When people disappear into nothingness, all in an instant, do their dreams vanish too? Their thoughts, do they also turn into ashes? Their laughter… Where do the chuckles of amusement go? The silent giggles, the hearty guffaws, the peals of joy? If everyone you know fades away into oblivion with you, what happens to all those memories of you? These questions weighed heavy on my mind as we drove along the hauntingly beautiful coast of Rameswaram that leads you to what remains of the Dhanushkodi, a small town that once was not just at the edge of the country, but at the heart of our mythology and epic stories. Now it’s forgotten. Washed out. A Ghost Town stands on the grave of the homes of the living.
Everything about that fateful night in Dhanushkodi in December 1964, was painfully ordinary. Before the cyclone struck, that is. Sweeping away all the laughter, sadness, poverty and prosperity in it’s all encompassing embrace. Sometimes we take the mundane for granted. The everyday humdrum of life. The dull sense of duty. Of work. Home. A hot meal. Maybe TV. Maybe not. Sleep. Reset. Repeat. You don’t have time to think about what you are doing. But one day, if you ever stop to think what your life is. It all seems so ordinary. So commonplace. But in the face of tragedy, the unremarkable is what you pine for the most — The comfort of the familiar.
But when calamity strikes without warning, there’s no cinematic flashback of your life, happy memories and the people you love, or so I presume. Your breath runs out on you in a second sometimes and that’s it. One second you are an alive being capable of love and the next second you are a cold body floating on your watery grave.
When cyclone hit Danushkodi at midnight on December 22, almost 50 years ago, this small yet flourishing town, South of the Rameswaram island, got wiped out completely. The lively hamlet, which once shared the only land border with Sri Lanka, was a burgeoning trade and pilgrimage route between India and Ceylon. In fact, there used to be a train service from Madras up to Dhanushkodi, allowing voyagers to board a waiting steamer that will take them to the land of the Lanka, which was just 18-odd miles away from this coast.
And in a cruel twist of fate, along with the entire town, the cyclone also hit the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger right when it was pulling into the Dhanushkodi Station at midnight, killing all 115 on board, within seconds. The people who were heading to their homes were dead. But dead were their homes too. The death came a full cycle.
The ride into nothingness
So, now, 50 years later, as part of your pilgrimage to this holy site where Ram marked the spot for the Sethu (The bridge to Lanka that he, along with his vanara sena, built to rescue Sita) with his dhanush (bow) kodi (end), the tour guides also throw in a bonus tour of this Ghost Town. Mythological epic meets real life tragedy. Quite the crowd puller.
A surreal trip to the Land’s End (an over 10 kilometer-long drive along and even into the ocean!) and you get to stand right at the tip of India, with the ocean all around you. As I watched the calm Bay of Bengal on the left side of this tip and the rough Indian Ocean on the right, I couldn’t help but contemplate if Rama, was maybe an ordinary mortal king, who fought Ravana, another ordinary, mortal King from another land (A Dravidian=A dark man=A Demon? Our racism goes a long way back!) for territory and a woman maybe, and became Gods and Rakshasas in the process as their stories passed down through generations. But I swallowed this thought soon enough before my mom got a whiff of my blasphemy.
Where oceans meet
Next stop of this tour. The Ghost Town. Living in it’s eerie shadows are a small group of fisher folk, who double up as storytellers, when you stop to survey the remains. They talk animatedly about the fated day and about life after and point out to their main tourist attractions. A lonely skeleton of a water tower. The sad ruins of a school building. A solitary church. All stood for something. Sustenance, education and prayer — all of which couldn’t save the people from their tragic end.
The remains of the water tower
The school that once was
The solitary chapel
And before you can even recover from the futility of it all, you are quickly drawn to, what the locals believe to be, a miracle. You see in this small well, a huge stone, that supposedly was once a part of the holy Ram Sethu, ‘a bridge entirely made of these floating stones’, they say. The heavy stone doesn’t sink, but floats effortlessly on the surface. “Rama’s miracle!” they exclaim, prompting all awe-struck tourists to thrown in some money into the well as an offering. And even as your cynical self thinks of how there must be a perfectly scientific explanation for this (something about the density of what could be some limestone-like object, causing this buoyancy), you get drawn into the magic of it all. Especially since even NASA released pictures of this underground bridge of shoals that goes all the way to Lanka. This story is a far more exciting proposition than the science anyway. So, yes. I’d like to believe that a noisy and colourful monkey army is responsible for this bridge and not geology.
The Ram Sethu ‘miracle’
As we drive back — on what seemed more like the ocean than the road — there are some more haunting reminders of life in Dhanushkodi. Some remnants of the railway track, a small shrine, the roof of what was once a home maybe, small mementos popping up every now and then from under the water. Maybe since all the memories of that place washed away with that tiny town, it’s these old stones that hope to keep their stories alive.
Poona the cat
Driving into the sunset