A Very Severe Cyclonic Storm named Thane clobbered the former French vestige of Pondicherry (India) on the 29th and 30th of December, 2011. Ninety year-olds swore they never witnessed a fury this violent and hysterical. There was no systematic tracking of the course the killer was about to take, and apparently everyone just knew that was a ‘big storm’ coming up. The result was death, doom, uprooted trees, shards of glass and blown rooftops flying across unimaginable distances before crashing onto the ground.
Nearly a year later in October 2012, a friend who works at the Lycée Français (French School) told me that the school would be closed for the next three days because the French embassy had got information of another impending cyclone. This one was to be called ‘Neelam’. Every French institution in Pondy was instructed to declare a series of holidays in a preventive measure to safeguard its employees. Funnily, my Tamil local friends had not the slightest inkling of Neelam, and it was only much later that the buzz had gone around.
The build-up to Neelam was in place at least 3-4 days earlier, forcing us to spend restless nights listening to the sea groan like a monster in pain. A real groaning sound which I can’t quite describe! The Bay of Bengal was randomly textured and layered right until the horizon with no coherent color progression: brilliant aquamarine, bottle green, turquoise, a sickly deep grey and the white fermenting surf all forming parallel lines.
It was the 1st of November, and all through the morning, the promenade was brimming with spectators who watched the desperate waves break an alarming halfway into the sea.
Even those who suffered the fury of the previous year’s Thane could not be stopped from venturing onto the seafront to check the conditions. One such curious man slipped and fell into the sea and drowned. Overturned food carts stood desolate and abandoned by their owners. By afternoon, the sea-groans rose several decibels and the waves ripped into the promenade which was quickly cordoned off by police driving around making announcements on the PA. At this point, the crowds had to secure their vantage viewing points from several meters behind between the buildings.
You would think that people would willingly want to secure their lives. But there still exist a few men and women who love being in the eye of a storm (literally). These guys defied all police orders and ventured out close to the rocks to get pictures of themselves against the backdrop of the restive froth fest.
Even as the cops frantically blew their whistles and personally stepped onto the rocks, a few lovers refused to budge. The life of a policeman certainly can not be simple!
After a while, the promenade was considerably cleared and things seemed under control again.
We walked down to the north end and into the fishing village. There were no cordons or cops to keep the villagers in check. A few fishermen had even dared to take their boats out that dawn. It was close to 4 pm and there they were — groups of them huddled in absolute silence. Their frail, thatched huts built from scratch after the previous years devastation, stood precariously but defiantly as the wind whimpered. We asked if they didn’t fear losing their livelihood all over again.
‘No,’ they said, ‘We never moved our belongings and families out last year, and we are not moving this time either. If the storm has to land on us, it will.’
This wasn’t disdain or a lack of respect for the power and unpredictability of Nature. This was something else I could not quite fathom. The imagery is still so vivid– Men of the Sea staring pensive and unblinking into their eternal playground with an inscrutable expression in their eyes.
The day wore on and the rain clouds decided they’d had enough. We finally heard that the cyclone made landfall at Mahabalipuram, a sea side town up north along the coast.
Pondy was spared this time around.