Posted on Jan 3, 2005

The Rumor Mill

It was the week of the tsunami. It is _the_ topic of discussion at every social gathering at Chennai and every new anecdote from the disaster carries excellent conversational value. I have read about myths and fables evolving over generations, but here I am participating in the making of a giant myth, colored by the collective imagination of a society that has always loved the dramatic. All these anecdotes – they may be true to the core, or blown out of proportion, or created from void by some imaginative mind – are the little threads that make the fabric of this new myth.

My tryst with it started as early as 8 am on 26th December when the tsunami was still on its way to the Indian coast. There was a phone call from a friend who was visiting Bangalore – “I just heard that there was a huge earthquake at Chennai, is that true? Are you safe?”. It usually takes a lot of violent shaking from my wife before I wake up from sleep, so I am not the best earthquake detector in the world. But my grandma should have known – she wakes up at every movement that she perceives, and that includes some supernatural vibrations that I cannot even comprehend. I consulted her and told my wife who was on the phone – “Chennai is the same as it was when she left, though it may be sad that she is coming back :-)”.

Then it just started coming in waves – the entire Chennai is getting washed out, ten thousand people died in the Marina beach, all structures are washed away. It took a quick visit to the deserted beach to confirm that this was not really true – most of the concrete structures were still there, with some damage. It was the huts and small tenements of fishermen that were affected the most, and they just got washed away, carrying so many people with them. They were unprepared to handle the tsunami that came in with no warning, but the the large number of casualties had a lot to do with the poor state of their dwellings too.

On 27th, the government got into the act too. There was this new tsunami warning that got people into real panic mode. The office was rife with rumors – you know, the new tsunami has just struck, this time it is huge and the water has come inland for three kilometers, entire Triplicane area is flooded – it just came on and on till I started to get worried about the safety of my grandma and son who were at my house three kilometers far from the beach. I called home, and grandma was worried – “come home son, people are saying that water came as far as Taramani and Velachery, we may need to leave”. Fortunately, the admin at HCL did a great job to talk to the concerned officials and confirm that there was no ‘new’ tsunami, only a swelling in the sea.

The newspapers did their bit to bring stories from afar – tales of how some tribes in Thailand survived by the foreknowledge they got from their myths, of how a little British girl saved hundreds of people after she remembered the symptoms of a tsunami from her geography class and alerted them, and so on. We will hear more in the days to come.

There was this one from grandma about some people going to beach to scavenge stuff that got washed ashore, and then selling them at dirt cheap prices. There were good bargains to be made, she heard. Before I made up my mind on believing that, my wife came up with a better one. “You know what happened in Kerala, they were looting the houses of people that abandoned their houses when the tsuami struck. Worse, some people even spread rumors about a second tsunami so that they could loot the abandoned houses”. Ah, the cruelty of man – another cliche of the ‘n’th degree!.

There was also the one that came in between after Karunanidhi got hospitalized with a back pain. The rumor was that he was in serious condition, and that mob was getting violent in some places. I never really understood the reason for the mob to get violent, but I was thankful – Nisha came back from office earlier, a welcome break for us.

I grew up hearing grandmothers’ tales of the flood of ’99. (It actually happened in 1921-22 in Kerala, and the ’99 refers to the year in the Malayalam calendar). Those were tales of endless destruction – no description of any disaster that I ever read, no disaster movie that I ever saw came close to the scale of what they painted. It does not really matter to me that my grandmothers were perhaps less than 5 years old when it really happened, it does not matter that it never appears on the world disaster map.

Perhaps, generations to come will carry the tales of this tsunami in their mind, as the epitome of destruction. I should not really be bothered by the half-truths – I have to be glad that I am a participant the making of a myth.

“The thing about a myth is not whether it is true or not, nor whether it should be true, but that it is somehow truer than truth itself” – from Schindler’s Ark (Thomas Keneally).