How a birthday became a day of devastation

Once upon a time I had a boss whose favourite colour was brown. And so, a day before my birthday, she gifted me a brown Fabindia shirt. Now brown isn't my colour at all — black and white and grey are — but I was thrilled as well as touched. Those were the days when I was just a vagabond in Chennai: I didn't know too many people who would invest money in buying me a birthday gift. 

I decided to do full justice to her gesture. I resolved that the next morning — that is the morning of my birthday — I would wake up early enough, bathe, wear that brown shirt and go to the Marina to contemplate upon life. I was going to turn thirty-four, and I still had nothing to show for it. 

But alcohol intervened. The night before my birthday, I decided to get drunk along with a friend at a TASMAC bar. The idea behind the drinking was not so much to ring in my birthday, but to drink sufficiently enough that I didn't crave for alcohol for a long time to come. My parents were arriving the next morning to stay with me for a month — my mother was coming armed with home-ground spices and coconut laddoos to celebrate her son's birthday — and being the typical Indian son who does not smoke or drink in the presence of elders, I was preparing myself for the dry period ahead. 

I was still fast asleep when the calls — the birthday wishes — started coming. It was way past nine when the first call came. Each caller, however, had something to say about the strange behaviour of the sea. No one was quite sure what exactly was happening: they had only heard things from various sources. Whatever they had heard they were now relating to me, in a casual dismissive manner. 

The boss who had given me the brown Fabindia shirt said: ‘My maid says the sea is coming to swallow us. By the way, did you feel the tremors?' 

A colleague who had always been kind to me said: ‘I was planning to drop by with some upma and payasam, but my driver has decided to take leave today. He has heard that the sea is coming into the city. He is too scared to step out.' 

A drummer friend who never forgets to wish friends on birthdays remarked, “I'm sure you didn't feel the tremors because you must have been sleeping. But did you hear what they're saying about the sea?” 

I knew something was up — perhaps something funny. I decided to check out for myself. I had a quick shower, put on the new shirt and hailed an autorickshaw. It was a smooth ride as usual until we reached Gemini Flyover. There, the long straight road that branched towards Marina was cordoned off by a rope. Vehicles were not allowed in. I got off the autorickshaw and decided to walk all the way. There were countless people walking along with me towards the beach, and countless others coming in from the opposite direction. I felt I was headed for a village fair. 

But in spite of the crowds, the road seemed to have been put on mute mode. The noise was missing, as was the enthusiasm on the people's faces — was it really a fair or the funeral of a famous public figure that I was headed to? Even though I covered the entire distance by foot, time just flew because I kept getting calls from people wishing me. Before long, I stood face to face with reality. 

The Marina had disappeared. It had turned into a knee-deep cesspool. And on the railing, from where one began the long walk on the sands in order to reach the sea, was perched a white Ambassador car — that sight alone was sufficient to explain what happened. Water had come gushing in, with great force, right up to the buildings that line the beach, swallowing the entire Marina in the process and tossing around vehicles parked there.

Even then it didn't strike me that if waves can toss an Ambassador in the air like a toy, what they could have done to humans. I was, in fact, quite amused by the fact that waves can be powerful enough to lift even a sturdy car like the Ambassador. Only on the way back home, when I came across small groups of women huddled together and sobbing, did I sense that something terrible had happened. Back home, when I switched on the TV, I realised that the terrible thing had a name — tsunami. Until now, my birthday was known to the rest of the world as Boxing Day. Now it was going to have another name: Tsunami Day.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012

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