They escaped landslide, but left landless


A few days after Kerala's August deluge in 2018, Onmanorama team had travelled through the worst-affected regions of Idukki district to witness a land devastated by the nature's fury and people unwilling to take things lying down. Then we had found defiance in their eyes despite being cruelly dumped on top of the ruins left by the floods.

A year later, when Onmanorama visited the district in July 2019, the monsoon rain had covered the wounds of the hills with a green mask. But no mask could hide the uncertainty in the people's mind. Earlier there was defiance in their eyes, now only despair.

Onmanorama re-visited the same set of people we had come across last year in some of the most devastated spots in Idukki district. Their reality has altered so much that old tools of survival are simply not enough.

They escaped landslide, but left landless
Sanitha and Saji near their house that was spared by the landslide in 2018.

Saji and Sanitha had miraculously escaped a landslide in the 2018 rain and since then they have been struggling to get out of the trauma. Onmanorama chronicles the couple's battle for survival.

Saji and Sanitha, tribal couple | Perinkala

(On August 14, when it looked like the rains would never cease, massive boulders the size of calf elephants came crashing down the hill at missile speeds, flattening five houses and a vast swathe of rubber trees, and killing four, including a 13-year-old girl at Perinkala in Kerala's Idukki district.)

Last year when Onmanorama team met Saji, he was ready to join work at Pappen's, a popular restaurant joint in Idukki. His family just had a providential escape. The landslide that had crushed the house right above them on the hill slope had somehow spared his house. His wife Sanitha and his one-year-old child were inside the house when the hill turned crazy.

But there were other horrors in store for them. The bodies of 13-year-old Achu and her mother Bhavana who lived right above them were found tangled on the fence around their house. Bhavana's mother was found a few feet below and her father's was recovered some two kilometres away. Last September, Saji and Sanitha were still not over the shock. Sanitha always kept the child close to her.

They escaped landslide, but left landless
Sanitha in front of her house in Perinkala. Her son is in the lap of Saji's grandmother Nataraj Lakshmi.

This time we could not meet Saji as he had gone to work. Sanitha was at home. The couple has had a second child. The first one was in the 'anganwadi'. Things seemed good. We were told by Saji's grandmother that Sanitha was busy packing things. When she came out with her three-month-old second son she looked a bit out of sorts.

It was a day when a 'red alert' was declared for Idukki, and there was a slight drizzle. “It is hard to sleep in this house. Even a small noise outside gives me a shudder,” Sanitha said. When this panic grew, her husband rented a one-room shack some two kilometres away in Vattamedu. “The rent is Rs 1,500 a month. We don't have so much money but still I am afraid to live in this house when it rains. What if something happened to the children,” Sanitha said. Whenever they see dark clouds hovering above, the couple packs everything and rush to their rented house at Vattamedu.

Her husband's grandmother Nataraja Lakshmi told us that her granddaughter-in-law has still not got over the death of Achu, the girl who lived right above. “She thinks something will happen to her kids also. But the boy (her grandson Saji) has run up huge debts renting a house,” Lakshmi said. Saji gets Rs 350 a day for his work at the restaurant.

The couple have rented a concrete shack just behind the one now occupied by Jayaraj and his eight-year-old son Devanandan. Jayaraj, an autorickshaw driver, is the father of Achu, the girl who lived right above Saji's house and who was killed by the landslide. Jayaraj had just walked out of the house to get some fish when the rocks and boulders crashed into the house in which his daughter Achu was painting something and his wife Bhavana was in the kitchen. Devanandan, then just seven, was told by his grandfather to run across to the other side. He lived.

They escaped landslide, but left landless
The spot where a house that was washed away by a landslide once stood in Perinkala. Four in the house, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed.

Last September we were advised against talking to Jayaraj. “He is not well, leave him alone. He just keeps his son close and does not talk to anyone,” Saji had told us. This time we met Jayaraj in front of his rented unplastered one-room shack at Vattamedu. Across the road from the house, Kerala Congress veteran P J Joseph is constructing a small house for the father and son.

Jayaraj was leaning on the back of a factory-fresh autorickshaw. The name of the vehicle can be seen: 'Achu Mol'. “This vehicle was given to me by Seva Bharathi,” Jayaraj said.

The landslide had destroyed the autorickshaw he had owned, which too was named 'Achu Mol'. “Nothing of it was left, not even the engine. I just got the mangled body and the chasis number,” he said. It was unsettling to see him speak of his losses with the detachment of a person speaking about the tragedy of a distant neighbour. Somehow it felt considerably more tragic than had he shown some emotion.

They escaped landslide, but left landless
Jayaraj, who lost his wife and daughter to landslide, leans on his new autorickshaw named after his daughter.

“Regularly he used to wake up with a jolt during nights,” Jayaraj said about his son. “He had seen the thing rising and coming down. It took him two months to get back to normal”. “She paints,” he said about his daughter, in present tense. “And she can apply 'mylanchi' on the hands in beautiful designs,” he added. Whenever he spoke of his girl he kept swaying in a forward-backward motion, betraying an unbearable emotional turmoil.

Only once did his face show it. When he was asked about his wife. “We were married for 15 years. This year it would be 16. We both are from the same place,” he paused. “We married after falling in love,” he said and glanced sideways with what looked like an attempt to smile. That smile seemed to hold all the pain in the world.

Read more on Deluge Diaries.

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