23 Dec 2018 18:28 IST

On a clear day you can see coconut trees…

…in Sri Lanka from all the way in Dhanushkodi, just across the sparkling waters of the Indian Ocean

Unfortunately it wasn’t a clear day and we had to satisfy ourselves with simply standing for a while in the calm, lapping waters of the Indian Ocean and then, on the other side of a narrow stretch of sand trampled over by tourists, many of them on their way to Sabarimala, in the calm, lapping waters of the Bay of Bengal. Dhanushkodi is a ghost town but one part of it stretches deep and long into the high seas, the road fringed on either side by roughly-held stone walls to hold back the water. Occasionally the fine, whitish sand is dotted with clusters of thatch huts, many ramshackle and abandoned, and only a few occupied. We know this because they sport solar panels. “There was electricity here,” our driver Vinod informs us, “until everything fell apart.” That was back in the 1960s.

Driving back, we catch sight of a comparatively larger set of solar panels. They are atop a building attached to a school which, according to the board outside, is the Panchayat Union Middle School, Dhanushkodi-Mandapam. We see someone unlock the gates, step outside, and lock them behind her. This is Mariamma, who has just finished rustling up a meal of vegetable biriyani for the kids. “There are 68 students here, we have up to class 8,” she says, munching on a tomato. This will be their midday meal. “They will also get a boiled egg each,” she adds. “Five days, five eggs.”

When I ask about the solar panels, she says, “Yes, they’re for the laptops and computers.” she said. And are there enough teachers? “Yes,” she replies, and they come to school regularly. I have no reason to disbelieve her. In any case, exams are on and there is no way to enter the campus, let alone engage in conversation with the school principal, or students or teachers. I have many questions: about studying in this particular school, its location, if they think about the meeting of two oceans, if they ever manage to catch a glimpse of the coconut trees swaying in Sri Lanka which is only 27 km from this point in India. How do they feel about being so close to another country? What do children make of all this? What stories do the people of Dhanushkodi have?

“Come home, I live close by,” Mariamma interrupts the questions in my head. “Do you eat fish? Crab?” I shake my head with a wry smile and she is visibly disappointed. Cheerfully, though, we bid goodbye as she crosses the road to make her way home. She will be back at 12.30 to serve lunch to the kids.

Dream fulfilled

Visiting Dhanushkodi was a dream fulfilled; Pradeep Damodaran’s description of the place in Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries had served to fuel this dream further. In fact, it is the first chapter in the book which is an account of places in India that share borders with other countries. This once bustling fishing town was wiped off the face of the earth following a severe cyclonic storm in December 1964. What we saw on December 18, exactly 54 years on, were the remains of that day.

Another tragic casualty of the storm was the No. 653 Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger, a daily service, which got caught just outside the town at exactly the time the storm made a landfall at that very place. The six-coach train was swept off the bridge by tidal waves some seven metres high. Everyone on the train died. The rail bridge was the only link connecting the mainland to Rameswaram, known for its temple and closely associated with the stories of Sita-Rama, and which is the home of former president APJ Abdul Kalam. The road running at a higher elevation alongside the 2-km long bridge across the sea came up only in 1988.

Blogger TV Antony Raj, who used to travel to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was earlier known) by the Dhanushkodi-Talaimannar (in Sri Lanka) steamer ferry in the 1950s and 1960s, reminisced after visiting Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi in 2014: “The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200. The variation is due to the many ticketless travellers. The railway line running from Pamban station to Dhanushkodi pier was washed away. The 1¼ mile-long Pamban rail bridge over the Pamban Channel … was also badly damaged; 126 of its 145 girders collapsed. However, the lift span was barely damaged. Most of the girders were salvaged from the sea and the Pamban viaduct was working once again in a span of just three months time. ...Then, the Railway line to Dhanushkodi went directly from Mandapam station to Dhanushkodi without touching Rameswaram. In those days Dhanushkodi had a railway station, a small railway hospital, primary schools, a post office, customs and port offices. There were hotels, dharmashalas (religious rest houses), and many textile shops that catered to the Hindu pilgrims and travellers to Sri Lanka. …There was a steamer ferry service which operated daily from the pier on the south-east of Dhanushkodi town to the pier at Talaimannar. The ferry transported travellers and goods, across the Palk Strait.”

Horror stories

Today, fishermen from Rameshwaram are often caught by Sri Lankan navy patrols as they go further out to sea in search of catch. Horror stories of their capture and incarceration continue to be told and they are released only after protracted negotiations between representatives of the respective governments. The fishing harbour at Rameshwaram is iconic, at least in my view, as a living repository of the economic, social and political history of the region. When the call for a separate state of Eelam was at its peak in Sri Lanka, many Tamils from that country escaped to these shores to get away from a bitter civil war that raged. Standing in the cool waters with sun blazing down upon us, all that seems so far away. The broken down railway station, however, is a stark reminder of 1964.

What’s special about the Pamban rail bridge? Well, apart from it being the second longest sea bridge (the longest is the 2.3 km Bandra-Worli sea link on the Arabian Sea), it is over a hundred years old. It was commissioned on February 24, 1914, and has 143 piers. Somewhere in the middle, the bridge opens up to allow large boats and ferries to cross. Like many others, we too stopped on the bridge, never mind the traffic, and ran across to gaze upon this piece of engineering magic. Despite its rusty look it is clearly maintained well, judging by the number of people working on it at different corners. The track was converted from metre gauge to broad gauge and was opened for traffic in 2007. Amazingly, it withstood the 1964 onslaught; even more amazing, within 46 (or so, one report says) days of the disaster, the bridge was refurbished and bolstered for re-use! Interestingly, one of the people involved in this work was ‘Metro Man’ E Sreedharan of Delhi Metro Rail fame!

If the physical distance between India and Sri Lanka is only a swim away, why are political relations between the two countries so tenuous?