| Nagarani, who lost her parents in the tsunami, at an orphanage on the outskirts of Nagapattinam. (Reuters)
Pudukuppam (Tamil Nadu), Jan. 5: 'I'm the head of the family now,' 15-year-old Sitha says firmly, holding back tears as she hovers protectively around her 10-year-old sister Sitha Lakshmi and eight-year-old brother Amitha.
'I have to look after them. Mummy wanted them to get educated and I have to make that happen now.'
Their father, a fisherman from Sikkal in Nagapattinam, and mother, who sold the fish, were killed in the tsunami.
As thousands of children like Sitha and her siblings struggle to cope with the loss of their families, school appears a distant dream.
'We have no textbooks, no uniforms and we have no address to go to,' says Madan, 11, whose mother Manjula was tossed by the waves on to a live wire and was electrocuted.
'Only after her death was the power connection switched off in Pudukuppam,' adds the Class VII student of the coastal hamlet, 32 km from Cuddalore. 'By dying, she saved many other lives here,' he says quietly. Her body was washed ashore at Indira Nagar.
About 5 km from Pudukuppam in a locality called Porto Novo is the Government Higher Secondary School that Madan and other fishermen's children attended.
In between is an old lighthouse, the local landmark and, as Madan puts it, 'our guiding light for years'.
'But now we cannot even go past the lighthouse area,' he says. 'We hear strange noises at night as a mass burial has been done somewhere there and nobody wants to stay in the village after dusk.'
Local government schools are scheduled to reopen on January 15, following postponement by district collector Gagandeep Singh Bedi. Private schools reopened today in towns like Cuddalore.
But school is the last thing on the minds of the children who have lost their parents and their homes. Priyanka, 5, can only say 'my mother saved me' when asked about December 26 when the tsunamis struck. She was rescued from Thevanampattinam village in Cuddalore.
Raja, 8, of the same village, keeps saying 'my father will be thinking about me' though he is dead. The boy was brought to a government home by police after they took him to his village and he found 'my house was not there'.
Ramesh, 10, of Sikkal, just sits on a stool at a makeshift orphanage, his eyes locked wide in a stare of fear and shock. He cannot tell anyone what happened to him or how his mum and dad died. Neighbours said his parents were killed by the giant waves.
The authorities, after a week of concentrating on rescue and immediate relief, are now waking up to the plight of the sizeable number of orphaned children and affected women.
The children have lost their schoolbooks, bags, cash kept at home, bicycles and free government bus passes. 'Reissuing of the passes would take at least two months,' Madan said.
Some of the boys said they would need an average of Rs 500 every month to take a bus daily to Porto Novo and eat lunch.
'We have stopped going to the free noon meal centre at school because fishermen's children are looked down upon. Only Dalit boys and girls are given preference there,' Madan said.
A children's home was opened at the Cuddalore district headquarters yesterday and 'already we have 19 children', said Sujatha Srinivasan, who is overseeing the initial operations at the home.
Grace, the district social welfare officer, said: 'Semi-orphaned and fully orphaned children up to 18 can take shelter there and pursue a vocational or normal course at the school run by the Government Service Home (which was there before the disaster).'
According to Gouri, superintendent of the Government Observation Home in the district, 'we went to all the (relief) camps and collected data on fully or partially orphaned children'.
On hearing of the children's home, NGOs are sending teddy bears, dolls and other toys, and elderly couples are enquiring about adopting the children.
'A team from Gujarat is already here for relief work and they (team members) want to adopt some of these orphaned children,' Grace said.
But first, the children will be given psychological counselling as many of them, too shocked to speak coherently yet, 'do not even comprehend what has happened', she added.