Malacca (Car Nicobar), Jan. 2: Seven days ago, a hungry tide swallowed Malacca.
In the debris it has left behind ' hundreds of bodies lying in piles, maggots crawling over some and some burning ' M.K. Das hunts for his wife and eight-year-old daughter.
And a bewildered author's eyes sweep over the ragged land, struggling to fathom the depth of the tragedy.
Das finds a few photographs of his family at one place. At another, some notebooks he had got for daughter Vineeta.
This is Malacca, once the biggest habitation on Car Nicobar, where no outsider, other than government officials, has reached since disaster struck.
At half-past noon, the air force's AN-32 disgorged a group of journalists and officials and author Amitav Ghosh at the Car Nicobar base that was wiped out by last Sunday's tsunami. Beyond the base lies a ravaged village of over 2,000 people that is outside the conducted tour the authorities have organised for the visitors.
'A truck will leave for Malacca soon. Let us take a ride,' says Ghosh.
After a few minutes of persuasion, the driver agrees, reluctantly, to take us to Malacca, some 12 km away. 'Keep your heads down. If they (air force and army) catch you, all of us will be in trouble,' he warns.
At the edge of the ruins of habitation, the truck drops us. Here we meet Das, director of the local malaria research centre. Walking past the relief camps ' the boundary of the official tour ' we head towards the beach about 2-2.5 km away, stepping over bodies, overwhelmed by stench.
'My son Vikas was clinging to a concrete column after he was swept away by the waves. He was miraculously saved,' Das says before tears silence his voice.
He finds a bag wife Lipika had bought for him. 'Look, how it has been swept 2 km from the colony. God, how can I bear this'.'
Das was away at Port Blair when the tsunami struck. 'It was late on December 26 that I learnt my son was alive (with whom he has been reunited). I have spent the last few days looking.'
The path to the beach is laden with rubble and uprooted trees. Boom, boom, boom' gas cylinders lying hidden behind piles of waste go off, one after the other.
'The cylinders are bursting very close,' warns Ghosh.
Piles of bodies have been set afire and the flames are causing cylinders from destroyed homes of government employees in Malacca to explode.
Das begins to walk briskly. 'Can you believe it' This is the colour pencil box I bought Vineeta a few days ago.'
A few yards away are some more personal effects and a broken microscope. Ghosh spots a few laminated photos of young couples, some bangles, utensils. 'This is unimaginable destruction. They did not have a chance at all,' says the author of Hungry Tide.
'Kya kisi chhoti bachhi ko dekha jungle mein' Kya koi mainland aurat (a reference to his wife) ko dekha' Das asks a group of rescuers carrying bodies.
'There are only bodies here. And the stench,' he mumbles.
A few yards away, the ruins of a church and a primary school where Vineeta used to study. A temple of Lord Murugan (Kartik) is standing up.
'Look, there is nothing left of this place also,' says Ghosh, pointing to a structure that reads 'Rajeev Gandhi Park'.
Sand has swept over the park strewn with bodies. 'They could have removed some bodies. Come, give me a hand,' implores Das.
We try, but the planks of doors and branches of trees won't give.
Another few yards and Das comes upon a few photographs and slides, a suitcase and some documents.
'Why don't you take these mementoes' asks Ghosh.
'They are of no use to me now. Can't you see what the sea has done' Das replies.
He shows us the place where his house once stood. The sea was a few hundred yards away on Christmas Day. Now it is metres away.
As we turn back for the base, some more cylinders go off, fire spreads on the path. 'We must run before the blaze covers the entire place.' Ghosh had barely finished speaking when another cylinder burst, throwing us off our feet.
'Are you hurt' asks Das as we get up and, jumping over rubble and bodies, escape. The path we crossed seconds ago is a trail of fire.
Ghosh requests an army driver for a ride to the air base. As we bid Das goodbye, he shouts again at a rescuer, asking if he had seen his daughter. 'There are no survivors there. Some might be on the west side,' the rescuer replies.
Das decides to take a boat. As our truck starts, through the swirl of dust Ghosh throws a glance back at Das. 'His search will never end. It has only begun.'