Dispatches from the Field: Pat Lawrence, August 2007 and August 2008

Summer 2007: Rubasingam Parwathy, the storyteller, tells a long story about how Kaddalnachchiyamman ("Sea Ruler Mother") warned the people of Navalady about the coming tsunami. Midway through the story I accepted betel from her. "She tried to protect us but we didn't take her seriously." She grieves the fact that the tsunami divided her sisters who once lived nearby. She wants her son to marry because she is getting old. The girl he was going to marry in January 2005 was killed in the tsunami along with her mother - they were machchan and machchal. They had to take him to the hospital when he tried to poison himself.

She agreed that the Nagapucaniyamman Kovil in Navalady must be repaired after being damaged by the tsunami, because you can't have a ruined temple in your ur, and besides they have seen the nagakanni (female cobra) swimming across the lagoon to Navalady from Mamangam this week, so the Nagapucaniyamman has come here. Who knows what an offended Amman will do? Her catangu (tiruvila) should be held in August.

Parwathy, Pat and children

She also tells a story about how Pattiniyamman, Mariyamman, and Kappalainthamawa all came to Sri lanka together in a boat from Kerala.

Pattiniyamman said she would have to live in the jungle so she went to Koralimadu (interior from Morakkatonchenai); Mariyamman came to Navalady, but then they changed her named to Kaddalnachchiyamman; and Kappalainthamawa became a Christian (her very old church is across the lagoon from Navalady - and this is where some people from Navalady, those who are angry with Kaddalnachchiyamman, go to worship after the tsunami).

She can't envision matrilocal household clusters in Navalady again in the near future because most people still don't want to come back here - they're still afraid. 

"We have to try to get dowry property on the other side of the lagoon now. Maybe sisters will come together here again when they are very old. This is a place for the old people now. We have everything we need here - fish from the sea, coconuts. There are girls who have property here, but we have to find a groom who will come and live here, and that is difficult. Most still don't want to be here." The mother of the children in the photo died in the tsunami, and she helps care for them because the father never remarried.

I have an interview with a GS tomorrow, and that will be my last on this trip. I do have some meals coming up with Tillanathan of Mandur and the deep sea divers who are going to roast lobster, but no more actual interviews. I'm off to Bundala Bird Sanctuary in a few days.

Cheers, Pat

Summer 2008: I recently met Rubasingam Parwathy again, a wonderful elderly story teller who lives in a fishing village called Navalady on the Indian Ocean, which was devastated by the Asian tsunami. Most of Navalady's children died in the enormous waves that totally engulfed their homes near the beach, but Parwathy cares for three young children who survived their mother.  In my most recent ethnographic study for publication that I just sent to our National Science Foundation Grant PI, Dennis McGilvray, she tells a story about how the village's local goddess, Kadalaadchiyamman ("Sea + ruling + mother") came to visit the village the day before the tsunami. In her story, the goddess was disguised as an elderly woman wearing a dirty white saree and using a staff to help her walk. She visited many individuals in the village and told them to leave because "tomorrow the sea is coming," and almost all of the people she spoke to died in the waves. Parwathy explains that the people shouldn't lose faith in their goddess because she tried to warn them, but they didn't understand her message.

Last year very few people came to the annual propitiation of this goddess in her temple on the beach, but this July her celebration was very well attended. An image of the goddess that used to be on top of the front entrance had all of her multiple arms broken off above the elbow by the waves, but now she has been given undetectable prosthetics. Each hand holds a different weapon as she stares out to sea.

Parwathy's youngest son was about to be married to his cross-cousin (the ideal marriage partner in Dravidian kinship) at the time of the tsunami. Sadly, her life was lost, and he did not wish to be married thereafter. Parwathy is still hoping very much that he will marry as it is her duty as a Hindu Tamil mother to see that all of her children are married.

Pat with children
Pat with children

She complains that she is getting old. We are almost the same age, so I commiserate with her. She asked me what she can do about her arthritis. I told her I ride my bicycle to her house because it's good for my body, and explain that staying active, like she does, is good medicine.

In Navalady most of the residents are elderly now. The younger survivors live in a new post-tsunami settlement inland, 7km from the sea beach. This is problematic for the men who engage in the various forms of fishing as a livelihood. Sometimes I encounter whole groups of men who eat, sleep, cook, and work on fishing nets together under palm thatch shelters near the beach. They explain that they like to be together because they all lost their wives and children in the tsunami.

I love cycling on the beach road by the breaking surf, and I do it daily just for exercise whenever I'm back in Batticaloa District - my "stomping ground" since 1991. Now I have interviewed many households there, so riding a bike along the road I now stop and enjoy friendly conversations with many acquaintances.

I really enjoyed writing this last piece, "The Sea Goddess and the Fishermen," which explores personal family shrines built by individual fishermen in memory of their lost family members - for some lost all their loved ones - and interesting commentary on "protection" and religious practice. The people of Navalady are confronted by increased political violence at this moment in Sri Lanka's quarter-century-old civil war, as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam once again are beaching boats there as they reestablish their presence.

Pat Lawrence