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Reaction To Quake Disaster Shows India's Divide

by Sujoy Dhar and Sandip Roy

"All this talk of god punishing us is nothing but crap"

(PNS) -- Perhaps the only image that can do justice to the awful, awe-inspiring Asian tsunami comes not from the photographers now combing the beaches of Phuket and Chennai, but from the ancient Hindu text "The Bhagavad Gita."

To intimidate a warrior prince, Vishnu, preserver of life, morphs into a gigantic multi-armed writhing figure, immense beyond the scale of human conception. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," he thunders.

One can almost hear the Hindu gods in one editorial from the Times of India. "Such stupendous forces beyond conception can inspire only awe," the paper wrote. "And ultimate humility in the face of a mysterious creation which, to make itself complete, must inevitably contain the seeds of its own eventual dissolution."

From god-fearing rural folk to educated, urban software engineers, reaction to what has already been dubbed "the Christmas quake" reflects India's spiritual past, its explosive modernization and the tension between the two. As Indians struggle to make sense of one of the first tsunamis to strike India in recorded history, themes of transgression and retribution are voiced by swamis and scientists alike.

Religious figures speculate that the tsunami may have been divine punishment for modern ills. The destruction was "God's fury unleashed, because of the ridicule he is subjected to by the so-called educated Indians," says Sri Dulal Chandra Naskar, a soothsayer and Kali-worshipper of the famous Kamakshya Temple. "When you ridicule the sages and in turn the God, it hurts Him and the sigh He heaves unleashes destruction like this."

A baffled villager from Birbhum district in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal agrees. "If you have seen the swirling, swelling and churning waters of the ponds on that fateful day you would have understood that it was nothing but the workings of the supernatural forces. We rushed to the local soothsayer and he said it was all because of our sins of this age of indiscipline and hedonism."

Some saw in the tsunamis retribution for more specific, contemporary struggles. In the state of Tamil Nadu, a venerable Hindu seer, the Kanchi Acharya had been recently arrested, leading to an uproar among his supporters. "The devastation by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, could it be a caveat from 'Up There' about the atrocities being visited on the Kanchi Acharya?" writes columnist Rajeev Srinivasan on the online news site

At one end of the wrath of the tsunami was the booming coastal city of Chennai, one of the biggest centers of offshore outsourcing. At the other were the remote Indian Ocean islands of Andaman and Nicobar. When it came to nature's destructive force on Dec. 26, the tech-savvy were no better off than the tribals -- a fact not lost on Indian media. The tsunami was a kind of great leveler that took "no account of hostile times and festive times, of the very young and the very old, of the poor fisherman and of the rich tourist," wrote the Telegraph, a Kolkata daily.

Many educated people living in this metropolis, however, are concerned but not baffled. "This is a natural disaster and we should accept it that way," says software personnel Santanu Das. "All this talk of god punishing us is nothing but crap."

Graphic designer Susanta Paral sees the phenomenon as nature's way of reducing the country's exploding population. "Nature somehow has to level the imbalance. This is purely a natural phenomenon and a warning that we should not tinker with nature," he says.

One religious figure attempted to bridge the sacred and profane. Shantipada Chattopadhayay (Bhattacharya) Tirtharitwick, head priest of the famous Kali Temple in Kolkata, devoted to the four-armed, bloody-tongued Hindu goddess of strength Kali, sees the phenomenon as nature's way of striking back at those who would destroy it.

"If today I talk about God's fury, I would be ridiculed," the priest says. "But in our Hindu religion there is 'karmaphal,' the result of our actions, good or bad. There is a constant human effort to tame nature in the sky, land and water. We are cutting trees, we are destroying the mangroves.... Our actions unleash an imbalance in the ecology and then such things perhaps happen."

India's greens are angry. Says Bittu Sahgal, editor of the environmental magazine Sanctuary, "The coast has many natural defenses against the sea, like outlying sand bars, corals, mangroves, sand dunes, littoral forests, tropical forests, etc. They have defended us for endless years." But in the quest for development, he says, construction of shipping ports replaces such "no-cost" defenses with flat cement ground.

India's environmental ministers, Sahgal says, are busily trying to weaken laws that protect breeding grounds for fish and coastal lands from sea erosion.

"The very coastal vegetation they conspire to strip will probably be our best bet against future global warming and sea-level rise," Sahgal says. "But who is to explain all this to decision-makers indoctrinated by the World Bank to believe that the only good infrastructure is World Bank-financed infrastructure?"

In the midst of the devastation, however, there is hope. In the state of Gujarat, an elderly man who lost his wife to a killer quake in 2001 knocks on doors to collect donations for survivors of the tsunami. A group of women stays up all night cooking food.

"Only the wearer knows where the shoe bites," comments The Times of India.

Sujoy Dhar is a Calcutta-based journalist for the Indian news agency United News of India (UNI). Sandip Roy is a PNS editor and host of "UpFront," New California Media's radio show on KALW-FM in San Francisco

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Albion Monitor December 28, 2004 (

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