By Mathew Maavak
It was a resplendent afternoon in Goa on Dec 26. Tourists were tripping towards the famed Calangute-Baga beach when fellow vacationer Ashwin Sivakumar stumbled upon the news of a tsunami disaster at a net café. Goa, on the western coast of Indian peninsula, was enjoying a much-welcomed flood of sunshine at that moment. On the eastern side, coastlines and islands were being submerged by a deluge that was historically unprecedented.
The juxtaposition couldn’t be more stark. Solar therapy on one end, and shorelines of watery grave in another.
We thought no more about it when Ashwin called up Chennai and was assured that his relatives were safe. Emails from the US, enquiring about my safety, didn’t make much sense at that time. The bay of Bengal and its outer reaches happen to be a cyclone-prone region.
The tourists around us were seen relaying Christmas felicitations to their wintry homes. Surely, someone would have warned them if there was a tidal juggernaut on its way, obliterating families, communities and villages along a swath of the tropics.
Yet we didn’t know. Or rather it could be that adults retain a childhood fantasy of personal invincibility. Disasters not seen in person can be mentally walled up as "remote." Along the same western coastline, down south in the Indian state of Kerala, more than a 100 lives were lost, and 30,000 were evacuated to relief camps. Kerala is closely associated with Goa for many reasons, including its beaches, history and geographical proximity.
Our bus was leaving in a few hours and by the time we reached Bangalore next morning, and despite glimpses from the media, a visit to the mall was foremost on our minds.
Even journalists at closer quarters can experience a "disconnect" from reality. A symptom of our times perhaps, of living in a global, panoptic village.
I was not the only one.
Time Asia editor Michael Elliot was enjoying a “gorgeous” morning of golf at Phuket Island when “kids came running into the course”, announcing something terrible “had happened on the beach.” Back in his hotel room, he found a voice mail alert from Time’s New Delhi bureau chief Alex Perry who was vacationing in the safety of the Himalayas.
Propinquity can confound even the most instinctive newshounds in this wired world. Those sleeping off a Christmas binge late into evening would have faced other agonies: Piled up voice mails that weren’t accessed, from both frantic editorials and relatives; the proper response to how one could have missed this event; getting the facts, and recreating a narrative that should shrewdly stand out from initial reports.
Journalists, like pathologists, are trained to slice through, cut off and extract relevant parts from a metastases of death.
A full 36 hours later, I saw the full scope of the unfolding tragedy on the Tamil language Sun TV.
Little bodies dangled from denuded branches, bulldozers were shoving earth into makeshift mass graves, women were wailing and so were the men. Mud, debris, concrete ruins, bodies and shapeless desiderate of all kinds were conjoined in destruction.
Initially, the global media unintentionally hinted that this was the greatest natural disaster for the past 100 years. It wasn’t but all other tragedies were indeed localized. This one spanned Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa.
As the media superstructure gets bigger with each turn of the season, so does the gravity of major disasters. In 1976, an earthquake in Tangshan, north China, hundreds of thousands were buried within 16 seconds. That tragedy was further buried by communist secrecy and lack of media access.
It is a different world now.
Jolted by the 10-minute TV clip, I rushed to the computer before another bus would take me to Chennai, where I had set up camp since early December. Now the emails made sense. I replied seeking information or links from Portland Community College sociologist Rowan Wolf and fellow writer Harold Williamson. I wanted to know the time taken by the tsunami to reach India and elsewhere, its speed of travel and other technical details. I sent another mail to Philip M. Taylor a crisis management expert and my ex-supervisor at the University of Leeds.
Once inside in Chennai city, the bus route indicated nothing of what I had seen on TV. There was certainly a chasm between media images and what I was experiencing. The seaside Valmiki Nagar area, where I staying, was untouched. The roads were as neat as usual by Chennai standards. Auto rickshaw drivers were huddling around, chatting away while waiting for passengers. Just outside the apartment of my host - then on vacation - stood another residential block called “Waves”. They never struck here. People were going about their daily routines, shops were selling the usual items, drivers were ready to take their bosses to work.
It was the media that kept reminding everyone that mayhem was at close quarters. Satellite news, net broadcasts, emails, blog sites and cell phones were working overtime to provide a vicarious reality to the unaffected in Chennai while relaying horror and aid pleas to the global community. Foreign leaders, and foreigners as well, were pressed much harder than the well-heeled in this locality, partly because the initial focus was on western tourists. Their relatives or friends with their communications tools could create a clamor in a way stone-age tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, or for that matter devastated Achenese, can not.
In this wired world, information can often flow with a perverse logic. I was getting all my news and alerts from the United States. I took out my camcorder to the beach yards away only after US scrabble maestro cum blogger Walker Willingham alerted me to another tidal surge in an email.
Again, I wasn’t alone in being stumped by the asymmetries of today’s communications. India’s Science and Technology Ministry was getting all its initial information from the television. Those with communication tools in the end had a far better chance of escape. Timely cell phone calls could have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Poor locals in a region unknown for this natural phenomenon rushed to the beaches as the tsunami trough dragged waves back into the sea, leaving a surreal bounty of flopping fishes. While they marveled, well-informed foreigners knew what would come next, all of a sudden. Many had a chance to escape.
During that two hours it took for the tsunami to reach the eastern coast of India, someone from Kuala Lumpur could have easily alerted someone in Valmiki Nagar. That is the privilege of the elite. One policeman at Valmiki Nagar told me that the beach was clear when the tsunami struck, the lone fatality being the result of curiosity.
If knowledge is wealth, information is a life-saver. Neither was available to the poor children, who, after not being forewarned, couldn’t outrun the fatal tides. They formed the largest number of victims.
Originally written on Jan 18
Most of Mathew Maavak's commentaries can be read at the here or visit the Panoptic World homepage.
Copyright@ Mathew Maavak 2005