When the Waves Came – the story behind the verse

I am a word-smith. Trained as a journalist and writer, I play with words (and occasionally make an honest living of it ) — but almost all of my published output over more than 20 years has been in prose. Not yet a creative writer (maybe someday!), I write mostly fact-based analysis or opinions.

One rare exception was when the Asian Tsunami struck three years ago in the last week of 2004. Extraordinary situations prompt extraordinary responses – and I went on to write the only verse I have so far published: When the waves came.

I was recovering from chicken pox when the mega-disaster that struck on 26 December 2004. The killer waves spared the Colombo city on the western part of coastal Sri Lanka where I live – and we were extremely lucky. But with close to 40,000 persons dead or missing (which was 1 in 500 of us), it was not a time to heave sighs of relief. We all knew people who were directly affected in one way or another: losing loved ones, suffering property damage, or seeing their jobs go up in the waves.

In the days following the disaster, the entire country was a giant funeral house. For a short while, at least, our utterly divided nation of Lanka was united — first in horror and then in grief.

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I first heard about the disaster on local television – whose newscasters were struggling to make sense of what was happening. Tsunamis were not known in the Indian Ocean until then, and most people had not even heard of the term. Broadcast journalists had to improve with terms like ‘ferocious wave action’, ‘seas flooding land’ and ‘seas spilling over to coastal areas’, etc.

As the international news media started reporting the extent of devastation from all over South Asia and Southeast Asia, we realised that Sri Lanka was not alone – even though it had been battered very badly.

By Monday 27 December, the scale of the disaster was clearer, and the Sri Lankan death toll was already past 25,000 -– and counting. Search and rescue efforts were now underway, and relief agencies were continually updating their assessments of damage. The grim statistics kept rising by the hour.

The global family first watched in shock — and then started to react. Around the world, hundreds of caring people were dropping everything they had lined up for their Seasonal holidays and rushing to volunteer in Sri Lanka and other disaster hit countries. Inspired by the saturation media coverage, especially on television, caring women and men in far away corners of our planet were donating generously for disaster relief support. Children were breaking open their tills in which they’d carefully saved small change for months or years. Church congregations had special collections. Performing artistes were getting ready to have Tsunami aid concerts. Spurred and partly embarrassed by these citizen actions, governments belatedly started pledging massive volumes of aid. The worldwide response to Asia’s tragedy was deeply moving (the bickering and swindling came later).

My office (TVE Asia Pacific) was closed that week for Seasonal holidays, but I decided to go in and follow the disaster’s news coverage online (I didn’t have ADSL at home then.) Websites were often giving better coverage than TV channels, and the bloggers were rising to the challenge from many locations in impacted Asia.

I spent most of December 27 and 28 in my office. Weakened as I was by chicken pox, I didn’t rush out to help with relief efforts. I knew my limits. Instead, I was emailing regular updates to our friends and partners from many parts of the world who were concerned and anxious about our safety and well-being. Not being a blogger myself then, I was doing it on a one-to-one basis.

I slowly came to terms with a deep anguish that had built up since I first heard the dreadful news. I was badly shaken and numbed by the unfolding human tragedy and humanitarian crisis all around myself. No, I didn’t lose a loved one, or suffer personal property damage, but it was impossible not to be moved by the carnage and destruction all around. And at a scale that was unprecedented in my lifetime.

For hours on 28 December 2004, I watched the ‘doom and gloom’ television news coverage and monitored news updates online. At that stage, with little news yet emerging from Aceh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka had reported the highest death toll and the greatest damage. It was the biggest disaster in the island’s living memory.

When I finally gathered enough sense and wits, I wrote a verse ‘When the waves came’ – it was one way of coming to terms with the calamity. Its basic premise was that the killer waves had been a brutal ‘equaliser’ of all men and women. It no longer mattered on which side of law, morality, economics or social class they stood.

To drive home the point, I sprinkled the words of William Makepeace Thackeray throughout the verse:
“Good or bad, guilty or innocent —
they are all equal now.”

The verse was not meant for publication, and was only privately circulated for a few days. One friend who received it, Bircan Unver in New York, wanted to publish it on her Light Millennium website. After some persuasion, I agreed.

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I wrote this verse with tears running down both my cheeks. I kept on typing, without wiping my face, as words poured out from my grief-stricken mind. This was the least I could do, as my tribute to everyone who perished or suffered by nature’s incredible fury.

Writing this verse was cathartic for me. Three years after it happened, I can now disclose what followed my writing of this verse: I closed the laptop, sat down on the floor, and completely broke down.

I have no idea for how long I cried: it must have been 20 or 30 minutes. There was no one in the office that day so I didn’t have to subdue myself. Of course, my tears were nowhere near as abundant as those who lost their loved ones to the tsunami. But they were no less sincere.

Looking back, I suspect that during those hours of sorrowful solitude, Children of Tsunami was conceived.

But that’s another story.

Photos courtesy TVE Asia Pacific