The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pongal in land of symbols
- Former Chola capital to observe festival, whatever the cost

Poompuhar, Jan. 13: Rajakannu jerks alive the 7 horsepower Lombardi diesel engine on the outboard motor of the fibreglass boat. The engine now phut-phuts comfortingly for him and his companions. There are eight of them putting out to sea in the forenoon for the first time since the December 26 tsunami. Tomorrow is Pongal.

It is a symbolic act on the beachfront in Poompuhar. A puja has been performed and Pankaj Kumar Bansal, IAS, officer on special duty, will go to sea, too, in the boat named M. Jeeva Eraivan.

Poompuhar is a destination for domestic tourists and there is a symbolism about the place for all in Tamil Nadu. It is an ancient seaport and former capital of the Cholas. Today, it is also one of the best known brand names out of the state. The emporia run by the Tamil Nadu government in cities across the country are named after this town. In history, in the Sangam Chola period, around 1st and 2nd century BC, Poompuhar was swallowed by the Bay of Bengal.

After the tsunami, everything in Poompuhar is thus redolent with symbolism. From here, atop a spiral flight of concrete steps that flank a beachfront monument to Poompuhar's past, the village to the north is cleaned out, washed, washed away almost. Much of the debris has been cleared in the two weeks since. The sea has receded, the waves roll incessantly into the sand.

Inside this monument ' a 30-year structure that is a modern recreation of an ancient bathing house for women ' the graffiti is tell-tale.

On either side of hearts scratched into the plastered walls and the domed ceiling are proclamations by

A. Muruttan for M Vani, Bangalore

Vel for Uma, Hyderabad

V. George for T Vijayasundaramala, Quilon

Natarajan for Vinitha, Mayiladuthurai, and

S. Manavalan for M. Aglandesvari, Thanjavur.

Nine tourists from Bangalore were swept away here. Outside, two men with shaven heads sit on a boulder that is in a seawall erected by the tourism department. They are staring into the sea and throwing pebbles at it.Velan, 35, had six children. He now has four. Son Sathyaseelan, 5, slipped out of his grasp. Daughter Darshini, 1, ' he does not know what happened to her. His wife, Yelachi, had delivered around the time of the last Pongal.

His friend and neighbour is Natarajan, 27. He saw his three-year-old son Subenraaj being carried away by the water. 'I can't forget his face, he was trying to cry but I could hear only the whoosh of the water, his hand went in last.'

The official death toll in Poompuhar is 82. It was 81 in the morning but since then someone has succumbed to injuries. In the rehabilitation map of the Tamil Nadu government, Poompuhar is allotted to team No. 8. There are 11 teams in Nagapattinam, each headed by a minister with an IAS officer as the executive head. In Poompuhar, the officer is Bansal, an IIT Delhi alumnus and deputy secretary in the transport department.

This morning, he is obstructed at Dharamkulam on the outskirts of Poompuhar, a short distance from the T-junction where the road heads for the seafront. About 400 farmers from neighbouring villages are demanding compensation. They have heard that two truckloads of relief are headed to the fishermen's colony in Poompuhar. They should be diverted to villages near the estuary, a furlong south, where the Cauvery flows into the Bay of Bengal.

Bansal listens patiently even after the leaders, Dhurai and Gopalasamy, lose their cool.

'Tomorrow is Pongal and here we are on the streets. Why is it that the government cares only for the Meenavars (fishing community) and not for us' Pongal is the harvest festival on the first day of the beginning of the Tamil calendar. New rice is boiled in milk and water with jaggery in clay pots called satti. The pots are put on ovens in open spaces in the middle of a canopy of sugarcane. Dhurai says they must celebrate Pongal, whatever the cost, 'otherwise we will be ruined for three years'. The tsunami has left the soil saline and washed away standing crop of paddy, moong and groundnut.

In the Meenavar colony, there will be no Pongal. Anjamma, who was selling stalks of sugarcane with rustling green sheaths, says her going rate is dirt cheap at Rs 8 per stick. Since morning, she has sold five. The Meenavars number about 6,500 in Poompuhar. Last year, says Anjamma, she was selling 400 to 500 stalks of sugarcane for Rs 12 each on this day.

In the shops that line the road that leads to the sea, clay pots, sugarcane and bric-a-brac to decorate homes burst forth with colour.

Balwant Jain, who runs Vinaygar Finance, says the farmers will celebrate Pongal, the fishermen will not. 'I have kept my shop open for the farmers. They will mortgage jewellery, borrow money. If they spent Rs 500 last year, they will spend Rs 25 this year but celebrate they will.'

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