Pearl City

I have spent many December holidays in Thoothukudi at my aunt’s house. Thoothukudi during Christmas was a vibrant, colourful and happy place.

My brother and I would start counting the stars hung from the façade of various buildings and be amazed at the huge numbers. In the night, ubiquitous fairy lights, of different shapes, sizes and hues would illuminate the town in beautiful patterns. The joy I got from seeing the lights strung up around the trees in the garden can’t be explained. The cakes were so delicious and they were always available, so many varieties of them. When I got a present from the Santa Claus going around town, I remember thinking why something like that never happened in Chennai.

I also have memories of Thoothukudi unrelated to Christmas: time spent in beaches watching the sunset, the picnics to Muyal Theevu, finding out that I actually liked fish if it was this good, going to the church and seeing the wonderful decorations for the festive season, travelling to Tirunelveli to see a film in a theatre in which the seats had holes and the popcorn came in small plastic covers.

I have enjoyed the quiet and relaxed vibe of the town, especially during lazy afternoons when not a sound could be heard. I have thought that we could actually live there.
When I was thinking about the police firing during the anti- Sterlite protests, these memories came rushing back. The tragedy seemed uncomfortably close. I would never have imagined something like this happening there. You hear about things like this happening in a faraway place you don’t know about; you feel sad but a sense of detachment sets in. But when it happens somewhere you know well, a place you love, it is unnerving.

But the feeling wasn’t immediate. My mom was agitated about it, but at that time I didn’t register the full horror of the act. I had been greatly affected by the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas and was reading everything I could find on it, so this news was in the background for me. Shock slowly started setting in when I read the newspapers the next day, though it was pretty much the same information I had learnt yesterday except the fact that protocol was so casually neglected. I think it was because when I focused on it, the brutality of the whole thing hit me hard.

I then read the part in One Hundred Years of Solitude where Marquez talks about the banana republic and the shooting that ensued. I had read the book last year and even searched for the meaning of ‘banana republic’ but had no idea of the larger context until my dad told us about United Fruit last night. The thing that really stayed with me after reading was the scene where the Colonel will say that three thousand people were killed in the shooting and the woman will respond that nothing had ever happened like that in Macondo. This seemingly simple exchange speaks volumes about state control and vehement denial of injustice. It also warns that it is very easy to erase events from public memory.

The more I thought of the incident, the more was the shock and disbelief that something like this could happen, something so undemocratic, inhuman and dictatorial in its very essence.

I can also sense fear in people’s minds. Fear in my grandmother’s voice when she called my dad because she couldn’t reach my aunt’s mobile. The fear that makes us call my aunt frequently to see how she is doing. Fear in relatives and college friends when they call to make sure everything is alright. Fear that something untoward might happen in the tweets that tell my dad to stay safe. He has been answering calls all day.

But there is also anger. Anger of the people against the puppet government. Anger against the Centre. Anger towards Sterlite. The anger that made the kin of the deceased refuse to accept their bodies. Anger I feel because no protocol was followed. Anger that made my father post his most recent translation. The anger of my grandfather against a newspaper that blamed the protestors. Anger on Twitter over people who are insensitive to the massacre and worse, peddle fake news.

In this anger, I feel hope. Hope that if people come together, nobody can stop them. Hope that there will be a solution.

Yesterday, I explained to my brother about the incident and why people were protesting against the factory. I told him about the protocol that had to be followed in the case of a police shooting. He easily identified which of the steps were neglected. When I was trying to tell him that people must be shot only below the hip, he understood it himself and asked me: ‘they should be shot but not actually shot right?’, meaning that they should not be shot fatally.The childish way in which he expressed it touched me. He exclaimed that the police should not have resorted to shooting. He suggested that the police personnel who did this should be suspended from their job. When I told him about the compensation the state government had announced, he snorted. He had somehow understood that cash compensation wasn’t going to bring back lives. I was left feeling that if people in authority had even a bit of the clarity he had, this would have never happened. I felt extremely proud of him for the sensitivity he displayed.

We don’t tell kids about the big bad things that happen in the outside world because we want to shield them from the violence. But they deserve to know what’s happening. Kids are even allowed to watch U/A movies with explicit violent/ sexual undertones. What’s wrong with letting them come to grips with reality? Discuss with your children about important events. You will be surprised by their mature and assured responses.