A hand briefly appears above the water in a desperate attempt to clutch on to life that is fast slipping through the fingers.
Ajith Kumar has been unfortunate to witness more than one instance of drowning in his 47 years of life in Thanthonnithuruth, an island a mere 300 metres away from Marine Drive.
For, death has been a frequent visitor to this island of 60-odd families. And it is not always diseases that have taken lives here. Instead, a normal trip to the place of work, market, hospital or school has proved the last journey for many with the stretch of backwaters separating the island from the bristling city ending up as their death bed.
Kumar recollects about 25 deaths by drowning over the years. “Once you witness something like that, it will haunt you for the rest of the life. I can still remember an incident in which a mother was drowned and the child she was carrying miraculously escaped. When the body was taken ashore her hands were still wrapped as if around her child who was no longer there,” he remembers.
Invariably, the victims were on narrow country boats just wide enough to accommodate two or three persons in a single row, as they found the bi-hourly service by a single boat between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. too inadequate to meet their daily needs.
T.R. Subbayyan, an islander long engaged in the fight for a bridge connecting the city, puts the plight of the islanders in perspective. “There you can see the hospital. But to get treatment, we should be fortunate enough to first reach there safely,” he says pointing at Lourdes Hospital at Pachalam visible from in front of his house.
Vijili, president of one of the Kudumbasree units in the island, says that women and children are the worst affected because of inaccessibility.
She drops and picks up her five-year-old son from school every day as she is not confident of sending him alone on the boat. “The problem is that there is no boat service timed for the end of school hours, which means that I have to catch a boat much early and then simply spend hours waiting for my son at the school,” she says.
For Rasheeda, the day begins with cleaning up her house which gets inundated in high tide during nights. “We are fed up of this life,” she says while mopping up the floor. Her house, which is just three years old, has already developed cracks due to constant flooding.
There are houses in this island of just over 100 acres, which are surrounded by mud and water left behind by high tide creating the impression of an island within an island. “Houses here have a maximum life of 25 years,” says Subbayyan.