One date, 2 tragedies

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By M.R. VENKATESH
  • Published 25.12.05
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Vedaranyam, Dec. 25: It was early morning on December 26 when the bodies began arriving.

“There were 42 corpses in all, horribly burnt and mangled. The stench was awful,” said P. Srinivasan, a veteran vettiyan (Dalit village functionary who cremates the dead). “All of them were Dalits, burnt to death in a caste clash. I cremated them on these very grounds.”

That Black Thursday in 1968, a 23-year-old Srinivasan had thought he would never see a more ghastly or tragic sight in his life. Thirty-six years later, on exactly the same date, that illusion was shattered.

Srinivasan, now a white-haired 60-year-old, choked back tears as he described the day the tsunami struck.

“I single-handedly cremated and buried 150 bodies between late afternoon and midnight,” he said at the Velipalayam crematorium near Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu.

“As usual, I was at the cremation ground at 8 am. After sometime I suddenly heard shrieks of ‘the sea is coming, the sea is coming’.”

The first body arrived at 4 pm. It was a college girl.

“After that it was a wave of bodies. Young and old, some bloated and some disfigured, some with clothes on and some naked. Some were brought on bicycles, some in carts. Men and women came carrying the bodies of children on their shoulders and in their arms,” the old man said.

“I was dumbstruck, though my family has been doing this for two generations. I had never seen such a mass of bodies since that day 36 years ago.”

The 1968 massacre at Keelavenmani, in undivided Thanjavur district, had happened on December 25 but the bodies were brought to the crematorium the day after.

“That was nothing compared with last year. It was one hell of a job trying to burn 150 bodies and my left leg got scalded in the intense heat,” Srinivasan said.

The heat and flames caused the old, tiled cremation shed to collapse, so the authorities decided on a mass burial. He pointed to three huge pits. “That’s where the bodies are lying,” Srinivasan said.