NATURAL disasters can be debilitating in their power, leaving behind the debris of a life once
known. Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami are a case in point. Which is why, Sandhya
Rao's "My Friend, the Sea" assumes a significance today that cannot be ignored. Published in
2005, following the December 26, 2004 tsunami, the story might be set along the coastal region
of Tamil Nadu, but its heart is set in the universal shores of hope that welcomes new beginnings
from the shadows of the once familiar.
The story, brilliantly narrated in the voice of a young boy, gives us glimpses into the boy and his
family's relationship with the sea. Be it the grandfather and father enjoying a simple meal in
the middle of the sea, the boy and his friends swimming in the ocean, the joys and challenges
of a kattumaram, or just the sense of freedom that resides in every childhood home. This deep,
emotional bond is, in fact, established right in the beginning, when the boy states simply: "The
sea is Kadalamma, Ocean Mother". Then comes the tsunami, and the space is never the same
The success of Rao's narration is the seamless juxtaposition of the past and present, of
the 'before and after' of the tsunami. There are some deeply moving moments in the story; for
me especially was how beautifully Rao overlays the confusion and fear of the community on to
the sea's own discordant course, or the part where the young boy describes his interaction with
city children in the backdrop of the sea - a moment of childish wonder and magical innocence
- contrasted with the makeshift life built by city dwellers for the victims of the tsunami. In
one quick moment, you realise the deep chasm between what was and what is, between
unexpected pain and the unpredictable future.
A special mention to the photographs that accompany this story - Karuna Seth and Pervez
Bhagat bring real people and faces into our midst, reminding us gently that life is never far
away from fiction, and vice versa. The final picture of the quiet sea and the burst of energy of
the young boy tell us that perhaps all is well again… there is the promise of a new kattumaram
in the horizon, and with it a satisfying sense of hope. Perhaps the best lesson for a child.
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