Cuddalore, Dec. 25: She can still light up the world around her, a year after the tsunami. If she is in the mood.
The unknown Biscuit Girl, who gave this newspaper a reason to carry a New Year greeting amid the gloom last January 1, had just stopped crying when The Telegraph tracked her down.
Through the morning, social workers and government officials would look carefully at that day’s front-page agency photograph and shake their head.
“Difficult, very difficult,” they kept saying as this correspondent did the rounds of the relief centres around Cuddalore ' the only clue the French news agency, AFP, had provided a year ago. “Without the name of the village, tracing her is tough'.”
Child, who are you, this paper had asked.
The fisherman at Devanampattinam village, 3 km from here, didn’t know enough English to be able to read the headline. But one look at the picture of the girl, running in joy, biscuit crumbs clinging to her mouth, and he could answer the question.
“Why, it must be little Komalavathi, Anbarasan’s daughter,” he gasped in surprise. “Just walk across to that hut over there, she’ll be there with her parents.”
And there she was. In flesh and blood, on the white sands of the beach, fiddling with a set of handcrafted wire toys on a table before the makeshift shelter that’s her home. She looked thinner than her picture.
The girl turns round. She seems distracted, even glum. Whatever happened to that smile ' the one radiating out of the photograph'
A year of struggle ' against pain, poverty, disease and floods ' has left its fingerprints on Tamil Nadu’s face. It seems not to have spared even a three-year-old.
Father Anbarasan, a fisherman, has come out of the hut. “Komalavathi is always falling ill,” he explains apologetically. “Sometimes it’s fever, at other times dysentery'.”
“The tsunami left behind so many diseases,” mother Kalaiselvi sighs. “Anyway, I thank God that she’s alive.”
She was lucky to have made it. The parents had been away visiting Kalaiselvi’s mother, in Pondicherry, where Komalavathi’s sister had been born a few months earlier.
When the tsunami hit, the two-year-old ' she will be three next February ' was at a relative’s place. It was a cousin, 13-year-old Suki, who gripped Komalavathi with one hand and hung on to the branch of a tree with the other till the waters receded.
Both girls were admitted to Cuddalore government hospital where Komalavathi’s parents found her a few days later.
Immediately after discharge, she must have been skipping around in joy, biscuits in hand, when she was clicked.
But the seawater had entered her body, the mother says. That must be why she falls ill so often, reasons Anbarasan. “The floods also brought illness'.”
And memories of Black Sunday, it seems.
“When the rain water came into our shelter, she got scared,” Kalaiselvi says. “She has been a little sullen ever since.”
The girl is now lying on the sand, still absent-mindedly poking at a small, toy-filled basket. She directs a thoughtful, lingering look at us but still doesn’t smile. How much does she remember'
“She is afraid to come anywhere near our old, flattened house along South Beach Road,” Kalaiselvi says.
When her parents took a stroll down that street this afternoon, the girl preferred to stay back with a neighbour, Kothai, a widow who makes light handicrafts for a women’s self-help group.
The child seems frightened of the camera, too ' and of the strangers who have come to visit her from the city. She begins to weep. Anbarasan tries to humour her.
“Ange poyi poo parithu varalama (Can we go there to pick some flowers)'” he asks, pointing towards a patch of green amid the mud left by the floods.
“Yes,” she replies in Tamil, almost reluctantly.
“Baalvaadikku poniya (did you go to the nursery today)'” her mother asks.
The child seems a bit irritated now. “Poyittu vandhen (I went and came back),” she answers.
Kalaiselvi suddenly remembers something. “You are not the first to have come looking for her. A French lady, too, came, carrying an English magazine that had our daughter’s picture.
“She had been searching for Komalavathi for three days. When she saw her, the lady told us, ‘Your child needs you now. But I will be back to take her to France after she grows up’.”
What kind of a life can Anbarasan and Kalaiselvi hope to give their daughters here'
A shadow crosses the father’s face. “The government handed out subsidies for catamarans and fibreglass-reinforced boats, but the more influential fishermen cornered it all,” he says.
“Today I have no boat to go fishing on my own. I have been reduced to a coolie on the bigger boats.”
It’s time to leave. Husband and wife stand outside their home, Komalavathi in her mother’s arms and her one-year-old sister in her father’s. They wave.
We look back one last time. And there it is, finally. A smile from the Page One girl.
It’s a shy smile. She hangs out her tongue and moves it around her lips, as if a bit embarrassed.
Or perhaps she’s trying to feel those biscuit crumbs, the “drops of sunshine” from a year ago.