Day out in Thoothukudi

The by-now-familiar silhouette of Sterlite Copper unit with the beautiful orange of a rising sun in the background welcomed us to Thoothukudi a couple of days back. My husband and I travelled by train to the kalavara bhoomi (as it is unfortunately thought of) for a day on a personal errand. But the reaction of family and friends on hearing that we were going to the same city that witnessed rioting, arson and police firing quite recently, was the same. "Thoothukudi? Why are you going there now?"

It brought to mind my father’s reaction when I went to Coimbatore a week after the 1998 bomb attacks and to Cuddalore after the tsunami to conduct a medical camp: You die only once.

But, a journalist friend covering the happenings in Thoothukudi was aghast. She said people there were so angry with journalists, she said it would be best not to tell anybody that we were journalists. We took her suggestion seriously.

Thoothukudi is not a dangerous place, assured our driver for the day. Even during the days of protest and after, I was riding freely on my bike, he said. He said he had taken part in the protest but left before it turned violent as he had work to attend to in the harbour.

Reacting angrily to people (especially Rajinikanth) suggesting that anti-social elements had infiltrated the group of protesters, the amicable youngster snorted, "Do I seem like an anti-social? It was a people’s protest and only that."

He blamed Sterlite for all the unfortunate incidents that happened in Thoothukudi and insisted that the number of dead in the police firing was 14 and not 13 like the media kept insisting. "Many more died of cancer before that," he informed.

We could see that Thoothukudi was returning to normal. The roads had been cleared, people were out on the streets, shops were open like in any normal city and the crowds milling a store selling school uniforms proved that it was back to business for everyone. The only difference was the presence of policemen everywhere - especially around the government hospital as the bodies had then not been handed over.

But there was a panic flash when we were near a popular mall. We were in a hurry to catch the train back home at night when we got caught in the traffic. The signal turned green thrice but we were stuck in the same place. Our young driver, who seemed assured till then, stuck his neck out of the window of the car to worriedly ask an auto driver coming in the opposite direction, "Edhavathu oorvalama?" He heaved a sigh of relief when the auto driver said it was just vehicles hitting the mall that were holding up traffic. That’s as normal as Thoothukudi can be.