunami Time

116 120 122 128 129





List of Figures

2.1 Women Near the Auction Site on the Beach


3.1 Temporary Shelters and a New House under Construction, 2006


3.2 New Houses Lining a Newly Constructed Road, 2008


4.1 Fishing Life


4.2 Monsoon Season


5.1 Slow Cycling Contest on International Women’s Day, 2008


5.2 Talking with Villagers Near the Beach, with Renuga


6.1 Newly Constructed Cyclone Shelter Built by a Tsunami NGO 111 6.2 Rally on International World AIDS Day, 2006


7.1 Ruined Houses and a New Road in the Northern Part of the Village


7.2 Kamarajar Road Leading to the Tsunami Re-Housing Village. 120 To the Right a Tsunami Memorial Inaugurated in 2006 8.1 Road in the Tsunami Re-Housing Village Lined with New Houses with Added Fences, Porches and Gardens, 2008



What a privilege it has been to get to know the people of Tharangambadi. Without their priceless help this research would not have got anywhere. Above all, I will always be profoundly grateful to Renuga, Kalaimani, Atchaya, Abinaya and Kalainaya for being my family away from home, and to Veronica, Julius, Jayalakhsmi, Subramanian, Latha, Selvi, Jeeva, and everyone else at the Rural Organisation for Social Action for their great company and support. Thank you to Nizar and Arivu for continued friendship and assistance, and to my Tamil tutor, Professor Kumudhavelli Peter, who spent her precious time helping me pick the Tamil language lock. I also want to thank to The Danish Research Council for the Humanities, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik’s Fund and The Carlsberg Foundation for funding research and fieldwork. I am very grateful to many friends and colleagues who have offered much appreciated suggestions and ideas along the way, amply reminding me that scholarship is at its most gratifying when practiced in dialogue. In particular, I warmly thank Peter B. Andersen, Andreas Bandak, Mikkel Bille, Janne Bjerre Christensen, Nathalia Brichet, Trine Brox, Thomas Brudholm, Lotte Buch, Esther Fihl, Joel Haviv, Lars Højer, Birgitte Johansen, Daniella Kuzmanovic, Marie Juul Petersen, Oluf Schönbeck, Frank Sejersen, Sarah Strauss, Margit Warburg and Bente Wolff. The anonymous readers for Berghahn are also gratefully acknowledged for their genuinely helpful and encouraging comments. In Stockholm my father Jan Ovesen provided welcome comments to previous drafts, for which I am grateful. A warm thanks to my family in Copenhagen for their support and sustained conversation – intellectual and other – especially to my brother Anders Hastrup who read through the manuscript and offered valuable comments. Lastly, I dedicate this work with love and gratitude to my mother, Kirsten Hastrup, for her vital encouragement from day one and for her willingness to share the craft of anthropology with me.

Chapter 1

Processing Disaster and Recovery

Through the open window of my room I could hear people walking by on the adjoining road. At first, the large number of evacuees was given away only by the sound of hurried feet in sandals brushing over the tarmac. Seeing clearly into the night was difficult, but after a few moments of adjusting my eyes to the dark, the silhouettes of hundreds of people appeared as they were making their way along the nearby road heading away from the coast. Most of them carried luggage or sleeping children; some were clutching packets of relief aid still wrapped in the original boxes, with the names of various NGOs and the words ‘Tsunami Emergency’ printed on the sides. Minutes before, shortly after midnight, I had been awoken by Jayalakhsmi, my friend and landlady, who had told me that a new giant wave was heading towards Tharangambadi, the village on the coast of Tamil Nadu in Southeast India where I was doing fieldwork among people of the fishing community, the focus of which was the effects of the Asian tsunami that had hit the area and many other locations around the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004. On this night, three months after the disaster, in response to an underwater earthquake measuring almost nine on the Richter scale that had occurred earlier in the evening off the coast of Indonesia, flood warnings had been issued by authorities in all designated tsunami-prone areas. This time around, no one should be caught off guard. In Tharangambadi, I was told, representatives from the district administration had toured around in auto-rickshaws in the coastal parts of the village and urged people there to evacuate the area immediately and go inland. Among the already afflicted villagers, some of whom had returned to their original homes in the meantime, the warning had spread like wildfire, and whole coastal neighbourhoods were soon depopulated. At the time of the warning in March 2005, the Asian tsunami still seemed to be foremost in many people’s minds, a tsunami which had killed more than two hundred thousand people in the countries

2  |  Weathering the World

surrounding the epicentre of the triggering earthquake near the coast of Sumatra. The disaster had sent waves of shock through the world media and spurred the largest international humanitarian response to date (Telford, Cosgrave and Houghton 2006). Locally, the tsunami had brutally demonstrated to the fishing community of Tharangambadi that the familiar and neighbouring sea, which had provided a livelihood for the villagers since a time beyond recall, was not at all under human command. In Tharangambadi the fishing community comprised some 1,100 households, amounting to about two-thirds of the village’s total population of roughly seven thousand persons, and from among these fishing families more than three hundred people had died on the day of the disaster, the majority of whom were women and children. The homes of many more had been flooded, the belongings of thousands of villagers were lost, and a massive displacement – temporary as well as permanent – of families from homes in the coastal areas of the village had ensued. On the night of the warning three months after the tsunami, the disaster was still an immediate and shocking presence in the lives of the affected villagers. Many still camped in temporary barracks constructed near their damaged houses, perhaps already suspecting that they would remain there for years to come. The fishing had stopped due to both a seemingly paralysing confusion and to loss of marine equipment, which had additionally resulted in the calling of a collective strike among all fishermen, including those of the fishermen whose boats had been unharmed, which was meant to put pressure on the authorities to replace the ruined gear. At the time, the villagers lived off supplies and relief materials provided by humanitarian organisations and by the Tamil Nadu State Government. Blue and yellow tarpaulins distributed by various aid agencies were everywhere and testified graphically to the state of emergency that characterised the village in the early stages following the disaster. On the night of the alert in 2005, distrust still seemed to reign, and the official assertions that such large-scale tsunamis were statistically very rare events seemed utterly irrelevant to the survivors. The house I was staying in at the time of the warning was located on the outskirts of Tharangambadi on the main road leading west, away from the coast towards villages and towns further inland. It served as headquarter for an influential local development and women’s NGO, and in response to the urge to evacuate many villagers had singled out this house as an obvious place to seek refuge. Getting off the bed and coming out of the room I lived in, I was surprised to find that the hallway, the dining room, the stairs and the roof terrace of the house were already packed with evacuees from the fishing community waiting in the dark, surrounded by suitcases, boxes and other belongings that they had hastily packed before leaving their homes or the temporary shelters where they had been re-housed. A rough count told me that about eighty women,

Processing Disaster and Recovery  |  3

children and men were waiting in the house and on the compound, and much to my astonishment I had hardly heard a sound from them as they were coming to the house, going by the door to my room, or settling in to wait for news of the pending hazard. Even as the hours went by, none of the villagers discussed the prospects or volunteered predictions of the likely course of events; as we sat waiting in the night, seemingly there was not much anyone wanted to say. ‘We just have to wait’, Jayalakhsmi said, while taking it upon herself to apologise to me that the place I had come to was prone to tsunamis. As dawn approached without reports of tsunamis striking anywhere along the South Indian coast, people gradually began to take in that this time it had only been a false alarm. At around five in the morning, after hours of silent waiting, we learned from a gritty TV screen in the hall of the house that the alert had been called off by the monitoring authorities. Since no tsunami had made landfall anywhere, experts finally concluded that this time the earthquake had set no water masses in motion. In our house, cups of tea went around, a sense of tremendous relief spread, small-talk was resumed, and after a night of more or less paralysed vigilance in the house, the crowd quietly dispersed in the first light of day and returned home. In the days following the scare I ran into people around the village, who had come to wait in the house during the night, and when the conversation turned to the evacuation, the villagers from the coastal areas would shrug their shoulders and simply state that they had been afraid and unsure of what would happen. Three years later, on an afternoon in March of 2008, during a subsequent fieldwork in Tharangambadi, I was watching the fishing boats as they returned to the shore together with my friend, field assistant and translator Renuga, a woman born in 1959, who has lived in the village all her life, and a group of fishermen on the beach near the fish auction shed, where the catches were sold on to local vendors, restaurants or commercial seafood companies. For the previous ten days or so, fishing had been more or less on hold due to a series of heavy and highly unexpected rainfalls and winds that had swept across the state of Tamil Nadu at a very unusual time of year. Eventually, the untimely downpours had ceased, the sky had cleared, and fishing had been resumed. Prompted by the unloading next to us of an icebox filled with large fish from one of the returning boats, I asked the group of fishermen on the beach a question about the day’s yield: pointing to the box, I wanted to know what kinds of fish had been caught, from how far away, and what price they might fetch at the auction. My question provoked a series of unexpectedly general remarks about the current condition of the sea and about the perceived effects of the tsunami on the lives and work of the fishermen. Selvan, a fisherman in his early forties, said ‘After the tsunami

4  |  Weathering the World

our work has changed one hundred per cent. Everything is different, and it always will be’. Kalaimani, Renuga’s husband, elaborated: ‘The climate is different. See, now even at this time of year it has been raining. The waves, the winds, the currents … Everything has changed. After the tsunami we can no longer know the ways of the sea’. In the eyes of the fishermen, the unexpected rainfalls outside the monsoon season were obviously somehow connected to the tsunami; the two phenomena combined into a general sense that natural processes and seasons were no longer following a familiar pattern. ‘After the tsunami, the sea is deeper, the surf is rougher, and the fish move differently. And now we have had the rainfalls, and it is not even monsoon time. Before it was not like this’, Murugan, a boat owner of about fifty, summed up. Concluding the conversation on the beach, the fishermen agreed – seemingly untroubled by the implicit contradiction – that as time had passed since the disaster three years prior to our talk, they had in fact learned to live with the unpredictable ways of their post-tsunami world, which had left them with a misbehaving sea and rainfalls at odds with seasonal regularity. ‘Now, at last, we know what to do, so now we can catch the fish. Now we can manage’, Selvan stated, and pointed to the icebox that had prompted the talk in the first place. In the eyes of the fishermen, the ability to navigate and get by in an environment suddenly seen to be conditioned by transformation and newfound randomness had apparently been built up in the course of the past three years. The changes in the physical surroundings perceived as occasioned by the tsunami – or at least inextricably connected to it – had come to be viewed as the new order.

The Disaster and the Everyday These two fieldwork episodes – the hushed and all-absorbing nightly terror of a possible recurring tsunami on the night of the scare in March 2005, and the clear message three years later that a sense of unpredictability was the order of the day – set the scene for this study. In this book I investigate the local process of recovery, which has enabled people of the fishing community of Tharangambadi to transform the sense of confusion and uncertainty felt in the immediate wake of the disaster into an articulated perception of having learned to manage invasive changes of the local environment and to resume an ordinary life – with whatever unforeseeable characteristics this entails. In the chapters that follow, I thus approach recovery as an issue of local theorising about the everyday. The spine of the research on which the book is based consists of a total of ten months of anthropological fieldwork among the men and women of the fishing community in Tharangambadi, a village located

Processing Disaster and Recovery  |  5

on the coast of Tamil Nadu in Southeast India about 300 kilometres south of the state capital Chennai. The fieldwork was conducted as three consecutive stays and jointly they span a period of a little more than three years from February 2005 to April 2008. During this time, the villagers in Tharangambadi have acted in numerous ways to recover from the tsunami, not so much through striking gestures aimed at exorcising the disaster from their memory or their everyday life, but rather by letting it descend little by little into the realm of the ordinary (Das 2007). What has been at stake for the survivors, I suggest, has been to find practical ways of living in a world once engulfed by disaster and thus of processing the rupture of the tsunami by interlacing it with daily life. Here I take a cue from Veena Das and her brilliant work on social emergencies in India and try to address the disaster by looking at the ways in which it has come to reside in the everyday lives of the people embedded in it (2007: 1). By exploring the various ways in which the tsunami survivors in Tharangambadi have acted and the theorisations they have come up with to make their local world inhabitable, my overall concern is to show how the event of the tsunami has been lived in the years succeeding it. Fieldwork made clear to me that the villagers’ efforts to (re-)inhabit their world after the tsunami cannot be singled out from an ongoing and overarching attempt to contain general experiences of social, environmental and economic uncertainty. Over time the tsunami, though lethal, surprising and hugely disruptive, has been processed by the villagers in Tharangambadi as one of a myriad of ramified challenges characterising their composite world – before and after the disaster. At issue for the affected people, I suggest, has been to recover, or indeed create, a sense of subjective agency in the face of both objectifying disaster and the precarious living conditions characteristic of a rural community, largely dependent on increasingly scarce natural resources in a part of the world often referred to as developing. This is to say that the recovery process is necessarily unending, and the book, then, is not a story of reassembling, in which the villagers of Tharangambadi patch up a whole that was atomised by the tsunami: I do not see the disaster as an interruption of a prior state of equilibrium, even if, of course, the tsunami was an unprecedented natural disaster. Recent anthropological studies of disaster have shown that disasters should be viewed not merely as extreme events disturbing an inherent societal stability, but rather as processual phenomena that are often simply a culmination of existing and often unequally distributed levels of vulnerability. According to this perspective, the reason why natural hazards become disasters is that people live in vulnerable environmental and social settings that make them susceptible to calamity (Oliver-Smith 1996, 1999a, 1999b; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002; see also Hilhorst and Bankoff 2007; Wisner et al. 2004). In this book, I attempt to take this

6  |  Weathering the World

perspective a step further. I hope to show not only how the effects of the tsunami on the people of Tharangambadi resonated with already existing conditions of environmental and social vulnerability, but also to demonstrate how over time the villagers themselves responded to and conceived of the disaster in thoroughly flexible ways, often making it impossible – once the flooding had withdrawn – to even single out the tsunami as a clearly identifiable event with specific and equally identifiable effects. As the following chapters illustrate, while the tsunami was on the one hand experienced locally as an extreme occurrence that had nothing to do with present vulnerability, on the other hand the actions and articulations of recovery undertaken and presented by the villagers in its wake were entangled in an ongoing and much more general struggle to stay afloat (see also F. Hastrup 2009b). There were lots of other parameters than measurable susceptibility at play in the processing of the disaster in post-tsunami Tharangambadi; in a sense, one might say that the process of recovery as undertaken in the village is at once both less and more than a matter of existing vulnerability. What, then, are the implications for an anthropology of disaster in which the singular disastrous event is seen as continuously shifting between being the figure and the ground, to the point where the division might cease to make sense? For one thing, as I see it, I have been given an opportunity to avoid too many preconceived assumptions about the relative local significance of dramatic events; the baseline against which such events might stand out is far from solid. Fieldwork made apparent that I simply cannot presume to know in advance what might matter most to the people that I have worked among, or how, if at all, they draw the line between normality and aberration. In consequence, a concurrent focus on the disaster and the everyday, both understood as contingent phenomena, is the point of departure here. Throughout the book, the event of the tsunami and the village of Tharangambadi thus both emerge as figures, the weight, definition, substance and import of which are not given in advance, but are the products of an ongoing local theorisation. This is to say that the tsunami as witnessed and processed over time has been the analytic prism through which I have studied the fishing village and vice versa. What the following chapters show, then, is what comes out of the friction between the figures of the disaster and the everyday (cf. Tsing 2005). I engage in analysing the figuration of these two features that emerges when trying to see the one through the other. Put differently, one might say that my work is not a matter of explaining by way of abstracted terms what the disaster meant or define its impacts on the village, but rather to explore how both the tsunami and Tharangambadi have been conceptualised in an ongoing and mutual process of emergence. Thus, what I take on here, drawing on a suggestion recently put forward by Martin Holbraad, is not so much an exercise of

Processing Disaster and Recovery  |  7

explaining or interpreting anthropological data, but one of exploring the work of conceptualisation (2008: 96). This, of course, is not to say that the villagers of Tharangambadi never singled out the tsunami as an extraordinary event that brutally affected what they could equally single out as an ordinary life; in fact as often as not this was the case, as we saw from the remarks from the fishermen quoted above. The point is that such articulations are illustrative exactly of the ongoing work of conceptualisation in which the villagers have engaged and which made the disaster and everyday appear in shifting and often ambiguous ways in relation to each other. The fluid approach to the role of the event of the tsunami in the everyday lives of the people of Tharangambadi applies equally to my discussion of notions that have often been predominant in anthropological work on India. Das has referred to these as a set of ‘gatekeeping concepts’, indicating that notions such as caste and hierarchy have traditionally been seen as the more or less exclusive avenue along which anthropologists and sociologists should enter Indian society and community (2003: 4). Obviously, the tsunami criss-crossed issues such as caste hierarchy, Hindu cosmology, ritual practice, gender relations, local and state authority, civil society activism, post-colonialism and processes of globalisation and development and so on. However, I have tried to deal with these topics and concepts only when and to the extent to which they proved to be important in specific situations, social practices, and articulations of worldviews in post-disaster Tharangambadi; I have wanted to do away with formulaic interpretations of Indian culture and society (Sen 2005: 31). Part of the commitment to see the tsunami as fundamentally embedded in a particular local reality is also to see the people of Tharangambadi as not necessarily acting merely on the impetus of being Indians, Tamils, or disaster survivors, for that matter. Again, the distinction between figure and ground is too complex, and it seems to me that a preconceived focus on such regional, ethnic or social entities and groupings could be de facto decontextualising. What I engage in is essentially a theoretical discussion of the extent to which one imagines anthropological analyses as exhaustive with regard to their subject matter. While at first glance it might appear as if I have embarked on a rather classical village study – a genre that has a long tradition in Indian anthropology and sociology (see Béteille 2003) – I lay no claims to have represented a society or a community as an entity with fixed boundaries and a stable and shared worldview; in fact, as already stated, the village of Tharangambadi is approached as a figure, contingent on its shifting conceptualisation – as is the tsunami. In the chapters that follow, the fictitious empirical holism of fixed entities conceived in terms of a regional coherence and definition has yielded to a specific analytical focus on the process of recovery as inferred from actual fieldwork

8  |  Weathering the World

experiences from Tharangambadi. This implies that I think of this book not as a wall-to-wall portrait of a Tamil fishing village, targeting a display of all its empirical affordances from end to end, and then moving on to explaining how these were intersected by the tsunami, but rather as a topical monograph produced with the aim of analytically identifying perceived connections between different local conditions and events (cf. K. Hastrup 2004b: 458). The book, then, is not ‘about’ Tharangambadi as such, nor is it ‘about’ the tsunami, as if any of these were self-explanatory shapes punched out of a given or larger whole. Rather, my analytical ambition is to focus on the villagers’ actions and ideas in order to unfurl the ongoing process of local theorisation about both the tsunami and Tharangambadi; a process that has made the two figures appear as fundamentally intertwined in the survivors’ everyday existence. In that sense, as already intimated, these conceptualisations make up my object of study. I am not out to somehow try to look behind them to identify the ‘pure’ disaster or the ‘original’ village as such; my use of the concept of recovery implies no such backtracking. To the contrary, what I refer to as recovery actually consists in the very process of theorising that interweaves the tsunami and the everyday.

Local Worlds and Recovery My engaging in the study of the event of the tsunami and of the fishing village of Tharangambadi through the conceptualisations of both, as they appeared as overall means of making the world inhabitable, rests on a two-fold ambition. First, a basic ethnographic ambition is to describe the local world of a specific group of people in a particular area affected by the tsunami. I attempt to make anthropological sense of concrete experiences of a natural calamity and the ensuing responses to it rather than of a generalised idea of disaster, abstracted from the specificity of the tsunami as it unfolded along the coast of South India. This objective might appear rather commonsensical, but in my view it nonetheless has to be made explicit. In terms of loss of life, expanse of effect and international humanitarian response, the Asian tsunami is one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history (Stirrat 2006). Because of the sheer enormity of the event, to a general public the disaster may register as an event striking a global orbit rather than as a distinct physical impact on specific experiential spaces. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, as the massive scope of destruction was realised, some media reports tended to portray the tsunami as a metaphysical attack on humanity, thereby imbuing the disaster with a symbolic value as a kind of spectacle (Alexander 2005:

Processing Disaster and Recovery  |  9

339). While it is decidedly appropriate to both recognise the huge scale of the tsunami and to feel empathy for the millions of people whose lives were shattered, I think we still need to keep in mind that the tsunami hit specific localities bringing with it particular losses and responses – even if these might, of course, be recast and portrayed locally within a frame of symbolism, global onslaught, or of the spectacular. The point I want to make is that whatever the global magnitude of a given event, it is experienced by the affected as a local occurrence in distinct places where humans inevitably socialise and interact with a particular environment. Obviously people anywhere can dress events in whatever universal, cosmological and metaphysical guise they see fit, but even so such theorising about an event still constitutes a local response formed by a local and lived experience. To steer clear of what philosopher Edward Casey has termed a misplaced abstractness, then, we can discard a view of the world as constituted by a universal space, against the backdrop of which particular places can be cut out and defined in terms of their local complexity and cultural configuration (1996: 37–45). As Steven Feld and Keith Basso have poignantly noted, no one lives in the world in general, and we cannot see it as an unconfigured space, because there is no way to access it save for being emplaced and embodied in ways that inescapably link human beings to specific settings (1996: 11). According to such classic phenomenological thinking, the world as it appears to the perceiver is all the world there is. In the context of this study, this implies that to the tsunami survivors in Tharangambadi, the disaster – however global and transgressive of existing borders of various kinds – seemed to register as a highly localised event, responded to in terms of how it attached itself to a particular setting and to a particular environment. It is necessary to recognise that the disaster quite literally took place, whatever its geographical expanse. In more general analytical terms, this can be seen to imply a kind of collapse of the local and the global, or the particular and the general, with regard to how we think anthropologically about events such as the Asian tsunami. My empirical focus on exploring how the tsunami came to be lived and embedded in the ordinary life in Tharangambadi is not to be understood as an attempt at cutting a local tsunami out of the global one; it is not a part–whole relation between events of different size and complexity. To put it simply, the tsunami in Tharangambadi cannot be seen as a small, local and simple version of a large, global and complex tsunami. Rather, what is at stake here is a choice of perspective and thus of analytical position. Drawing on Marilyn Strathern (2004), I think of all analytical anthropological practice as partial in the sense that whatever the chosen perspective of the anthropologist, some things, factors and ideas will always remain unaccounted for – and will indeed be created by way of the very exercise of analysis. We can never exhaust the field

10  |  Weathering the World

of analysis as our perspectives continue to produce further perspectives. This implies, in Strathern’s thinking, that the degree of complexity of any object of anthropological inquiry is not altered by changing the scale of observation (2004: xiv–xv). The point I want to make here is that however closely I zoom in on a local instance of the tsunami, whatever the number of such local occurrences of tsunamis I might analytically attempt to combine, and however much I should choose, conversely, to zoom out to the tsunami in December 2004 as a global event, my analysis would never add up to a complete portrait of the Asian tsunami. Neither increasing nor decreasing the resolution of the perspective from which I approach the disaster (or the village of Tharangambadi, for that matter) will change the fact that there will be a remainder left out of the field of vision, co-produced by the analysis and thus extending beyond it (Strathern 2004). In the light of this, my emphasis on the entanglement of the everyday and the disaster suggests neither an exhaustive grip on local particulars nor a totalised overview of universals. In my view, such exercises in sizing up must give way to accommodate the permeability of both the tsunami as an event and of the village in which it took place. Second, and in consequence of the local world approach that closes in on the tsunami as both a localised and an unbounded event hitting an equally localised and unbounded everyday life, an overall theoretical ambition is to refine the understanding of recovery in the aftermath of a catastrophe. This is to be done by granting the people affected by the disaster the leading role in deciding what constitutes the tsunami and, accordingly, what the process of recuperation actually is. Recovery, in this light, is the process of local theorisation about the everyday. So far, a focus on adaptation has been central in anthropological studies of disaster, ever since such events became a topic of interest within the discipline. The baseline for these studies has been that for many of the communities traditionally studied by anthropologists, calamity is a feature of ordinary life, to which people adjust by way of their specific cultural and social organisation (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002: 7). The holistic ambition traditionally integral to anthropology as a discipline has served the important purpose of wrenching the study of disaster free from the more technocratic and natural scientific disciplines that deal with catastrophes as pure natural events, important as such approaches may be within different contexts. Attentiveness towards cultural adaptation after misfortune has been a distinct and highly valuable anthropological contribution to disaster studies, urging us to acknowledge that catastrophes are not just sudden environmental disturbances occurring out of the blue, but social, enduring and all-encompassing events that often exacerbate existing precariousness and inequality (cf. Henry 2006; Hilhorst and Bankoff 2007; Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999; Moseley 1999; Oliver-Smith 2002). While this point is undoubtedly pertinent, I am prompted by my findings from

Processing Disaster and Recovery  |  11

Tharangambadi to go even further in ‘humanising’ the idea of adaptation by viewing it as inseparable from an overarching human imperative to recover or produce a subject position from which it is possible to think and act in the face of disempowering events and circumstances. As I see it, the work on adaptation prevalent within existing anthropological studies of disaster can be supplemented by work on recovery understood as a more comprehensive and interminable endeavour, the object of which is not merely to find appropriate reactions to a past event, but to restore and create a sense of subjectivity that permits manoeuvring in the everyday and the envisioning of future trajectories in the wake of an overwhelming disaster. Recovery in this light, then, is connected to the issue of agency and is not necessarily retrospective at all. Agency, importantly, is not tied here to a notion of intentionality, but to a measure of both practical and conceptual flexibility enabling a capacity for constant reorientation in the face of new experiences (K. Hastrup 2009). As Cheryl Mattingly has suggested in some of her work on illness and healing, recovery might be a matter of remaking a life, rather than returning to a life one once had (1998: 64). By shifting the theoretical emphasis from adaptation to recovery in the wake of disaster I want, first of all, to write an anthropology of disaster that accommodates the subtlety with which people of the Tharangambadi fishing community have conceptualised and responded to the tsunami in the course of the years succeeding it. As the title of the book indicates, to the villagers of Tharangambadi it seemed to be a matter of weathering the world in a comprehensive way and of making it their own, rather than of overcoming the specific disastrous effects of a one-time event. As seen from the quotes above, the fishermen readily combine a sense of accomplishment in having adjusted to their environment on the one hand, with a clear idea that the tsunami has fundamentally changed the underpinnings of their life on the other. For the tsunami-affected villagers it did not just seem to be a matter of adapting culturally, environmentally and socially until the tsunami was eventually effaced from their lives, but of finding ways of carrying on with an everyday, all the while acknowledging the transformations the disaster has brought on. In more theoretical terms, this prompts me to suggest that while the idea of adaptation seems to imply a measure of nullification of the disaster, the focus on the more inclusive process of recovery, understood as a process of theorisation about the everyday that casts it as such and that permits a sense of subjective agency, with all the open-endedness that the notion of agency entails, has allowed for a view of the disaster both as an extraordinary attack and as an unfinished event gradually folded into the ordinary. I suggest that we do away with the implicit concern with closure that seems to be part of analyses that focus on adaptation in the aftermath of disaster because this belittles the complexity and

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contingency inherent in the conceptualisations of the village and the tsunami. This suggestion, I think, is essentially a theoretical discussion of how we can think of anthropological contexts and contextualisations.

Figure and Ground in Disaster Anthropology So far, I have highlighted that the recovery process implied conceptualisations of the village and the disaster as emerging figures that are fundamentally intertwined and mutually dependent. This intertwinement of the disaster and the ordinary must of course spur an implicit questioning of the content of both notions. What exactly is ordinary about ordinary life? In what ways are the workings of the tsunami different from the workings of other social and environmental emergencies? Does it make sense to view local practices and ideas of recovery after the tsunami as set apart from responses to other disastrous occurrences? What I mean to point to with these questions is what one could term the perforation of the everyday by the disaster and vice versa. The notions of local world and recovery that I have introduced are invoked to capture this perforation, since both notions extend, as it were, beyond what they are meant to describe. In more general terms, what I plunge right into here is a discussion of the relation between text and context, or figure and ground, in anthropological analyses. The question that I need to face head-on is if it makes sense to operate with a ground on which the disaster can appear as a figure? What kind of thinking about societies and communities is at play when responses to disasters are rendered indexes of viability? To address these questions, I need to briefly return to the discussion of adaptation that I touched on above. Anthony Oliver-Smith has noted that occurrence and severity of disaster are a measure by which one can judge the success of adaptation to the environment (1999a: 27). Even if people do obviously have different possibilities with regard to mitigating the effects of calamity, this view of disasters as indicators of adaptability seems problematic in the light of the inherently dynamic nature of all anthropological objects of study and the inevitably contingent way they are contextualised. In light of the fact that anthropological contexts are never given but always outcomes of analytical endeavours (Dilley 1999; K. Hastrup 2003, 2004b), there can be no fixed yardstick against which to measure adjustment after disruptive disasters. As I will show, the people of Tharangambadi that I worked among acted and theorised in all kinds of ways to manage their environment and face up to the changes within it, and as often as not the tsunami played no explicit role as the cause for these activities. As

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I see it, there is a problem in that a focus on adaptation connotes that both the experience allegedly spurring the adaptive activities and the setting which is thought to absorb it exist in a fixed form only to change within a closed and given circuit. This problem is related to a discussion of how we theoretically define disaster, and much definitional debate has aimed at reaching a common understanding of the phenomenon (Quarantelli 1998; Perry and Quarantelli 2005). In my view, however, asking for an unconditional definition of disaster which is independent of actual occurrence is not the right question to pose. Asking what a disaster is presupposes too clear-cut an idea of a society or a community as a bounded whole into which calamities intrude. Once again, this supposition contradicts the fundamental entanglement of the event and everyday and the ongoing shifts of the tsunami from figure to ground and back that so struck me during fieldwork. What we need in the anthropology of disaster, I suggest, are not evermore elastic and inclusive definitions of disaster to be contextualised in ever-more refined and comprehensive ways, as if working from the assumption that at some point things would add up to a full and exhaustive picture. Strathern’s words are poignant here when she states that, ‘The capacity for conceptualization, one might say, outruns the concepts it produces’ (2004: xv). In the context of this study I take this to imply that no matter how small-meshed a concept of disaster – or of the everyday, for that matter – we work with, something will always remain outside of the concept, as it were. Needless to say, the limitless capacity for conceptualisation resides both with the people we often refer to as our informants and with academics, and it implies in my opinion that anthropologists interested in disaster need to display a readiness to shift between seeing disasters as singular, decisive events in the lives of the affected and, alternately, letting them fade from view, in accordance with grounded field experiences and local theorising. The field – even in analyses based on fieldwork in post-disaster settings – must be understood as a composite and emergent site of human action, rather than as a backdrop that disasters can colonise to varying degrees or on which they spill over into issues of economy, politics, social relations and the like. In more analytical terms, this is to recognise that any ground is always a potential figure. However unintended, even inclusive definitions of disasters as subsuming other realms of human interaction signal a peculiar finality in the inherently unbounded realm of the social. Conceding to the idea that none of our concepts can satisfy the capacity for conceptualisation, I leave aside the definitional exercise; Tharangambadi and the tsunami are not encompassed by those words, but emerge in the process of their figuration. Process is the key word here and leads me on to explore ideas about change and temporality at play in post-tsunami Tharangambadi.

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Transformation and Future Trajectories Lurking closely behind the questions of adaptation, recovery, contextualisation and definitions of disasters addressed above is the question of change. In Susanna Hoffman’s view the issue of change has perhaps been the most persistent puzzle in anthropological disaster research. As Hoffman puts it: ‘In every scientific inquiry there exist nagging questions that rouse seemingly endless discourse. In the field of disaster studies, one such issue is whether after a catastrophe a culture and society change … or not’ (1999: 302). This question is important in that it points to the issue of duration of disruptive events and transformation of nature, and in a time characterised by global environmental change this is perhaps all the more pressing (cf. Crumley 1994). However, it seems to me that the attempt to determine whether or not social change is an outcome of disaster presupposes, again, that the backdrop against which such potential transformation is measured be seen as a kind of still-life tableau. During my fieldwork, it became clear that the effects of the tsunami could not be isolated in a way that allowed for such benchmarking of change. Indeed, as we saw from the quotes above, change and permanence were in no way perceived as antonyms by the fishermen; disaster recovery appeared as an open-ended process rather than a creation of closure. The commitment to focus on processes of emergence is, of course, derived from the general wisdom that there is no fixed script for social life (Ingold and Hallam 2007). Within the anthropology of disaster, however, I believe that such an approach can chart a new way of understanding recovery in a manner that allows us to pay heed to the sophistication in the local conceptualisations of calamity and in the ways that the affected people entangle the disaster with their present situation and with their views of the future. In consequence, there is an inevitable aspect of temporality inherent in my work on tsunami recovery, and again I follow the lead of Das in focussing on time not as representation but as work (2007: 95). Closure as opposed to recovery is a retrospective concept, and in consequence it does not capture the constant work of time inherent in any formation of subjects. Acquiring a sense of certainty with regard to being a human agent is by necessity an unending process. As Kirsten Hastrup has observed: ‘Action is never simply a reaction to what has already happened; it is also a mode of acting upon anticipation. Agency, in this sense … is closely tied to a vision of plot, to the anticipation of a story, a line of future development’ (2007: 199). Thus, subjectivities are constructed with time as well as in time, and in order to recover from disaster some sense of future trajectories, however much improvisation and flexible reorientation this might eventually demand, must be restored and continuously created. As Das has stated, duration is the very condition of subjectivity (2007: 98).

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This dissolves any too easy delineation of past, present and future. As Wendy James and David Mills have observed, human action is not merely a phenomenon of the present, it is also part of a flow of expectations leading to the future (2005: 2). Certainly in the case of Tharangambadi, as we shall see throughout, recovery entailed an envisioning of future trajectories carved out in the present.

Book Outline Having outlined my overall analytical approach in the book, in chapter two I will provide a presentation in more detail of Tharangambadi as a fieldwork site, and I will also discuss the view of the environment that I employ throughout. The introduction to the fieldwork site is to be read both as an empirical presentation and as a methodological position, in that I stress how the field emerged in time and in response to the questions I asked of it. In chapter three I concentrate on the diverse practices and discussions of housing and re-housing after the disaster, investigating the issue as a matter for the villagers of appropriating the world as an inhabitable and safe home in a much more comprehensive way than the official re-housing policies currently implemented in Tharangambadi seem to imply. My main point here is to demonstrate that wherever the survivors chose to dwell they were engaged in a larger process of home-making, rather than merely of shifting to officially disaster-resistant buildings. The sense of home as well as of homelessness is not only a matter of concrete house construction. In chapter four I move outdoors and explore articulations of the fishing practice among the fishermen in the wake of the tsunami, focussing on the issue of forecasting, understood broadly as the ways in which natural conditions, such as wind, seasonality, rainfall and so forth, affect the fishermen’s routines. My main point is to show that the fishermen engaged with the sea as an element of an inhabited space, rather than as a distinct natural phenomenon, and that this mutuality in the relation between place and people suffered an extensive blow from the tsunami. I suggest that the disaster temporarily impeded the fishermen’s ability to forecast and to engage with the environment, and in order to recover from this, the fishermen have recast the dramatic event of the tsunami within a larger and already existing pattern of seasonal variation and ultimately of climate change. In chapter five I investigate the local reception and processing of the humanitarian aid response to the tsunami that saw numerous NGOs and other support organisations crowding Tharangambadi. Here I argue that the sudden and massive influx of humanitarian actors in the aftermath

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of the tsunami should not be seen as an example of an inherently harmonious local community suddenly being overrun by non-local actors, each with their own dubious agendas, as is sometimes suggested by observers critical of humanitarian support in the so-called third world. Such notions of encounters belie the entanglement of disaster and routine. My main point is to show that the people of Tharangambadi took responsibility for processing the aid from the newly arrived humanitarian actors in a manner similar – in kind if not in intensity – to the complex ways they negotiated authority and distributed privileges more generally in their everyday lives, most notably along the lines of gender relations and political power. In chapter six I analyse cases where survivors have ambiguously interlaced the sudden event of the tsunami with existing concerns characterising life in Tharangambadi. Here I demonstrate that a certain, perhaps strategic, conflation of cause and effect in the everyday lives of the survivors was prevalent in the villagers’ conceptualisations of their hardships. My main point is that to the villagers what was at stake was not just a matter of invoking the tsunami as an explanation giving people a name with which to label their uncertainties after the fact, so to speak. In some cases, it seemed, the disaster opened a window of opportunity for people to try to alleviate structural and ordinary concerns that long predated the tsunami. What I point to here is that in the aftermath of the tsunami the recovery process incorporated conditions preceding the disaster, thereby highlighting the complexities inherent in ideas about causation and sequences of events. In chapter seven I concentrate on the villagers’ ways of articulating the losses suffered due to the tsunami through a focus on the survivors’ ways of attending to the physical markers of the disaster, whether in the guise of commonplace traces of material destruction or of fabricated commemorative monuments. My main point here is that the villagers made use of a mundane material register of household belongings that were ruined, lost or replaced, because such a register lent itself aptly to the prevalent sense that the tsunami is not strictly an event of the past to be commemorated through monuments but rather a figure that has literally seeped in to the fabric of the everyday. I thus suggest that for the time being, the retrospective materialisations of loss that fashion the tsunami into a fixed legacy are largely irrelevant to the survivors, who work instead at projecting future plots for themselves in a recovery process that targets conditions way beyond the event of disaster. In chapter eight, which serves as a conclusion, I return to the discussion of recovery as an ongoing process of theorisation, in which the figures of the tsunami and the ordinary emerge in relation to each other. What I suggest here is that the chapters in this book serve as ways of qualifying the concept of everyday life, which is too often rendered as a kind of

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default context in need of no unpacking. My point is that the notion of everyday life, like that of disaster, is equally a product of a figuration; everyday life must be conceptualised as such to make it emerge as the ordinary. To me, this has important bearings on how we think of the anthropology of disaster and of environmental anthropology, or any other subdiscipline that, at least to some extent, identifies its object of inquiry in advance.

Chapter 2

The Field: Entrance and Emergence

The initial selection of the site for an anthropological fieldwork can be quite coincidental, even if it later appears as inevitable in one’s professional biography. Through a connection at the University of Copenhagen, I was offered the opportunity to come along on a trip to Tharangambadi shortly after the tsunami to accompany a representative from a charity foundation, who wanted to provide humanitarian aid in response to the disaster. Little knowing that the place would eventually become a longterm field site of mine, I embarked on a trip to the village in February 2005. Prior to my first visit to Tharangambadi, the place was known to me as an encircled territory on old maps showing that the village and the region around it was once a small Danish trading colony going by the name of Tranquebar, founded by the King of Denmark in 1620 (see Fihl 1988). To me and many other Danes, half-remembered tales of trade with exotic spices and treasured textiles procured from the distant outpost had given the name Tranquebar a somewhat mythic ring that would often outdo more exact and contemporary knowledge of the place. In December of 2004, when the Danish colonial trading interests in the area had long since waned, the place and the region reappeared in the international media on other maps that graphically illustrated the expanse of the Asian tsunami by way of concentric circles formed around the epicentre of the triggering earthquake near Indonesia. Since then, fieldwork has yielded yet other images of Tharangambadi and provided me with new maps of the place, illustrating the village layout in colonial times, the gradual post-colonial expansion, the destruction brought about by the tsunami, and the various transformations of the village structure spurred by the many post-disaster reconstruction projects initiated in the wake of the flooding. These shifting ways of mapping Tharangambadi over the years can only reveal so much. As Tim Ingold (2000) has pointed out, cartographic representations are based on a bird’s-eye view of the world as seen from nowhere in particular or, rather, seen from everywhere at once. Thereby,

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according to Ingold, maps necessarily depict the world in a congealed form, which is abstracted from the inherently situated and practised way that experiential knowledge of a place is acquired. Familiarity with any world is obtained by engagement with it; we know as we go, as Ingold has poignantly observed (2000: 229). Indeed, through fieldwork the various cartographic versions of Tharangambadi that I had come across were gradually supplemented by an experiential familiarity with the fishing village. During successive fieldworks, I saw how the social life of the village gravitated towards shifting locations, which each in their turn registered as significant. Clearly, the landscape of Tharangambadi gained ontological import because it was lived in, worked on and altered, and not by way of its aesthetic representations (Tilley 1994: 26). In the case of my fieldwork the accurate if simple observation that the mode of producing anthropological knowledge is the mode of intimacy held true (Das 1995: 3). It has been noted that within Tamil cultural imagery, places are conceived as person-centric, in that their value and conceptualisation are relative to the person who orientates herself there (Selby and Peterson 2008: 9; see also Daniel 1987). Similarly, perhaps, for the fieldworker, who is inevitably confronted by the fieldwork site as a specific formatted place. As Casey has eloquently remarked: ‘To be somewhere is to be in place and therefore to be subject to its power, to be part of its action, acting on its scene’ (Casey 1993: 23). In this chapter I will introduce the place of my fieldwork and the people who populate it. After some remarks about my arrival in the field, I will concentrate primarily on how the place and people of Tharangambadi are mutually constitutive and in a continuous process of becoming. This implies that the field itself is emergent, and the portrayal of the changing landscape of Tharangambadi and the shifting spatial practices is therefore not only meant as an introduction to the location featured in the ensuing chapters. It is also meant to indicate a theoretical position on the relation between people and nature, arguing that environments are made and remade in processes in time rather than in conclusive plans (Greenough and Tsing 2003: x). In that sense, this is a work of environmental anthropology not just because it addresses human responses to a natural disaster, but also because it emphasises the ongoing emerging and materialisation of nature in the social history of a particular village. In the introduction I stressed that recovery consisted of the process of intertwining the event of the tsunami and the ordinary; what I add here is that this process is played out in the physical landscape and the spatial practices of the villagers. In consequence, instead of producing yet another congealed cartographic version of Tharangambadi, devoid of perspective and temporal specifics, the unstable features are consciously foregrounded as essential to understanding the villagers’ life in the

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environment, understood in the most comprehensive sense of the word. The general idea, then, is to highlight the continued process through which environments come into being through the workings of people and vice versa.

Arrival Attending to spatial and temporal specifics of Tharangambadi as they appeared during fieldwork quickly made clear that the texture of the field called for a continuous reorientation – both on my part, and on the part of the villagers, whose world had been submerged by the flooding of the tsunami. If, as Clifford Geertz (1973: 13) has suggested, ethnographic fieldwork is a process which entails finding one’s feet in an unfamiliar context, as the visiting fieldworker I was not alone in struggling with this at the time of my arrival in Tharangambadi in February 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the inhabitants of the whole fishing village, comprising about two-thirds of Tharangambadi’s total population, had temporarily lost their footing and were consumed by a process of refamiliarising themselves with their habitual – if suddenly unrecognisable – neighbourhood. In the immediate wake of the disaster, the traditional identification between place and person in Tamil life worlds had been drawn into question (see Mines 2008). Casey’s observations on the issue of displacement are relevant here: ‘Landscape itself, usually a most accommodating presence, can alienate us … Entire cultures can become profoundly averse to the places they inhabit, feeling atopic and displaced within their own implacement’ (1993: 34). In the case of Tharangambadi, both the villagers and I had quite literally to clear new paths of moving about in our attempts at gradually appropriating the local environment. For weeks and even months after the disaster, the beach area of Tharangambadi, traditionally the crowded centre of social interaction for people of the fishing community (cf. Bharathi 1999; Hoeppe 2007), was more or less off limits. Most villagers from the fishing community only paid brief visits to their original pretsunami settlement, and only if some specific occasion called for it. Otherwise they had relocated in temporary homes either with relatives or in the hastily constructed provisional re-housing barracks some distance away from the shore. On most days of my first stay in Tharangambadi in 2005 I would see auto-rickshaws loaded with household belongings being shifted from one place to another, or I would meet people in transition from one home to another, carrying suitcases, kitchenware and other baggage. Even though I wanted to study the fishing community of Tharangambadi, as this social group had borne the brunt of the disaster

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  21

because their settlement neighboured the sea, I too had initially to find a place to live some way away from the shore in consequence of the massive displacement from the beach area. For this reason I ended up in the house belonging to a local development organisation located on the main road a short walk from the main junction of Tharangambadi, described in chapter one as a site of nightly refuge during a later tsunami scare. In these early days and weeks following the tsunami, the issue of settling and resettling featured all the time in my conversations with the villagers, and I remember thinking that it was as if we all looked at the village somehow from afar or through a kaleidoscope, where the bits and pieces that made a kind of whole were constantly being shifted a little to form new temporary formations, which could then be tried out for a while, until they, too, were rearranged. Thus, while as the newcomer I was trying to find foothold in a social and physical setting which was completely novel to me, I could see how the villagers from the fishing areas were equally working to get back on their feet and carve new avenues of activity and movement through their village in search of places to settle down. This was not easily done. I clearly recall the first time my field assistant Renuga took me to her family home situated on the temple square in the heart of the fishing community’s traditional neighbourhood that makes up a significant part of Tharangambadi as a whole. Renuga had been born there in 1959 in what was then only a one-room leaf hut, and she had lived there ever since. Her parents had died in her early youth, and she had been left to fend for herself in the house, which she had since worked hard to expand and improve. As a result of her work over the years, her home had with time become a two-room brick house with a solid compound wall and a porch around it and an attached kitchen with a small patch of garden at the back, facing the seaside. The house had been flooded by the tsunami and the belongings inside had all been toppled, but the structure itself was not irreparably damaged. A piece of the compound wall facing the sea had fallen over, and a section of the palmleaf roofing covering the kitchen had to be replaced, but apart from that the building itself had come through the disaster relatively unharmed. The first time we went there after the tsunami at the end of February 2005, I suggested that we could clean up the house and put her furniture back in place, so that she and her family might return and thus meet the strong emotional attachment to the house that I clearly sensed. At the time, however, this prospect was apparently completely unthinkable. Renuga cried and maintained that she would never be able to return to her home, and that all the hard work and all the careful planning that she had put into extending the house had been in vain. On this first visit it was clear that Renuga was uneasy about lingering in her abandoned

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home. Sounds of shouting or children running by made her startle, as they would for months. After a few minutes, she quickly locked up the house and suggested we go to the teashop; if we had gone to the house on my request, we certainly left on Renuga’s. This example is not unique. In more general terms it is illustrative of the fact that at the time of my arrival in Tharangambadi in early 2005, fieldwork was characterised by such hit-and-run visits to the sites that I considered central to my work at the outset. Clearly, the tsunami had violated the sense of access to context (cf. Das 2007: 9). At first this posed a methodological challenge because the constant roaming on the part of the villagers made it difficult initially to identify obvious places from where to begin my fieldwork. Additionally, the displacement of the villagers from their original settlement and their apparent fear of return presented a potential ethical problem, in that I had to constantly balance whether or not it was legitimate for me to request people to accompany me to the homes that they had fled and were still not ready to return to. While people talked readily to me about their losses, quite a few still hesitated to revisit the disaster zone and I did not want to urge them to do so to accommodate my curiosity and lurking impatience to plunge into fieldwork as I had envisioned it before my arrival. However challenging the handling of this initial displacement was, in due course it came to represent an important point of departure for analysing the recovery process over time. The initial displacement created new social spaces that became new scenes for the villagers’ actions and their moving about. In the words of Michel de Certeau: ‘Space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it’ (1988: 117). When I returned to the field in 2006, Renuga and her family had moved back to their original house. With time the house had been reclaimed as a home for the family, and as such it came to provide me with a similar feel throughout my entire stay. Later, during my fieldwork in 2008, Renuga was actively taking part in the construction of a new house on a different plot further away from the shore. From an additional visit in 2010, I know that the family has now moved to the new house, once again leaving the old fishing village. Clearly, in the wake of the disaster Renuga’s world was made up of intersections of mobile elements, even if she longed for the prospect of a stable home. The moving around by Renuga and her family in order to find suitable protection provides ample illustration of the observation that disasters are not just singular events; their processual nature continues to be apparent even after their occurrence. The practices and discussions of settling and resettling going on for years simply made it clear that the tsunami was not strictly an event of the past but had been folded into processes of searching for shelter and managing an uncertain future. The confused arrival of the anthropologist to a site inhabited by

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  23

equally confused villagers proved the general point that environments get made and remade in processes and that fieldwork sites are thus always in the making.

Emergent Fields As made evident by my tripartite fieldwork, the fishing village of Tharangambadi and the villagers’ use of the place have changed dramatically since my first encounter with the field. The initial apocalyptical desertion of the beach area that rendered it empty of people, completely barren of vegetation, strewn with household belongings, clothing, building materials and broken, misplaced fishing boats and the like gradually gave way to reconstruction initiatives and to the hesitant return of some of the previous inhabitants. In the southern and least damaged part of the fishing village repairs were made to those of the damaged houses and huts that stood a chance of restoration, and by and by new fishing boats were obtained, mainly through donations from NGOs and through state subsidies. Little by little, shrubs and vegetation reappeared around the houses in the fishing village – in the deserted areas even to the point of engulfing the ruins. In late 2005 an auction shed with concrete flooring for selling fish was erected on the beach by an NGO involved in tsunami rehabilitation. Before the disaster the catches were sold on the sandy beach itself, and the organisation constructing the auction shed had wanted to improve the hygienic standard of fish selling. This, apparently, was also considered a matter of tsunami rehabilitation. Another feature of the larger scheme for remapping the village and opening up new intersections between mobile elements, so to speak, was the construction of new tarmac roads throughout the fishing village finished at some point during 2007. The new roads were laid even through the northernmost and hardest-hit area of the fishing community’s original settlement, where the many heavily damaged houses have remained uninhabited and left to further dilapidate on their own; here the material reconstruction process in the shape of the new roads contrasted starkly with the gradual disintegration and general abandonment (cf. F. Hastrup 2010). Word was around in the village that the roads had been planned long before the tsunami as a public infrastructural development initiative, but that the acquisition of sufficient money had only been possible after the disaster. In any event, the signposts near the new roads stated that they were ‘Emergency Roads’ constructed as part of the tsunami rehabilitation; curiously, the roads were dead-ends that often lead to places where no one lived anymore. If the massive rerouting of village life that had taken place after the disaster had been registered by the road-planners, this was only

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manifest in the fact that the roads had been officially labelled as tsunami emergency roads. The co-presence of signs of desertion and reconstruction gave the northern beach area a strangely ambiguous feel; on the one hand the place was characterised by deserted ruins, destroyed artefacts and strewn rubble, on the other hand newly laid and straight roads formed a grid of order through the area. When looking at the sheer material qualities of these post-disaster objects and structures, testimony of both destruction and overcoming was evident for all to see. Sometime during 2007 a wide row of large granite boulders were placed along the beach lining the entire fishing village. The rock project was managed by the Tamil Nadu government, and most people clearly considered it a part of a post-tsunami security project that had the additional benefit of slowing down the ongoing and observed erosion of the shore. Interestingly, as far as I could gather, just like the roads, the sea wall project had been planned long before the tsunami with the main purpose of protecting the historical monuments lining the beach, most notably the Masalamani temple from 1305 and Fort Dansborg, the fortress built by the Danish colonizers in 1620. These monuments were regarded as tourist attractions by the authorities and archaeologists, who wanted to protect them to allow visitors continued access to the so-called heritage area of Tharangambadi. After the tsunami, however, the rock project was expanded beyond the historic centre of the village to include the northern part of Tharangambadi, the traditional residence of the fishing community, the leaders of which suddenly accepted the boulders that they had hitherto refused, arguing the sea wall would complicate fishing activities. The rocks have significantly altered the appearance of the shoreline, as the barrier they form on the beach blocks the view of the beach from the village side and the view of the traditional settlement from the seaside; the granite rock protection project has more or less cut off the beach from the village and thus divided in two what was traditionally a shared and integrated social space for the fishing community (see Bharathi 1999). From the end of 2005 and onwards, the massive re-housing scheme undertaken in Tharangambadi has progressed, and little by little houses have been handed over to the new owners, quite a few of whom had returned in the meantime to their original houses to get out of the temporary shelters. The majority of the new houses built to accommodate the fishing families are constructed at a site about a kilometre inland, and as the houses have been completed, ever more fishing families have shifted to their new dwellings in what is in effect a new village, thereby once again depopulating the original fishing village. All the way through my fieldworks in Tharangambadi, such processes of movement and transformation have attracted the attention of the

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  25

people of the fishing community as well as the fieldworker, who have all been prompted to continuously reorient themselves in a social space formatted as changing. Zones and buildings viewed by authorities, humanitarian organisations and villagers as dangerous, safe, temporary, under construction, off limits, emergency prone and so on have become new and significant landmarks for the tsunami survivors. Even if in the context of this study the physical shifts in the appearance of the field were perhaps more manifest than in studies dealing with less dramatic events than an unprecedented natural disaster, the changing contours of the field can by no means be seen as unique to this work. Wendy James’ poignant observations about her long-term fieldwork in Sudan are relevant here. As she puts it: ‘The field was a moving target: ‘observing’ it was rather like trying to capture shifting scenery from a series of moving escalators’ (2000: 70). The transmutable character of the site should figure in any presentation of an ethnographic field within an anthropology that has long since abandoned the idea of naturally bounded, single-sited and nontemporal fields (cf. Hastrup and Olwig 1997; Marcus 1998; Tsing 2005). As is well known, an anthropological field is no longer exhaustively defined by its physical borders; the empirical object of study must be transformed into an analytical object defined by a selective attention to some features at the expense of others. To put it simply, knowledge – anthropological knowledge included – is a matter of perspective (K. Hastrup 2004b: 456). Indeed, the fact that I even make note of all the physical alterations in the fishing village of Tharangambadi occurring in more or less direct consequence of the tsunami is in itself a result of my analytical choice to focus on the disaster recovery in the first place, and in so doing to keep the social and physical world simultaneously in view. And as already mentioned, this again is both decisive for and a result of my methodological approach. In other words, just as the people of Tharangambadi are in a process of gradually surfacing from the depths of disaster, the fishing village has emerged as an anthropological field for the specific purposes of this study in an equally fluid manner. The concurrent focus in my work on sociality and physical environment, on epistemology and ontology, makes my work resonate with what has recently been referred to as a ‘topographic turn’ within anthropology (K. Hastrup 2004a, 2005). It is topographic because it refers to the fact that human lives are inescapably grounded somewhere in a distinct locality, and it is a turn because it proposes to replace or at least supplement other perspectives, primarily those of runaway social constructivism and discourse analysis, which in their most extreme forms tend to render people’s lives as nothing but arbitrary creations constructed by way of language, power relations, and conceptual hegemonies. Needless to say, the tsunami is not a discourse, and essentialisms are not best countered by dissolving the connection between human beings and the world around

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them. Neither Tharangambadi nor any other place in the world can be reduced to stages upon which any mobile representation, discourse, or cultural construction can be identified, and anthropological analyses still need to account for the specificity and contingency of worlds in any given place by taking seriously the physical framing of human existence. Perhaps it is appropriate here to point out that such an ecological approach to human life and perception as employed here is not presented in defence of any biological or material determinism long since abandoned within anthropology and related disciplines. Instead, it is introduced to specify a simple premise for this work, namely that the natural forces and the changing features of landscape that have met and continue to meet the people of Tharangambadi are not just a backdrop that happens to be shaped in the image of the cultural ideals it encompasses and expresses; the process cuts both ways in that the environment in turn shapes experience and action – neither of which are thereby less endowed with culture let alone any less real. In subscribing to such topographically oriented analysis that employs a concept of environment understood in the broadest sense of the word, I mean to supplement the anthropology of disaster, which in my view has paid too scant attention to the concrete physicality of catastrophes by emphasising the role of the social construction and politics of disaster in post-calamity settings. As I see it, attending to the changing affordances and shifting spatial specificities of my field has proved a vital contextualisation for my attempt to explore local conceptualisations of the tsunami and its aftermath – to the point where the tsunami and its aftermath, conversely, become a kind of contextualisation for my study of the figure of the village. Once again, I thus point to the merging of figure and ground, and my point is not to simply replace one perspective with another, but rather to suggest that we take seriously the confluence of topography and sociality when engaging in anthropological studies of disaster.

Mapping Place and People In the following, I will allow myself for a moment to freeze the view of Tharangambadi as if it were a stable entity seen from above. I will do this by turning to some facts of demography and to a cartographic perspective of the village in order to introduce the population of this book and the place they inhabit. Tharangambadi is situated on the Coromandel Coast lining the Bay of Bengal about 300 kilometres south of Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu, formerly known as Madras. The village is located in Nagapattinam district, which in all of India was the most severely affected by the tsunami in terms of both loss of lives and material damages (Bavinck

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  27

2008; Order No. 574, Government Orders 2005; Walls 2005). A census carried out in 2005 by Praxis, an independent Indian development organisation, recorded the total population of Tharangambadi to be 6,991 persons (Praxis 2005). Of these, Hindu marine fishers of the Pattinavar caste, who are the focus of this study, make up a clear majority, as is the case in most fishing communities along the Coromandel Coast (see Bavinck 2003; Bharathi 1999). According to Praxis’ census, the fishing community in Tharangambadi populate 1,112 households out of a total of 1,725 households. The Pattinavars thus comprise about two-thirds of the domestic units in the village. The other larger social groups with significant numbers of households are Dalits or Scheduled Castes (208), Christians, some of whom are rather recently converted Dalits, (129), and Muslims (116). The remaining households belong to a handful of other caste groups, out of which only one family is registered as high-caste Brahmin, even though historically the village was populated with several Brahmin families from among whom the temple priests and other clergy were recruited. When it comes to social groups, Tharangambadi is a quite composite place, even if commonly referred to as a fishing village. As Mines has observed in her work on a village in southern Tamil Nadu, some social or caste groups can come to stand metonymically for the whole village, thereby acquiring the role of the prototypic population due to, for instance, numeric majority, economic domination or political say (2005: 33). Importantly, however, this should disguise neither the existence of other communities nor the interaction between groups of different backgrounds, both of which were very obvious features in Tharangambadi. As elsewhere, the castes and religious communities have organised themselves spatially to live in definite areas of Tharangambadi (cf. Mines 2002, 2005). The people of the fishing community occupy the largest section of the village to the northeast, which – at least before the displacement brought about by the tsunami – was also the most densely populated. Further north from the fishing settlement in an area often considered to be outside of Tharangambadi proper, four small Dalit hamlets were located and populated by a total of some 200 households, many of whom have since relocated in newly built clusters of houses, as the original dwellings of the Dalits were in many cases completely destroyed by the tsunami (cf. Lillelund 2009). The Dalit families who lived in these hamlets before the tsunami were thus severely hit by the disaster, even if in total numbers fewer people of Dalit households than of fishing households were hurt. The Muslims of Tharangambadi inhabit the area around the mosque situated in the geographical centre of the village just south of the fishing community’s neighbourhood, and the Christian community populate mainly the old colonial part further south in the area around The

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New Jerusalem Church and the Mission Church, both dating from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Going inland and westwards from the respective neighbourhoods of the different communities, we find the shared commercial centre of the village. It consists of a market street lined with shops, fruit booths, food stalls, a small fish market and tea houses. At one end, the market street ends in a junction where auto-rickshaws and taxis are parked and from where buses frequently depart for nearby villages and towns. In addition to being the commercial centre, all traffic in and out of Tharangambadi passes the area around the bus stand, and it thus serves as a passage through which all villagers move. It is a junction in more senses than one, in that it is both shared by all social groups and the most obvious way of leaving or entering the village. A different kind of interaction between people of different communities and groups takes place within the rather elaborate educational system in Tharangambadi. For its size, the village offers fair opportunities of acquiring formal education. In the village there are six schools for different age groups, which can jointly provide children with schooling for ten years for boys and twelve years for girls. All of the schools in Tharangambadi are subject to official curriculum control and obliged to comply with centralised federal state rules regarding the content of the teaching (see Andersen and Schönbeck 2009). There is one small Muslim school, but the other larger schools, Plutschau Elementary School, St. John’s Primary School, St. Theresa’s Higher Secondary School for Girls and the TELC Boy’s High School are all of them legacies of the European mission and are run on a Christian basis, but have been given the status of so-called management schools, which ensures them some financial support from the authorities (Andersen and Schönbeck 2009). However, small expenses for uniforms, textbooks and examination fees still have to be met by parents, and albeit minimal these expenses have caused some parents to withhold their children from school, thereby ignoring the fact that ten years of schooling is mandatory in Tamil Nadu. Dropping out of school before graduation is a problem mainly among the boys of the fishing community as they often start to go along with their fathers or other older relatives on fishing trips around the age of fourteen. Traditionally, education beyond a minimum is not considered necessary or very valuable by members of the fishing community, and many parents simply seem to see the expenses for the schooling of boys as a waste of resources since their occupation is traditionally somewhat predetermined and not dependent on a leaving certificate. A change in the attitude towards formal schooling might be underway, however, at least among the young, who seem to be more intent on schooling than their parents have been. During fieldwork in 2006 I conducted a small survey with thirty adolescents (fifteen girls and fifteen boys) from fishing households in Tharangambadi, aged between fifteen

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  29

and eighteen. One of the questions on the questionnaire that I had made and had translated into Tamil concerned ideas about future occupation among the young. From the replies, I could see that all of the girls and all but two of the boys expected to be in college in three years from the date of the survey. Only two boys out of the fifteen who answered my questionnaire expected to be employed in the fishing trade in the future, even though all their fathers worked as fishermen. Whether or not these educational ambitions will indeed be fulfilled remains to be seen, but in any case the adolescents’ aspirations are illustrative of a local ascription of great value to education as a means of upward social mobility. If the adolescents choose or are allowed to pursue formal education beyond the compulsory level, there is a college for both girls and boys financed by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC) in the nearby small town of Porayar which requires no tuition fees to speak of and which offers BA degrees in a wide range of subjects. In Tharangambadi proper, two teacher-training institutes for boys and girls respectively are also operated by TELC. In the immediate wake of the tsunami, several vocational training centres were opened offering courses in tailoring, the use of computers, masonry and mechanics. By the end of fieldwork in 2008, however, only few of these more informal training centres were still in operation (Andersen and Schönbeck 2009). In terms of economy, the people of the fishing community of Tharangambadi are responsible for a large part of the cash flow in the village, more perhaps because of their large number than because of the level of income generated in any one family. Generally, the Muslim population of Tharangambadi is the wealthier community due mainly to thriving local businesses of various kinds and to contributions from family members working abroad in various Muslim countries, most notably in the Gulf states. Muslims own most of the shops in the village, selling everything from inexpensive meals and stationary, to mobile phones, to precious jewellery. Many of the Christians in the village are employed as teachers, nurses or in various clerical positions or as social workers with various caretaking responsibilities. Most of the adult men of the fishing community are employed on the fishing boats, and as many as 500 married women from the fishing community work as fish vendors selling the catches to customers of other communities in both Tharangambadi and surrounding villages and towns (Praxis 2005; cf. Bharathi 1999). The division of labour between men and women in Tharangambadi is quite distinct, as is the case in other South Indian fishing communities as well (Busby 1999, 2000; Hoeppe 2007). This is also reflected in the different spatial domains. Whereas the adult men are generally on the move throughout the day and are straying outdoors often near the waterfront, the women are less mobile and stay in or around their homes more. In addition to poorer swimming skills

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among the women, this difference of spatial practices between the sexes was also the reason why most of the tsunami victims were female. Many of those who drowned had either been inside their homes already or had sought refuge in their houses when the tsunami struck, and had thus ended up getting caught between their own walls. In terms of material tsunami affliction, the further north in the village the more severe the damage was. Thus few Muslim houses and even fewer Christian households were flooded, leaving the Dalit hamlets and the fishing settlement to bear the brunt of the disaster. Even within the fishing community’s settlement, which I could walk through in less than fifteen minutes, the extent of destruction brought about by the tsunami varied dramatically. Tsunamis are by their nature highly localised disasters, the physical impacts of which are contained in specific coastal stretches of land (Davies 2002; McGilvray 2006). A few minutes’ walk would be all that separated utter destruction from unharmed sites.

Fieldwork on Foot In the following I will get back on the ground from this demographic and cartographic overview of Tharangambadi and present the village by way of the routes leading through it. During most of my fieldwork, I moved about on foot. My countless walks around the village interconnected the homes of people I knew and other points of orientation, such as the fish auction shed, the village temple square, the petty shops and the teahouses that I frequented, and, later on, the newly built re-housing village. My moving around within a spatially rather limited area made the villagers accustomed to seeing me, even if at first many villagers had wondered why I was even there. After the first week’s stay in 2005, during which I was with the representative of the humanitarian fund that I was initially there to accompany, I would usually be alone or in the company of local villagers, which was unusual for humanitarian workers. The villagers thus quickly gathered that I was not employed by any humanitarian organisation. They soon began wondering out loud why I was walking around without an umbrella for shade from the sun, whether I liked the local food, or why I sometimes went out during the monsoon rainfalls when everyone else stayed inside. Eventually, as I stayed on in and returned to Tharangambadi, and as my basic Tamil language skills improved little by little, these slightly amused questions of simple clarification gave way to a different kind of conversation, and people started to ask me how my work was progressing, posing questions about my family at home, and so on. Often, I would be accompanied by Renuga, and her presence would spur other questions of a more direct character, often about my age, marital status, my parents’ occupation, financial situation and the like.

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  31

On many occasions, the villagers would tell me that they had seen me near some shop or other or on the bus, and they would ask me if I had managed to get hold of whatever item I was there to buy or if I had reached my destination. Apart from being a sign that the villagers seemed to care about me, the interest the locals took in my whereabouts and background illustrated an important methodological point, namely that the people that anthropologists study as objects of analysis are always subjects too, who harbour and process their own perspectives on the world and on the fieldworker. This was further affirmed by Renuga’s repeated remarks that she learned much about her village from accompanying me on visits to villagers and from translating all my questions during our talks with the people she knew as her neighbours. As Ingrid Rudie has observed: ‘Anthropologists and informants act as catalysts to each other’s efforts to make sense’ (1994: 29). Though decidedly on her home turf, Renuga still discovered new features of the social workings of Tharangambadi by posing novel questions in an otherwise well-known setting. To me as the newcomer, familiarising myself with Tharangambadi was initially very much a physical exercise. In order to access the world of the people I was interested in, I wanted to expose myself to their environment whether hot, windy, dry or wet. I wanted to learn, among other things, to brace myself for passing the growling stray dogs that were everywhere, and to know which bricks near the bridge crossing the canal were unfastened and thus posed a threat of tripping. In other words, I actively sought out the stumbling blocks – literal and figurative – that curtail the villagers’ lives as emplaced in the fishing village of Tharangambadi. Even if walking is not in itself a technique of participation it allowed me to literally keep the same pace as most villagers in an attempt to make probable that we were ‘heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind’ (Lee and Ingold 2006: 67). To me, plunging into the field was a process of appropriating the topography (Tilley 1994: 28). This somewhat low-tech approach also characterised my generating of field material. During my first stay in 2005, which took place before I had developed a research design in any detail, the questions I asked the people that Renuga and I visited were at first relatively random, because I wanted to sound out the villagers’ concerns before closing in on specific analytical themes. When compared to later fieldworks, this initial lack of precise research design in 2005 gave rise to an interesting methodological paradox. Due to the large number of humanitarian actors who were operating in Tharangambadi in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, making hurried surveys of people’s situation, the affected villagers were used to being asked about their living conditions at the time of my first stay in the field. Even if I asked different questions, which aimed less at quantifying their material losses and assessing their ensuing

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material needs than did the questions posed by the average humanitarian surveyors, the villagers would often answer me in what I took to be a somewhat standardised manner. Although I emphasised that I was not employed by any humanitarian agency and did not proceed by way of a fixed questionnaire, it struck me that during these first talks it was as if the villagers were filling out a form, which aimed at providing accurate information rather than personal reflection. Coincidentally, then, during my first stay in Tharangambadi it was as if the villagers compensated for my preliminary lack of a clear research plan with clear – and slightly detached – replies. The responses seemed to me to have a kind of thirdperson ring to them that served to firmly establish and affirm the victims as a definable group entitled to certain amounts of support, allotted to people regardless of their specific first-person accounts. During later stays, when the various survey teams who had initially crowded the village had left, the information I got from the villagers was much less schematic and more elaborate – even if behind the scenes I was more conscious of my analytical interests than during my first visit and, accordingly, posed what I took to be more precise questions. When the immediate emergency phase was over, I would sometimes discuss this first stage of humanitarian aid with the villagers. In commenting on these early surveys that they had been subjected to and enumerated in, the villagers would often say to me that they had known very well what to say to the surveyors, and that they had known equally well that their replies would in all likelihood not change the shape and composition of the humanitarian support that they would eventually receive. Importantly, the villagers said this without any malice, and my aim in presenting it here is not to point my finger at the surveying organisations for being insensitive to the specific concerns of the survivors. The notable shift with time in the character of the survivors’ replies to my questions about their lives in the wake of the tsunami teaches a general methodological lesson that extends beyond the simple assertion that the questions posed shape the answers given. It testifies additionally to the genuinely intersubjective nature of knowledge-making and thus of fieldwork (K. Hastrup 2003). In terms of the actual techniques I used during fieldwork, the findings of my research have been obtained through what is commonly referred to as loosely structured interviews and through spontaneous and undirected conversations with individuals or groups of people from the fishing community, most often taking place in people’s private homes, whether in the temporary shelters, original pre-tsunami dwellings or newly donated houses. During all these conversations I wrote elaborate notes, and the quotes from my interlocutors presented in the book are from my handwritten records. This fairly simple methodology was well suited for most encounters with the villagers, where the use of a recording

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  33

device would have been distracting. In addition, I conducted interviews with humanitarian workers both Indian and foreign, local nurses, school teachers on different levels, people of other caste origin, members of the clergy, shop owners and staff at orphanages among others, in order to supplement the information gathered from the fishing community. In 2006 I also ran a weekly spoken English class as part of a tuition programme organised by a local development organisation for children aged between ten and fifteen, and in addition to forcing me to practice my Tamil this gave me an insight into the aspirations and concerns of the younger generation in an informal educational setting. During most interviews and planned visits to people I was accompanied by Renuga or in a few instances by Arivu, a male college student from the fishing village. As I gradually learned some basic Tamil, I went out to see people alone more often, in which cases I discussed the information I had obtained with Renuga or Arivu afterwards. The majority of my interlocutors were women, though this was not so much an outcome of conscious choice as of implicit social organisation. The women were, quite simply, most often the ones who were at home when Renuga and I came around, since the Tamil women generally spend much more time in their homes than do the men (Vera-Sanso 2000). Characteristically, the interviews I did conduct with men most often took place outdoors, usually on the beach near the auction shed where they would be spending spare time, and in most cases they would be group interviews. Interestingly, the men would often provide me with exact information on issues pertaining exclusively to a male domain, such as practices of fishing, navigation, fishing equipment and political decisions, whereas the talks with the women would usually take us way beyond my questions and their answers to revolve around their whole lives in a more unrestricted and elaborate manner. In keeping, perhaps, with the general reputation of Tamil women of being more concerned with future planning of domestic issues than their male counterparts, the women were generally more articulate as to how the tsunami had affected their life as a whole. In any event, the visits to women followed a more loose script than my talks with the men. The issue of gender equality has become a major concern in much anthropology on India, as indeed in anthropology in general (see Béteille 2003: 53). While I certainly sympathise with efforts in anthropological and other work to transmit the voices of women and other social groups who have traditionally been suppressed, the female bias in my work is not directly ascribable to the wide-ranging anthropological trend of creating awareness about gender inequality. The bias is simply a result of my ambition to let actual fieldwork observations determine the significance of a given social issue, instead of presuming from the outset that, say, women’s activism must be relevant and thus the focus

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of my attention. Fieldwork among the men and women of the fishing community demonstrated that while the villagers, both male and female, were certainly well aware that their gender entailed advantages and/ or disadvantages, they did not generally articulate this in terms of an overarching or determining political agenda. Rather, as will transpire throughout, the negotiations of power between men and women were enacted in subtle ways through various everyday activities. The ambition to approach the aftermath of the tsunami as embedded in specific lives implied that I see the actions of women as equally embedded, rather than assuming a priori that they were involved in a political feminist project or any other such large-scale ideological project.

A Walk around the Village With all the above methodological considerations in mind, I will now turn to a fuller portrayal of the scene of my fieldwork by way of a walk through the village of Tharangambadi. During fieldwork in 2006 and 2008 when the beach area was no longer the emergency zone it had been in 2005, I lodged in a guest house situated a stone’s throw from the waterfront just south of the traditional fishing settlement. On these stays I would normally enter the fishing village from its southern end with the sea to my right. I would pass what is left of the Masalamani temple to Shiva built in 1305, when the coastline was different and the sea did not yet threaten to swallow this place of worship entirely. Seven hundred years after its construction, waves from the Bay of Bengal have gradually worn away the domes of the temple, which are now ruined and halfway submerged. Only one of the original five domes has survived in place, and in its shade on the rocks near the water’s edge, I would often come upon youngsters spending their free time watching the waves. Past the temple, the path was once a street with houses and huts on both sides; after the tsunami this was only showed by the scattered rubble, tiles, and bricks lining the trail. On the right-hand side of the path, the row of granite blocks placed for security formed a slope of about two metres descending onto the sandy beach. Within minutes, I would find myself within the working space of the fishing community. Dependent on the time of day, different activities would unfold. In the mornings, crews of men, supervised by crows and eagles flying closely overhead, would be hauling their boats through the surf onto the beach, unloading their catch for the women then to process. Later the men would tend the boats’ engines and unload the fishing gear from the boats. After completing these chores, the fishermen would spend hours every day skilfully repairing and repacking their fishing nets in small groups on the

The Field: Entrance and Emergence  |  35

beach, either in the shade of palm leaf sheds on the beach, among the tall palm tree grove close by, or in the boats that often displayed the names of the organisations that had sponsored them in reaction to the tsunami’s devastation. Hours would be spent watching the sea at close range from sheds or, later, from the granite blocks in this mainly male domain of the beach where the spheres of work and leisure coincided (cf. Hoeppe 2007). Walking on, to my left the path passes closely by what is now the outermost row of fishing houses and huts, from where Tamil music from televisions usually competed with the omnipresent sound of the waves hitting the shore in an all-encompassing soundscape (cf. Feld 1996: 94). Outside the houses, women would be washing dishes or clothes, cooking and sweeping, all the while tending to children and sometimes briefly pausing to watch TV through the open doors if a favourite song or dance was aired. Between coconut palms, electricity poles and buildings, clotheslines were suspended with laundry that dried almost instantly in the hot wind that constantly swept the village. Going further, the small streets were lined with huts that had been perfunctorily repaired, often with the use of blue or yellow tarpaulins distributed as relief aid immediately after the tsunami. As a general rule, more people have remained in or returned to the original fishing settlement in its southern end than in its northern end, although at different times, different numbers of people would live in the pre-tsunami beach area. In 2005 the place was quite deserted; in 2006 a number of families had returned to their hastily repaired pre-tsunami dwellings after a temporary stay in the rehabilitation shelters; and in 2008 many families had left their original houses again and shifted to the newly constructed houses built for relocation further from the sea. Along the beach and the path lining it, some more or less destroyed and discarded wooden catamarans testified to another ongoing historical process of technological development and reminded one that not so long ago fishing was conducted with little or no mechanised equipment. In the mid 1990s fibreglass boats were introduced and quickly replaced the catamarans, thereby drastically changing the working life of the fishing community (cf. Bharathi 1999; Bavinck and Karunaharan 2006). Though in some sense public and outdoor, the space between the houses and huts in the fishing settlement was quite obviously integrated as a stage for various domestic activities, and among neighbours there would be a lively traffic in and out of each others’ houses, often with the aim of borrowing something or returning it back. Things like kitchenware, mobile phones, money, family ration cards for buying subsidised goods – primarily rice, cooking oil, and kerosene – from the government shop on the central Queen’s Street, and various other official documents were exchanged as a matter of course, carving paths between households that both reflected and constituted social relations (Appadurai 1986: 18–19).

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Outside on the narrow streets between the houses, firewood for the cooking stoves was left on the streets to dry, as were sprays of red chillies. The granite grinders for spices and herbs, which would traditionally be part of a woman’s dowry, and water vessels would be kept outside most houses, lining the outer walls along with bicycles, baskets, clothing, and the occasional plastic chair. Often I came upon elderly people sleeping on the porches apparently undisturbed by the usual clamour around them. In the afternoons, the streets crowded with groups of men playing cards, and women meeting to clean fish, prepare vegetables, and exchange goods and information. Loud voices would indicate to me that the fish auction site, by many considered the life-giving heart of the fishing village, was not far off. At a distance of around thirty metres from the seashore, a large concretefloored roofed platform has been constructed by an NGO in 2005 to house the fish auctions that would normally take place twice a day, attracting both local fish vendors and buyers from commercial and export companies. From around eight o’clock in the morning, the women who sold fish locally would populate the auction shed, either sitting around in groups waiting or taking turns at bargaining with the few official auction men for the various types of fish brought from the returning fishing boats. The women seemed to know exactly which type of fish to buy and at what price in order to meet the demands of their customers (cf. Busby 2000: 56–57). At regular intervals, large ice boxes with fish were carried from the boats to the middle of the auction shed and their contents poured out onto the concrete flooring. As if on cue, different groups of the waiting women rushed forward with their woven baskets or metal bowls to examine and loudly discuss the quality and quantity of fish on offer. Other women would make no move at all. To my inexpert eyes, the movements between the different sites for waiting, bartering and buying seemed a complex and esoteric choreography in which each woman knew which part to play and when to move. The western end of the fish auction shed was usually the domain of a handful of men who primarily represented larger commercial seafood companies supplying restaurants, hotels, and even an international market with fish and prawn. The larger fish, colloquially referred to simply as ‘first quality’, were sold in this section of the auction, from where the catches would quickly be iced and driven away. During the whole of the auction, which usually lasted between two and three hours, the women exchanged information about the number of boats yet to return from their day’s work. The vendors explained to me that they never knew for certain whether the kind of fish they were waiting for would be available. Thus, strategic considerations regarding when to make a bargain were shared; the longer one waited, the fewer other vendors would be around, resulting at best in reduced prices, at worst

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in missing out on the day’s catches altogether. The hours of waiting might pay off but could equally result in the women leaving the auction shed empty-handed. The income of people living off fishing was thus always in flux and in terms of economic welfare it was considered by most an uncertain business (see Acheson 1981: 281–83, Busby 2000: 32; McCay 2001; Thompson with Wailey and Lummis 1983). Outside, right next to the auction shed, other women and a few men sold more stable goods such as vegetables, fruit, coconut water and the like, adding to the impression that the auction site was indeed the centre of activity during the seasons of fishing. Gradually, as the vendors had haggled their way through the auction, they would leave one by one carrying their baskets of fish on their heads and set out to sell it. Most of the women vendors followed regular routes and supplied specific families with their preferred fish on an almostdaily basis, announcing their arrival to their customers in the village by loud yells of ‘Meen! Meen!’, the Tamil word for fish. Whether the vendors were heading for the Muslim quarter bordering the fishing village, the market booth at the central junction in Tharangambadi, the Dalit hamlets re-housed in the temporary shelters to the north, or one of the larger fish markets in the neighbouring towns, they would invariably pass the Hindu village temple erected to the goddess Renuga Devi located approximately 150 metres inland from the sea.

Figure 2.1 Women Near the Auction Site on the Beach

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If the auction site was the economic centre of the fishing community, the large temple square lined with small shops and tea stalls seemed to be the social and communal centre – at least until the completion of the new permanent houses built in a different location. At one end of the temple square, a roofed stage donated by an NGO after the tsunami has been constructed as a site for celebrating festivals and various traditional and artistic performances. During the Deepawali festival in 2006, dances and music were performed on the stage attracting a big crowd filling up the temple square into the early hours of the morning. At another end of the temple square, a water pump would draw a crowd of women out to fetch water, and at any time of day many water jugs inscribed with their owners’ initials were left around it for them to be filled whenever water was available. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the temple and the square were used for storing, distributing, and keeping track of the donated relief materials, temporarily converting it to yet another kind of village centre. From the temple square, all the parts of the original fishing village were easily and directly accessed by way of a network of small streets. During my first two fieldworks, the streets were gravelled and uneven, but by my stay in 2008 new tsunami emergency roads had been completed. Going north from the temple square moving parallel with the beach, the destruction caused by the tsunami became ever more apparent. The northern part of the village has a lower ground level than the southern part which made the tsunami relatively more destructive there compared to the rest of the village. Two-thirds of the victims from Tharangambadi were killed in this area. Even in 2008, more than three years after the tsunami, this part of the village was still deserted, as very few families had returned to their original houses. Deserted houses in various stages of disrepair lined the pathways and the newly laid roads, and shrubs were rapidly growing adding to the air of desertion. In this part of the village, often the only remaining signs of the houses would be the concrete floors and some scattered bricks. Villagers had left pieces of torn blue tarpaulin from the NGOs’ immediate relief packets behind, thereby reminding everyone that this was indeed a disaster site. In an otherwise densely populated village like Tharangambadi it was striking and disconcerting suddenly to be alone in this part of the prior settlement. As if by common consent, it seemed that this part of the village had been more or less sealed off and left to dilapidate on its own. Moving west and inland from the temple square, the sound of the waves was gradually reduced as was the visible tsunami damage to the houses and huts. Lining either of these small streets leading inland, brightly painted new houses would interchange with traditional houses that had come through the disaster unharmed.

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When continuing along any of the streets leading away from the seashore, all of which were at some point intersected by the Buckingham Canal that cuts Tharangambadi diagonally in two, one would pass the densely populated provisional re-housing quarters. In different designs – and, with time, in different states of disrepair – shelters, housing up to thirty families, had been constructed by both the Tamil Nadu State Government and by a number of NGOs shortly after the tsunami. Clearly, the shelters were never meant to accommodate people for more than a short period of time, but even in 2008 several hundred families were still confined to the temporary camps because the construction of permanent houses was heavily delayed. Most of this provisional housing had been built as long barracks of tarred cardboard with internal room dividers splitting the barracks into twenty or sometimes thirty small family rooms, depending on their design. Inside the barracks, the room dividers were no higher than about two metres, leaving one common room above that height. Thus, sounds from any of the family rooms travelled easily through the shelter, making it an ever-noisy site. The family rooms measured about twelve square meters and were usually equipped with a TV, some kitchen utensils, sometimes a plastic chair, and clothes stored either on lines near the walls or in a metal closet. With time, inhabitants had usually put up a few shelves to hold both incense and icons, replacing the puja room found in traditional Tamil houses, and more mundane things such as toothpaste, hair oil, soap and the like. Normally, the kitchen stoves for either firewood or kerosene were placed outside the family rooms to prevent fire and smoke from spreading inside the barracks. In general, according to most inhabitants, the temporary shelters were completely inadequate for long-term use, and in consequence it seemed as if most domestic activities apart from watching TV took place outside the shelters, so that the villagers could spend as little time inside them as possible; a sense of security was not given by the mere construction of walls (Jackson 1995: 84). However, this outdoor social life that took place in a sphere both public and private would be seriously impaired by the onset of the monsoon. During the rainy season the area around and between the barracks instantly turned into a puddle of mud even after a little rainfall. The land was low in itself, and the raised ground by the nearby new, permanent houses and the new emergency roads added to the problem of flooding in the temporary shelters because all the rain water ran from the higher ground and ended in and around the barracks. For inhabitants in the temporary village the topography of the place forced itself upon them. In addition to the habitual health problems brought about by the sheer crowding of the families’ living quarters, the flooding during monsoon posed another serious health hazard as it caused diseases to spread easily. After one of the frequent heavy showers in the rainy season, the

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place would be almost inaccessible and inhabitants would have to walk through mud and rain puddles whenever leaving or returning to their allotted barrack. Having passed both the temporary barracks and the clusters of new, permanent houses, one would reach the Government Hospital and get to the Kamarajar Road. This broad main road ran parallel to the shoreline and traditionally marked the western inland border of the fishing village. Beyond it to the north, the four Dalit hamlets were located after a stretch of empty land. These hamlets, which, as I mentioned, were also quite severely affected by the tsunami that killed livestock, flooded houses, and made the soil barren because of the salt from the sea water, have since been resettled in other locations. The new village built to accommodate the fishing families has been constructed on the western side of Kamarajar Road, which before the tsunami was an empty wasteland. At the time of my fieldwork in 2008, the new village was in a process of being appropriated by the fishing community. The constructors still worked in parts of the new village, but parts of it had been more or less completed, and had seen teashops, gardens, compound walls and the like appear along the grid made by the straight, new roads crossing through the area; a process of appropriation to which I shall return later. When following Kamarajar Road in southern direction, the end of the fishing village is marked by a memorial commemorating the tsunami victims, which was inaugurated in December 2006. Beyond this monument, which I will deal with in more detail in chapter seven, the road continues to the central junction of Tharangambadi with its bustling life, with fruit sellers, tea shops, food stalls, fish-selling booths, and various shops providing the villagers with all their basic necessities. This place is the official and common centre of the village where villagers of all population groups would pass, shop, and interact. As we heard, the junction also works as a bus station as it touches the National Highway intersecting Tamil Nadu state from end to end.

The Lay of the Land The point of taking the reader on a walk through the fishing village and of pointing out all the gradual shifts and changes in the uses of space has not only been to evoke a comprehensive sense of Tharangambadi in order to prepare for the following chapters. I have also wanted to make a methodological point in demonstrating the congruency between my own gradual and shifting experiential appropriation of a social and physical space as a fieldworker, and the ongoing process of reorientation undertaken by the villagers of Tharangambadi in the wake of the tsunami. Even if I have portrayed Tharangambadi as a site defined to a certain

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extent by its post-tsunami characteristics, the gradual acquisition of a social space by moving through it and by constantly being prompted to reorient oneself is a feature in the emergence of any anthropological field. In short, the analytical interest, the definition of the field and the methodological approach are always mutually constitutive. The gradual appropriation of a social space is a baseline for anthropological fieldwork, however dramatic one might find the alterations of this specific field in the wake of the tsunami. This implies, importantly, that the fieldwork for this study should be seen as no different from other fieldworks undertaken with the aim of studying less disruptive social phenomena than an unprecedented natural disaster. In the light of this, all anthropological fields must be defined as emergent and be approached by way of constant reorientations – by locals and fieldworkers alike – within the always changing lay of the land.

Chapter 3

The Dwelling: Homes and Hazards

The blue tarpaulin covering the door opening was held aside temporarily while Renuga and I entered Saravanan’s new house located just off the temple square. Once we were inside, Saravanan swiftly fastened the blue plastic sheet with a string to a heavy boat engine lying on the floor close by. Outside the rain was pouring, and the tarpaulin had to be held in place as it functioned instead of a proper door to prevent the water from soaking the floor of the house. The sound of water drumming on the plastic left us in no doubt that the tarpaulin did indeed serve a purpose. The window openings on all sides of the house were similarly covered with pieces of plastic cut to approximate size and tied to metal bars in order to keep the house dry during the downpours frequent for the season. Below the windows, towels had been placed to soak up the rain puddles that the plastic could not keep out. At the time of our visit at the end of October 2006, two weeks had passed since Saravanan, a fisherman in his mid thirties, had moved with his wife and three children to the house donated to them as a replacement for the damaged hut that had accommodated the family prior to the tsunami. The new house was built in the same spot as the family’s old one, which had collapsed in the flood waves. Even though the old hut had been washed away in the tsunami, the plot was located in a zone where rebuilding was allowed, and Saravanan had chosen to stay on his original land. When the family moved in, the new building had not yet been completed; no doors or windows had been applied by the contractors, and the house was still much in need of a coat of whitewash and paint to smooth over the rough rendered walls both inside and outside. The wiring for the future supply of electricity to the house stuck out of the walls and ceiling unprotected, and a few bags of sand unevenly placed below the backdoor opening made up for the proper flight of steps that had yet to be attached. The family had postponed the construction of a planned-for kitchen outside at the back of the house because of the rain. The completion of an open shed, under which Saravanan intended to

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keep his fishing nets and other equipment, had equally been put on hold. When we called on him, Saravanan was storing his fishing gear inside the house, and during our talk the neatly bundled nets functioned as chairs, as they took up most of the floor of the largest room of the house. Though damp and incomplete, Saravanan and his wife had decided to move into their new dwelling at the onset of the monsoon season. Since the tsunami had washed away their old hut and their every belonging, the family had camped first with relatives, then in the temporary barracks, and they had been impatient to get a place of their own. During our visit to Saravanan, he himself pointed out all the imperfections of the house to Renuga and me, but concluded that he was very pleased with the building and with the fact that it provided safety for him and his family. When I asked him directly what he thought of the house, Saravanan said: ‘We like it here. Little by little we will finish the work on the house, and the constructors will fit the doors and windows. It is much better than our old hut. This is a safe place and a good home’. The family had moved into a visibly unfinished house on the very plot of land where the tsunami had completely obliterated their old home. Nonetheless, Saravanan considered his new home to be secure; prior destruction of their old hut, rainwater, slippery steps, missing doors, a non-existent kitchen and unfinished wiring did not apparently subtract from Saravanan’s assessment of the new house as genuinely safe. The example of Saravanan illustrates my overall aim with this chapter, which is to show that a sense of safety and home in relation to housing is experientially perceived and does not derive merely from technically defined precautions against natural hazards. Prominent European sociologists have argued that in so-called late modernity risks and fears are liquid, non-localised and non-containable, forming a risk regime for our globalised world (Beck 1992, Giddens 1991; see also Bauman 2006). Fascinating though they are, I want to unpick these sweeping representations, which have mainly been launched as descriptions of European industrial societies, and show by way of fieldwork how the processing of risk after the tsunami in Tharangambadi tied in with particular ideas of being at home. What was at stake for the villagers during the process of post-disaster re-housing, I suggest, was to recover in different ways and with varying degrees of success from an experience in which their familiarity with their places of dwelling had suffered a blow from the tsunami. While, as Tilley has noted, people may not deliberately inhabit inhospitable environments in response to some underlying cultural scheme, the places that they do occupy take on over time particular sets of meanings and connotations for the people who live there (1994: 2). This implies that protecting and creating experiential familiarity with a place can overrule concerns about the risk it may entail for its inhabitants. I am not out to discuss or critique the sociologies

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of risk in any detail here, nor do I suggest additional theorising of the concept as such; I merely want to point out that the survivors in postdisaster Tharangambadi did not frame risk as a non-localised force that they were passively exposed to, just as they did not simply adopt the official definitions by the authorities of hazardous and safe zones. For the villagers, settlement and resettlement did not seem to be matters of degrees of exposure to risk in any straightforward way. The various practices of re-housing after the tsunami showed that what seemed to weigh on the villagers was the issue of appropriating a sense of home after the disaster, and that this matter was attended to irrespective of official definitions of hazards. Some survivors would actively engage in furnishing their new homes or their old ones if these stood a chance of repair, whereas others, as we shall see later in the case of Tamilarasi, relocated but seemingly refused to appropriate the new home in response to personal bereavement. Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2002: 10) have observed that disasters bring the power of place-attachment to the fore, and a close look at the various housing practices of people once exposed to disaster has indeed revealed potent notions of home and shed light on the complex ways that the tsunami-affected villagers have acted to be able to live in a zone of disaster. If the sense of safety and home was compromised by the tsunami, fieldwork made clear that this was not just recovered through a spatial relocation to ostensibly safer areas, as proposed by the official government policy of moving hamlets and villages away from the sea to zones officially designated as safer. As I will show, housing after the disaster in Tharangambadi was a matter for the villagers of making the everyday inhabitable again, regardless of formal labels such as disaster-prone and safe; as such, reinhabitation is a process that stretches way beyond the official re-housing policy (F. Hastrup 2009a).

Build Back Better In the beginning of 2005, the Tamil Nadu State Government estimated that a total of no less than 130,000 new houses had to be constructed throughout the state as accommodation for the people affected by the tsunami (Order No. 172, Government Orders 2005). In the general provisions for the re-housing programme issued by the Tamil Nadu State Relief Commissioner, R. Santhanam, the stated aim of the project was ‘to bring back the lives of the affected people to normalcy’ (Santhanam 2005: 1). The new houses were to be constructed following mandatory guidelines based on a so-called multi-hazard perspective that should take into account the various environmental risks threatening the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu, such as cyclones, earthquakes and flooding as

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well as repeated tsunamis. This was to be achieved through elevating the ground level of the building sites by applying soil and sand before the construction of the new houses, by moving people away from zones declared to be too close to the sea, and by making use of state-of-the-art disaster-resistant engineering. In 1991 the Indian authorities had already passed a Coastal Regulation Zones Act, which prohibits constructions and buildings within a designated buffer zone measured from the high-tide line in any coastal area of the country. The post-tsunami re-housing policy of Tamil Nadu and the allotment of new plots of land for construction were based on these rules. Thus, the policy stipulated that any family whose pre-tsunami house was located less than 200 metres from the hightide line should be offered a new, free house built beyond the buffer zone, regardless of the degree of damage done to the original dwelling. The government order further stated that in the zone closest to the high-tide line (zone A), no new buildings were allowed to be constructed, although existing houses built before 1991, when the rule was passed, could be repaired on private initiative and by private funding, if the house owners resisted relocation. Initially, the families eligible for relocation were obliged to surrender their original plots and houses to the authorities, once they had obtained a new house, but in response to strong protests organised jointly by the fishing communities all along the Tamil Nadu coast, the fishing communities were eventually given permission by the government to retain their pre-tsunami plots, nominally for the purpose of storing fishing equipment. In effect, however, this implies that the authorities will have no way of evicting the families from their original dwellings, even after the fishing families have been given a new house. Accordingly, and in recognition of the fishing populations’ need to be near the ocean, the Government Order reads: ‘While the prime objective of the Government is to provide properly built houses in safe locations to the affected families, the Government also recognises that the fishermen people have to remain close to the sea for their livelihood’ (Order No. 172, Government Orders 2005). Thus, it seemed that even from an official governmental point of view, a certain flexibility pertained to the notion of safe locations vis-à-vis a potentially threatening nature. On plots of land located in a zone between 200 and 500 metres from the sea (zone B), new buildings were not encouraged but were allowed to be allotted to people already living there prior to the tsunami, if they would not relocate to plots further inland. In stipulating the rights of the families in this intermediate zone, the government order reads: ‘If they are not willing to move beyond 500 metres of the High Tide Line, the houses for them will be constructed in the existing locations’ (ibid.). Again, the posttsunami re-housing policy seemed to be built on a rather pragmatic stance towards the relation between safety and distance from the sea, however regulated the official zoning of the coastal areas. Beyond 500 metres from

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the high-tide line (zone C), no restrictions on buildings pertained, and for damage to houses that had occurred within this zone, financial assistance for repairs was granted, as were replacements of houses in the rare cases where buildings within this zone had been fully damaged. By designing the re-housing programme in this way, the Tamil Nadu State Relief Commissioner was ‘sure that the guidelines will be helpful in the planning and construction of houses and help in reducing the future risk’ (Santhanam 2005: 2). As the responsible authority, the state of Tamil Nadu planned to provide the citizens affected by the disaster with safety by way of solid walls and secured locations, even though upon closer inspection the government’s official rules, too, proved to be somewhat bendable. In any event, under the common heading of ‘Build Back Better’ the government initiated the giant re-housing scheme, the local implementation of which I had ample opportunity to follow during my fieldwork. In Tharangambadi 1,500 new permanent houses to accommodate the tsunami-affected were planned for by early 2005 and were granted funding by international donors. While some of the houses, as that of Saravanan mentioned above, were reconstructed in people’s existing plots within the 200–500 metre zone, the vast majority of the new houses were to be located in what has now in effect become a whole new fishing village situated on a large plot of land beyond the restricted area. The new village is located about 600–1,000 metres from the shoreline, neighbouring the place where some small Dalit hamlets were located before the tsunami, and which was then considered to be outside the village. While it has remained the responsibility of the government to provide the infrastructure to the new houses by supplying electricity, water, drainage, roads and so on, the Tamil Nadu authorities have delegated the house construction as such to non-governmental agencies in a public–private partnership. In Tharangambadi the appointed implementing agency was the South Indian Federation of Fishermen’s Societies (henceforth SIFFS), an influential interest group originally based in Kerala and founded to ensure the rights and fair treatment of small-scale fishing communities in South India. At the time of the tsunami, SIFFS already had quite a strong footing in Tharangambadi and was generally seen by the fishing community as a trustworthy organisation, even if it had never been engaged in housing projects before. The new houses constructed by SIFFS in Tharangambadi were offered in seven different optional designs, all of which complied with the state government regulations with regard to size, cost and manufacture, and were furthermore designed to mirror the house layouts traditionally found in Tamil fishing villages. Usually, a house in the fishing village of Tharangambadi would have one or two (or in rarer cases three) small rooms, one of which would often be a semi-open hall, in which to receive

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guests and socialise, the other a bedroom and storage for clothes and other personal belongings. A kitchen would usually be found in the easternmost end of the house opposite the entrance. In the larger houses a small and more or less sealed off separate room would be devoted to conducting pujas (Hindu worship) as well as storing the inhabitants’ most valuable belongings. In smaller houses only a shelf with icons, figurines, incense and other puja paraphernalia would display the religious practices. Inside, the walls were often lined with shelves, lines, and racks on which clothes, suitcases, sleeping mats, school books, and other belongings would be stored. Some traditional homes would be furnished with a bed, plastic chairs, and a closet for clothes. Most often, a TV would occupy a central place in the largest of the rooms. A roofed porch or a small patio, sometimes surrounded by a compound wall, would often be attached to the houses for purposes of bathing, washing clothes or dishes and for storage of water. In terms of building materials, most of the houses have been built of bricks, rendered and then whitewashed and painted on both the insides and the outsides. The roof on most traditional houses would be a tall tent-like construction with bamboo sticks tied together with coir rope to which palm leaves are attached, although some houses of the relatively wealthier families have red, tiled roofs. Most of the more recently built and larger houses have been built with flat cement roofs, accessible by an outside staircase. Prototypes of five of the seven designs for the SIFFS houses were constructed in Tharangambadi in early 2005 to give people an idea of the features of each model and thus inform their choice. The two remaining models were built in the nearby village of Chinnankudi where SIFFS was also operating to construct an additional 500 houses. From the outset, an integral part of SIFFS’ strategy was to include the villagers as much as possible in the construction process as an attempt to ensure that the beneficiaries would come to feel ownership of their new houses. Within certain limits and in addition to selecting the colours of the houses, the individual families to whom the homes were allotted were permitted to make individual changes to the model houses such as adding extra doors and shelves, moving room-dividing walls, changing the planned-for functions of the room, or preparing the houses for petty businesses. The fishing households of Tharangambadi were usually constituted by nuclear families, though extended households comprising three generations were not uncommon. In any case, the nuclear households would often have close family ties with other nuclear units, and the distinction between the two types of family organisation is not always easy to make (Uberoi 2003). Traditionally, most of the houses in the fishing village have formally been owned only by male heads of the household, according with the custom of patrilocal residence, but with a view to better ensuring the women in the event of a family break-up, the

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Tamil Nadu government took the opportunity of re-housing to change this tenure practice. Thus, SIFFS’ ambition to impart a common feeling of ownership was backed in a very literal sense by the mandatory practice of ascribing the tenure of the new houses to both the husband and the wife in any one household, and by the government further stating that ‘Any transfer of the share of the wife’s property to the husband will be declared void’ (Order No. 172, Government Orders 2005). In the cases where widows or widowers were the recipients, the formal ownership of the houses was to be shared with the eldest son or daughter of the surviving parent. In that sense, the rebuilding of Tharangambadi contributed to a reformatting also of social relations. Furthermore, as per official government order, the SIFFS houses cannot be sold or mortgaged within a period of ten years from the date of their completion, and during this period maintenance of the houses will be the responsibility of SIFFS through funding from the original donors. At the onset of the construction process, SIFFS formed so-called cluster committees, the members of which would each represent about 50 families from the fishing community. The representatives served as middlemen between SIFFS and the households and were appointed to make sure that all families were thoroughly informed about the construction of their particular house, and that their wishes for design were recorded and communicated to the constructors. SIFFS also made it possible for the families to perform various pujas on the auspicious days of laying the first cornerstone, for warding off evil and envious eyes (see Daniel 1987: 105ff. for a thorough analysis of Tamil conceptions of the house). Even if SIFFS in this way made a great effort to make the beneficiaries feel ownership of the newly constructed houses, the housing scheme has been subject to criticism from outside observers and practitioners, who have found SIFFS to be insensitive to local housing culture (Duyne Barenstein 2006; Duyne Barenstein and Pittet 2007). The new houses, it is argued, have replaced ‘environmentally and culturally appropriate housing with reinforced concrete cement (RCC) houses’ (Duyne Barenstein and Pittet 2007: 3). While it is indisputable that the new houses have been made of cement, I am less convinced that this was in itself seen as inappropriate from the point of view of the recipients of the houses. Complaints among the beneficiaries that some request or other had been overheard were quite common among the villagers and were generally ascribed to both the time pressure on SIFFS to complete the houses and to lack of communication between recipients and contractors. So while protests about delays in the completion of the houses, insufficient information about the process, and inequities as to which families were allowed to make which alterations to their houses featured ever so often, I never once heard any of the new house owners complain that the design and construction of the SIFFS houses as such contradicted a favoured

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traditional or local building style. In fact, even before the tsunami, families who had recently had new homes built for themselves had often made use of the same building materials and design as SIFFS, and had made houses with flat roofs that left room for later extension. In the eyes of many villagers, concrete and cement were considered both solid and modern and were furthermore seen as a sign of wealth. The only problem with the concrete and cement used by SIFFS that I heard talk of during fieldwork was that it was rumoured to be diluted with too much sand, which weakened the construction and the solidity of the houses. This dilution was ascribed by the villagers to the fact that the costs of building materials had skyrocketed due to the sudden high demand all over the state of Tamil Nadu on account of the tsunami. Some villagers attempted to solve this particular problem by buying bags of cement to give to the masons working on their particular house so as to improve the quality of their walls. Even though the houses were given to them, the villagers did not leave their construction to chance. Among the recipients there was ample discussion about the new houses, only not, it appeared to me, along the lines of vernacular versus culturally inappropriate building practices. For the villagers, the crux of the matter seemed to be the extent to which they themselves could practically influence the construction of their houses and have a say in the layout in order to make habitable homes out of the houses. Homes are affective spaces conceived on the basis of experience, daily practices and memories and, as Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson have suggested, the place where we know ourselves best (1998: 9; see also Blunt 2005; Carsten 1995; Telle 2007). If this is the case, surely any house must be appropriated as a home for it to be significant to its inhabitants. When outside observers state that the new SIFFS houses are inappropriate and culturally insensitive, this to me illustrates both a somewhat naïve view of homes as products that can be completed and handed over once and for all, and an untenable view of the recipients as passive occupants of material structures donated to them by authorities. In this light, the stated and official aim of the re-housing policy to bring the lives of the affected back to normality would entail that the villagers be given the possibility of actively engaging with the structures built to accommodate them. In addition, many house owners initially said that the new houses, with the stipulated size of approximately 30 square metres, were too small, and they informed me that they would want to add an extension to the house when and if the required funding could be mustered. Often even the houses that had been handed over to the beneficiaries and had been declared completed would have metal bars for future extension protruding from the roof or walls. During fieldwork I repeatedly heard prospective inhabitants of the SIFFS houses highlight this possibility of future enlargement as an attraction in itself. The houses were praised

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as much for what they might become as for what they were to begin with, which was also apparent from Saravan’s example presented in the beginning of the chapter. While there is nothing extraordinary about wanting a spacious home, neither here nor there, the repeatedly stated wish for expanding the houses struck me as somewhat remarkable, given that the houses where the families lived prior to the tsunami were often smaller than the SIFFS houses, and yet no one I talked to about this issue mentioned any plans of extending their original pre-tsunami house. Clearly, something other than the mere number of square metres was at play. It seemed to me that one way of understanding the wish for extensions is to see it as yet another means of practically acting to recover a sense of being at home in a life situation otherwise marked by insecurity and rupture. Instead of viewing an unfinished and inoperative house as a source of instability it was apparently seen as holding a promise of an ability to act by designing a building otherwise seen as a structure imposed from the outside. In a sense, the planned-for extensions served as a means of actively getting the future back in place. In coining the idea of the ‘dwelling perspective’, Ingold (2000) has suggested that our mode of being in the world rests on active engagement with its constituents in an ongoing process of world-construction. This perspective entails that worlds are not completed before they are inhabited but are in a process of continuous and interminable becoming through the practices of the people who dwell there. Ingold thereby posits a distinction between the activity of building and that of dwelling, which is relevant here. In this sense, the discussions about and, indeed, the practice of adding extra rooms to the new SIFFS houses can be seen as a clear and literal illustration of Ingold’s point that a world cannot be completed before it is lived in. The steps in a building procedure aside, living in a home is an ongoing activity in everyday practical engagements. The private supplying of bags of cement on the part of the house-ownersto-be instructed me in a very concrete sense that the villagers knew only too well that they were the ones who had to build back better, in order to actively make for themselves an affective space where they would know themselves best, regardless of exact geographic location.

Bereavement and Moving On The surf of the Bay of Bengal is an ever-present sensuous backdrop in the fishing village. During fieldwork, even if I could not see the water I was constantly reminded of the proximity of the sea, whether by its sound or by the gusts of wind carried from it onto the shore. The sudden shifts of wind, temperature, and waves that were characteristic for the place would often appear slightly ominous to me, and particularly on days with heavy

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winds, I tried to attune all senses to make sure that everything was all right and that no wall of water was approaching. In the course of all my fieldworks, during conversations and interviews taking place near the seashore, the villagers would often jump to their feet if someone yelled or ran by their place. This was the way most villagers had first been alerted on the day of the tsunami, and for years many survivors still reacted impulsively with fear to sudden, loud sounds or hurried movements. Some of the first Tamil words I learned were those of flowers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and other vegetables sold out of autorickshaws driving around the village advertising their goods through powerful loudspeakers. Early on, I began to listen for these words in order to make sure that these announcements were not urging us to evacuate the coastal zone in response to some pending hazard. Indeed, the hearing sense appeared as important as vision in paying attention to the surroundings (cf. Feld 1996; Ingold 2000). This general and shared atmosphere of disquiet, however, did not cause the survivors from the fishing community to simply want to shift to safer territory further inland in order to escape the vagaries of nature. In the course of a few minutes, Latha would tell me about the problems brought on by an extraordinarily wet monsoon season of 2005 that had flooded her temporary home and yet conclude that relocation to the new SIFFS village was not really tempting. Many people from the fishing community explained their hesitancy by the fact that it would complicate the catching and processing of fish if they moved further away from the seashore, but even people not directly involved in the fishing trade initially doubted that there were inherent advantages in living in the new houses. Through all of these ongoing discussions of the new houses, it became clear that to many survivors their traditional dwellings and sites of living – prior to and after the tsunami – were intrinsically connected to practical skills and livelihood tasks that constituted their everyday life. According to Ingold, a task can be defined as ‘any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling’ (2000: 195). In the light of this, home is the place where the routines of daily life that mediate one’s identity can be performed (Rapport and Dawson 1998; Olwig 1998). The routines are interrelated, and jointly comprise what Ingold has referred to as a taskscape, the significance of which is attained by people’s active engagement with an environment which is thereby continuously created. The forms of taskscapes come into being through practice. In the words of Ingold: ‘Music exists only when it is being performed; it does not pre-exist, as is sometimes thought, in the score, any more than a cake pre-exists in the recipe for making it. Similarly, the taskscape exists only so long as people are actually

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engaged in the activities of dwelling’ (Ingold 2000: 197). However much the bereaved villagers of Tharangambadi feared another tsunami, their mode of dwelling – in which places occur, rather than merely exist – was not spatially dissolved by the disaster, as much as by the prospective impairing of the performance of livelihood tasks. The shift to safer ground seemed to come at a price and to threaten the taskscape by complicating the practical activities of dwelling. As Mines has noted, the village (the ur in Tamil) occupies a central position in the lives of many Tamils, essential to how they understand their place and movement in the world (Mines 2008: 202). Although, of course, the new SIFFS village might eventually become an ur in its own right, at the time of its construction it held no such quality as a site that people considered central to their being in place. Concrete fishing activities aside, survivors’ ideas of housing and re-housing also reveal a general feature of the experiential engagement with the world after dramatic events such as the tsunami and point to a complexity in identifying and localising the import of the tsunami, even if it hit very specific and identifiable sites. Consequently, many survivors chose to remain in or return to their original seashore houses partly because these framed the commonly practised taskscape, partly because the mere shifting to a different place further inland neither alleviated the general sense of uncertainty watermarking the lives of many villagers, nor erased the memories of the disaster in the minds of those directly hit. Meeting Tamilarasi made this abundantly clear. The first time I met her was in February 2005. I came to her small house near the seashore just opposite the temple in the fishing village together with Renuga to inquire about a bicycle that she had for hire. The bicycle was a man’s cycle, and we eventually agreed that the bike would be too big for me. This meeting was to be the first in a long series of encounters during all of my fieldworks, which, apart from evolving into a kind of friendship, confirmed that I had to carefully consider the issue of housing and re-housing vis-à-vis the diverse tsunami experiences and the role of settlement in the overarching recovery process. Tamilarasi was born at the beginning of the 1960s and had two children, a boy named Narassiman and a younger girl called Arulmulzhi. When I got to know Tamilarasi, she was a widow and a housewife without any formal employment. Together with her mother-in-law she made a living by preparing and selling dried fish to local customers. Tamilarasi also made a small profit from providing small-scale loans in the community, thereby collecting interest: a business that she had taken over from her late husband. Since 1996 she had been a member of a self-help group (SHG), which compiled joint savings that could be loaned as micro-credit and occasionally ran a small-scale production of fish pickle to be sold locally. About a week after our first meeting in February 2005, I met Tamilarasi for the second time, and on this occasion she recounted her experiences

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of the tsunami and told me the story of how she lost her husband in the disaster. She and both of her children, then aged twelve and eight, had managed to escape the waves, but her husband was last seen by a neighbour falling headfirst into the water from the top of the family’s house, as he had reached down to try to get hold of a child caught in the racing currents. His body was never found. At this second meeting, I understood only too clearly why Tamilarasi had a spare bicycle. Unlike the fate of many of the neighbouring houses, the tsunami had done little material damage to the tiny family house, consisting of one room and a semi-open kitchen section and a rather large roofed veranda. Like all the tsunami-affected families, Tamilarasi was soon offered a room in one of the temporary shelters constructed either by the Tamil Nadu State Government or by various NGOs shortly after the tsunami. However, after a few weeks, a thorough cleaning and some perfunctory repairs, Tamilarasi, her children, and her mother-in-law returned to their own house, where Tamilarasi had lived since around 1980 when she was married. A new house for the family built by SIFFS was completed towards the end of 2007. Before the completion of the new house, I frequently heard Tamilarasi comment on the prospect of moving to the SIFFS village. During a talk in 2006, Tamilarasi, who seemed well aware of her own ambivalence, expressed that even though the newly constructed house would be a safer place to live because of its location on elevated ground far from the shore, she was not looking forward to going there. In fact, at the time she was not at all sure whether she would actually move there when the house was eventually handed over to her. One reason for this was that it would complicate the processing of fish for her and her mother-in-law; a view that was widely shared by all villagers engaged in fisheries on a daily basis. As we saw, the need for members of fishing communities to be near the sea was also recognised in the government order, which allowed them to retain the right to use their original houses and huts even after having received a replacement. If a home can be conceptualised as a fusion of the physical unit, i.e., the house, and the social unit, i.e., the relations to others (Mallett 2004: 68), in the case of the Tharangambadi fishing community this was supplemented by another distinct spatial dimension due to their place-specific livelihood practice. To many, the required transportation of fish and various gear between the new village and the seaside and auction site made them hesitant to relocate, although they recognised the safety provided by the site of the new village. Tamilarasi’s thoughts taught me that something more was at play than the matter of mere working space. Drinking coffee in Renuga’s house one afternoon, Tamilarasi almost offhandedly expressed a worry that moving to the new house would only revive the sad memories of her husband’s violent and untimely death. To Tamilarasi the new house seemed to be

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more intimately connected to the experience of the tsunami than her original house, from where she had to outrun the waves and where her husband had ended his days. A contradiction appeared; the prospect of living in the new house was seen to somehow imply that Tamilarasi would steadily be reminded of the tsunami rather than be provided with a means of forgetting the disaster and loss. While Tamilarasi accepted the authorities’ view that her original house was located in a disaster-prone zone, shifting to a safer place did not present itself as an immediate way of getting out of the reach of the tsunami. Tamilarasi would sometimes remark that the new house ‘is not a home’. She spoke only a little English, but home was one of the words she knew. In Tharangambadi the Tamil word vitu was often used to refer to both the house and the family home. It appeared to me as if this very nexus had been injured by the death of her husband, forcing Tamilarasi to leave her mother tongue and resort to a foreign language. At the time, the Tamil word vitu seemed to carry with it too much of the past and connote too closely an everyday life that had been dramatically changed by the tsunami. If homes are where we know ourselves best, as Rapport and Dawson (1998) have suggested, Tamilarasi had come to know herself as a widow, and it seemed important to her to act on the acknowledgement that for better or worse her original dwelling was where her identity was best mediated. By moving to a new house Tamilarasi would be faced with displacement of a different order than

Figure 3.1 Temporary Shelters and a New House under Construction, 2006

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mere physical relocation, namely an alienation from identifying with an experiential space constituted by years of inhabitation. The original house where Tamilarasi endured the tsunami and the loss of her husband, then, was not a symbol or a representation of the disaster, but rather a site for all the composite life experiences gathered through almost three decades. At the time of its completion the new house, in contrast, would have no record of dwelling and would be uniquely associated with the shattering disaster, which would then be anything but left behind. In Casey’s terminology, the place of the new house is ‘thinned-out’ and (as yet) devoid of practical and experiential meaning (2001: 407). Tamilarasi’s initial scepticism of the new house in the re-housing village could neither be explained by the fact that it did not conform to a vernacular building style, nor because she did not know about the hazards of living close to the sea. In fact, Tamilarasi explicitly said that the new SIFFS house was well designed and of strong construction. Only, these qualities had to be balanced with the prior everyday life that had unfolded in her original dwelling, of which the tsunami was but one experience out of a whole array. Sharika Thiranagama (2007) has analysed how displacement among Sri Lankan Muslims who have been evicted from their homes during the civil war can be seen as an orientation and a way of inhabiting the world. Similarly, perhaps, for Tamilarasi, who seemed unwilling or unable to recover the nexus of home and house implied in the Tamil concept of vitu. When I visited Tamilarasi again in 2008, she had eventually shifted to the new house in the new village, which was tellingly known colloquially as the ‘tsunami village’, but she seemed to have wilfully maintained her prior sense that the new house there was not quite a home. Unlike most of her new neighbours in the tsunami village, Tamilarasi had so far done nothing to her new house. She had planted no plants, made no fencing, stored no things on her plot around the house, and planned for no future alterations to the building. She did not express any dissatisfaction with her new home; she simply appeared completely disinterested. It was as if she had refused to bring mourning to an end (Das 2007: 194). It seemed to me that Tamilarasi stayed in the new house, rather than lived in it. If recovery consists in the process of interweaving the everyday and the tsunami and in conflating figure and ground, there still seemed to be too much disaster connected to the new house in the tsunami village, which did not yet offer the possibility of getting beyond the situation at hand. What Tamilarasi’s decisions showed is that even though a massive re-housing strategy has been implemented in Tharangambadi, survivors could still remain in a state of homelessness, where experience, emplotment and meaning have given way to a purely episodic tactic of simply struggling along. In distinguishing between experiencing and struggling along, I draw on the work of Robert Desjarlais and his analysis of the lives of the homeless and mentally ill in a shelter in Boston. As Desjarlais has observed:

56  |  Weathering the World The gist of experience is that it goes beyond the situation at hand. The temporal order of struggling along, in contrast, involves a succession of engagements, which can include a constant but purely episodic unfolding of events. In the shelter, economic concerns, the press of everyday distractions, and a tactical mode of agency directs the struggles toward temporally finite forms in which future, present, and past need not have much to do with one another. (1996: 87)

In the new house it seemed impossible for Tamilarasi to accommodate the temporal integration and cumulative nature that characterise the concept of experience and define it spatially as pertaining to a vitu – a home with a record of past occurrences, present activities and future plots. Tamilarasi’s struggling along, however, did not entail such a temporal integration and could be practiced anywhere in the situation at hand; as Ingold has observed, places do not have locations, they have histories (2000: 219). Outside Tamilarasi’s original house, which was still in her possession, the bicycle has remained in place. In her case, it seemed, moving on after the tsunami was not to be understood literally. Indeed, her loss was irreplaceable.

Homing In During the years following the tsunami, Tharangambadi has been the scene of a range of different housing and re-housing practices. As we have seen, some villagers have stayed behind in or returned to the beach area, only perhaps later to relocate to other dwellings. Some have moved into houses that were not yet fully operative and located in a zone which people were encouraged by the authorities to leave, and yet they consider these homes safe, as we learned from Saravanan’s example at the beginning of the chapter. Other villagers have planned for and undertaken elaborate extensions of their new houses, while others yet have shifted to the SIFFS village but done nothing to take ownership of the new house as a wilful mode of resistance against bringing the tsunami to an end, as Tamilarasi’s case showed. Furthermore, upon closer inspection the Tamil Nadu government order stipulating the rules for the re-housing policy was in fact quite elastic with regard to implementing the Coastal Regulation Zones Act, which maps the beach area into different zones of exposure to hazards. In spite of the zoning prescribed and the rule that those given a new house as tsunami rehabilitation should surrender their old one, the authorities allowed people to retain their original dwellings, thus recognising that proneness to natural hazards was only one parameter of danger in the lives of the fishing communities in the aftermath of the tsunami. The authorities, it seemed, admitted that the siting of the home for people of the fishing villages was too complex an issue to be resolved by way of metric measurement.

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However contradictory the different housing practices might initially appear, they seemed to me to be spurred by a joint concern on the part of the villagers, namely that of making their world rehabitable, whether this implied resisting a relocation considered to be premature or embracing a physical re-housing in areas officially sanctioned as safe. Perceiving threats to the integrity of people’s homes merely in terms of disaster proneness turned out to be too forensic an approach to both hazards and homes. What this shows is that the villagers’ houses – old and new – are inescapably bundled with other qualities and are records of a temporal integration of past, present and future which make up an affective and experiential space. According to Webb Keane, such bundling or co-presence of different qualities in any given object is a fact of material things; there is no way to single out, say, the colour of an apple from its round shape and sweet flavour (2005: 188). In the case of Tharangambadi, the disaster-resistant features of the houses, such as location and quality, were bundled with other co-present qualities, primarily with newness, which it takes an effort to rework in order for the houses to obtain a practical significance for their inhabitants. If experience, as according to Desjarlais, necessarily points to something beyond the situation immediately at hand, it takes time for the SIFFS houses to become experientially relevant. In contrast, the localities affected by the tsunami, even if depopulated and devastated, are not empty spots; displacement

Figure 3.2 New Houses Lining a Newly Constructed Road, 2008

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from these original locations has been comprehensive in that it has consisted in leaving people to either struggle along in an episodic mode of engaging with the world or to work over time to gradually build back better in a manner that goes beyond a mere strategy of adaptation. Rehabitation for the villagers has entailed more than mere relocation; homing in can be practiced even in a hazardous locality.

Chapter 4

On Forecasting: Wind and Water

In Tharangambadi nightfall is a sudden event, and with the scarce street lightning the village is engulfed in dark from early evening. During my fieldworks, night would often have fallen while Renuga and I had talked or gone over the day’s findings in her old house on the temple square in the heart of the fishing neighbourhood. On these evenings, Renuga’s husband Kalaimani would walk me home through the pitch-dark streets of the village to ensure a safe return to my room. Different ways of paying attention to the surroundings can be made apparent through different walking skills and through the speed of one’s walk (Lee and Ingold 2006: 70). Certainly, on these nights I was the slower walker; having trouble seeing my way and keeping the pace on the uneven streets, I would soon fall behind a few steps in my efforts to avoid rain puddles, sleeping goats, stray dogs, and other hardly visible obstacles. On the way, Kalaimani, a native of Tharangambadi who has worked as a fisherman in the village since his early youth, would keep a steady pace, all the while making a great effort to explain about the principles of navigation which must be applied in his trade. When out at sea the local fishermen traditionally navigate by landmarks, the sky and other natural phenomena that can be seen from their boats, and usually they make no use of technological devices such as compasses or GPS transmitters (Bharathi 1999: 196; Busby 2000: 39). The enskilment of the fishermen consists in an active engagement with the environment around them; an engagement that in itself produces and reproduces the locality of the sea (Hoeppe 2007: 11; Pálsson 1994). As Götz Hoeppe has observed in his comprehensive study of environmental knowledge among South Indian fishermen in Kerala, fishing is an ongoing process of knowledgemaking in which the acquisition and exchange of information about environmental conditions play a central role when the fishermen are out at sea (2007: 43). To Kalaimani and other fishermen in Tharangambadi the practice of making, acquiring and communicating environmental knowledge seemed to apply equally when they were moving about

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on land, as became apparent during the nightly strolls through the darkened village. In a quiet and concentrated manner Kalaimani would fuse English, Tamil, and various gestures to unfold for me what to make of the position of the moon, certain stars, the level and direction of the wind, the distant waves, and the density of the clouds. Of all the things we could have talked about on the short walks in the dark, Kalaimani invariably chose to communicate whatever information he deduced from his environment on the given night. It seemed almost as if he could not help himself, and for him, as for other fishermen, the attentive reading of weather conditions and natural signs seemed integrated in their every movement. Locally, among the fishermen, displaying an acute sense of nature was often said to characterise them as a people, and this ability was frequently pointed out as a prerequisite for being a male member of the fishing community (see also Busby 2000: 28; Paolisso 2003: 78). For the Tamil fishermen I engaged with in Tharangambadi, to inhabit the local world apparently implied a continuous taking stock of nature’s vagaries, and employing these observations was an indispensable part of sociocultural life (Bharathi 1999: 24). In this chapter I will take a closer look at the prominent practice and articulation of reading the weather, and its relation to conceptualisations of the tsunami. I will do this by identifying an effort on the part of the fishermen to both practically and conceptually restore and uphold a confidence in their physical environment, on which they are dependent but which turned out so malevolent on the day of the tsunami. More specifically, I will investigate the fishermen’s ideas of forecasting and the relation of these to the precautions they take and to the notions of danger they articulate as pertaining to the fishing practice in the wake of the tsunami. Whereas the previous chapter focussed on housing and people’s domestic baseline, in this chapter I will leave the homes and move outside to have a closer look at the occupational baseline. On a methodological note, I should add that this moving outside was most often also a quite literal manoeuvre, given that almost all talks with the fishermen took place outdoors, usually on the beach of the fishing settlement, where the men would either be mending the nets or watching the sea while we talked. The observations and statements on which this chapter is based present a predominantly male perspective as a result of the rather clear division of both labour and whereabouts between men and women of the fishing community of Tharangambadi. Accordingly, as a woman I never had the opportunity of participating in the actual fishing at sea, and the descriptions of this are thus built on the fishermen’s articulations about it and on the observed practice of reading the weather signs when on the shore. If the fishermen were used to taking stock of their surroundings and if this was characteristic of all their moving about, as the walks in the

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company of Kalaimani suggested, the tsunami made acute the question of how to go on reading a natural environment that had shown itself to be capable of throwing such destruction at people. As Oliver-Smith has noted, disasters reveal the ways in which people conceive the dangers in their surroundings, how they invent explanation and view ideas of continuity and future (2002: 9). My principal aim in this chapter is to investigate such local framing of perils by looking at how the fishermen gradually worked to recover a measure of trust in the environment, not by adopting technical precautionary equipment, but by recasting the ferocity and exceptionality of the disaster within an already existing and more foreseeable cycle of recurring seasonal variation and, ultimately, of global and general climatic changes (see also F. Hastrup 2008). My main point is to show that the fishermen of Tharangambadi have worked creatively over the years following the tsunami to counter the shock of the disaster by employing an implicit strategy of forecasting that restricts the danger of their trade to specific seasons and to certain climatic conditions that form part of their everyday lives and have done so long before the tsunami. In pondering on the liquidity and uncontrollability of fear, Zygmunt Bauman has some interesting ideas. He has noted that: ‘Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen’ (2006: 2). In the case of Tharangambadi, it seemed to me, the fishermen sought to keep in check the fear of the sea, glimpsed everywhere but not easily pinpointed, by anchoring it within a pattern of more or less predictable seasonal variation. Commenting on the importance of water in human lives across the globe, Veronica Strang has observed that all societies for their existence depend on there being the right amount of water at the right time (2005: 101). Certainly, the tsunami was a case of the wrong amount of water at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Recovery of life on the beach in the wake of the flood wave implied that the fishermen could restore the sense of being able to forecast weather conditions and, more broadly, the course of nature, and thus be able to respond to the tsunami as they would respond to everyday seasonal and climatic changes that are part of their ordinary lives.

Weather or Not All the way through my consecutive fieldworks, comments about wind, weather and water popped up time and again in conversations with the villagers. The comments did not just serve the purpose of striking up conversation with the visiting fieldworker; among the villagers

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themselves talk of the weather also featured prominently. In 2006 I was in Tharangambadi during the monsoon season, which is normally October, November and December, and in this period I repeatedly encountered observations as to whether the amount of rain on a given day could be considered to be within the normal measure. The villagers readily put forward and discussed conjectures about future rainfalls, and continually exchanged memories of other rainfalls, usually measured against some more or less clear idea as to what was to be expected of the season. Several times during the monsoon of 2006 I was caught off guard in a downpour and I would duck into nearby tea stalls or shops for shelter. From there, I would often have a clear view of the surprisingly fast transformation of the street in front of me into a river-like flow, and I could listen as fellow rain-soaked customers exchanged remarks about the duration of the downpours, all the while explaining almost apologetically to me about the monsoon season. Often, the heavy rains were accompanied by power cuts that caused the shop owners to light candles, thereby adding to the general atmosphere that the weather demanded special responses and restricted people’s activities at this time of year. Chaotic forces beyond human control were thought to roam freely during the wet season, and friends often warned me that I would risk catching an indistinct ‘fever’ if I ventured out while it was raining. Surely, to many people in the village the rainfalls marked a more or less routinised time-out that bracketed off hours and days and put other daily routines on hold. These challenging weather conditions were not taken lightly by the locals and they obviously had an effect on people’s actions; on the rainy days schools were often closed, public transportation was irregular, and on several occasions my appointments, trips and meetings with the villagers had to be cancelled due to rough weather. Interestingly, these departures from the normal schedules were not always made as a result of the actual occurrence of heavy rains or violent gusts of wind. Sometimes the deviations from plan during the monsoon were decided on somehow in advance, the very term rainy season seemingly being enough of a reason to close the schools for several days or to cancel some meeting or other. Departing from the ordinary schedule that people adhered to during the rest of the year seemed almost a matter of routine. Often during the months of the monsoon, I would meet children playing outside in bright sunlight, who would explain to me that they had a day off because of the rainy season. Thus, it seemed to me as if there was a widespread idea in the village that the monsoon season was a period during which the environment spilled over, so to speak, into the ordinary course of the days and had to be seen as untrustworthy even on sunny and quiet days. The villagers simply conceded the fact that the activities that they might have planned could not necessarily be carried through. It appeared to me as if the monsoon was conceptualised as both

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a recurring feature of life in Tharangambadi and as a state of emergency, suspending usual activities. The way that environmental conditions in Tharangambadi figured among us attested to the fact that nature is not just any backdrop that coincidentally frames local life; wind and weather are integral features of the local landscape and practices (Low and Hsu 2008; Strauss 2008). Thus, even if at first glance it may seem trivial to devote attention to the weather in a work dealing with a disaster as brutal as the tsunami in 2004, the discussions of these natural conditions appeared much too often during my stays in Tharangambadi for them to be given the label of inconspicuous small-talk, which otherwise often clings to remarks about the weather (Golinski 2003: 17; Harley 2003: 103). For the fishing community of Tharangambadi, the shifting weather conditions, whether actually occurring and manifest or conceptually agreed upon, played an important role in conditioning people’s orientation and activities in the local world. There is thus much point in paying attention to how the weather in pervasive ways defines the experience and practice of space (see Hsu and Low 2008; Strauss and Orlove 2003). Ingold has gone so far as to state that ‘the inhabited world is constituted in the first place by the aerial flux of weather rather than by the grounded fixities of landscape’ (2006: 17). If this is the case, the dynamics of life in the fishing village of Tharangambadi are folded into the dynamics of its weather and the ways in which this was conceptualised to frame perils of different kinds. In Tharangambadi the frequent talk about weather and climate did not, it seemed, only point backward in time towards past conditions but appeared to serve as an ongoing attempt at ordering and naming the experience of the environment in the aftermath of the tsunami. Thus, when people during my 2006 fieldwork recalled the first rainy season following the tsunami, namely the monsoon in the end of 2005, they expressed a general idea that this particular monsoon had yielded more rain than any other monsoon ever preceding it. Official records show that the 2005 monsoon was indeed extraordinarily wet, a fact that further added to the general sense among villagers that times had changed and nature was increasingly unpredictable At the time of the 2005 monsoon, I learned, most of the temporary shelters in the village had been flooded and many villagers already uprooted from their original homes had been forced to relocate once again. What was interesting was that many people directly associated this excess of rain during the 2005 monsoon with the tsunami and combined the two occurrences in a joint sense that habitual forecasting was somehow – if only temporarily – suspended, and that abnormal weather conditions could be expected from that time on. What emerges here is a series of complex connections made by the fishermen between the tsunami and the recurring weather conditions that are seen as both routine and threatening, calling for various practical

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responses. Once again, it becomes impossible to isolate the disaster from everyday features of life in the village, and, as we shall see, the responses to the disaster were completely entangled in general practices of living in the weather world.

The Landfall of Disaster On the day of the tsunami, the first of the two giant waves to strike the Tamil Nadu coast hit Tharangambadi a little after nine o’clock in the morning at a time when most fishermen from the village were at work in their boats. The fact that the fishermen were at sea at the time of the disaster proved crucial for their survival, because the tsunami waves had no harmful effect out on the open sea. In a very tangible way, the men’s survival illustrated the point that for any population whose livelihood is based on fishing, nearness to the sea can be a double-edged sword. Neighbouring the sea entailed proximity to resources as well as to danger (cf. Oliver-Smith 1999a). The fact that the tsunami had not been manifest to the men at sea made the shock all the greater, upon the men’s return from their fishing trips. In a talk with Kalaimani in February 2005 he recounted his memories of the day and reflected on the way that the scale of the disaster gradually sank in. The following is a transcript of his account, which I will cite at some length: We were out at sea and upon our return some time after midday we could not see our usual landing from the boat. So I knew that something was wrong. We talked a little about it on the boat as we approached land. As we came closer to the seashore we could se buckets, plastic jars, vessels, palm leaves from the roofs of huts, and many other such things floating around in the water. Whenever it was possible, we picked some of the things up out of the water so that we could take them back to the owners. We thought that there might have been a cyclone while we had been away, although this had not been forecasted. Some time before that, we had sailed past another village further south, where we could see that some of the houses normally in view from the boat were damaged. At the time, we had thought it was a cyclone. When we approached the beach of Tharangambadi people signalled and yelled to us that we should come ashore at once. We did not really understand why and we agreed on landing the boat at our usual place. We saw that the stretch of beach between the sea and the fishermen’s settlement was much wider than it usually is because the water had withdrawn. It was strewn with things, and some dead bodies were lying around. After landing the boat, we learned what had happened. I ran to our house. I could not go inside because the house was filled with fishing nets, mud, parts of boats, trees and the like, which blocked the entrance. The kitchen-side facing the sea had collapsed. I thought that Renuga had been trapped inside the house and I tried to look in from a neighbour’s house. But I could not see anything. After that, I just walked around confused and with no aim, crying and asking everyone I met if they had seen my wife.

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The experience of utter confusion and shock upon returning to the village that Kalaimani expresses was a recurring theme among the fishermen who had been in their boats when the disaster struck. At sea the tsunami had only registered as a soft wave, and many fishermen only identified it in retrospect when the destruction it brought about had become apparent. As Kalaimani made clear, one of the first indications that a dramatic event had happened while the fishermen were away was that the landmarks usually sought out for purposes of navigation had been altered or had disappeared. Many fishermen told me that their first inkling that something was not quite right had surfaced when they had spotted that tall palm trees, buildings on the beach, and other marks of orientation otherwise visible from the seaside were gone or had changed their appearance. In March of 2005 Selvan put it like this: We were coming back at around noon and we instantly saw that something was wrong. We had not felt anything unusual while we had been at sea but now we could not see our usual landing from the waterside, and we could not even see the village. We did not understand what had happened. The water was strange. It was not like a cyclone like we first guessed. On the boat we asked each other where is the village, where is our landing?

Again, the sense of complete disbelief was prevalent, as was the case in all of the accounts of the tsunami as an event that I came across. Surely, the fishermen were familiar with challenges posed by weather conditions, as we saw, for example, from the reactions to the recurring monsoon in the above, but once the fishermen’s habitual ways of framing peril, i.e., by guessing that a cyclone had hit, had proved inadequate, perplexity reigned. As Hugh Davies has remarked in his work among the survivors of a tsunami in Papua New Guinea in 1998, the event was completely unprecedented and the distress was thus exacerbated by fear and uncertainty, because the tsunami survivors had no prior experience with such a phenomenon (2002: 33–34). In Tharangambadi such uncertainty and confusion were prevalent in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. In the eyes of the fishermen, what seemed to have been violated was the habitual ability of forecasting and the ensuing spatial orientation otherwise characteristic of the fishermen’s engagement with the environment. As is well-known, fishing is always a somewhat precarious occupation with no guarantees in terms of catches (Acheson 1981; McCay 2001). However, to the fishermen of Tharangambadi it seemed as if a different and unexpected kind of danger had surfaced after the disaster, namely that the fundamentally relational stance towards nature that built on and conditioned the experiential capacity to forecast and to act accordingly was drawn into question. The ongoing practical production of locality usually undertaken by the fishermen had to be temporarily suspended in the wake of the tsunami in both a literal and figurative sense; the activity of fishing was put on hold, and mistrust in the sea and in the

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fishermen’s ability to manage it was pervasive (see also Thaddeus 2005). In the immediate wake of the disaster, the fishermen had no idea what the tsunami was or what it would entail, they could only make note of the fact that it was unlike any known weather event, even if under normal circumstances the fishermen knew their environment to be challenging and were used to suspending activities within specific seasons as we saw in the above. Rather than merely decoding the rupture of the tsunami and adapting to the threat of repeated disaster, an overarching attempt at regaining the confidence that the world was within their grasp was necessary in order to ensure that patterns of seasonality could be recreated and acted upon. This, it seemed, was decisive in the fishermen’s recapturing of their feeling of being at home in the environment. As Sarah Strauss and Benjamin Orlove have observed, the sequential regularity of the seasons often serves as proof of the steadiness of time’s passage and affirms the permanence of the fundamental parameters of human existence (2003: 3). Registration of and reactions to seasonal changes, then, is a matter of bestowing reliability upon one’s world – and deducing it in the process. In Tharangambadi, the fishermen understandably perceived the tsunami to be a radical breach of regularity at odds with any known sequence of seasons. The trustworthiness of the weather and seasonal changes that would otherwise confirm that human existence for the fishing community is within their grasp was thus endangered – if only temporarily – by the disaster, and the question is what the fishermen have done to regain an ability to forecast and thus to contain the effects of the disaster and restore a room for manoeuvring. The fishermen’s descriptions of the landfall of the tsunami reveal that profound confusion reigned in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Over time the fishermen, I argue, have countered this utter confusion not by simply surrendering to the idea that nature is beyond human control, but by allowing it to be conceived as uncontrollable only within certain times of year. The fishermen have thus employed a conceptual pattern of seasonality – and ultimately of climatic changes – as an ordering feature which served to reaffirm the permanence of the fundamental parameters of existence. Over the years following the tsunami, creative strategies of braving the waves have surfaced with renewed significance, an illustration of which is provided by the role widely ascribed to rough and stormy weather.

Dropping the Anchor Through all of my fieldworks, during conversations with the fishermen, they would invariably make a reference to what they called the ‘rough

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season’. Usually this period, lasting from the beginning or middle of October to the middle of December, would cause the fishing to be put almost completely on hold because the water would be too rough to sail (see also Bharathi 1999: 38ff.). The rough season coextends with the rainy season described above, when the northeast monsoon sweeps over the state of Tamil Nadu. My fieldworks in Tharangambadi span almost the entire calendar year, and while I certainly registered the heavy and frequent rainfalls during the monsoon, my inexpert eyes failed to notice any obvious or regular variations in the behaviour of the sea lining Tharangambadi, apart, of course, from the occasional storms that escape no one’s attention. In fact, to me the waves seemed quite rough throughout the year, and I never ceased to be slightly impressed when the fragile-looking fishing boats, sometimes after several attempts, actually made it through the surf without capsizing. Even if to the visiting fieldworker stormy weather did not seem to be limited to the months referred to as rough season, the fishermen still maintained that this was a period infinitely more dangerous for them than any other time of year. During one interview with a group of fishermen conducted on the beach in Tharangambadi in August 2006, I asked whether the fishermen knew of anyone who had drowned when at work. As with one voice, the men promptly answered nariya, meaning ‘many’, and began stating a number of reasons that a fisherman might drown during a fishing trip. Falling asleep in the boat, venturing out too far into the sea, sudden engine problems, fishing in the dark or while drunk were listed as immediate causes for alarm. These dangers aside, however, the fishermen made it very clear that the primary occupational risk by far was thought to be the weather during the rough season. Selvan, one of the fishermen taking part in the talk, recounted that a few years ago two young fishermen had drowned because they got caught up in the fishing nets after their boat had capsized far from the shore because of sudden powerful gusts of wind. Compared to the wooden catamarans that for centuries brought the fishermen out on the sea, the fibreglass boats which were introduced some ten years ago are much harder to turn over if they have capsized. Subramanian, another local fisherman, elaborated on this and told me that the last time a fisherman from the village had died was in December 2005, when a boat had capsized in the breaking waves close to the shore. It was dark at the time, and the other crew members on the boat did not notice at first that someone was missing, and when it dawned on them it was too late to do anything about it; the fisherman had already drowned, perhaps because, Subramanian speculated, he had been knocked unconscious and was thus unable to fight the waves and survive.

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At the time of the accident, Subramanian explained, the boat had ventured out to sea because the crew had judged that the rough season ought to have ended. To everyone’s surprise, however, the rough season was obviously not over. Importantly, in the fishermen’s narrative, the continuation of the rough season seemed to be confirmed more by the unfortunate fact that the fisherman had drowned than by any explicit recollection of what the weather was actually like on the day of the accident. Rather than acknowledging that fishing might be dangerous at any time of the year and that the easing of sea conditions towards the end of the monsoon can be tricky to define, Subramanian, backed by the other fishermen taking part in the conversation, simply emphasised that the duration of the rough season must be extended to temporally encompass the latest drowning accident. To the fishermen, the logic in this case seemed to be that the drowning accident could simply not have happened unless it was still rough season at the time of its occurrence. By implication, I suggest, this view showed that fishing outside of the rough season in turn was regarded as safe as long as the fishermen observed a few basic directives. In more general terms, then, the danger that the fishermen thought of as characterising a specific time of year was at the same time thought to be restricted to it. Rather than considering their livelihood as dangerous in general, the fishermen emphasised that the risk of fishing could be contained within a specific season that they had a word for and knew well. Thus, a temporal and conceptual framing of the perils of the sea was evident and reflected a view of the ocean as manageable at other times of year. Selvan summed up the apparent ambivalence in the fishermen’s view of the sea as both dangerous and manageable in a laconic answer to my question about whether fishing was an unsafe occupation: ‘If we thought fishing was too dangerous what would we eat and how would we make a living?’ Apart from being a pragmatic stance spurred on by a need to get by, I think this remark revealed something central to the way in which the fishermen related to the sea and to their livelihood practices vis-à-vis the potential dangers these practices entailed. It illustrated that locally there was a world of difference between knowing on the one hand that fishermen occasionally drown and on the other considering their work dangerous as such. The fact that over the course of years quite a few colleagues have died is a necessary evil, the repetition of which one can try to prevent but which must sadly sometimes be reckoned with. Designating the whole occupation and thereby the community as a group involved in a dangerous trade, however, was untenable, even if from the point of view of statistics fishing is a risky business (cf. Acheson 1981). What was interesting was that the fishermen of Tharangambadi did not express a particularly romantic stance towards the sea; their willingness to spite the risk of drowning was not based, it appeared to me, on a

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special attraction to the wet element or on an idea that they as fishermen would know the ocean well enough so as to always preclude accidents. Rather, it seemed like fishing was what the men had to do simply because they were fishermen of the fishing caste. More than being an object of an inherent appeal, the sea was presented by the fishermen as the site where they secured their income through a set of distinct procedures, which were practiced in and from the boats when the season and conditions allowed for it. Accordingly, whenever I asked fishermen returning to the beach to tell me more about how precisely they had gone about the fishing on the given day or where exactly they had been, the men would usually tell me very little about the precise catching methods. Furthermore, instead of saying where they had gone either by way of place names or by pointing out a direction, the fishermen would usually only say how long it had taken them to get there and to return. It seemed that to them there was not so much else to say, save for simply stating the obvious, namely that they had been fishing while they had been away. Conversely, when I asked the fishermen to show me their fishing gear when the boats were ashore, they would jump into detailed descriptions of the various hooks and nets and their relative advantages and disadvantages under given sea conditions. The level of detail in the fishermen’s accounts thus varied in an interesting way; with regard to questions upon their return to the shore of what they had actually done when at sea, they would reply only by referring to the generic activity of fishing for this or that number of hours. When asked about the specific usage of some piece of fishing equipment or other, they would give elaborate demonstrations and explain in detail about the usefulness of this hook over that, or of this net in comparison with another. Obviously, this variation in degree of detail proved the established methodological point that the more concrete questions one poses during fieldwork, the more detailed the answers are likely to be. In addition, however, it also seemed to reveal something more, namely that fishing was perceived as a grounded spatial activity, anchored, so to speak, on the shore. Going back to the accounts in the beginning of the chapter of how the tsunami appeared from the seaside to the fishermen who had been in their boats when the disaster struck, they showed that the tsunami too was obviously an occurrence on land; it was only on the shore that the tsunami had had a destructive effect. Accordingly, while my interlocutors clearly centred their identity on being fishermen, this identification was not limited to the actual activity of being in the boats at sea, of which they had little to say. Even community members who had taken up a different line of work, for instance as a result of the overfishing that has characterised the waters near the village for a decade or more, still introduced themselves as fishermen, as did those of the women who had nothing to do with fish professionally. Even if in recent times India has witnessed a growing dissociation between caste and occupation

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(see Karanth 1996), the fishermen of Tharangambadi still grounded their identity in being part of a social group operating a specific taskscape. The point is that being a member of the fishing community of Tharangambadi was not seen as the property merely of those who lived directly off ventures to a distinct object of nature known like the back of a hand. Rather, fishing as a practising of space seemed to serve almost as a metonym for living in a certain community. As Alberto Corsín Jiménez has noted, space can be ‘envisaged as a necessary extension of, and corollary to, the production of value’ (2003: 138). What this shows is that identification with the fishing caste for its members appeared as an identification pertaining to life in general, only a part of which was constituted by being at sea. Affirming a sense of belonging to the fishing community was a way of dropping an anchor of identity in a general sense and was not so much spurred by a particular attraction to the sea as such. Such affirmative social identity of the caste was what permitted the members of the fishing community to ignore the fact that the fishing caste has a relatively low ranking within a formal scheme of caste hierarchy (cf. Gupta 2004). The strong role of the fishing caste as identity marker was also clearly illustrated by the slightly amused responses I got when I asked some fishermen whether they liked fishing. This, I quickly gathered, was clearly beside the point and seemed equal to asking whether they liked living or why they were born into the fishing community. Clearly, in their eyes, they did not have to actually enjoy fishing in order to do it and, importantly, to want to continue doing it. The perception of fishing as a practice that was demonstrated on land by way of a concrete engagement with livelihood objects testified to the mutuality in the relation between the fishermen and their physical and material surroundings. As we saw from the bewilderment expressed by the fishermen when the landmarks had disappeared, the impairing of orientation on land was one of the effects of the tsunami, in addition to the loss of lives and the severe and immediate physical damages. In consequence, the fishermen had to act to recover from the disaster by somehow restoring the mutuality in the involvement with the environment. If this was indeed the aim of a recovery process, it should come as no surprise that the fishermen were not just looking for a means of escaping the threatening sea. Just as their wives were not necessarily tempted by the prospect of simply moving somewhere else, as discussed in the previous chapter, to the fishermen a change of occupation was not really a solution to anything, since it was their anchored spatial and practical involvement with their environment on land within a given community which had been affected by the tsunami and thus had to be recovered.

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Forecasts and Precautions If a change of occupation was neither a solution nor really an option for the fishermen, the process of recovery was located elsewhere, namely, as I have suggested above, through the ways in which the fishermen made use of a subtle temporal distinction between dangerous and safe periods of time, according to which the sea was alternately engaged with or avoided as per existing seasonal variation. Keeping the threat of the water at bay was not accomplished by giving up on fishing on account of it being a risky trade. In addition to dividing the year into safe versus unsafe seasons, this implicit and conceptual strategy of protection was apparent also through the fishermen’s upholding of a distinction between mourning the loss of friends post facto and considering fishing to be dangerous in general. In other words, as will have become clear, fishing is considered safe, whereas rough weather, encountered as a recurring and thus ordinary fact of life in specific seasons, admittedly poses a threat. In broader terms, this distinction can be said to reflect different understandings of the sea as part of an inhabited social space on the one hand, and as a distinct object beyond human control on the other. Whereas nothing can really be done about the latter, as a practice fishing can be made as safe as possible by way of various safety measures, most notably by avoiding ventures during the dangerous season. By this restriction of the danger of their trade to the rough season, during which accidents are only and sadly to be expected, the fishermen have brought to the fore a strategic means of recovering their life on the beach. When they actually do engage with the sea by going fishing they extend the everyday inhabited space out into the sea, which thus cannot pose an independent peril because of the mutuality inherent in this practical engagement, even if, of course, accidents might occasionally happen even in calm waters. When they stay ashore during the rough season, to the contrary, the sea can safely be regarded from afar as an object, the encounter with which is fraught with danger and thus to be avoided. In a sense, for the fishing community the rough season entails not only a temporally limited roughening of the waves but also a spatial shrinkage of the dwelling space. The point is that whether on land or in the boats, the fishermen seemed to view fishing as a grounded and spatial activity occurring in a social realm that can be extended into the sea, and which thus comprises, so to speak, both the wet and the dry areas of a composite site for the practices of everyday life. Fishing is simply a part of what the fishermen do because they belong to the fishing community. It seemed to me that fishing as a dangerous occupation was narrated as a statistical fact and not an experiential one – as long as the fishermen abided by basic rules, most notably staying ashore during the rough season. By taking

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this forecasting stance towards the sea, the fishermen have in a subtle way taken possession of the element which provides them with their livelihood as a site for their agency. At stake for the fishermen, perhaps, is a transformation of givenness into choice by appropriating the world as their own (see Jackson 1995: 123). A striking illustration of this overall attempt on the part of the fishermen to recover and protect their everyday life as fishermen by restricting danger to a specific season is found in the reactions to a posttsunami rehabilitation project that introduced various safety measures to the fishermen. At some point in late 2006, I was present at the inauguration of the project, which promoted a so-called ‘Sea Safety Kit’ that, along with a small booklet advising fishermen on the proper conduct when at sea, comprised lifebelts, extra water jars, a battery-driven torch, a first aid kit, biscuits, a multipurpose pocket-knife, a compass, and a mirror-like device that can be tracked by radar and used for signalling to rescue teams in cases of emergency. None of these artefacts were traditionally found onboard the fishing boats. Knowing that this safety initiative had been taken, I took to bringing a copy of the booklet when I went to interview the fishermen because it worked methodologically as an entry into discussions of safety and danger in their trade. In response to my direct question of whether the fishermen would be interested in adopting the safety equipment on their boats, all the men would affirm and praise the life-saving capacities of the equipment. However, in spite of the fact that the fishermen had expressed a clear interest in the safety kit, during my stays in Tharangambadi none of the boats actually took on the safety kit, even though it was heavily subsidised. Although it may appear contradictory that the fishermen were reluctant to bring safety equipment onto the boats and at the same time were well aware of its life-saving quality, it tied in with the logic of restricting danger to a particular season and to the violation of basic rules that I suggested above. If the fishermen did indeed start bringing safety kits onboard their boats, they would by the same token admit to the sea posing a danger in general and not just within a distinct pattern of regular seasonal variation. A preemptive measure such as bringing lifebelts on the fishing trips seemed to somehow implicitly contradict the mutuality in relating to the environment, when it was in fact engaged with. Outside of the rough season, the logic appeared to say, there would be no need for such protective equipment, because during the calm seasons the sea would behave predictably and be part of the inhabited social space, with which the fishermen identified. By analogy, if one sees someone with a hardhat or a bulletproof vest one is likely to consider the person to be at risk rather than safe, on account precisely of these very protective appliances. Thus, avoiding the rough season and articulating the danger this season is fraught with, and not embracing the safety kit, are illustrations of the same reasoning employed to recover a life neighbouring the ocean.

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Through the fishermen’s implicit narrative restriction of danger, an analytical distinction between two different conceptualisations of protection can be identified: one is based on the logic of forecasting, the other on the logic of precaution. Forecasting was what allowed both for the skilled attention to the environment during the calm seasons, as described in the beginning of the chapter by way of the nightly walks in the company of Kalaimani, and for the suspension of these skills in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as well as during the recurrent rough seasons. Such forecasting, understood as the practice of ensuring a room in which to manoeuvre, it seemed, implied that the fishermen rendered nature as inherently unreliable, or perhaps reliably dangerous, during certain periods of time – but, importantly, only during these periods. Conversely, the logic of precaution, such as implied in the promoting of the sea safety kit, could be seen as a kind of surrendering to a sense that nature can be unreliable at any time of year; a stance which was untenable for the fishing community and potentially subversive to the recovery process aimed at folding the disaster into everyday life. In other words, during the rough seasons one should have no expectation of mutuality and reliability in the relation to the sea, just as during calm seasons one should have no expectation of a danger to be prevented by way of protective equipment. The strategic use of such temporally defined externalisation of the sea from the inhabited world, I think, displayed a kind of conceptual resilience on the part of the fishermen that goes way beyond a mechanical adaptation to changed experiences. On the basis of forecasting, the fishermen alternately practiced or suspended their engagement with the dangerous element of the sea, and thereby they attempted to recover a taskscape in which they could act subjectively and according to the impetus of community belonging. Returning to the nightly walks with Kalaimani, what he seemed to do was to continuously affirm that his forecasting abilities were appropriate and to be trusted through an ongoing attention to his physical surroundings. The very fact that on the day of the tsunami the sea stood out as an unreliable and objective element has perhaps lead to an intensified emphasis on the need to maintain that the sea under normal circumstances is just a part of an inhabited whole. Only as such can it be engaged with.

In a Climate of Changing Tides By ascribing danger to the sea only in its capacity as a physical phenomenon of nature at the time of the tsunami and during rough season, the fishermen articulated a process of objectification, understood as a temporary suspension of engagement, which by implication precluded

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the intrusion of the sea on the inhabited space. While the fishermen did not in any straightforward way conflate the extraordinary event of the disaster with the ordinary challenges of the rough season to which they were accustomed, they did seem to relegate both dangers to a time and place somehow beyond the realm of their practical engagement with the sea. This, it seems to me, shows how the singular event of the tsunami gradually seeped into the existing seasonal and social fabric of fishing life. During my latest fieldwork in 2008, yet another way of externalising the unreliability of the environmental conditions had joined the references to rough season and entered the everyday vocabulary of the fishermen, this time in the guise of remarks about global climate change. All over the globe, concerns about anomalous climate conditions have surfaced and are increasingly viewed less as mishaps of nature than as emerging norms (McIntosh, Tainter and McIntosh 2000). This tendency was present in Tharangambadi, too. During the first couple of weeks of March 2008, a series of heavy rainfalls swept over the village. This was highly unexpected as the monsoon season, as mentioned, is normally limited to the months of October, November and December. Among the fishermen there was talk of this being an untimely rough season. Fishing was put on hold; small canals leading the rain water away from the houses were dug, sand bags were put around the houses to keep water out, and the villagers quietly settled to wait for better days. The ill-timed rains seemed

Figure 4.1 Fishing Life

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Figure 4.2 Monsoon Season

once again to remind the fishermen that the ability to predict weather conditions and thus to practice their everyday activities had been shaken, and they gave rise to a legion of remarks that connected this seasonal abnormity with the tsunami, which, in turn, was seen as connected with climate change. Murugan, one of the local fishermen, would ponder: ‘Look at this rain. It is not even rough season. All these changes … I don’t know, I think they have come to stay’. Interestingly, Murugan presented it as no paradox that the changes were somehow permanent; they simply marked a new order of unpredictability that the fishermen would have to learn to deal with. From now on, the fishermen seemed to agree, one might get rainfall outside of the rainy season, and all one could do is to respond to this as one would to the regular rough season. During fieldwork in 2008 it appeared as if change had come to be thought of as the rule and not as the exception. Whereas the externalisation of unpredictability was carried out mainly through the repeated references to rough season during my 2006 fieldwork, in 2008 the fishermen additionally invoked the idea of global climate change to drive out the untimely rains from their immediate environment. If, indeed, rainfall occurring at other times than during the monsoon are seen as a result of climate change, the fishermen can readily expel these rains from the realm of their own environmental engagement,

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since to members of the fishing community, climate change on the global scale is out of their area of responsibility. To me, all this amounts to an implicit local theory of environmental change that might cause us to analytically refine our understanding of disruption in the wake of a disaster. Once again, figures and grounds conflate; the tsunami, rough weather, global climate change – as well as the fishing village of Tharangambadi – can take turns in emerging as figures, with each their implicit contextualisation and each their way of expressing continuity and change. Instructed by the findings from posttsunami Tharangambadi, I believe that the question of change after disaster should not be seen as a matter of ascertaining whether or not calamities bring about changes to the localities they strike. Rather, in line with Das’ (2007) notion of dramatic events as essentially unfinished and Ingold’s (2000, 2006) idea of the inherent incompleteness of world-construction, I find it more interesting to focus on local ways of incorporating dramatic disruption into the overarching process of subject formation, which in any case is always grounded in a formatted social and temporal space (James 2003). According to Oliver-Smith and Hoffman disasters reveal a society’s capacity for resistance or resilience in the face of disruption (2002: 10). The point in this case is that such resilience hinges on local theory-making and cannot just be seen as a more or less mechanical adaptation to changed outer circumstances or unprecedented events. From the viewpoint of anthropology, adaptation is not merely generated by or within systems geared to adjust to change to a greater or lesser degree (Adger et al. 2005). Instead, adaptation and resilience reside with actual people – disaster-affected or not – who on a daily basis make sense of changing tides in a concerted and creative effort to make nature a pawn in their game rather than vice versa. I have shown that by way of strategies of externalisation, the fishermen worked both in time and with time to recover their lives in the proximity of a threatening and life-giving element by expelling the tsunami from the realm of mutual engagement with the physical environment as it unfolds in their distinct taskscape. For the fishermen of Tharangambadi what was at stake was not simply to come up with more or less efficient reactive schemes of adapting to a physical environment struck by the tsunami, such as adopting new technological aides in the trade or shifting boats and work spaces to new locations, as has been proposed by the various organisations and authorities in response to the disaster. Rather, the recovery process undertaken by the fishermen after the tsunami entailed a conceptual creativity that rendered the sea dangerous only at certain times, based on ideas of seasonal variation or what one might term a kind of temporal zoning. In stead of passively conceding to the idea that the tsunami had changed everything and made forecasting impossible, the fishermen have applied shifting perspectives on the environment and

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gradually incorporated the disaster into a recurring pattern of seasonality, and thereby externalised the changes the disaster has ostensibly brought about from the realm they actively engage with. Whereas the notion of environmental unreliability has apparently gained import during the years following the tsunami, so have strategies of keeping the uncertainty in check by way of a conceptual restriction of threat and by the ongoing practicing of weather-reading skills. In other words, as the chapter has shown, the fishermen in Tharangambadi lived off a practice undertaken in their inhabited space, and not a natural phenomenon, and this practice was structured by temporally distinguishing between safe and unsafe seasons by reference to patterns of seasonal variation that long predated the tsunami. The danger of the sea was not experienced as a feature intrinsic to the sea as an element of nature, but to the practical hazard of fishing during the rough season and during times of unpredictable climate change. The sense of having lost the ability to predict natural conditions in the days and weeks following the tsunami was gradually countered by a subtle casting of unpredictability as the expected and future order of things within specific and limited periods of time. The point is that this was a recovery of the ability to forecast and not a discarding of it.

Chapter 5

Responsibility: Agents and Agencies

Veronica, the director of a local development and women’s NGO named Rural Organisation for Social Action (ROSA), had invited me to come to the organisation’s office located on the main road of Tharangambadi a few minutes’ walk from the village bus stand at ten o’clock in the morning. When I arrived, many people were already gathered there, among whom were the staff members of the organisation, whom I had come to know quite well. Ever since my first stay in Tharangambadi in early 2005, when I had rented a room in the ROSA office building, the house had been a social base for me, and I had spent much time with the employees who were primarily local women of the fishing and Dalit communities in and around Tharangambadi. Veronica, the director, was originally from the area, but had been educated as a sociologist and development practitioner in Chennai where she had lived and worked for many years, before deciding to return to the south and start an NGO of her own in 1990. The occasion for the invite on this particular day was the celebration on 8 March 2008 of International Women’s Day. As more and more women arrived, coffee and biscuits were provided from the kitchen in the compound, while Latha and Selvi, two of the regular staff members of ROSA, were finishing a poster with the programme for the day to be displayed in the hallway. ROSA was started with financial support from the Danish state development aid agency and had ever since been a strong promoter in and around Tharangambadi of women’s rights and gender equality. The organisation was well-known among the villagers and it had a strong reputation for knowing about the troubles that many local women faced; information programmes about health issues, micro-credit group formation, and more general issues of women’s empowerment were among ROSA’s core services. These issues, however, did not feature very prominently on the posted programme for the celebration on 8 March. Instead, the poster listed games of various kinds, the first one being a competition for the making of kolams, the ornate patterns made of fine-grained chalk powder that Tamil women traditionally design

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at the thresholds of their houses (see Dohmen 2004). At some point, a whistle was blown, and on the newly swept sand in front of the house, the participating women started to make elaborate floral designs with powder in striking colours while jokingly commenting on each other’s skills and trying to convince me, who had been appointed one of three referees, that their particular kolam was to be rewarded. Later in the morning, on the dusty field across from the ROSA house, the employees of ROSA and women in other ways affiliated with the organisation embarked on a series of other games. Contests of slow bicycling and fast running provoked loud cheering among the competitors, much to the amusement of passers-by on the adjacent main road, who were clearly surprised by the unusual sight of adult women playing games in public. In the afternoon, after a handful of other games played out in the ROSA compound, we moved inside to the teaching hall of the ROSA office building. The whiteboard in the teaching hall, though, was only used for a blindfolded drawing contest that spurred more cheering and applause among us. The atmosphere was still cheerful and relaxed when, at the end of the day, Veronica talked briefly to the participants about the importance of gender equality and of women becoming self-reliant subjects, who were not to be exhaustively defined by their relational positions as daughter, daughter-in-law, wife, mother or widow, as is traditionally often the case in Indian society (cf. Busby 1999, 2000; Mines and Lamb 2002; Trawick 2003). The talk was followed by the joint singing of a handful of apparently both well-known and humorous songs in Tamil about the local women’s situation, which the ROSA staff had written some years before and had performed publicly in Tharangambadi and in surrounding villages to raise awareness about gender issues. As the day came to a close, Veronica handed out small prizes to the women who had won the day’s contests. Cups of sweet tea were provided and concluded the celebration of International Women’s Day 2008. Explaining to me the informal and intimate format of the day, Veronica later said: Many women here live tough lives. They work so hard and worry all the time – about their children, husbands and parents, and about money and their future. They are in a constant act of balancing between different expectations. Social control is strong here; rumours and allegations against women flourish easily. So let them come here and have a day off with fun and games and no demands and no surveillance. I hope this will relieve them of tensions – even if only for a day. Like everyone else, they too have to unwind sometimes. Let them do that here. To me, this is also an issue of gender equality – to be allowed to do nothing and think about nothing once in a while. Right now I can’t really give the women anything financially, but I can try to give them confidence and tell them about their human value and make them trust their own choices and hopes in life. And I can at least provide for a nice day with no strings attached, without worries.

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Figure 5.1 Slow Cycling Contest on International Women’s Day, 2008

It so happened that I had also been in Tharangambadi on 8 March of 2005. Three years before, however, ROSA had arranged no celebration of International Women’s Day. Back then, Veronica told me that she had called off her usual programme for the day because she felt that the dozens of NGOs which were operating in Tharangambadi at the time in response to the tsunami left no room for her activities. According to Veronica, the sudden proliferation of foreign NGOs in the village after the tsunami meant that the stationed aid workers were practically competing for villagers to be enrolled in rehabilitation programmes of various kinds, through which they could receive benefits of all sorts. Veronica wanted no part in such a humanitarian race and explained at the time that she had decided to lay low for a while. Worldwide, more private foundations, NGOs, national bodies and multilateral agencies took part in the rehabilitation process after the tsunami than in any previous case of emergency (Stirrat 2006; Telford, Cosgrave and Houghton 2006; Walls 2005). Commenting on this, former US president Bill Clinton, who was appointed the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Rehabilitation, noted that: ‘With nothing but good intentions, the international community descends into crisis situations in enormous numbers and its activities too often leave the very communities we are there to help on the sidelines’ (cited in Telford,

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Cosgrave and Houghton 2006: 3). To Veronica, who did indeed seem to feel left on the sideline in the immediate wake of the disaster, the newly arrived ‘tsunami NGOs’, as they came to be called colloquially, worked in a contradictory way. On the one hand, the tsunami NGOs wanted to model their aid programmes in ways that imitated already existing development-oriented projects, such as the much lauded micro-credit system, founded on principles of self-help and permanent empowerment of the beneficiaries. On the other hand, the tsunami NGOs spent their seemingly inexhaustible funds inundating the villagers with donations of all kinds, often in a quite uncoordinated way, which meant that the villagers received relief materials that they had already received from elsewhere or that were essentially not needed. Veronica shook her head at all this. It was not that she opposed the distribution of relief materials as such; she certainly recognised that it had definitely ameliorated the life situations of those affected by the disaster. She just found fault with the underlying logic of the tsunami NGOs, which encouraged the recipients’ self-reliance and active participation in the rehabilitation process, all the while dumping an abundance of sometimes less than vital material support on the locals – who understandably endorsed the offerings. In Veronica’s eyes, in the early days following the tsunami, the activities of the tsunami NGOs instilled an unhelpful passivity in the villagers who seemed to her so preoccupied with obtaining material aid that they surrendered their own independence. As she laconically remarked when she explained why she had cancelled the usual women’s day programme in 2005: ‘Right now is not the time to advocate self-reliance. It is not in high demand at the moment’. In this chapter I will focus on the issue of disaster aid delivered to the fishing community in Tharangambadi by a range of humanitarian actors arriving in Tharangambadi after the tsunami. Rather than evaluating the disaster relief and the ensuing rehabilitation work as provided by NGOs, private foundations, multilateral agencies and national authorities, as various reports and surveys have already done, I will concentrate on the ways in which the villagers of the fishing community received, processed and discussed the humanitarian support. In doing so, I attempt to analyse more generally the ways in which the distributed humanitarian aid was folded into already existing patterns and practices of negotiating local political authority and of managing of resources and privileges. My overall argument in this chapter is that although the sudden influx of humanitarian players in Tharangambadi after the disaster amplified ongoing negotiations of authority and strategies of distribution of resources, this shift was one of intensity rather than kind. I thus suggest, contrary to observers who are fiercely critical of the allegedly invasive nature of the humanitarian response to the tsunami, that in the case of Tharangambadi the members of the fishing community generally did not

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conceive of the arrival of humanitarian organisations as an inappropriate foreign incursion on their local world. Instead, I will demonstrate that after the first confused weeks of immediate emergency, the individual recipients of aid handled the presence of the incoming humanitarian actors as they would deal with other institutions of governance that structured their daily lives, most notably the so-called ‘fisherman panchayat’, the caste-based council of male elders ruling the fishing community of Tharangambadi. Similarly, the members of the fisherman panchayat did what they always do, namely made decisions on behalf of the whole fishing community, even if these decisions were highly contested by villagers under the panchayat rule, most notably by the women devoid of formal political influence. My point in approaching the incoming humanitarian aid as completely intertwined with existing local structures of governance is not to simply acquit the outside aid agencies of any faults, but to question what I think is often a too neat distinction between local (hence ‘appropriate’) and non-local (hence ‘inappropriate’) humanitarian support. As will become clear in the following, the humanitarian support was to a large extent channelled to individual recipients through local political actors – who, I should add, are obviously capable of acting inappropriately as well as appropriately in their own right. Apparent from Veronica’s comments above, the fault of the tsunami NGOs was perhaps not so much that they were non-local, but rather that their activities built on a view of the villagers as passive, which to some extent became a selffulfilling characteristic in the immediate wake of the tsunami. With regard to the humanitarian support delivered to Tharangambadi, I thus suggest, the distinction between passivity and agency seemed a more important parameter for the locals’ evaluation of the appropriateness of the humanitarian support than the distinction between the non-local and local origin of the donor organisations. The recovery process undertaken by the survivors did not just consist in simply receiving the support in order to restore their material wellbeing. Additionally, what the villagers, especially the women, needed to recover and uphold was the ability to actively endorse or oppose, as the case may be, the general organisational structures that regulated their lives and distributed privileges in the village, whatever the origin of these structures. Once again we see a merging of an extraordinary course of events, namely the arrival of many non-local humanitarian actors after the disaster, with the ordinary structures of village life, namely the role of the local panchayat as a distributive and governing body. What I point to here is a collapse of the local and the non-local, as well as of the normal and the unique; all of these adjectives appear as highly contingent: a result of the villagers’ conceptualisations of both the tsunami and of Tharangambadi. Although profound confusion reigned in the weeks

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following the tsunami, the survivors in Tharangambadi did not cease to see themselves as responsible agents in their everyday lives because of the arrival of numerous humanitarian agencies, as the criticism directed at the tsunami NGOs sometimes seems to propose (see also Bavinck 2008; McCabe 1990).

Local Level Humanitarian Support It is widely recognised, not least due to anthropological analyses of emergency situations and to the headway made by applied anthropology in general, that humanitarian agencies benefit from the guidance and cooperation of local persons and institutions to help distribute the humanitarian support to a given community (Crewe and Harrison 1998; Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999). As Hoffman and Oliver-Smith have noted, relief agencies run the risk of objectifying victims and of producing an unsound dependency among recipients; they might even provide disaster aid that is culturally inappropriate and insulting (1999: 11). Not unexpectedly, the humanitarian response to the tsunami did not steer clear of criticism from observers and practitioners, even though India overall received praise for its swift reaction to the disaster and for assuming full responsibility for the coordination of the support (Walls 2005). In general, however, a lack of cooperation and networking between the numerous humanitarian agencies reacting to the tsunami is said to have characterised the relief effort in India as well as in the other countries struck by the tsunami (see Fernando and Hilhorst 2006; Kilby 2007; Stirrat 2006). In evaluation reports taking stock of the international humanitarian reaction to the disaster and the lessons learnt for future responses to natural calamities, the sudden abundance of NGOs and agencies present in the affected areas and the record-breaking amounts of money collected from donors are invariably highlighted as causes for alarm at best and as instances of inappropriate aid at worst. As Jock Stirrat (2006) has remarked with regard to the tsunami response in Sri Lanka, from an overall perspective the immediate relief effort was chaotic and marked by a fierce competition between the humanitarian agencies to identify rehabilitation projects to embark on; a view that was also expressed by Veronica in the above (see also Bavinck 2008; Fernando and Hilhorst 2006). In order to find ways of spending the funds – preferably in highly visible ways to satisfy donors and media alike – the humanitarian agencies were often said to act impetuously without surveying the exact local needs in any given area (Stirrat 2006). The allegation that the humanitarian actors, however well-intended their programmes might have been, simply ran over helpless and secluded communities and disturbed inherent local balances runs as an

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undercurrent through the soul-searching assessments of the tsunami response produced by the agencies involved. Thus, the evaluation reports that I have gone through invariably conclude that the agencies and organisations that managed to find locally based partners to collaborate with were the most successful in ensuring that the design and course of the relief and rehabilitation work did in fact suit the beneficiaries (Bhattacharjee 2005; Cosgrave 2007; Joint Report 2006; Telford, Cosgrave and Houghton 2006). Generally, according to the evaluation reports, it is not seen as sufficient to merely inform the people affected by the disaster about the intended aid efforts; the receiving community should be seen as the owners of the post-disaster response, implying that the local recipients be given a direct say in the shape and course of the relief and rehabilitation projects. As a central recommendation on how to improve humanitarian disaster responses in future cases of emergency, John Cosgrave states: ‘The international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities … This change will only be possible if the affected population “owns” the relief response and aid agencies hold themselves accountable to affected people’ (2007: 22). In Tharangambadi, too, this was established wisdom within the posttsunami humanitarian community that had formed after the disaster. In early 2005, a team of civil society professionals formed the NGO Coordination and Resource Centre in the district capital Nagapattinam. The centre was a valuable source of information, as it arranged meetings for NGOs and government departments working in the district, published weekly newsletters on the ongoing relief efforts, printed compilations of government orders issued by the Tamil Nadu State in matters of tsunami rehabilitation, compiled and distributed evaluations and other information from the many organisations involved in the humanitarian response in the area. On the ground too, all the representatives of relief and rehabilitation organisations that I met during the different stages of my fieldwork seemed well aware of the potential pitfalls pertaining to their work. When I talked with them, they did much to counter the seemingly often heard critique that they were indifferent to specific local concerns and were only out to follow their own agendas or, even worse, to implement the dubious schemes of distant financial kingpins out of touch with realities on the ground. During the interviews that I conducted, the aid workers (from elsewhere in India as well as from abroad) would usually emphasise to me their policy of working with local institutions which were present in the fishing village even before the tsunami and which would thus presumably have a certain standing within the local community. Words like transparency, participation, ownership and accountability echoed as mantras through the humanitarian community in the village as prerequisites of a successful post-tsunami rehabilitation

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process. In order to make the aid ‘community-based’ there was simply no way around actively working together with local bodies of authority. In the fishing community of Tharangambadi, as elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, the humanitarian community’s strategy of collaborating with a local stakeholder was implemented through cooperation with the local caste council of elders, the fisherman panchayat, which took and was given the responsibility of mediating between the humanitarian donors and the individual recipients of aid (cf. Bavinck 2008). The caste-based panchayat system is a pan-Indian village-level political structure of traditional non-state and extra-judicial councils, which rule on all kinds of issues pertaining to the caste in question. Thus, throughout India, the caste panchayats settle internal disputes among members of the community, issue fines to transgressors of rules and social customs, mediate in all kinds of inter-community and domestic affairs, and rule in matters of property and inheritance, as well as represent the community vis-à-vis outside actors and institutions. The caste panchayats also have the authority of excommunicating members from the community; a sanction to which I shall return towards the end of this chapter (see also Bavinck 2001, 2008; Bharathi 1999; Chowdry 2004; Dumont 1980: 167 ff.; Hayden 1983; Karanth 1996). Traditionally, the caste panchayats of the fishing communities along the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu are well-organised and powerful, serving at once to create and confirm the social unity of the fishing castes (Bavinck 2001, 2008; Bharathi 1999). In Tharangambadi, as elsewhere along the coast, the fisherman panchayat played an absolutely central role with regard to distributing and organising the humanitarian support provided by outside actors after the tsunami. The incoming humanitarian actors would usually address the panchayat as a means of getting admission to the village, thereby disregarding formal authorities on town or district level. This meant that from the onset of the rehabilitation effort, the panchayat was given or took custody of all the relief materials donated to the fishing community, regardless of the donors’ identity, and would then oversee the further distribution to the fishing households. The stated aim of this practice, which for a while transformed the village temple into a storage for relief materials, was to ensure that each affected household in the fishing village would be given an equal and fair share (see also Gomathy 2006; Thaddeus 2005). This channelling of humanitarian support through a local institution meant that it was often unclear to the receiving villagers exactly which relief organisation or institution was responsible for which donations. Often, especially during my fieldwork in 2005 when the humanitarian actors were most active and present in the greatest numbers, when I asked the villagers about the origin of some relief item or other, they would not be sure of its provenance and simply remarked that the item had been donated to them by the fisherman panchayat. In

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spite of banners around the village flashing the name or acronym of this or that humanitarian player, the exact identity of the actors involved in the tsunami rehabilitation was unimportant to the survivors. The villagers would know the organisations by their names, since these were printed on numerous office buildings, temporary shelters, water tanks, fishing boats, iceboxes, suitcases, and all such things that had been given to the villagers in the wake of the disaster. The names, though, seemed to remain just that in the eyes of the villagers: words that had no specific referential connection to the organisation behind or the values it might have promoted, but which could be used as designations and points of direction when moving about in the village. ‘Let us meet opposite the World Vision temporary shelter,’ Arivu, my friend from the fishing village, might say. Fieldwork showed that the individual recipients of aid were largely indifferent to the exact identity of individual humanitarian actors due, at least in part, to the mediating role of the fisherman panchayat. In consequence, it is important to deal with the issue of the incoming aid by looking at it as analogous to the ways in which the fisherman panchayat more generally exerted its regulatory authority and to the ways that the fishing villagers actively engaged with the power of the panchayat in matters unconnected to the tsunami. In a new article about the role of the caste panchayats in post-tsunami Tamil Nadu, Maarten Bavinck makes a comparable point that I want to quote here: ‘From the point of view of institutional action, disasters such as the tsunami are not fundamentally different from other occasions, which either limit collective options or create opportunities for fishing communities’ (2008: 89). Because the authority of the fisherman panchayat in Tharangambadi was pervasive, as was its insight into the exact demographic composition of the village, both the newly arrived tsunami NGOs and the formal district authorities implementing the Tamil Nadu State Government’s official disaster relief response relied heavily on its services after the tsunami. What appeared was an interesting interrelation between the formal authorities at district or town level on the one hand, and the caste panchayat on the other. In a way, it seemed as if even the official authorities needed the cooperation of the caste panchayat to operate in the fishing village. Conversely, the caste panchayat did not seem to think that it was obliged to inform or otherwise include the authorities in its deliberations; even though the Tamil Nadu State relief effort was structured along government orders, the implementation of the work depended on the local panchayat. Thus, more concretely, the fisherman panchayat was asked to provide lists with names of the deceased whose families were eligible for the large compensation sums given by both the Tamil Nadu State and the Federal Indian Government (Order No. 574, Government Orders 2005). It was also put in charge of the registration of loss and damage to houses, fishing

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boats, engines and other maritime equipment, and it was instrumental in the allocation of both temporary and permanent housing to the displaced fishing families. Furthermore, the fisherman panchayat was consulted by the official Tamil Nadu authorities when they had to reissue lost identity papers, ration and family cards, on the basis of which the state’s relief packages and compensation sums were distributed. In addition to these obligations assigned to it from donors and authorities, the fisherman panchayat also acted on its own initiative to obtain and regulate material support of other kinds. Consequently, the material and financial aid delivered from outside donors and from state authorities to the fishing community was redistributed to the individual fisherman households almost exclusively through the local caste panchayat, which thereby came to play an extremely important role with regard to managing the sudden swell of resources in the wake of the disaster. To say the least, then, the fisherman panchayat worked as the much sought after local body that could be appointed to efficiently channel the aid on to the households under its governance. According to the recommendations concerning good donor practice, the tsunami NGOs had thus met their own ideal of finding local collaborators with a hands-on knowledge of the community in question. Ironically, though, in Tharangambadi, no one – in many cases, as we shall see, not even the members themselves – would have described the fisherman panchayat as characterised by transparency, participation, ownership or accountability – the catchword ideals of the humanitarian actors to be ensured through a partnership with local organisations. On the contrary, throughout my fieldwork, the villagers continuously questioned – more or less openly – the deliberations of the fisherman panchayat and made repeated claims that it was liable to corruption and that it had cheated with the tsunami donations. The very local institution seemed in itself somewhat estranged from the people it governed, and as such it was a constant subject of debate, especially among the women, even if in effect the villagers had to comply with its decisions. Thus, while both self-scrutiny and collaboration with local organisations are laudable and recommendable ambitions of humanitarian actors, as is the beneficiaries’ partaking in relief work, what I want to point out here is that working with a local organisation, such as the fisherman panchayat, does not necessarily guarantee that the humanitarian support is distributed in an inclusive and transparent manner. My fieldwork revealed to me that the ideas about a community’s own relief priorities and community participation, which were widely invoked by humanitarian actors, were highly contestable from within the community itself. With regard specifically to the disaster aid donated to the fishing community of Tharangambadi, I often came across hushed allegations that a certain percentage of the aid was simply

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never redistributed – except, rumour had it, among the members of the fisherman panchayat themselves. In 2005, for instance, word was around that the fisherman panchayat had refrained from informing the authorities that a child who had initially been reported missing had in fact survived and returned to his family. This negligence on the part of the fisherman panchayat was supposedly an attempt to pocket the compensation sum, which was given by the authorities to all households that had lost family members. Similarly, the fisherman panchayat had reportedly provided the tsunami NGOs with exaggerated estimations of the costs of replacing the destroyed fishing boats and other equipment, so that the members could keep the unspent funding once the boats and gear had been delivered. Even though, given the nature of corruption, I could not verify these allegations, the fact that they were put forward at all was significant and testified to the complex status of the fisherman panchayat as both extremely powerful and subject to fierce criticism among the people under its authority. Olivia Harris’ comments on the ambiguous relation between a legal rule and its corruption are relevant here, because she points exactly to the dubious position that those supposedly enforcing the rule occupy if they accept corruption. In Harris’ words, one could say that, ’at the very point of operation of the law, there is uncertainty as to whether those involved are inside or outside’ (1996: 10). In Tharangambadi, it appeared, the idea that local stakeholders should take possession of the relief effort was perhaps taken a bit too literally by the fishermen panchayat. Even if the tsunami NGOs, eager to provide community-based relief, would probably be astonished by the often quite blatant accusations among the villagers about the corruption of the fishermen panchayat, the collaboration with which should ensure transparent and inclusive donations, the local villagers, conversely, did not seem shocked by these flaws. In fact, during fieldwork it registered as a constant undercurrent in the discussions among people from the fishing village that the fisherman panchayat was prone to irregularity and corruption. Indeed, although sometimes careful to let the origin of any rumour of fraud remain anonymous, if the villagers presented the corruption as a secret, it was a highly public one. It was thus made clear to me that in the case of Tharangambadi, the issue of appropriate versus inappropriate humanitarian aid could not be abridged to a dichotomy between a local versus a non-local form of disaster response. As has been aptly observed with regard to development processes in the so-called third world countries, the contrast between failed and successful projects is often oversimplified (Crewe and Harrison 1998). What was interesting was that although the individual villagers often complained about the corruption of the fisherman panchayat and its handling of the tsunami donations, they nevertheless appeared to resign themselves to this state of affairs. The villagers had apparently never

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expected to be able to uncritically embrace the workings of the fisherman panchayat as the institution that managed the disaster aid. It seemed that from experience they simply knew the fisherman panchayat to be anything but transparent, inclusive and accountable, and a measure of more or less tacit disapproval of its decisions and practices was only to be anticipated with regard to matters both connected and unconnected with the tsunami. If the humanitarian aid was insulting because it was delivered in an uncoordinated and unaccountable way, the villagers were accustomed to such insults. The irregularities of the fisherman panchayat came as no surprise to the villagers, and hence the criticism that has befallen the many tsunami NGOs on account of their alleged invasive character, their lack of coordination and the ensuing duplication of aid did not really resonate among the recipients of support. The fact that the individual villagers often exchanged relief materials among themselves or even sold an occasional surplus of disaster aid on to others did not generally reflect badly on the donors in the eyes of the recipients. As Renuga put it on more than one occasion: ‘The tsunami NGOs did not have to help us. They came to us because they wanted to. We are grateful and appreciate their help very much’. As I saw it, the gratitude towards the humanitarian organisations was not diminished by the fact that the recipients incorporated the relief materials into the village economy on their own initiative and in response to a surplus or the duplication of aid

Figure 5.2 Talking with Villagers Near the Beach, with Renuga

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items, even if this might have been problematic for the donors and their accountants. My point is that the individual villagers of the fishing community simply seemed to have known all along that they themselves were the prime responsible agents behind attempts at keeping the fisherman panchayat’s decisions in check, because this was the stance usually taken towards the authority of the panchayat by the people under its authority. Accordingly, after the tsunami the villagers were equally unsurprised that they themselves had to act to process the disaster aid so that it might better suit their specific needs, even if this went against the decisions of the fisherman panchayat and entailed a marketing of relief materials donated as inalienable gifts from the various tsunami NGOs. With regard to the relief aid, the villagers thus practiced their own version of local ownership, which consisted both in contesting the judgment of the authority that managed the tsunami rehabilitation work and in practically dealing with the provided material relief so that it met local wants more directly. Such processing and negotiation of resources were quite simply never seen to fall outside of the villagers’ own sphere of responsibility. Just as the fisherman panchayat was the evident choice of a partner for the tsunami NGOs seeking local backing, the individual villagers evidently continued their practice of discussing the accountability of the caste panchayat. Whether it was seen from within or without the fisherman panchayat, it was for the locals to make sure that the relief aid was distributed according to needs, which they were certainly the best able to identify.

On the Limits of Community What might initially appear as a paradox, namely that the humanitarian donors’ collaboration with the fisherman panchayat widely perceived to be unaccountable, exclusive and prone to corruption did not spur critique among the villagers of the relief effort as such, can be understood by looking closer at the status of the panchayat more generally, that is with regard to matters not explicitly connected to the tsunami. Although the tsunami in Tharangambadi increased the fisherman panchayat’s level of activity, the reception of the relief aid after the disaster must be seen as inextricably linked to the villagers’ intricate ways of relating more broadly to the authority of the panchayat and its rulings. By implication, this also raises the question of how to perceive the nature of a community, which, again, has a bearing on how to review humanitarian disaster responses in a more subtle manner than the dichotomy of local versus non-local often allows for.

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Accordingly, to understand the complex way that the fisherman panchayat of Tharangambadi was viewed in matters relating to the humanitarian support in the wake of the tsunami, it is necessary to look more generally at the composition and authority of the panchayat. In Tharangambadi, the members of the fisherman panchayat are elected by consensus and democratically in the Athenian sense of the word, namely among and by male adults of a certain local standing. Until recently, the fisherman panchayat in Tharangambadi consisted of twenty-two members, but because of the additional responsibilities imparted on the panchayat in relation to the relief work after the tsunami, an additional eight men have been included after the disaster. The members are usually appointed for a period of two years with the option of reelection for several additional periods. Looking at the traditional functions of the fisherman panchayat, it has always enjoyed immense political and social influence on practically all aspects of community life. In effect, the fisherman panchayat works as the legislative, exercising and judicial authority in one, and it thus serves as a very powerful and comprehensive organisation of authority that in many ways supersedes the official institutions, such as police and courts of law. In fact, it is de facto illegal for any member of the fishing community to address the official police in the event of conflict between members of the fishing caste; such disputes are seen as internal matters and should be resolved as such according to the verdicts of the fisherman panchayat. In addition, the panchayat is responsible for sanctioning weddings, regulating fisheries, organising searches if a boat goes missing at sea, maintaining the village temple and arranging temple festivals and holidays. When, during my fieldwork in 2006, Tharangambadi was affected by an outbreak of chikungunya – a vector-borne disease that registers as a milder version of dengue fever – the panchayat also organised various insecticide campaigns and information sessions where villagers were informed about how to avoid contamination. The expenses for all these activities are covered by taxes collected from the villagers, from fines issued to people transgressing the community rules, and from various tolls put upon people who do business with the fishing community. The caste panchayat’s joint savings also serve as a kind of insurance fund that can support individual families from the fishing community in times of crisis; if for instance a private house catches fire or a boat breaks, the panchayat can decide to provide some emergency funding to the family in question. Being a member of the fisherman panchayat is highly prestigious because of the political authority enjoyed by the institution. Panchayat members are often called to meetings to represent the fishing community vis-à-vis politicians, interest organisations, business cooperatives, etc., and the members thus exert a quite direct influence over matters that structure

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the daily life of all the villagers (see also Bavinck 2001). Interestingly, though, my research showed that the position as a member of the council was also considered to be somewhat vulnerable and thus not entirely desirable, due to the ever-lurking accusations of corruption and attempts at bribery that the panchayat members have to shoulder. During my stays in the village, I talked with several men in Tharangambadi who, in spite of having been encouraged by others to run for election, had refrained from doing so because of the suspicion of corruption that clings to the panchayat. They explained that even if they themselves intended and eventually managed to steer clear of bribes and the like, the mere fact that they had been a member of the panchayat would always be somehow morally tainting both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. The power that the panchayat exuded, then, was considered so strong that even to the members themselves it could serve as a double-edged sword. It seemed an authority that posed at once a threat and a guarantee, as Deborah Poole (2004) has convincingly observed with regard to the role of the Peruvian state in the everyday lives of Andean peasants. It appeared to me as if the locals – members and non-members – perceived the fisherman panchayat almost as an external power to be both feared and respected, a fact that once again complicates the too comfortable distinction between local and non-local authority. Interestingly, what also became clear from my looking closer at the ways in which the villagers regarded the fisherman panchayat was that there was a flip-side to the dubious character of its authority. The other side of the fear of the panchayat on account of its unlimited and often less than transparent exercise of power seemed to be a certain degree of freedom and even obligation to speak against the decisions of the panchayat on the part of those not directly represented by it. This opposition was most pronounced on the part of the women, who have no seats in the panchayat, but it was also demonstrated by the men who wanted no part of the panchayat power because of the potentially contaminating effect on their moral standing. Consequently, because of the fisherman panchayat’s bad press, there was no general demand for a comprehensive sense of loyalty towards its deliberations, even if people under its rule often felt coerced to practically comply with its rulings. The villagers who were not directly represented in the panchayat apparently had the liberty to more or less openly oppose its authority. In my view, the practicing of such (conditioned) freedom goes a long way in explaining why the villagers received the tsunami aid in such a pragmatic way by incorporating it more generally into the village economy of exchange and distribution. Regardless of the disaster and the ensuing swell of resources, the regulatory power of the fisherman panchayat was already and continuously challenged from within the very community subject to its governing. As a matter of course the fisherman

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panchayat’s decisions were probed, even – or especially – by people without any formal political influence, although this was often done anonymously or in private settings. The argumentative tradition that Sen (2005) has identified as prevalent on the Indian continent seemed to flourish also with regard to questioning the resolutions of the fisherman panchayat. As I have already intimated, a central issue of this ongoing discussion of the power of the fisherman panchayat appears to be that of gender relations. One of the recurring points of complaint was exactly the inherent misrepresentation of women in the panchayat (see also Kapadia 1997). In my view, this was exacerbated by the tsunami, because the relief deliveries provisioned were usually calculated on the basis of the number of male members of the households. Thus, families with no male head of household or with few sons received far less support than did male-dominated families, and by the women this was seen as a gendered blind-spot, resulting from the fact that the fisherman panchayat is constituted exclusively by male members. Such gender inequality was not only manifest with regard to the relief distributions. A long track record of panchayat rulings going against female members of the fishing community in various domestic disputes could be provided by any local woman as if on a cue. Examples of this were found in cases concerning husbands who had abandoned their family. In addition, several stories of widows being discriminated against because they were thought of as obliterated by the death of their husband were readily communicated to me by the village women. What I found striking was that even the members of the fisherman panchayat admitted to the gender division being an important basis for their authority. Several examples show this, one of which came to me during fieldwork in 2006 in an interview with a panchayat member, a boat-owner then in his mid forties, serving his second period in the council. I asked him whether in his view, women were ever likely to be allowed to enter the fisherman panchayat. In general, in recent years India has done much through strategies of affirmative action to ensure the participation of women in the political processes and specific numbers of seats in bodies of authority on all levels of governance are now reserved for female elected, but this is yet to be seen with regard to the caste panchayats. I was thus curious to know whether it was being debated to allow women in the panchayats in the future. In response to my question, at first the interviewee panchayat member simply laughed and denied that this would ever happen. To my surprise, when I asked him why in his view this was unlikely, he explained that this had to do with qualities thought to be inherent in men and women, respectively. The men of the fishing community were generally reputed to be more reckless with regard to money, and they would often simply spend whatever

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means they had, whereas the fishing women were generally thought of as responsible for planning expenditures, for running the household economy, repaying loans, and saving up money with a view to the future (see also Busby 1999: 233; Bharathi 1999: 131). Furthermore, according to the panchayat member, women, especially in the younger generations, were often better educated than the men, who would have left school at an early age to go fishing. Due to these perceived differences between male and female characteristics, women’s admission to the panchayat would cause what the panchayat member called ‘an ego problem’ among the men. The panchayat member presented the discrimination of women almost as an unwritten contract fulfilled by both men and women in order not to make the men appear superfluous by undermining their exclusive access to official political power. The flip-side of the coin, I gathered from the blatant criticism directed at the panchayat, however, was that women were simply expected to more or less explicitly take on the role of the disadvantaged and, not least, to push against it accordingly. Whereas the men – members and non-members of the panchayat alike – had to somehow endorse their own authority and benefit from the privileges it yielded, the women had a legitimate reason to oppose its governing – even if, it seemed, this was sometimes done on behalf of the men. To me, this points to some crucial wider implications of the idea of community, and, in consequence, of the notion of community-based relief work. The unwritten contract that I identified above is perhaps not so much an implicit consensus between men and women for the sake of keeping the peace, as it is an expression of what in more general terms it means to be part of a community. According to Das, this entails in itself a constant negotiation of individual freedom and social conformity. Her words are poignant: ‘Collective existence is necessary, for the individual’s ability to make sense of the world presupposes the existence of collective traditions. However, equally, selfhood depends on the individual’s capacity to break through these collective traditions and to live on their limits’ (1995: 13). A very literal illustration of such a life on the shady limits of community was given to me during fieldwork in 2006, when Renuga and I went to visit a woman who, along with her family, had been expelled from the fishing community by the fisherman panchayat. At the time of our visit, the family had lived for some years in a small and isolated settlement at the southernmost end of Tharangambadi some way away from the fishing community’s main settlement. Generally, according to the transgression the family is thought to have committed, the panchayat can exclude households from the fishing village either for good or for a designated period of time. Some of the most severely punished violations of community rules are those of marrying someone from a different caste or converting from Hinduism to Christianity, the latter of which was what the woman we visited had done. These acts are

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seen as betrayals of caste identity, and as such seen to merit expulsion from the community (see Hayden 1983). In addition to concrete physical eviction from the original home in the fishing village, the ostracising traditionally entails that all other members of the community are forbidden to have any contact with the shunned family. As a result, in the case of the family we visited, the man in the house was not allowed to be a member of a fishing crew or to recruit other fishermen to work on his boat, and the woman was not allowed to sell fish or to engage in any way with other women from the fishing village. Obviously, these restrictions severely hampered the family’s means of securing an income. By all means, such expulsion is a serious and often very traumatic sanction, and during conversations with villagers they often expressed a fear that such penalty would befall them if they failed to comply with panchayat rules. Given the force and anxiety surrounding the potential exclusion from the community and the demands on other community members to shun expelled families, I was surprised by the unconcealed way in which Renuga and I went about visiting the excluded family during my 2006 fieldwork. Renuga did not know exactly where the family lived, and on our way there we thus had to ask several other people in the immediate neighbourhood for precise directions. This gave rise to some remarks among neighbours about whether the woman in the family that we asked for was likely to be in, whether she was perhaps visiting someone near-by or sleeping. What struck me was that in this case there was little secrecy surrounding our visit to the excluded family, and the neighbours provided the same kind of information about the ostracised woman as they would have about anyone else. When we finally got there, the woman – while surely saddened, humiliated and exhausted by her eviction from the fishing village – told us that her husband had recently found someone to work as crew on his fishing boat, and that the immediate neighbours ignored the ban and helped out in various ways to make ends meet for the ostracised family. While she clearly had no choice but to accept her punishment, which she indeed deeply lamented, there seemed to be an implicit understanding among the neighbours that the woman and her family could still be engaged with, if only this was done discreetly and without public expressions of the unfairness of ostracising families from the community. Without explicitly objecting to the actual verdict of expulsion as such, the villagers acted in various ways to oppose it. Certainly, the fisherman panchayat had ruled brutally, but it was as if it had done so on the expectation that other villagers would protest against its verdict and support the expellees. Although the panchayat surely upheld its decision to expel the family from the fishing community, it seemed less intent on actually enforcing the ban. While ostensibly rigorous, the boundaries

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of the community were practically permeable by the subjective agents within them.

Recuperating Subjects In the above I have shown that the fishing community’s reception of humanitarian work in the wake of the tsunami was closely connected to an ongoing and general strategy of negotiating between necessity and choice. The sudden proliferation of humanitarian actors in Tharangambadi after the tsunami amplified the need on the part of the villagers to have strategies of relating to authorities and resource managers, but these strategies were analogous to the ways that the members of the Tharangambadi fishing community simultaneously complied with and contested the regulations of a governing authority in the guise of the fisherman panchayat. As a matter of course, the individual villagers took upon themselves the responsibility of perfecting the relief effort by pushing against the authority that distributed it, and the point is that in so doing they employed the same kind of resistance against the decisions of a sometimes inscrutable authority as they would in matters unconnected to the disaster aid, such as in the case of the excommunicated fishing family. Having to deal with authorities that set up conditions for support and simultaneously represent constraint and protection was not a new experience for the fishing community arising because of the tsunami, even if the disaster intensified it. The villagers were already used to being subjected to more or less arbitrary rule from the panchayat – and, I could add, from the official authorities, which had a similar reputation of lack of transparency and of acting on whims – but it did not seem to occur to them to passively accept this. Rather, the arbitrary nature of authority was perhaps in itself what gave the villagers, most notably the women, the freedom – or even the obligation – to protest against it. While immensely powerful, the panchayat’s authority was continuously circumvented as if by mutual, if tacit, consent. With regard to the humanitarian aid, in the case of Tharangambadi there seemed to be a confusion of bottom-up and top-down processes of disaster response. Consequently, the humanitarian aid was not just a vehicle of adaptation to disaster, the greater or lesser efficiency of which depended on the level of the given donor’s local knowledge, and it was certainly not assessed as such by its recipients. Thus, rather than evaluating the humanitarian aid along the lines of local versus non-local, I want to suggest that the aid be better analysed through the way that the villagers conceptualised it in terms of agency versus passivity in an already formatted social space. What must be kept in mind is that communities consist of persons who continually experiment with the

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collective customs and rules (Das 1995: 116). Thus, while I certainly welcome reflection on donor practices from both within and without the humanitarian community, the simple accusation that organisations bulldoze harmonious local communities builds on a potentially equally patronising view of communities as bounded wholes of passive members with no subjective impetus to act within their given frames. Fieldwork showed that the villagers in Tharangambadi, in this regard too, were anything but submissive. Returning to Veronica’s thoughts about the International Women’s Day, this was, in fact, also her point. What she lamented was that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster the women were too occupied with receiving donations from organisations’ projects to exert their habitual responsibility of opposing the local authority. Sen has suggested that a distinction be made between ‘well-being’ and ‘agency’ as descriptive of different ways of approaching development, particularly within women’s organisations in India. Whereas in the early days of the women’s movements, according to Sen, their aim was to work for better treatment of women in male-dominated societies, with time the scope for social transformation widened beyond the immediate wellbeing of women. I need to quote Sen here: ‘In the course of the evolution of women’s movements, their objectives have gradually broadened from this narrowly “welfarist” focus towards incorporating and emphasizing the active role of women as agents in doing things, assessing priorities, scrutinizing values, formulating policies and carrying out programmes’ (2005: 222). In Veronica’s eyes, apparently, in the immediate wake of the tsunami the women in Tharangambadi had backtracked on this development and temporarily surrendered their agency in exchange for mere well-being. If only for a while, the power and commitment to oppose local political authority in the guise of the fisherman panchayat seemed to have faded from view. While the humanitarian agencies provided welcome immediate emergency relief, the overarching work of recovery remained the responsibility of individual agents who had to find their way back to voicing an opposition that is part of their everyday life as belonging to the fishing caste. Thus, whereas in the early confused days and months the villagers were in a way too busy being passive, after three years of recovery the reverse seemed to be the case; in 2008, for the women, unwinding and letting go took a concerted effort.

Chapter 6

Confusing Hardships: Onslaught and Opportunity

On the southernmost outskirts of the fishing community’s settlement, a mere twenty metres or so from the waterfront, where the sandy beach gives way to a barrier of granite boulders and behind these a gravel path, the ruined remains of a private house come in to view. The only vestiges of the structure that has clearly been someone’s home are the door frame, a few sections of the brick walls and the cement flooring between them. From my first stay in Tharangambadi in 2005 until my latest stay, I have seen how the ruined house has gradually fallen more and more apart and surrendered little by little to shrubs, garbage and roaming goats. During my second and third fieldwork I lived in a guesthouse quite near the ruin and had to pass it on the five-minute walk between my room and the beach area where the fishing people worked and lived. Many times when I walked by, villagers from the fishing community, spending their free afternoon hours on the new bulwark of granite blocks placed all along the beach as a post-tsunami coast security initiative, would point out the house and tell me that the devastation to it occurred at the time of the tsunami. On each of my stays in the village, word had quickly gone around that I was there to study the effects of the tsunami, and wanting to help me with this, the villagers would often walk with me towards the ruin and urge me to take a closer look at it. In so doing, unsettling details testifying to the prior life in the house appeared and exuded a clear air of both drama and loss. A coloured floral design engrafted onto the floor, a small locker on the wall with an unhinged and broken door, a row of decorated tiles stuck onto the base of one wall and other such particulars left me in no doubt that someone had once furnished the house as a home, and had recently had to see it completely shattered by the neighbouring sea. As was the case with most of the many abandoned houses in the beach area of Tharangambadi, the owners had simply left the house to further disintegrate, and to the villagers who lived or spent time nearby,

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the ruin seemed to serve as a kind of testimony to the disaster, displaying the destruction of the tsunami for all to see. The house, clearly, had become a ruin to be remembered; an issue to which I will return in the next chapter. To my surprise it turned out that the owners of the house, an extended Christian family, the members of which earned their living mainly by teaching in different elementary schools in the villages and towns nearby, had in fact moved out of the house some years before the tsunami because of the erosion of the seashore that over time had caused the sea to close in on the family home. Undoubtedly and apparent to anyone, the tsunami had wrecked the house with an unprecedented force and speed. Only this had happened at a time when the prior inhabitants had already deserted the house in response to a gradual encroachment of the neighbouring sea. A process of erosion causing shifts of various sorts in some people’s lives had surely been accelerated by the tsunami but not initiated by it. In this chapter I will focus on the ambiguous ways in which the villagers in Tharangambadi connect concepts of the tsunami as a sudden onslaught with ideas about structural conditions and ongoing social and environmental processes of both deterioration and progress. In the following, I thus approach the nexus of the disaster and the ordinary from a reverse angle and try to explore not how the tsunami has gradually become folded into the everyday lives of the affected people after its occurrence, but rather how everyday life with all the uncertainties it holds and held even before the disaster has been attached – for better or worse – to the event of the tsunami. As I have argued so far, the recovery process can be seen to consist in the gradual interweaving of the disaster and the ordinary through the villagers’ conceptualisations of the tsunami and Tharangambadi. Here I want to extend this discussion of the merging of figure and ground with a temporal aspect and show that in some sense the aftermath of the tsunami set on before the event of the disaster. My main argument in this chapter is that although, obviously, an array of problems was directly and indirectly attributable to the tsunami, in the daily lives of many villagers these problems – and the steps taken towards solving them – would often fuse with a range of other concerns, so as to radically complicate any clear definitions of cause and effect in the wake of the tsunami. Michael Moseley (1999) has suggested the concept of ‘convergent catastrophe’ to describe the fact that a disaster will have more serious effects if it occurs in close succession to other disasters, than it would have had if it had been suffered individually. While this idea aptly captures the fact that an existing level of social and environmental vulnerability shapes people’s prospects in the face of calamity, the idea of convergence still seems to presuppose a clearer delineation of disasters as singular events than the one many villagers in Tharangambadi harboured and acted on. Even though people can of course name and date the

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tsunami as an extreme and singular catastrophe occurring on a specific day, it still seemed that the survivors simply did not perceive the effects of the tsunami as the results of an individual calamity. It seemed to me that the disasters – of whatever scale – that people in Tharangambadi faced were not separable and sufficiently demarcated individually so as to be labelled as convergent; causes, effects and side effects have merged so as to become practically indistinguishable. In the case of Tharangambadi, as I will demonstrate, people seemed to act on a ‘composite catastrophe’ that collapsed sequential thinking, rather than on a series of converging disasters. The point of identifying such conceived merging of hardships is not just to say that the consequences of the tsunami were surprising and uncontrollable, spilling over into unexpected terrains. While this was undoubtedly often the case, my main aim here is to show that to the villagers their local world comprised a whole compound social condition, made up of both existing structural predicaments long predating the tsunami and sudden disruptions. In consequence, the recovery process criss-crossed clear or temporal chains of causation. The idea of a compositeness of the local world also implies that in some cases the wake of the tsunami paradoxically gave rise to new opportunities of limiting existing uncertainties. As the somewhat extensive ethnographic stories in the following demonstrate, the villagers’ conceptual conflations of cause and effect, of sudden calamity and existing challenges, of direct disaster rehabilitation and processes of development do not necessarily complicate let alone impede people’s work to recover. Because the survivors often did not limit the disaster to an original root cause and a set of identifiable and ensuing effects, they have been able to work for the improvement of an amalgam of social conditions. The recovery work was directed at the emergent conditions that made up a composite whole rather than at the singular event of the tsunami. In different ways, the following four ethnographic cases show this.

In Need of Repair The small hamlet of Velli Palayam is located about five minutes’ walk from the bus stand at the central junction in Tharangambadi. The location of the hamlet about one and a half kilometres from the seashore ensured that the place was not engulfed by the waves on the day of the tsunami. Velli Palayam is populated by about fifty Dalit families, many of whom have converted to Christianity and are rather marginalised economically. In more senses than one, they live on the fringes of the fishing village. At the time of my fieldworks, most of the families here struggled to make a living from day-labouring, small-scale livestock, petty business,

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housekeeping, and other menial work (cf. Lillelund 2009). As the hamlet was categorised as non-affected by the tsunami, little of the influx of money and humanitarian aid distributed in Tharangambadi around the time of the disaster had spilled over to Velli Palayam. In fact, only the government aid packets, distributed in the first four months following the disaster by the Tamil Nadu State calamity relief fund to all families in the affected regions irrespective of the exact level of affliction, had found its way to the Dalits in the hamlet. Though the Dalits of Velli Palayam were labelled as unaffected by the tsunami, my encounters with Sangeetha, a Christian woman then in her late thirties, showed that such easy acquittal might rest on too narrow a definition of causal relations between disaster, affliction and recovery. For me to view Sangeetha as unhurt by disaster was impossible, even if her house had not surrendered to the waves on the day of the tsunami. At some point during March of 2005, Renuga and I left the fishing village to go to a neighbouring caste group, and we happened to call upon Sangeetha in her small house, just as she was wrapping up a tuition class for school children from her street, including her own two daughters, then aged five and seven. Sangeetha, who spoke English rather well, told us that she held a BA degree in literature, but that her husband did not think that she should take up any other work than the private tuition, which was in fact given for free as no one in the neighbourhood had any extra money to spare on their children’s schooling. In a joking and light tone, Sangeetha explained to us that her husband, who worked as a TV mechanic, had a problem with her being the better educated of the two and that he considered it his exclusive responsibility to be the breadwinner of the family. The atmosphere during our talk was light and somewhat humorous as if an implicit solidarity among us made it both safe and obvious to express a touch of mockery of the local men. On this first encounter Sangeetha asked me to take some pictures of her two children, as she did not have any in her home. Later, I had the photos developed, and on an afternoon a few days after our first visit to Sangeetha, I went to her house, this time without Renuga, to give her the photos of the children. On the second visit I met an entirely different situation. To begin with, it took some courage on my part to actually enter Sangeetha’s house; outside of it a big dog tied to a tree growled aggressively at me, and inside the courtyard of the house a smaller white dog was trying hard to escape its enclosure while barking crazily at the approaching stranger. Sangeetha welcomed me but only offered a very feeble reassurance that the dogs were harmless; she seemed to be almost as afraid of them as I was. When, eventually, I had worked up the nerve to go into the house, Sangeetha jumped right into a harrowing and utterly desperate account of the hardships she faced. Allegedly, her husband did not want her to earn any money of her own and had actively vetoed her

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wish to find formal employment; he had even objected to Sangeetha’s tuition classes, which were thus conducted more or less secretly at times when he was away. He himself was working as TV repairman in a small shop near the junction at the centre of Tharangambadi, and at the time of my fieldwork in 2005 his business was thriving. In almost all of the houses flooded by the tsunami there was a TV in need of repair. In consequence, Sangeetha’s husband worked long hours and had multiplied his income since the disaster. On the surface of things, Sangeetha could obviously have benefited from the booming business of the family’s wage earner, but as she saw it this had only made everything worse. In Sangeetha’s own words, she had no money, no way to feed the children, and faced horrible abuse from her husband. She unravelled a brutal record of domestic violence that by far predated the time of my visits and which had resulted in several miscarriages among other bodily afflictions, and she complained that as her husband had now got more money to spend, he had taken to drinking more often, and the frequency of his beatings had increased. In addition, against Sangeetha’s will, the husband had bought the smaller of the dogs, which apparently belonged to some expensive race renown for its skills as a watchdog, for a huge amount of money that he would never have had, had it not been for the sudden high demand on his knowledge of electronics in the aftermath of the tsunami. In the light of Sangeetha’s story of abuse, it appeared as if the husband had bought the watchdog as much for it to keep watch on her as to keep unwelcome intruders out. All the while Sangeetha told me this story, her two daughters were sitting on the bed nearby, trying their best to keep up appearances in what struck me as a brave attempt to disguise their mother’s distress. Sangeetha, on her part, implored me directly and within the girls’ earshot to take her children with me and to care for them in Denmark. Her anguish took me aback. In my embarrassment and confusion, I forgot to give Sangeetha the photos I had come to hand over; I was offered the children, and took back their pictures. Compared to our first visit, Sangeetha’s horror story came as a complete surprise to me and made me think that I had utterly misjudged her situation the first time around. Of course, Sangeetha must have wanted me to ‘misjudge’. It was apparent that she carefully structured and balanced two different narratives of her life. The difference between the two versions that Sangeetha presented was not, it seemed to me, to be understood in terms of truth versus lie. Rather, what became clear was that the narratives were meant for different audiences, viewed in terms of local versus foreign origin. During my first visit, when I was accompanied by Renuga, Sangeetha had only offhandedly talked about the domination exerted by her husband, and she had ridiculed it as an instance of jealousy on his part that she could potentially have

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a professional career of her own. This resonated with a general sense I had, that the women in Tharangambadi practiced a kind of pretended submission to the men while in fact often being the ones who pulled the strings, as I also discussed in the previous chapter. With Renuga present as a local villager, albeit from a different caste, this was the version of her story that Sangeetha preferred to convey. On my second visit, to the contrary, when I came alone, Sangeetha made it very clear that her submission was not pretence at all, and that she unravelled her misery to me exactly because I was an outsider who might be able to improve her situation. I got the clear impression that Sangeetha saw my visit as a chance of getting someone to listen and ideally to help her, even though she wanted to keep her suffering to herself when in her local setting. Accordingly, her pleas to me for assistance came with almost as strong pleas to me of telling my parents and other family members and friends at home of her plight and writing about it in my research publications, while keeping quiet about it to the people I knew in Tharangambadi. Sangeetha’s appeals for my discreetness in the local setting demonstrated that she broke a taboo by telling me about her situation, but that she had decided to see my attention as an opportunity – however slight – of ameliorating her desperate situation. Das (2000) has suggested the idea of ‘poisonous knowledge’ to designate a kind of tabooed knowledge of betrayal and hurt that over time seeps into the formation of subjectivities and the relations between them, but which by a kind of common cultural consent cannot be articulated in the open. The betrayals must be witnessed actively over time rather than directly voiced. Similarly, perhaps in the case of Sangeetha; it was common knowledge that domestic violence was widespread in and around Tharangambadi, and it is likely that Sangeetha’s neighbours and other villagers would be aware of the abuse she faced, and that she, in turn, would know that they knew. Still, it seemed as if it was only my position as an outsider to the setting of the abuse that enabled Sangeetha to recount the violence. The cruel irony of this story was blatant on many levels. For one thing, there was an embarrassing methodological mockery in that I had gone to Velli Palayam to talk with members of a community who had not been affected by the disaster in the same way as the fishing community, only to come across a story of experiences equally brutal to the experiences of those of who bore the brunt of the tsunami waves. Connected to this, another methodological challenge appeared, namely that of having been met with two radically different presentations of a situation. While I could of course observe with my own eyes that the watchdog was indeed threatening, and that the children did actually seem subdued, and that the house had certainly seen better days, I could surely not conclude from my visits that the narrative Sangeetha recounted on the second visit was more truthful than the story she told during the first visit. I could only

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register that there was a world of difference between calling on Sangeetha accompanied by another villager and visiting her alone. In any event, Sangeetha seemed to see it as somehow empowering to tell me about her situation (cf. Jackson 2002). The story of Sangeetha clearly showed once again that the effects of the tsunami appeared in highly complex ways. Her case illustrates the need to let the field of disaster recovery emerge on the basis of concrete observations and not on predefined ideas about how the tsunami must have affected whom, based on a bird’s-eye mapping of the expanse of the flooding. In Sangeetha’s case, a sudden surplus of money made on account of the tsunami – on the surface of things one of the few and unexpected positive effects of disaster – seemed to paradoxically only have aggravated an existing pattern of abuse and limited her room to manoeuvre. Sangeetha, a woman nominally unharmed by disaster, turned out to be completely engulfed in a composite catastrophe, which seemed to have been worsened by her husband’s increased income on account of the tsunami. In spite of a local taboo on her husband’s violations, she seemed to see a chance of repair in telling me of her abuse. Sangeetha thus actively seized her largely coincidental encounter with a stranger entering her life because of the tsunami as an opportunity – however slight – of recovering a place from which she could act to survive and not least to care for her children. Even though it entailed breaking a local taboo, this opportunity of improvement that I must have presented to her seemed in Sangeetha’s eyes more potent than her formal education and any other chances of progress her everyday life might otherwise have yielded.

Certifying the Future The annual Hindu festival Deepawali (or Diwali) is celebrated as a festival of lights throughout all of India to symbolically mark the victory of light over darkness and the return of faith and goodness after a period of absence. In 2006 I was in Tharangambadi for the festival and had seen how excitement about the holidays had been building up over weeks. Shopping for firecrackers, sweets, and new clothes had been on most people’s minds, and all Hindu houses in the fishing village had been thoroughly cleaned as is part of the practice pertaining to the Deepawali festival. I had been invited for the celebration by Renuga, and at five o’clock on an October morning, I made my way through the dawn to her house. After a small and homely puja ceremony, her three daughters and I took turns lighting small firecrackers in front of their house on the temple square in the heart of the fishing settlement. Afterwards, according to the Deepawali custom, the girls went around to their friends’ houses with sweets; neighbours came and went, and all along the handful of women gathered in Renuga’s

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house showed me how to prepare the traditional snacks and foods that go with the festival. Outside the house, the noise from the fireworks grew louder as more and more people in the fishing area of the village joined in the celebration. A few hours later, while we were resting inside Renuga’s house, a group of yelling children could be heard running by outside, rushing away from the seashore. Renuga and her daughters were startled, as usual when someone ran away from the seashore yelling, and we rushed outside to the temple square to see what was going on. Round a corner a few streets away we saw high flames sprouting into the sky. The roofs of two fishing houses were ablaze. A young man jumped on to the nearest bicycle and rushed off towards the fire station on Kamarajar Road to make sure that the local fire fighters were alerted. Until they showed up after about ten minutes, we could see other young men rushing back and forth between one of the burning houses and a porch on the opposite side of the street, carrying whatever items they dared to retrieve from inside the burning home. A big crowd had gathered, and shouts rang the air, as the smokestacks rose to the sky. Word quickly got around that a rocket from the Deepawali celebration had gone astray and had set on fire a roof made of dry palm leaves, which quickly spread to the neighbouring house. The house from where various belongings were retrieved, I was told, belonged to a fairly well-off family with a member of the fisherman panchayat as head of the household. Seen from where we witnessed the flames darting into the sky, I suspected that the other house on fire was that of Arivu’s family. Arivu was a friend of mine from the fishing caste, whom I had met because he worked as a watchman during the nights at the guesthouse where I was staying. He spoke English well and had helped me translate various texts from Tamil. Sometimes in the evenings I would show him photos of things I had seen and places I had been to during the day, and he would explain to me the meaning of a temple rite, a road sign, a flyer, an advertisement or other. Early on, Arivu had seemed to take it upon himself to communicate to me about life in the fishing community of Tharangambadi, where he had lived all his life. When I first met him in 2006, he was 20 years old and studied for a BA in physics at the local college in the neighbouring small town of Porayar. His father, who worked as a fisherman, had left the family when Arivu was five years old, and as the oldest son in the household the responsibility for supporting his mother, younger sister, and younger brother weighed heavily on his shoulders. His mother, Jayanthi, had no formal employment but made a small income by producing and selling shopping bags made from knitted plastic strings and by stitching clothes for family, neighbours and friends. As the primary income generator in the family, Arivu had a very busy schedule at the time. From ten o’clock at night until seven in the morning

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he was a watchman at the guesthouse I stayed in. After this night duty, during which he would often study for college, he lead a tuition class in mathematics for some tenth grade students from the village, whereupon he went to the college until about two o’clock in the afternoon. During college holidays, he often helped out as a crew member on his uncle’s fishing boat. According to Arivu, people outside his own nuclear family put quite a pressure on him to give up college and start working full-time as a fisherman, as this in their view would secure a better income for his family than his various part-time jobs. In Arivu’s words, they simply considered his studies a waste of time. Arivu, however, had his mind clearly set on completing first the BA and then an MA degree, admission for which he was working hard to obtain on the basis of his marks, as he was dependent on getting a free scholarship to the university. In Arivu’s eyes, it was his responsibility to ensure not only the day-to-day survival of himself and his family, but also a long-term improvement of their situation. To this end, Arivu explained to me, formal education was the only chance he thought he had, even if the profit was not as immediate as it could perhaps have been if he had entered the fishing business. The house that burned on the day of Deepawali was indeed Arivu’s. When he showed up for night duty that evening he told me how he had been home alone sleeping inside the house and had suddenly opened his eyes to a roof on fire. Dry palm leaves burn quickly and fearing that the roof would fall down on him, Arivu sensed that he had very little time to get out of the house. What he did have time for was to collect his college and school certificates and diplomas documenting the results of his studies. These papers, to Arivu, were the most precious belongings in the house. The fire fighters put the fire out and when taking stock afterwards, all the belongings in the house except the papers that Arivu had salvaged were more or less ruined, if not by fire then by water. Sangeetha, whom we met in the previous section, was forced to disregard her formal education because she was not permitted to be the breadwinner of her family. Arivu was met with an equal pressure from his surroundings to give up college, exactly because he was the primary wage earner of his family. Unlike Sangeetha, Arivu apparently had the authority as well as the will-power to resist the pressure and insist on his plan to use formal education as a means of ensuring his family’s wellbeing on a long-term basis. As emphasised by Arivu’s salvaging of exam diplomas from the fire, he maintained that – quite literally – the papers were his tickets to a better future. With financial support from the fisherman panchayat’s emergency fund, the leafed roof of the family house was replaced within a week. When I visited Arivu’s house some time later, the smell of smoke and the sense of dampness were still evident, and the house was darkened because the electricity supply to the house had been destroyed in the

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fire. At the time of the tsunami, Arivu’s house, which was located in the part of the fishing village furthest away from the seashore, had suffered only superficial damage. The family had returned to the house after a few weeks in the temporary shelters, and had lived there since then. From Arivu’s point of view, the tsunami had not been nearly as destructive as the fire almost two years later, as he told me. For a person in Arivu’s situation, the tsunami, though sudden and unexpected, was but one obstacle in an ongoing struggle to make ends meet; a struggle which went back at least as long as to the time when Arivu’s father had left the family many years before. To get by, he had set his course and he kept expressing his luck that he had managed to get his exam certificates through unharmed; indeed, he never for a moment seemed to doubt that these were the most valuable objects in the house. They were in a sense what certified his endeavour to improve his family’s conditions. Whereas the other mundane household belongings that the family had lost in the fire could eventually be replaced and thus seemed to present only a slight source of regret to Arivu, the very material quality of his exam papers was of unique importance. It was not so much a matter of the certificates representing his educational accomplishment; rather, his formal qualifications were quite simply constituted by the papers, which were at once papers and power, to paraphrase Holbraad’s analysis of a specific powerful powder used in Cuban divination practice (2007). Similarly, one might say, to Arivu the significance of the documents for future reference was not separable from the papers themselves. At the time of my fieldwork in 2008, the SIFFS house that the family had been allotted in the so-called tsunami village was nearing its completion. When we discussed the prospect of moving to the new house, Arivu highlighted that the new house would have electricity. For want of money, the electric wiring in the old house had never been reconnected after the fire, and the family had got through the dark hours by way of kerosene lamps and candles. Although Arivu expressed that he was slightly saddened to leave the home where he had lived most of his life, he was excited by the thought of having electric lights in the new house, a feature which was part of the make-up of all the SIFFS houses to be paid for by the Tamil Nadu State authorities. The electricity, he explained, would make it much easier for himself and for his younger brother and sister to study for their exams, just as it would make it easier for his mother to produce the shopping bags and do the stitching that she relied on as her personal source of income. What was apparent was that Arivu acted within a compound setting made up of a range of experiences, such as the father leaving the family, the outside pressure on his educational plans, the appearance of the tsunami and the destruction brought about by the fire in his house. On the basis of this composite situation, Arivu worked to improve the present

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and ensure the future. Interestingly, the tsunami proved to be a kind of shortcut to this end, as it had brought about an unexpected opportunity of re-housing, which again sustained Arivu’s long-term struggle to acquire a sound profession on the basis of formal higher education. Recovery as Arivu practiced it in the wake of the tsunami was not only retrospective, but consisted in a drawn-out and overarching effort to replace his father by taking on the financial responsibility for his family and in refurnishing and indeed improving the family home after the flooding and after the destructive fire. Thus, the problems that Arivu addressed through his acts of recovery in the aftermath of the disaster did not ensue from the tsunami as such, but their solution, however, was in a roundabout way supported by the advent of the disaster. To be sure, people’s plans might not always be carried through, but – in more senses than one – I got the impression that Arivu envisioned a brighter future. In a sense, he was already tied up within it, in that his expectations made him act in a particular way and realise the future prospects. If Arivu was absorbed in a solo effort to try to ensure that his family would prosper in the wake of the tsunami, the ties between members of an extended net of family relations were at the heart of the recovery process presented in the following story.

The Ties That Bind A week or so went by after the tsunami before Renuga learned that her close relatives in the fishing community of the near-by town of Nagapattinam had been badly struck. At first Renuga had thought that all was well with her elder sister and her family in Nagapattinam, since their house was located a safe distance from the sea. To begin with, she had worried mainly about her other elder sister, who lived in the fishing community near the waterfront in the nearby town of Karikal, and in whose care Renuga’s own three daughters had been on the day of the tsunami. The three girls had all come through unhurt, and Renuga’s relief was immense. The shock was thus all the greater when she eventually found out that her sister in Nagapattinam, the sister’s daughter and her two granddaughters had all been swept away by the waves. Renuga’s sister had gone to the beach with her two granddaughters to fetch some firewood for the cooking stove. When the first of the two waves hit the beach, Renuga’s sister’s daughter had started to worry about her mother and her two children. In response, she herself had gone to the beach to look for her family, only to be washed away by the second of the two tsunami waves. Four people from three generations were gone in a matter of minutes. Two boys, then aged six and eight, were left behind as the only survivors

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in the nuclear family unit. The children’s father was already gone, as he had been shot dead in the summer of 2000 by the Sri Lankan marine police. On the suspicion that fishing boats from Tamil Nadu transferred arms and other supplies to support the rebellion of the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan marine police had started a policy of cracking down hard on fishing boats if they entered or came too near Sri Lankan sea territory, whether the fishermen onboard did this knowingly or not. With the father gone, the family had been in a precarious situation even before the tsunami, because the primary breadwinner was no longer there. The widow and her mother had struggled along to keep economically afloat, supported by Renuga and by being enrolled in local women’s self-help groups initiating petty businesses of various kinds. With the two young boys being the only survivors in the nuclear family on account of both marine police brutality and the roar of the tsunami, it was clear that some other adult person had to step in and take charge of the boys’ lives and make plans for their future. As Patricia Uberoi has noted on the nature of Indian families, the line between nuclear and joint households is not absolute, as even members in single unit families are located within joint family spheres (2003: 1070). In the case of the surviving boys in Renuga’s family, however, the exact placement of them within a joint family sphere was contested, after the tsunami had brutally eliminated their nuclear family. In order to compensate the surviving next of kin for the loss of family members in the tsunami, the Tamil Nadu State Government issued an order four days after the disaster that reads: ‘The Honourable Chief Minister has announced an immediate relief at the rate of Rupees 1 lakh [100,000] per person dead in the family (next of kin) from the Chief Minister’s public relief fund’ (Order No. 574, Government Orders 2005). The compensation, which was doubled by an equal compensation sum from the Federal Indian Government, was a huge amount of money by all local standards. As for the two boys, the compensation was further multiplied because they had lost several family members, and discussion soon arose between their maternal and paternal relatives as to who should be considered next of kin, and who should thus be in charge of the sudden newfound wealth. Renuga wanted to enrol the boys in a well-reputed English-medium boarding school, and set the remaining fortune aside for further educating the boys later on. Their paternal grandmother and uncle offered to take the boys in and have them live with them, following the custom of patrilocal residence prevalent in the fishing communities on the Coromandel Coast (see Bharathi 1999). Renuga, however, complained to me that the boys’ grandmother and paternal uncle might not be proper role models for the boys, and without going into details she hinted that she thought there was a so-called ‘value problem’ pertaining to that side of the family.

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Such conflicts of interest between different sides of an extended net of family relations were not uncommon, and although I was not able to extract the precise background for this particular disagreement, I gathered that it had a long history and that it had been amplified by the murder of the boys’ father in 2000. With the sudden acquisition of wealth due to the compensation money, the discord soon became full-blown and attained a new kind of urgency. In line with her overall view of the family that her niece had married into as having somewhat tainted morals, Renuga suspected that the grandmother and uncle only offered to care for the boys in order to get a share of their compensation money. Quite simply, Renuga was suspicious that the boys had become mere assets to the family on their late father’s side. The grandmother, in turn, accused Renuga of using the boys as hostages in an attempt to practically rob her of her only surviving family. Much to Renuga’s relief, however, the two sides of the family eventually settled on a solution, which in Renuga’s eyes put a welcome stop to the draining family quarrel. At the time of my fieldwork in 2006, the boys had been enrolled in a good boarding school in Nagapattinam, and their paternal grandmother and uncle, who lived close by, had been given the status as the boys’ formal guardians under the shared understanding that the compensation sums should finance higher education. Thus, while submitting to Renuga’s request that the compensation money be put aside for educational means, the boys’ paternal relatives had kept a say with regard to their future. As demonstrated by Sangeetha’s example also, the effects of the tsunami in this case were multifarious and played into what I call a composite catastrophe made up, among other things, of past marine police brutality resulting in a tragic loss of life with additional dire financial consequences and long-lived family discord, in addition to the sudden attack of the disaster. To be sure, seen from the point of view of the two surviving boys, the tsunami entailed an irreversible change of their lives within a matter of minutes. However, what the disaster also entailed – at least potentially and for the time being – was a newfound truce between fractions of a joint family network that otherwise had a history of collision. Abetted by a sudden financial wealth, which would have been completely unobtainable if not for the compensation sum, the actors in the extended family network joined forces to ensure the future of the two boys left behind. Although discord can of course break out again without notice, for the adult relatives of the boys the object of recovery in the wake of the tsunami seemed to be both to mend the ties that bound the extended family relations together, and to take over the responsibility of charting

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a clear future course for the surviving children through the means of a funding that would otherwise have been unobtainable.

Rallying for Safety During fieldwork in 2006, I found myself in a procession going through Tharangambadi in the morning hours. A boy beating a drum walked in front of the parade, and right behind him was a tall man dressed in a long black hooded robe. The man’s face was painted ink black with white, red, and yellow lines drawn on the cheeks, and on top of his head two white horns were attached presumably to give off a beastly kind of image. On the man’s back a sign read ‘King of AIDS’, and on his chest was a sign in Tamil with similar wording. The procession took place on 1 December, the International World AIDS Day, and was organised by the local branch of Hope Foundation, one of the tsunami NGOs that had come to Tharangambadi in the aftermath of the disaster to undertake various rehabilitation projects. Behind the King of AIDS, uniformed children from the newly opened Hope Foundation English Medium School walked in straight lines. All of the children were equipped with the small red knot which is the international symbol of the fight against spread of the virus, and they repeatedly recited two lines in Tamil that roughly translated into ‘Stop the virus. Be careful.’ Some of the older children in the procession distributed flyers written in Tamil informing passers-by of the disease and of the means to avoid contamination.

Figure 6.1 Newly Constructed Cyclone Shelter Built by a Tsunami NGO

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Other people in the procession carried banners with a text that curiously read ‘World AIDS Day. Mission Zero Garbage.’ I joined in at the back of the rally and followed the march along the Kamarajar Road to the central junction in Tharangambadi where the procession came to a halt. Here, a member of the Town Panchayat, the smallest political unit in the Indian structure of governance (not to be confused with the castebased panchayats discussed in the previous chapter), the local director of the Hope Foundation, and the King of AIDS took turns to make speeches thanking each other for the cooperation in organising the rally and underlining the importance of HIV/AIDS awareness and of keeping a clean local environment. After this, against the backdrop of loud Tamil music, surgical gloves and masks were distributed to all participants, and on the brink of the nearby canal that runs all the way through Tharangambadi we were instructed to collect litter from the ground and throw it into a container on a truck. Students in strikingly white uniforms from the local TELC Teacher Training Institute for Boys had joined the Hope school students to take part in the Mission Zero Garbage, picking up plastic, pieces of cloths, paper and other litter from the ground. Later, I talked to the organisers who explained that the prime mission of the rally was to create awareness about the health hazards of an unclean environment and to educate people about the risk of contracting HIV/ AIDS. Even though the actual clean-up effect was limited to a small

Figure 6.2 Rally on International World AIDS Day, 2006

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stretch of land, for the organisers the mission was mainly symbolic and a means of communicating an important educational message about both bodily and environmental health. From my talks with the two village nurses resident in Tharangambadi, I had learned that poor hygienic standards in the local environment presented the primary health hazard to the villagers. Many children were suffering from anaemia due to an unbalanced diet and to intestinal worm and other abdominal infections caused by infested water and lack of proper sanitation. Many children also suffered from scabies, colds, coughs and fever. According to the village nurses, among the adult population of Tharangambadi people’s health condition was also precarious mainly because of a lack of knowledge about the means of preventing diseases. When the children are in primary school they undergo regular medical check ups, and all infants are offered immunisation programmes. In addition, throughout the state, the Tamil Nadu State Government has set up food programmes, ensuring that all school children are served a proper meal at noon. However, those who have left school at an early age or attend irregularly are often beyond reach of the official health authorities and nutrition programmes. According to one of the nurses, the tsunami had caused no general physical deterioration of health, but, as she told me, the disaster-afflicted had come to worry more about their physical condition and had become more prone to imagining themselves as suffering from some illness or other. In light of the general health conditions in Tharangambadi and of the heightened attention towards physical vulnerability, there were of course many good reasons to issue information about hygiene and health. Yet the combination of an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign and the collection of litter from the banks of the canal struck me as somewhat strange, and even more so since the rally was organised by an organisation undertaking tsunami rehabilitation work. As in the previous cases, however, the efforts of the Hope Foundation to educate the villagers testified once again to a conspicuous confusion of existing local structural concerns, such as environmental hygiene and the prevention of infectious spread, and the event of the tsunami. In this case, an organisation, backed by local political authority, took the opportunity to conflate disaster rehabilitation with an attempt to create a more general public awareness about environmental and health issues. During fieldwork in 2005, I met with the then-elected leader of the Town Panchayat, Mrs Saraswathi. Apparently, she also eyed a chance of capitalising on the event of the tsunami to carry through a political project of development on a more general level. Ending my interview, I asked her if she thought that life in the tsunami-affected areas under her governance could ever return to normal again. Clearly indicating that she certainly hoped that it would not, Saraswathi said in reply: ‘Oh no, things

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here had to change. We need development as a kind of permanent relief aid. Life had to change’.

Projecting Progress In studies of the impact of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia it has been demonstrated how, for better or worse, the disaster played into the ongoing armed secessionist conflicts unfolding there (see McGilvray 2006; Le Billon and Waizenegger 2007). In the Indonesian Aceh province, by far the region most severely affected by the Asian tsunami, a peace agreement between the Indonesian government and Acehnese separatists was reached in the wake of the tsunami; here clearly the parties to the conflict made use of the disaster to try to stop a long-lived conflict (Drexler 2006; Le Billon and Waizenegger 2007). On a scale altogether different, the intertwining of long-lived structures, disruptions and potential progress was equally apparent in Tharangambadi. The detailed ethnographic cases presented above show that although the tsunami obviously hurt people in pervasive, surprising and unprecedented ways, the survivors have tried – with widely varying degrees of success – to make the most of its onslaught by addressing in its wake both problems arising directly from it and concerns of a much more general and often older order. Writing on the issue of crisis and possibility, Michael Jackson has argued that theories of culture or life worlds need to account for the moments when the given is disrupted or even negated. At such moments, Jackson remarks, crisis can change the world from an apparently fixed set of rules into what he terms a repertoire of possibilities (1996: 22). The repertoire of possibilities in the cases presented here entailed the issue of social change and the improvement of personal and economic safety to be accomplished through education in the shape of both formal schooling and public information. Whatever the nature of the concerns thus addressed by individuals or organisations, the wake of the tsunami was apparently seen as a moment in which to act to remedy joint conditions in whatever unlikely combinations, as epitomised in the garbage/AIDS/tsunami rehabilitation example. At issue in the other three cases, however, was also a gendered difference between people’s possibilities. Whereas Arivu had or took the male authority upon himself of carrying through his plan more or less on his own, however trying that proved to be, Sangeetha would have needed permission from her husband in order to make use of her formal qualifications and change her situation. She was left with the option of appealing to a stranger in the shape of a visiting anthropologist studying someone else, and only on the promise that her visitor would, so to speak, pack the troubles discreetly away and only unpack them upon leaving

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the local setting. Renuga, too, although surely economically and socially influential within her extended family network, had to grant the two surviving boys’ paternal family the legal guardianship of the children in order to both follow local custom and to end family discord. Going back to the idea of convergent versus composite catastrophes presented in the beginning of the chapter, analytically we could perhaps think of the compound nature of people’s local worlds in the aftermath of the tsunami in terms of rooms to manoeuvre, which can either shrink or expand according to shifting conditions. As discussed in chapter four, forecasting among the fishermen was not so much a matter of exact prediction of conditions to come as a safeguarding of a frame in which to act upon anticipation and with the aim of ensuring a taskscape at present and in the future. Similarly, in the above examples, the villagers’ actions that project progress are neither simply causally explained by the tsunami, nor are they prophecies as such of a likely future ahead. Rather, the projects and decisions are present and contingent conquests of agency, which, importantly, in itself implies acting with a view to the future, which is thereby gradually realised (see also Moore 1987: 727). Sandra Wallman has argued that from the viewpoint of anthropology, the future should be seen as contemporary. Her observations are highly relevant here, when she states that: ‘Planned change is not possible without a view of how things might be, and even the rehabilitation of individuals or groups who survive disaster depends on their being able to visualise a better or safer time to come … Again, it seems that without a view of the future there may not be one’ (1992: 3). My point is that it is not enough to state that existing patterns of vulnerability are what transform natural hazards into disasters, or, for that matter, to state that social risks have a gendered lopsidedness (cf. Hilhorst and Bankoff 2007; Tulloch and Lupton 2003; Vera-Sanso 2000). These presuppositions need to be grounded in attending to the actual practices of survivors, as they act in the conjuncture of pressure and promise that constitutes their composite social world and in the interest of recovering an everyday life for themselves, where the immediate threats of whatever origin and scale can be kept at bay and from where some future trajectory might be imagined. However overwhelming their hardships, there is a point in conceptualising these troubles as confused and in merging past, present and future. The villagers undertook the process of recovery within a total horizon of expectation, out of which the tsunami and ordinary distress merge and take turns in emerging as figures on rugged ground.

Chapter 7

Materialisations of Loss: Monument and Memory

Getting up to take leave from Punitha’s home in the temporary shelters, where Renuga and I met her in August 2006 to hear the story of how the tsunami had affected her life, I spotted a small framed picture of a young girl wearing a school uniform on one of the homemade shelves hanging from the wall. Noticing that I looked at the photo, Renuga explained to me that it depicted Punitha’s daughter who had died in the tsunami at the age of nine. On the day of the disaster Punitha herself had gone to the temple in the neighbouring village of Porayar, and her daughter had been in Tharangambadi with some relatives on the beach by the fishing community’s settlement when the roaring waves approached the shore. According to Renuga, Punitha had later gathered from surviving eyewitnesses that her daughter, like many other victims, had responded to the shouts of warning and the panic erupting on the beach by running to seek refuge inside the family house, which was situated about 150 metres from the waterfront. The house had been flooded before the girl had had a chance to get out and escape. With eyes brimming with tears, Punitha, who had listened carefully all the way through Renuga’s account, summed up by simply saying, ‘I miss her every day.’ Many of the victims of the tsunami in Tharangambadi were children. The waves struck the village at a time when the schools in the village run by the Tamil Lutheran church or by the Tamil Catholic church were closed because of Christmas, and many children from the fishing community were completely exposed to the forces of the water, as they were spending free time on the beach or in their seashore houses at the time of the disaster. Quite a few of the women I visited during my fieldworks had thus experienced a loss of a son or a daughter. These deaths were often only revealed long into my talks with the mothers, as in Punitha’s case, and the surviving parents’ often very sudden revelation of the loss of a

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child was a field experience that, albeit recurring, always caught me off guard. Usually appearing as bolts out of the blue, the unexpected and laconic manner in which the bereaved would make simple statements expressing that a missing son ‘would have been a good fisherman’ or that a lost daughter ‘studied well’ continued to register as deeply disturbing. The emotional weight of these factual statements was an experience that seeped in to my overall ethnographic perception. The economical remarks about the lost children appeared all the more troubling to me because they contrasted starkly with the villagers’ comprehensive and unprovoked accounts of the material losses they had suffered. Looking over the notes I had taken during the talk with Punitha, I found detailed records of which kitchenware had been washed away from the house and disappeared in the sea; what quantities of dhal, spices, and rice had been donated by the tsunami NGOs and when; and how the fisherman panchayat had taken control of the distributions. I had also jotted down meticulous descriptions of how the emergency money from the Tamil Nadu State Government had been allocated and what they had bought; which medicaments and health checks the villagers had been offered at the provisional emergency camp on King’s Street; how and with whom Punitha’s fisherman husband had negotiated to obtain a joint ownership of a new fibreglass fishing boat; and how the family had been allotted a section in one of the barracks constructed as temporary housing shortly after the disaster. These and other such minutiae of people’s material reality in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami filled the pages of my notebook. I was taken aback by the fact that Punitha had readily provided so many details about material losses, compensations, and replacements even in response to very general questions about how the tsunami had affected her and her family’s life, without once even hinting at the personal tragedy of having lost a daughter. In the light of the massive bereavement that was suddenly revealed, all the material things lost, damaged, replaced or procured appeared to me as minor issues, and I felt embarrassed that I had evaded what must be of foremost concern to Punitha all through our conversation by allowing the talk to centre on these particulars. I was also disappointed with myself that I had not detected Punitha’s misfortune sooner – even if anthropologists cannot ever claim to actually share the experience of hardships with the people they engage with (K. Hastrup 1993). In addition, I was surprised that Renuga, who obviously knew the story, had not told me what had happened before our visit to Punitha or in the course of our conversation, and even more so since I detected no deliberate effort on the part of any of the two women to suppress the talk about the tragedy, once a cue had been given by my spotting the photo. There was no apparent taboo

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surrounding the account of the daughter’s death; it just seemed as if it had been an implicit knowledge only made explicit almost by chance because of the girl’s picture. Even though both women were clearly deeply affected by the death of the girl, it appeared as if they did not have very much to say about it, save for stating the facts of the daughter’s disappearance and recognising the feeling that the girl was painfully missed. It seems apt here to recall Renato Rosaldo’s poignant ideas about the emotional force of bereavement and grief and his suggestion that we separate its emotional significance from the presence or absence of verbal elaboration (Rosaldo 1989). In Punitha’s home, a material object, in this case a framed photo of a girl, rather than an ornate narrative, seemed to contain the relation between the living and the dead and the memory of loss. The lack of elaboration in this case, it seemed, was not a lack of emotional depth; perhaps, quite simply, no genre in which to voice the suffering and the bereavement that Punitha had clearly experienced was available (cf. Das and Kleinman 2001; Hallam and Hockey 2001). In this chapter I will investigate the shifting ways in which the survivors in Tharangambadi have articulated the losses they suffered on account of the tsunami. I will do this by focussing on the prominent and seemingly central role that different material artefacts and structures played for the villagers as a mode of remembrance located in everyday processes of recall rather than in elaborate gestures of commemoration. What I seek to do in this chapter is to move beyond what one could call a trauma paradigm that focuses on the horror that individual survivors take away from a unique disruptive event such as the tsunami. I would be reluctant to deploy the villagers’ words and actions to speculate about their personal psychological condition and their sense of grief and to colonise, as it were, their process of mourning. Instead, I want to attend to the quotidian and visible memory work that the villagers have undertaken in their compound effort of folding the disaster into the everyday. Although rituals of lamentation took place on the anniversaries of the tsunami, fieldwork showed that grief seemed to be articulated through a particular mundane material register; the losses had a kind of materiality to them (F. Hastrup 2010). My fieldwork also made clear, however, that it was not every material mode of remembering the tsunami that seemed relevant to the survivors. On the contrary, I will show that the physical monuments fashioned with the explicit aim of representing the memory of loss seemed unsuited for the intended purpose – even if perhaps such memorials might fulfil some other role of identity formation or serve as a political statement. Janet Carsten (2007) has recently remarked that anthropological studies of memory often tend to foreground what she calls the politics of memory

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and focus on the ways in which processes of memorialising tie in with and are structured by political and national ideologies. Carsten suggests that such approaches be supplemented by explorations of more personalised terrains of remembrance in which memories are absorbed in ordinary life by the persons living with them. In the following, I want to follow Carsten’s lead to this personalised terrain and explore how the villagers articulated the memories of the tsunami by way of a specific material register. My main argument here is that the ubiquitous practice among the survivors of listing disappeared household items, holding on to damaged belongings, and leaving rubble scattered around the village was prevalent exactly because this mode of recall captured the villagers’ sense of the tsunami as a yet undetermined experience, which was in the process of being attached to everyday life. To put it shortly, at the time of my fieldworks the tsunami was a lived event rather than a remembered legacy for the bereaved and other survivors. Instead of enshrining the disaster in a symbolic representation or relegate it to the realm of the political, pointing to the everyday physical effects of the tsunami seemed to be the preferred way for the villagers to articulate loss and show how the tsunami had unsettled the expected future trajectory of life. The villagers’ reception of an official commemorative monument illustrated this.

Figure 7.1 Ruined Houses and a New Road in the Northern Part of the Village

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Monumental Memories In many fishing villages along the coast of Tamil Nadu, monuments constructed in remembrance of the victims of the tsunami began to appear during my fieldwork in 2006. In Tharangambadi a memorial monument to honour the deceased from the fishing village was completed and inaugurated on the second anniversary of the disaster in December 2006. The memorial is situated on the Kamarajar Road, the main street connecting the fishing community’s part of the village with the busy market street of Tharangambadi, and the monument thus occupies a central spot in the village near the central junction, which most people from the fishing community would pass several times in the course of an ordinary day. The memorial is made up of a large black marble column with the names of the 314 persons from the fishing village who died on the day of the disaster inscribed in Tamil on the sides at the base of the pillar. Around the column is a small grassy and neatly kept garden with flowers and figures of birds, all of which are enclosed by a fence with a large gate. At the day of its inauguration on 26 December 2006, the monument was an element in the so-called ‘Memorial Day’ ceremony. I left the field a few days prior to the unveiling, and I thus did not have a chance to participate in the actual event of commemoration, but during the week leading up to the anniversary flyers were distributed and posters were displayed inviting people to participate in the ceremony that was to accompany

Figure 7.2 Kamarajar Road Leading to the Tsunami Re-Housing Village. To the Right a Tsunami Memorial Inaugurated in 2006

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the revelation of the monument. One of the posters showed two trees, a withered one and a green one, describing the tsunami as an uprooting of life while showing that new sprouts would now bloom. The invitations to the ‘Memorial Day’ were signed by the fisherman panchayat, which had also financed the monument, and by ‘the Public’. The programme for the ceremony was scheduled to begin at eight o’clock at the auction hall on the beach, with ritual worship, comprising a Hindu puja ceremony as well as Christian and Muslim prayers, conducted in succession by clergy from the three religious communities present in Tharangambadi. Afterwards, according to the flyers, the crowd was to walk in procession to the memorial on Kamarajar Road, the official opening of which was scheduled to take place at nine o’clock. The opening was to consist only of a brief statement declaring that the monument was inaugurated, which was to be followed by the final element in the programme, the so-called Silent Rally which was to lead the procession of participants to the site just outside the village by the defunct railway station where the victims of the tsunami had been buried in a mass grave, so that the participants could give offerings to the deceased. In contrast to the elaborate funerary regulations and practices that usually accompany deaths in Tamil imagery (Nabokov 2000) the tsunami victims from Tharangambadi, whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim, had all been hurriedly buried in a common and unmarked grave. Apart from the annual ritual engagement with the monument, judging from my observations most local villagers largely ignored the memorial in the course of their everyday routines. The central physical location of the memorial apparently did not imply that the monument had an equally prominent position in the minds of the villagers. All through the construction phase at the end of 2006, and again during my fieldwork in 2008, I never once saw a local inhabitant of the fishing village stop to look at the memorial or even talk about it in any significant way, except to specify that this shop or that house was located near the monument. Save for an occasional gardener tending the flowers, I never saw anyone inside the fence encircling the column. It had simply become a site on the map and not a station in people’s routes. Thus, even if the marble memorial has provided a stone narrative of the losses caused by the disaster and thus testifies to a hugely important event in the lives of many, to the villagers such chiselled testimony of the tsunami seemed – as yet – to play little role as a shared material expression of the experience of loss. As intimated in the above, and as I will elaborate on in the following, the villagers made ample use of material objects and structures when they conveyed their losses due to the disaster. Hence, it is not the material quality as such of the memorial monument that caused the villagers to largely disregard it. Rather, the concept of monuments suggested by Michael Rowlands and Christopher Tilley might give a clue

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as to why the villagers in Tharangambadi paid little heed to the memorial. As Rowlands and Tilley have observed, a monument is an object taken out of history, but which still stands for history in terms of what it has left behind; it is a mnemonic trace and as such it is separated from the present (2006: 500). If this is so, monuments are disconnected from the present by their inherent attempt at converting an event into something that belongs strictly in the past. In this case, one might say, by its very construction and design the memorial in Tharangambadi represents the disaster as a concluded event, the lethal effects of which have once and for all been calculated, listed and engraved in stone. As such, I suggest, it does not mirror the villagers’ experiences of still living in various ways and to varying degrees with the presence of the tsunami and the sense that future plotting has been compromised. If a sense of closure is still wanting, the tsunami cannot be taken out of history and turned into a monument. For the time being, it seems, the marble column somehow misses the point. What is essentially at stake here is the temporality of the experience of bereavement. In an effort to define the concept of loss, literary scholars David Eng and David Kazanjian, drawing on Freud, point to the role of melancholia and contrast this with mourning by distinguishing between how the two concepts imply different stances to the past. Melancholia as opposed to mourning entails an open relation towards history. In their words: ‘While mourning abandons lost objects by laying their histories to rest, melancholia’s continued and open relation to the past finally allows us to gain new perspectives on and new understandings of lost objects … In this sense, melancholia raises the question of what makes a world of new objects, places, and ideals possible’ (Eng and Kazanjian 2003: 4). Indeed, at the time of my fieldworks the bereaved parents and other survivors were still in the process of recovering the ability to envision a world of new objects and ideals, a world without what had been lost. The effects of the tsunami were not mourned by the survivors as a past story with a fixed stone design. Insofar as monuments are mnemonic traces of past events somehow separate from the present they cannot encompass an experience of living in the presence of rupture and of having future plans cut short by a disaster. In the case of Tharangambadi, as we shall see in the following, the villagers employed wholly different material registers in their effort to articulate this comprehensive loss of room to manoeuvre.

The Materiality of Loss Even at the time of my fieldwork in Tharangambadi in 2008 the destruction caused by the tsunami was still highly visible for all to see. The many

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reconstruction projects undertaken in the village had not entailed a simultaneous process of removing what had been destroyed, and the villagers themselves had done little to erase the marks of the tsunami from their local environment. Broken fishing boats, parts of ruined and abandoned houses, heaps of bricks, flooring and tiles, and other such physical traces of the flooding lay scattered all around. The northern areas of the village most severely hit by the flood waves had a strangely ambiguous feel to them; deserted and partly wrecked houses overgrown with shrubs and left to further dilapidate could be reached by newly laid ‘Emergency Roads’ made by the Tamil Nadu State Government in response to the tsunami. The roads were meant, among other things, to make an easy evacuation from the coastal areas possible in the event of new tsunami alerts; a purpose that by 2008 struck me as somewhat ironic given the seemingly permanent desertion of the neighbourhood which had ensued from the tsunami and from the re-housing practices. In any event, rather than being merely a consequence of a delayed or failed effort to clean up, closer inspection revealed that the material traces of the tsunami left in peace were significant to the villagers, exactly, I suggest, because they displayed the devastation the survivors had experienced. By continuously directing attention – their own and mine – towards the physical destruction both outside around the village and inside people’s homes, it seemed that the villagers worked to locate or pinpoint the otherwise overwhelming experience of disaster and the losses it had brought about in terms of both destruction and disconcertion. The physical residues of the tsunami served as points of orientation and were by their very ruined nature somehow true to the experience of confusion. During a visit to Jayalathi’s house in the summer of 2006, when the family had long since returned to their original and reparable house in the heart of the fishing community’s settlement, she pointed out a blurred line indicating the water level at the time of the flooding to me. As Jayalathi said, while standing next to the neck-high mark on the wall: Do you see this mark? Tsunami time, this is where the water was. All the way up to here, everything in the house was flooded. We can still see the line. The cupboard with all our clothes was swept from one end of the room to the other. When we returned to the house, the cupboard was upside down in the far corner over there. It was very bad. All the dresses were ruined. Too much cleaning had to be done before we could return.

Interestingly, the cleaning effort that Jayalathi talked about had not implied washing off the line on the wall marking the level of water on the day of the disaster. She kept pointing to the line and shaking her head; clearly to Jayalathi the tsunami had left its mark in more senses than one. On several occasions, Renuga would show me a neatly folded silk garment now stained with blurred shades of blue, green and gold, merging with the yellow fabric. While carefully folding the ruined silk

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sari and putting it back in the trunk under the bed from where she had taken it, Renuga would say: ‘Look at this sari. The colours are all mixed because of the tsunami water. Before, I only had it dry-cleaned. I used to wear it at weddings and other functions. Now it is of no use’. In yet other private homes, people would show me water-damaged family photos and school certificates, ruined and partly dissolved Hindu images, rusty and inoperative electrical kitchen machines, and other such items that they had either been able to salvage when fleeing the waves or, more often, that had been found in the houses when the water had receded. All these objects – literally watermarked by the tsunami – were kept neatly folded, wrapped, covered up, and filed on shelves or in cupboards even in the cases where they would never stand a chance of being restored, cleansed or put to use again. Surprisingly, whether in temporary shelters or permanent houses, the owners produced the items from among other household objects that had either come through the disaster unscathed or that had been acquired after the tsunami. The damaged objects were thus not confined to any kind of shrine or special display for purposes of commemoration, nor were they being flaunted at the visitor for me to help the villagers replace them. Rather, the artefacts inscribed with the signature of the disaster were kept as integrated parts in a composite pool of domestic objects furnishing people’s homes. Even during my latest fieldwork in 2008, it was apparently out of the question for the owners to just dispose of these ruined belongings in an attempt to exorcise the disaster from memory. What was lost in terms of functionality or aesthetics was seemingly conceptualised very much in terms of what still remained (cf. Eng and Kazanjian 2003; Hetherington 2004). To survivors, even if these objects had been rendered unusable for their original purpose, they had clearly acquired a different but apparently just as significant function. The very brokenness of the objects had transformed them into mundane mementoes of the disaster and seemed to be the reason the objects were valued. At first the meticulous listing of household items which had disappeared in the tsunami and the careful preservation of useless belongings struck me almost as inappropriate. In the face of the tragic deaths of hundreds of villagers, I was surprised that anyone bothered to even mention that, say, a water vessel had been washed away to the sea. However, a closer look at recent anthropological understandings of materiality might instruct me to see the prominence of the material losses encountered during fieldwork as something other than a superficial and materialistic approach to human tragedy. What became clear was that the objects marked by the event of the tsunami formed an ‘ontological tool’ of social remembrance and knowledge in everyday life (cf. Pedersen 2007).

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Breaking with a long tradition within anthropology to see sociality and materiality as two distinct and opposing categories, the former of which constitutes the proper analytical object of the discipline, it has recently been suggested that the material world cannot be separated from the social world. Rather than seeing materiality as a frosting on or as a backdrop to sociality, the two concepts ought to be kept in simultaneous view as equally integral to humans’ engagement with the world. According to this line of thought, subjects and objects, concepts and things, meaning and its materialisation cannot be clearly distinguished from one another but should be understood as mutually constitutive. What is often dubbed as material culture is not merely the expressive or representational mode of culture (see Henare, Holbraad and Wastell 2007; Leach 2007; Miller 2005; Olsen 2003). These ideas tie in with my overall approach to the environment as the processual and mutual relation between people and the world around them. In the light of such thinking, the prominence given by the survivors in Tharangambadi to objects gone, damaged and replaced should perhaps be seen as a function of materiality rather than an indication of this category of loss being the most hurtful. If, in fact, the material world is constitutive of any social world, speaking of the things affected by the tsunami might be just a way of conveying the pervasiveness and reality of the disaster rather than a symptom of a superficial approach to human tragedy. Indeed, during fieldwork many observations and remarks testified to a widespread sense that the material world was seen as encompassing the experience of the tsunami. The scarred things were no longer of any practical use, but had become tokens by which past, present and future had become folded into one compound setting. To put it shortly, while the marble column described above might be a marker of the tsunami, it was not marked by it. The material register of remembrance was not only apparent in relation to objects that had been damaged or washed away but applied equally to unharmed buildings and structures that for some reason or other were connected to the tsunami. Survivors thus continuously used material constructions as points of orientation and as objects central to their recall of the tsunami when moving around in the areas flooded by the tsunami. The villagers would often point out rooftops, staircases and tall houses to where they had fled when outrunning the tsunami waves, and they would remark that this or that palm tree or water tower equalled the height of the tsunami waves. Several times when we were walking by, Renuga would say: ‘See that building over there. I ran and ran as fast as I could until I could climb onto the roof of it. So many people were already there when I came. I was saved by the St. Theresa’s Teacher Training Institute’. In this case and on countless other occasions the villagers thus connected material objects and buildings to the tsunami, perhaps, as

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Daniel Miller (2005) has suggested, because it is a property of human perception per se to comprehend through particular figures that in turn shape perception. According to Miller, as human beings we have no way of perceiving except through specific form, and our access to the world is therefore always objectified. In the light of this observation, the tsunami cannot be perceived of except through its material manifestations; or to put it differently, once the waves have withdrawn, the tsunami is its consequences. What is important in the recent anthropological discussions of materiality is the reintegration of material and social worlds. Fieldwork made clear that to the villagers of Tharangambadi, the continued presence – indeed preservation – of the material traces of the tsunami all around the village, whether in the guise of damaged property, lines of mud, ruined clothes, or buildings which provided a safe haven on the day of the flooding, did not serve as a representation of the disaster pointing backwards in time to an absolute past. Rather, I suggest, the various traces were elements in a general framing of everyday life in the wake of the tsunami; they encompassed a living history, and not (yet) a fixed legacy. When the villagers showed me a blurred wedding photo damaged by water it was definitely expressive of something more than the wedding as a past important occasion, just as a partly dissolved school diploma was illustrative of more than an educational accomplishment. David Parkin’s observations about the significance of an artefact’s shifting contexts come to mind. His point is that when an object is displaced from its predictable context of use and instead is taken under pressure and in times of crisis it sets up a context not of use but of selective remembering, forgetting and envisioning (1999: 304). Accordingly, as parts constitutive of an unpredictable world, the items partly surrendered to the pressure of the tsunami or the structures that had saved the fleeing villagers served a purpose of pointing both back in time and ahead. To my analytical purpose, what is most important in Parkin’s observation is perhaps that objects in times of crisis may become part of a changed context of envisioning. In the course of my talks with the villagers, as I have touched on before, I repeatedly came across expressions of a sense that future planning had been impaired by the tsunami, and as I discussed in the previous chapter the people of Tharangambadi were involved in all kinds of activities to safeguard a future for themselves, whether or not they were trying to ameliorate conditions ensuing from or predating the disaster – or for that matter concerns that had surfaced after the disaster. My point here is that the villagers’ persistent view to the prospective course of events was mirrored in a material record of losses and replacements, destruction and repair, that seemed to lend itself more

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easily to a processual and open-ended view of disaster recovery than did a retrospective symbolic commemoration of a past with a fixed design. Looking closer at the ways in which the bereaved parents did in fact talk about their deceased children, it struck me that although often quite perfunctorily characterised, the children were almost invariably presented by qualities that somehow pointed to their future lives that had sadly been cut short by the tsunami. The parents often focussed on what the children could have become, for instance a capable fisherman, an educated bread-winner, and a caring adult for elderly parents and so on, and lamented the fact that these potentialities would never be actualised because of the untimely deaths of the children. By verbalising memories of their children in terms of broken future trajectories, the parents grieved for a confused present and a lost future as much as for a past tragedy to be looked back on. The parents were left with a history all too prone to future erosion and revision. At the time of my fieldwork, the parents and other survivors who had suffered losses due to the tsunami had not achieved a sense of closure, congealing the past, and they thus attended, I suggest instead, to ruined mundane artefacts as constitutive of a present situation. Although the stories of deceased children and the careful listing and preservation of disappeared and damaged belongings initially seem to be based on opposing conceptions of loss, the distinction between open and closed stances towards the tsunami as an event put the two memorial idioms somewhat on a par. By contrast, what did not fit into the recollections of loss at the time of my fieldwork was the official monument, which bore no scars of the tsunami and which was meant to represent a chiselled version of the disaster as a story laid to rest. Thus, while the memorisations of lost children and destroyed things respectively differed very much in level of elaboration, both of these idioms maintained the disaster as a presence in the everyday lives of the survivors – as an unhealed event spurring a pervasive sense of melancholia due to broken future promises. One fieldwork experience made this particularly clear. Towards the end of my stay in the village in 2006, I went with Renuga for a walk around the northern and most heavily damaged and thus most deserted part of the village. At some point we got to a rather large house, which had been under construction at the time of the disaster and which the owners had chosen never to complete. Renuga froze at the sight. ‘Look at this,’ she said. ‘Someone had carefully planned for this house. They saved up money, designed the rooms and everything, and then it was of no use’. Amidst ruins, rubble and broken fishing equipment, the sight of an unfinished but unharmed building was what most dramatically materialised the experience of loss.

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On New Plots By 2008 many of the new houses built to accommodate the affected families had been completed and handed over to their owners, as I explored in chapter three. This meant that at the time of my more recent stay in Tharangambadi in 2008 most of the temporary shelters where many displaced villagers had camped for several years had been vacated. Interestingly, contrary to most people’s old homes in the abandoned fishing village, the deserted barracks were not just left to wither away through the wear and tear of time. Usually within days of being vacated, the shelters would be dismantled, often by the former inhabitants themselves who would gather the building materials and bring them to their new houses in the so-called tsunami village. Outside many of the houses in the new village, the house owners had thus piled up the bricks that had made up the flooring in the temporary shelters and collected the bamboo sticks that had held the roofs of the barracks and other such building materials. When I inquired about these stocks of building materials, the stated aim of this informal and improvised recycling practice was to enable the villagers to make future extensions to the donated houses. Once again, physical artefacts had become mediations by which people connected past, present and future in a contemporary setting marked in one way or another by the tsunami (cf. Wallman 1992). My point is that rather than trying to achieve a sense of closure by attending to memorial monuments that, according to Rowlands and Tilley, point to something separate from the present, the villagers I talked to during fieldwork were in a process of literally incorporating the effects (and artefacts) of the tsunami into their everyday lives. Whether in the guise of preservation of damaged items, detailed listings of missing belongings and replacements, pointing to material refuges that had saved them during the flood, leaving untouched the ruined houses to further dilapidate, or lamenting the physical destruction of people’s projected building plans, for the villagers what was at stake seemed to be to recover the ability to live with the losses in their everyday lives and to plan ahead, rather than sealing off the tsunami as a past event – however monumental in nature.

Chapter 8

Everyday Life: Tsunami Time

Throughout the book I have wanted to show how in the wake of the tsunami survivors in Tharangambadi have been engaged in a process of recovery that consisted in gradually folding the tsunami into the ordinary. I have explored this as an issue of local theorisation about the character of the everyday, which the villagers seem to have conceptualised in such ways that it could gradually come to contain the disaster and the changes it brought, while neither denying them nor surrendering to them. Interweaving the tsunami and the ordinary seemed to be both the means to and the end of the recovery work. I have viewed the recovery process as an environmental project in the broadest sense, arguing that the overall issue in post-tsunami Tharangambadi has been to make the world inhabitable. By showing how this was done in ways that extended far beyond responding to the singular event of the tsunami, I do not mean to simply state the obvious, namely that from the point of view of anthropology the effects of a natural disaster cannot be dammed and appear in social worlds in manifold ways. Rather, what I have wanted to show in the previous chapters is that the recovery process in post-tsunami Tharangambadi featured as and required a fundamental flexibility with regard to how both the disaster and the village have been conceived. I have suggested that the villagers have engaged in a complex work of conceptualisation, in which the disaster and the ordinary continuously emerge as figures complicit in each other to jointly make up an everyday life. In that sense, the previous chapters qualify the concept of everyday life as a composite and inhabitable world. This is to say that out of the encounter between the figures of wave and village, an everyday life comprising both has emerged as yet another figure. This process of figuring, as I see it, is theory-making, and as such it is an activity that both the villagers and I have been engaged in. Asking not what Tharangambadi is or was or what the tsunami is or was, but how both have been figured in the process of recovery in the wake of the flooding has been my way of unpacking the notion of

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everyday life. Through the tsunami I have thus wanted to explore the figuring of the everyday and the other way around. More specifically, I have wanted to demonstrate how Tharangambadi emerged as a composite world, within which the tsunami would sometimes feature prominently, and sometimes all but fade from view in the light of other concerns that forced themselves into people’s sphere of attention. What I point to here is that the ordinary is perforated by the tsunami and the other way around, and that this posits a relation between disaster and everyday in which each figure is made to appear when seen through the other. In addition to making this book a comparative project of sorts, this implies that the concepts of village and disaster are not theoretical containers to be filled up in ever more intricate ways, but shapes that show an ongoing process of theorising on the part of the villagers as well as the anthropologist. This, I could add, applies equally to the notion of environment; for something to count as an environment, it needs to be conceptualised as such. The anthropological commitment to the world leaves us with no choice but to recognise the contingent and partial nature of concepts; a contingency which is a product of the capacity for conceptualisation (Strathern 2004: xv). This is another way of saying that in my view neither anthropological studies of disaster nor environmental anthropological studies should be restricted to addressing disasters or environments. On the contrary, if the potential of these analyses is to be fully realised, we can do without a priori assumptions about what disasters and environmental issues are, just as we can do without the default contextualisation implied in identifying these phenomena in advance. As I see it, anthropology is obliged by the world to discard such implicit explanatory frameworks that risk making fictitious and too solid distinctions between objects of study and their context. Such more or less stable explanatory frameworks, I suggest, should give way to a focus on worlds in the making. As demonstrated through the shifting empirical prisms of housing practices, forecasting exercises, processing of aid, ideas of causation and planning ahead, or various material commemorations of the disaster, the villagers of Tharangambadi have not merely reacted to the tsunami as an extraordinary disruptive past event striking an equally clearly defined and non-eventful ordinary life. Such clear-cut temporal and spatial notions of figure and ground are unwarranted. A feature that appeared to be central to the conceptualisation of the everyday was its durability, and accordingly a strong current of temporality runs through the chapters. Recovery in the aftermath of the disaster has entailed a creation of a durable present and a possible future prospect as much as a retrospective coping with a past historical event. As a theorisation of the everyday, recovery cannot be merely retrospective; to paraphrase Das, subjectivity is in itself conditioned by duration (2007: 98). Perhaps it would have been

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an obvious choice to frame my project more directly within a terminology of memory. What is important to stress here, however, is that I do not mean to point back in time to the tsunami as the major event and then explore how the disaster has come to be remembered after the fact, as other scholarship on memory would perhaps do. Such sequential clarity would belie the finding that everyday life has emerged as a simultaneity of disaster and the ordinary as these were conceptualised in the wake of the tsunami. In focussing on the absorption of the tsunami in the figure of an everyday life, the temporality of recovery comes to imply something other than temporal sequence. The notion of memory, then, is apt for the analytical purpose at hand only insofar as it implies both past and present, seen as simultaneously available. I have proposed that we see responses to the tsunami in Tharangambadi as expressive of the capacity for local theory-making. In further substantiating this claim, I am informed by a phrase that the villagers repeatedly used during all of my fieldworks, namely the expression ‘tsunami time’. It seems to me that the expression illustrates and contributes to the ongoing and subtle work of conceptualisation that the villagers undertook in recovering from the tsunami as an unbounded experience, criss-crossing the properties of place, time and sociality. In a way the phrase epitomises the whole point of my work by capturing the theorisation that made the villagers capable of inhabiting an everyday life. ‘Tsunami time, we don’t stay out in the boats as long as before. We want to come back quickly’, Ramesh, a fishermen in his mid thirties, said during my first stay in Tharangambadi in 2005. ‘Tsunami time, fishing is less profitable’, Soreshkumar complained at some point during my fieldwork in 2006, when most of the damaged fishing boats had been replaced. ‘Tsunami time, the children no longer want to play near the water’, Renuga said to explain the depopulated beach on an afternoon in April of 2008. In these and numerous other instances the phrase was used interchangeably to refer to the situation immediately after the disaster and to conditions, which prevailed years later, and which might not ensue from the tsunami as such, or that might even have predated the event of disaster. The expression of tsunami time is so apt as a means of conveying my overall point of recovery through a process of theorisation because it was not invoked by the villagers as a representation of a precise or past point in history; rather it was an invocation of their general and comprehensive situation, spurring or explaining particular actions and conditions, however closely or vaguely associated with the tsunami. In other words, the expression tsunami time referred to both continuous structures and changing practices, to Tharangambadi and the disaster; in short the expression tsunami time came to illuminate the figure of everyday life.

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Figure 8.1 Road in the Tsunami Re-Housing Village Lined with New Houses with Added Fences, Porches and Gardens, 2008

There is an interesting parallel here between tsunami time as a comprehensive name given locally to portray the situation of Tharangambadi in the years following the disaster, and the fact that experiences from three different fieldworks are combined this book. Tsunami time (and fieldwork time) is more than a representation; it is a theorisation about the everyday conceived as a part of an extended flow of human action, which always implicitly entails an investment in the future. As Mattingly has observed: ‘The present has meaning not only or even most importantly as an extension of the past; it particularly has meaning as part of a story toward which we are heading’ (1998: 64). The flexible local use of the notion of tsunami time that I encountered in the field pointed to time as a quality and as work rather than as representation (cf. Das 2007: 80; see also James and Mills 2005). Theoretically, the fundamental fluidity in the local conceptualisations of the tsunami as a natural event and of the village as a landscape of the ordinary, beautifully condensed by the villagers in the notion of tsunami time, makes me want to question the usefulness of singling out an ‘anthropology of disaster’ or indeed an ‘environmental anthropology’ as subdisciplines to anthropology at large. Evidently, I do not mean to suggest that anthropologists should disregard disasters or nature, but I do think, however, that we should approach these topics only by

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genuinely recognising the fundamentally composite character of people’s everyday lives, whether or not they have had a disaster visited upon them or are faced with environmental challenges of other kinds. To paraphrase Strathern (2004) again, no concepts of disaster and environment will ever be able to catch up with the capacity for conceptualisation. By approaching recovery as a figuring of everyday life I do not mean to simply advocate the idea that disasters be seen as context rather than in context, a perspective which has recently been convincingly suggested as a new avenue in anthropological studies of crises, according to which these are viewed as prolonged or even chronic conditions rather temporally limited aberrations (Vigh 2008; Scheper-Hughes 2008). Although I have shown that the tsunami survivors in Tharangambadi did not react to the tsunami as an event singled out from other features in their lives, they would often talk about it as a unique and decisive moment. The survivors I have worked with, then, have neither conceded to being in a state of permanent crisis, nor have they aimed to efface the disaster from their lives. Consequently, I suggest, the villagers have responded to a crisis of context, during which their ability to weather the world has been threatened. Recovery, in this case, is perhaps not only a matter of remaking a life, as suggested by Mattingly (1998: 64), but of actually being able to live it. Analysing the recovery in the wake of the tsunami in Tharangambadi as a process of theorisation about everyday life, I suggest that what has been at stake for the villagers, with whom I have shared tsunami time, is not primarily to convert disasters – of whatever scale – into history or distant memory, but rather to continuously work to consign them to some place beyond the immediate horizon.


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aberration, 6, 133 accountability, 84, 87, 90 adaptability, 12 adaptation, 10–14, 58, 73, 76, 96 agency, 5, 11, 14, 72, 82, 96–97, 115 anthropological knowledge, 19, 25 anthropology of disaster, 6, 11–14, 17, 26, 132 anticipation, 14, 115 arrival, 19–22 auction shed, 3, 23, 30, 33, 36–37 auspicious days, 48 authority, 7, 16, 81–97 Basso, Keith, 9 Bauman, Zygmunt, 43, 61 Bavinck, Maarten, 26, 27, 35, 83, 85, 86, 92 Bay of Bengal, 26, 34, 50 Beck, Ulrich, 43 beneficiaries, 47–49, 81, 84, 87 bereavement, 44, 50, 117–118, 122 Brahmin, 27 bribery, 92 bribes, 92 Build Back Better, 44, 46, 50, 58 building materials, 27, 47, 49, 128 Busby, Cecilia, 29, 36, 37, 59, 60 capsizing, 67 Carsten, Janet, 118, 119 cartographic representation, 18 Casey, Edward, 9, 19, 20, 55 caste, 7, 27, 33, 69, 70, 82–86, 95, 97, 101, 103 caste panchayat, 85–93, 112

catamarans, 35, 67 causation, 16, 99–100 cause and effect, 16, 99, 100 census, 27 Certeau, Michel de, 22 Christianity, 94, 100 Christians, 27, 29 civil society, 7, 84 climate, 4, 15, 63, 73–77 Clinton, Bill, 80 closure, 11, 14, 122, 127–28 Coastal Regulation Zones Act, 45, 56 colonial times, 18 commemoration, 118–30 community-based aid, 85, 88, 94 compensation sums, 86–88, 109–110 complexity, 9–11, 52 composite catastrophe, 100, 104, 110, 115 conceptualisation, 7–14, 129–133 contextualisation, 12–13 contingency, 12, 26, 130 convergent catastrophe, 99 coordination of aid, 83–84, 89 Coromandel Coast, 26, 27, 85, 109 corruption, 87–92 Corsín Jiménez, Alberto, 70 Cosgrave, John, 84 crisis, 91, 114, 126, 133 cyclones, 44, 64, 65, 111 Dalits, 27, 30, 37, 40, 46, 78, 100, 101 danger, 56, 60–68, 71–77 Daniel, E. Valentine, 19, 48 Danish colony, 18, 24

148  |  Index Das, Veena, 5, 7, 14, 19, 22, 55, 76, 94, 97, 103, 118, 130, 132 Dawson, Andrew, 49, 51, 54 Deepawali, 38, 104–106 definition of disaster, 13,14 demography, 26 desertion of beach area, 23–24, 38, 123 Desjarlais, Robert, 55, 57 development, 7, 23, 81, 88, 97, 100, 113, 114 disaster-resistant buildings, 15, 45, 57 discourse analysis, 25 discrimination of women, 94 disease, 39, 91, 111, 113 displacement, 2, 20–22, 27, 54–57 distribution of resources, 81 division of labour, 29 domestic violence, 102–103 drowning, 30, 67–68 duration and subjectivity, 14, 130 dwelling perspective, 50 earthquake, 1, 2, 3, 18, 44 economy, 13, 29, 89, 92, 94 electricity, 35, 42, 46, 106, 107 empowerment, 78, 81 Eng, David, 122, 124 environmental adaptation, 11–12, 76 environmental anthropology, 17, 19, 130, 132 environmental changes, 4, 10, 14, 75, 76 environmental knowledge, 59–61, 66, 73, 113 environmental uncertainty, 5, 44, 74, 77 environmental vulnerability, 5, 6, 99 erosion, 24, 99, 127 evaluation reports, 83, 84 experiential appropriation, 40 experiential familiarity, 19, 43 experiential spaces, 8, 55, 57 family ration cards, 35

Federal Indian Government, 28, 86, 109 Feld, Steven, 9, 35, 51 fibreglass boats, 35, 67, 117 figuration, 6, 13, 17 figure and ground, 7, 12, 26, 55, 99, 130 fish auction, 3, 30, 36 fish vendors, 29, 36 fisherman panchayat, 82, 85–97, 105, 106, 117 flexibility, 11, 45, 129 forecasting, 15, 60–77 formal education, 28, 29, 104, 106 friction, 6 future plotting, 122 future trajectories, 11, 14, 15, 115, 119, 127 garbage, 98, 112, 114 gatekeeping concepts, 7 gender, 7, 16, 33, 34, 78–79, 93, 114, 115 Giddens, Anthony, 43 globalisation, 7 Government Orders, 27, 44, 45, 48, 53, 56, 84, 86 granite boulders, 24, 34, 35, 98 grief, 118 Harris, Olivia, 88 Hastrup, Kirsten, 8, 11, 12, 14, 25, 32, 117 hazard, 3, 5, 39, 42–58 health, 39, 78, 112, 113, 117 hierarchy, 7, 70 Hindu cosmology, 7 Hindu marine fishers, 27 Hinduism, 94 HIV/AIDS, 112–113 Hoeppe, Götz, 20, 29, 35, 59 Hoffman, Susanna, 5, 10, 14, 44, 76, 83 Holbraad, Martin, 6, 107, 125 homelessness, 15, 55 home-making, 15 house construction, 15, 46

Index  |  149 household belongings, 16, 20, 23, 107 housing and re-housing, 15, 52, 56, see also re-housing, temporary shelters humanitarian aid, 15, 18, 32, 81–82, 88–89, 96, 101 humanitarian organisations, 2, 25, 82, 89 identity, 51, 54, 69–70, 95, 118 implacement, 20 informants, 13, 31 Ingold, Tim, 14, 18–19, 31, 50–52, 56, 59, 63, 76 interlocutors, 32, 33, 69 International Women’s Day, 78, 80, 97 International World AIDS Day, 111–112 Jackson, Michael, 39, 72, 104, 114 James, Wendy, 15, 25, 76, 132 Kazanjian, David, 122, 124 Keane, Webb, 57 Kerala, 46, 59 landmarks, 25, 59, 65, 70 landscape, 19–20, 26, 63 132 local theorisation, 6, 8, 10, 129 local theory-making, 76, 131 maps, 18–19 materiality, 118, 122–126 Mattingly, Cheryl, 11, 132, 133 melancholia, 122, 127 memorial, 40, 118, 120–22, 127, 128 memory, 5, 116, 118, 124, 131, 133 method, 15, 22, 25, 31–32, 34, 40–41, 60, 69, 72, 103 micro-credit, 52, 78, 81 Miller, Daniel, 125, 126 Mines, Diane, 20, 27, 52, 79 mnemonic traces, 122 mode of remembrance, 118 monsoon, 4, 30, 39, 43, 51, 62–68, 74, 75

monuments, 16, 24, 118–22, 128 Moseley, Michael, 10, 99 mourning, 55, 71, 118, 122 mundane mementoes of disaster, 124 Muslims, 27, 29, 55 mutuality, 15, 70–73 navigation, 33, 59, 65 new permanent houses, 38–40, 46 new roads, 23, 40 NGOs, 1, 15, 23, 38, 39, 53, 80–90, 111, 117 normality, 6, 49 Oliver-Smith, Anthony, 5, 10, 12, 44, 61, 64, 76, 83 ordinary life, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 119, 130 Orlove, Benjamin, 63, 66 ownership, 47, 48, 56, 84, 87, 90, 117 Parkin, David, 126 participation, 31, 81, 84, 87, 93 passivity, 81, 82, 96 Pattinavar caste, 27 phenomenological thinking, 9 poisonous knowledge, 103 politics, 13, 26, 118 politics of disaster, 26 Poole, Deborah, 92 post-colonialism, 7 precautions, 43, 60, 71 progress, 99, 104, 114, 115 protection, 22, 24, 71, 73, 96 provisional housing, 39, see also temporary shelters, re-housing puja, 39, 47, 48, 104, 121 rain, 3–4, 15, 30, 39–42, 62, 63, 67, 74, 75, see also monsoon rainy season, 39, 62, 63, 67, 75 Rapport, Nigel, 49, 51, 54 recipients of aid, 82, 85, 86 re-housing, 15, 20, 24, 30, 39, 43–49, 52–57, 108, 120, 123, 132 relief effort 83, 84, 86, 88, 90, 96 relief packages, 87

150  |  Index relocation, 35, 44, 45, 51, 55, 57, 58, see also re-housing remainder, 10 reorientation, 11, 14, 20, 40, 41 resilience, 73, 76 risk, 43–44, 46, 67, 68, 71, 72, 112, 115 ritual, 7, 118, 121 Rosaldo, Renato, 118 rough season, 67–77 Rowlands, Michael, 121, 122, 128 rubble, 24, 34, 119, 127 ruins, 23, 24, 98–99, 123, 127–28 rupture, 5, 50, 66, 122 safety, 43–46, 53, 71–72, 111, 114 safety equipment, 72–73 schooling, 28, 101, 114 sea wall, 24 seasonality, 15, 66, 77 seasons, 4, 37, 61, 66, 71–73, 77 self-help group, 52, 109 self-reliance, 81 Sen, Amartya, 7, 93 SIFFS, 46–57, 107 social constructivism, 25 soundscape, 35 South Indian Federation of Fishermen’s Societies, see SIFFS Specificity, 8, 26 Sri Lanka, 55, 83, 109, 114 stormy weather, 66–67 Strang, Veronica, 61 Strathern, Marilyn, 9, 10, 13, 130, 133 Strauss, Sarah, 63, 66 subject position, 4 subjectivity, 11, 14, 130 suffering, 103, 118 taboo, 103, 104, 117 Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church, see TELC Tamil language, 30 Tamil Nadu State Government, 2, 39, 44, 53, 86, 113, 117, 123

Tamil Tigers, 109 taskscape, 51–52, 70, 73, 76, 115 TELC, 28, 29, 112 temporality, 13, 14, 122, 130, 131 temporary barracks, 2, 40, 43 temporary homes, 20 temporary shelters, 2, 24, 32, 37, 39, 53, 54, 63, 86, 107, 116, 124, 128 theorisation, 5–11, 16, 129–133 Tilley, Christopher, 19, 31, 43, 121, 122, 128 topographic turn, 25 topography, 26, 31, 39 tourist attraction, 24 Town Panchayat, 112, 113 tragedy, 117, 124, 125, 127 Tranquebar, 18 transformation, 4, 11, 14, 18, 24, 97 transparency, 84, 87, 96 Tsing, Anna, 6, 19, 25 tsunami NGOs, 81–83, 86–90, 111, 117 tsunami rehabilitation, 23, 56, 72, 80, 84, 86, 90, 113, 114 tsunami time, 123, 129–133 tsunami village, 55, 107, 128 Uberoi, Patricia, 47, 109 uncertainty, 4, 5, 52, 65, 77, 88 unfinished event, 11 unpredictability, 4, 75, 77 village temple square, 21, 30, 38, 42, 59, 104, 105 vulnerability, 5, 6, 99, 113, 115 Wallman, Sandra, 115, 128 weather, 60–68, 71, 75–77 weather world, 64 widows, 48, 93 women’s organizations, 97 women’s rights, 78