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Letter from Pondicherry

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As part of our ‘Letters From’ week, today we repost a piece of reportage from the archive. Akash Kapur's letter from Pondicherry’s disappearing beach, featured in Granta 101, is more than a letter from a place. It is a letter from a moment in time, a snapshot back to a struggle no longer making the news.

Photo courtesy of Adam Jones, Ph.D

When I was growing up in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the south-east coast of India, I would go with my family each Sunday to the beach. Everything about the beach seemed perfect back then: warm waters, yellow sand, swaying coconut trees, and lines of soft white surf that stretched across a green-blue horizon. It was like something from a postcard.

Pondicherry didn’t get too many tourists in those days; the beach was mostly empty. But now the tour buses drive up and down the coast, filled with pink men and women in white hats searching for a strip of sun and sand. The Pondicherry government advertises the city, on roadside billboards and in magazine spreads, as an idyllic retreat where ‘time stands still’.

But time does not stand still. The beach as I once knew it does not exist any more. It began to die in the late 1980s, when the government built a new port to the south of Pondicherry. Politicians promised that the port would bring in investment and power economic development. Who could argue with that? Within a few years, however, as even a cursory environmental assessment would have predicted, the yellow sand started disappearing, carried away by new currents that swept around the port, starved of replenishment when natural sand flows were blocked. Today the beach I used to visit with my family is gone.Today the beach I used to visit with my family is gone.

Beaches are fragile ecosystems; what starts on one stretch continues along another. Over the years, the erosion has crept up the coast, eating away at the shoreline beyond Pondicherry, swallowing the homes and boats of fishermen. Villagers have been evacuated and livelihoods have been destroyed. The sandbars that used to absorb the shock of waves far out in the ocean have been flattened. In 2004, when the tsunami hit this stretch of the coast, there was nothing to stop the surge of water. Hundreds of villagers lost their lives, and thousands more their homes.

The latest victim of this man-made ecological disaster is the village of Chinnamudaliarchavadi, about ten kilometres north of Pondicherry. A few months ago, in an effort to halt the erosion, the government threw tons of rocks into the ocean just south of the village, and built three huge piers that were supposed to block the sand from flowing away. Although India has strict laws governing construction along the coast, the piers were built without environmental permission. The ecological consequences were simply overlooked. And so, as with the port that killed the Pondicherry beach, the piers have intensified the process of erosion. Over just a few months, Chinnamudaliarchavadi’s beach has virtually disappeared and the village perches precariously over the advancing waters, slowly slipping away.

On a day of grey skies and summer heat I visit the beach. I know it well. I live about twenty minutes away. On the morning of the tsunami, I rushed here from my home, not understanding quite what had happened. It was only when I saw a dead boy on the sand, with distressed villagers gathered around him, and then noticed a coastguard plane buzzing overhead, searching for survivors, that I began to understand something of the scale of the disaster.

Today the village has a similar air of crisis. At least thirty metres of beach have been lost in just a few months.The narrow band of sand that remains drops quickly into the ocean, like a cliff, a sign of rapid erosion. Men and women walk up and down what is left of the beach, a vacant, perhaps incredulous, look in their eyes. The sea is crowded with empty boats. They used to lie on the sand, but now the fishermen have to row out to their craft in flimsy catamarans.

Outside a thatched hut, close to the ocean, M Valli, a single mother of two teenage boys, tells me that every night at high tide the waters advance into her hut, seeping into the single room where she tries to sleep with her sons. ‘At night, the sound of waves is like an earthquake,’‘At night, the sound of waves is like an earthquake,’ she says, in Tamil, her fingers pulling at her purple sari. ‘My children want to move away, they want to go somewhere else. But where can I go?’

Valli lost nearly everything she owned in the tsunami. She almost lost her children, too. They were rescued by an autorickshaw driver who managed to pull them to safety before they were swept out to sea. For weeks after that, while the family camped in a ruined house, the children vomited and coughed blood. The headmaster at their school asked them to leave for six months, until they had recovered. When they returned, there was no place for them at the school. Now, aged thirteen and fifteen, they go fishing with their uncles.

Valli says several villagers have already lost their homes to the erosion. The week before I spoke with her, the electricity pole in front of her hut had fallen into the ocean. After the tsunami, the village was crowded with government welfare officers and representatives of international NGOs. They all promised help; they promised her a new home. Nothing came of those promises. In front of her hut, men are erecting a fence of palm-tree logs. Even as they work, the waters crash right through.

Outside Valli’s hut, on the beach, there is a pile of discarded tyres. They were brought to the beach by a local organization that believed they would help to prevent the erosion; they were to be sunk out at sea, where they were supposed to collect sand. Now the tyres are abandoned; some have fallen off the sand cliff and will soon be swept away.

I walk along the beach, on the hot sand, until I reach one of the piers. Long and thin, it stretches into the ocean, like some menacing reptilian claw. The beach is chewed away here.Long and thin, it stretches into the ocean, like some menacing reptilian claw. I can see the hard red sediment that was once compressed several layers below the surface; centuries of beach have been washed away in a matter of months. The roots of coconut and palm trees poke through the sediment; some of these trees have already been uprooted.

In the distance, I can see the town of Pondicherry, its sea wall a dark blur through the heat waves. I can’t see the port from where I’m standing, but I know that the Pondicherry government is talking about building a new and bigger one, just south of the existing site. Local environmentalists have warned that a new port risks destroying a hundred-mile stretch of the coast. But the government is insistent: India is developing, modernizing, and Pondicherry can’t be left behind.

Before I leave the village, Valli invites me inside her hut. She seems to think I may be able to help her get a new home. I try to convince her otherwise, but she doesn’t listen. The hut is small — no more than five metres by five metres — with torn thatched walls, and a low thatched roof interwoven with plastic bags to keep the rain out. There is a blackened kerosene stove in the corner of the room; a cardboard calendar with a picture of a deity hangs from the wall. It’s midday, but her boys are asleep, lying on the cracked concrete floor. They each have a single pillow, no mattress.

Valli has nothing. And the future holds nothing for her. I ask how she makes a living and she says she used to buy fish from the fishermen and resell them in the market. But now, since the beach has been eroded, there are hardly any fish. She says her friends are suffering as well, but at least they have husbands to help. I don’t want to ask about her absent husband, but she tells me anyway. She says they had another son. He went out one day into the ocean. It was a clear day, not at all stormy. But they never saw him again; they just found his empty boat. Her husband, she says, was destroyed by the loss of their son. They had to send him to an institution. ‘Now I am all alone,’ she says, and starts to cry. ‘This is all I have, and this, too, I’m losing.’

In the dwindling sand outside Valli’s hut, a woman in a green sari sits on her haunches. ‘What will you do to help us?’ she asks as I prepare to leave. ‘Everyone comes here and talks, and asks us questions. What will you do? If this continues’ – she gestures out towards the disappearing beach — ‘we’re all going to die.’ ■

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