Only a railway track and an empty plot separates Karibeeran Parameswaran’s house from the beach in Nagapattinam, a small town around 300 km away from Chennai. The complex, about 600 metres from the sea consists of three buildings that are home to thirty seven children, of varying ages. They are now children of their Appa and Amma – Parameswaran and his wife, Choodamani.
Many among them were orphaned in the Asian Tsunami of 2004 that struck off the coast of Sumatra. The fatal after-effects that wreaked havoc along the eastern coast of India left thousands dead and several more orphaned. In Nagappattinam alone over six thousand people perished.
“We never planned for this,” says Parameswaran, a central government employee of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, as he spoke about Nambikkai (Hope), a trust registered under the Juvenile Justice Act which has over the years taken in children orphaned by the tsunami. He began the trust to take care of three children. Every year since then, the numbers swelled; today Nambikkai is home to 37 children.
The origins of ‘Nambikkai’ itself are embedded in a tragic tale surrounding the lives of its founders Parameswaran and his wife, both of whom lost most of what was dear to them in the tsunami.
26 December was not always a day of profound grief and remembrance in Parameswaran’s life, which ironically also happens to be his birthday. On that fateful Sunday, 10 years ago, Parameswaran’s family was in a celebratory mood. While his wife was busy cooking the family a birthday meal, Parameswaran took the rest of the family to the beach.
“Twenty feet high waves were coming towards me like a mountain,” says Parameswaran recounts the scene now frozen in memory. “My entire family was at the beach that day. Kids nearby were playing volleyball and cricket. My son and I were playing with a Frisbee,” he said. Only when his son pointed at the approaching waves, did the duo start running. “All of a sudden it happened, in an instant. If I was not affected by it, I would have been photographing the entire event,” he said.
The force of the waves carried him deep inland, nearly to his house. By then, he had lost hold of his son. He went out that day, in a group of eleven, he came back home alone.
The following hours were deeply traumatic. He soon found his son’s body by the railway tracks. One by one, he tracked down the other missing members of his family- two daughters, his brother and wife.
“There were some days we stopped wanting to live,” says Parameswaran. However, one responsibility they felt they had held them back. There were unidentified bodies they had preserved in their house after the tsunami. They knew that many were searching for their loved ones, not knowing what happened of them. So they watched over the bodies, waiting for people to show up.
Four days after the tsunami, Parameswaran and Choodamani decided to check how a village in neighbouring Nagappattinam had fared. They had been donating money to fund the education of kids in that village for a while. “We wanted to see how people there were after the tsunami,” he said. Not knowing about the personal loss they had endured, the villagers began telling them about the havoc wrought in their village. That day, Choodamani decided that he would adopt children orphaned by the tsunami.
The couple went home with three kids that day. It was the start of a new chapter in their lives, it was also the day the seed that grew into Nambikkai was sowed.
At Nambikkai, the kids, are housed in two separate buildings, one for boys and one for girls. They go to the nearby government school, following which five tuition teachers appointed by Parameswaran take classes for them at their home for two hours.
Every morning, the children clamber out of their bunk beds to pray, but not just for themselves or for their families. Everybody figures in their prayer list, from Narendra Modi to O Panneerselvam, the Chief Minister of the state, for the whole of India.
As one listens to their wishes, it quietly dawns on one about how people draw their strength in difficult times and still find the heart to pray for others.
Parameswaran recounts how he received a lot of friendly help and support over the years to build Nambikkai. One dear friend, Rahel, who he met as a student in Nagappatinnam in 1997 spoke to us via email from Switzerland about her association with his family.
“By the time the tsunami happened, I had already visited Nagappattinam twice. The wave was a big shock for me and my family.” She describes how she offered her support to her distraught friend’s family by calling them daily, talking to them for hours at a stretch. It was during these long sessions that the idea to start Nambikai was discussed.
Parameswaran says his family’s earnings are sufficient to fund Nambikkai. Apart from Rahel, another friend Vijay, who is settled in Canada too helped financially to help Nambikkai grow. “Today things are different. We have more outside support now”, says Parameswaran. By adopting the orphaned children, Parameswaran and his wife not just found another reason to live, but a divine calling.
The couple brought in the kids and filled a void in their life. But by looking at the smiling kids surrounding this couple now, it appears as if it’s Nagapattinam that has benefitted from this couple.
Rahel sums it up quite well when she says ‘we can clap our hands or admire people, but actually everyone can make a difference… Cultures and countries should learn from each other and share the resources they have to make peoples live not only better, but give them hope and future to live beyond death.’