At 5.30 a.m, Mari and I set out for Arichal Munai, the extreme point of Indian soil closest to Sri Lanka and, thus, technically, the “borderland” between the two countries.
As is the case with most things in Dhanushkodi, Arichal Munai is unusual. Its location shifts every day, depending on the tide. At high tide, a large portion of land is submerged, bringing Arichal Munai much closer to Kodi; when the tide is low, one can walk at least a couple of kilometres closer to the Sri Lankan town of Talaimannar on Mannar Island, beyond which a chain of shoals, commonly known as Adam’s Bridge, separates the two countries.
While geological evidence suggests that a land border which actually existed between India and Sri Lanka in the past had, possibly, been submerged during the cyclone of 1480 or even earlier, it is still widely believed that there is a land border just 45 metres long on a land shoal along Adam’s Bridge. Given the unstable nature of these shoals and the pattern of sea tides, the governments of the two neighbouring countries had decided on an Imaginary Boundary Line located about 12 nautical miles from Rameswaram.
Though this would later be deemed the international boundary line, it does not fulfil international norms.
International Maritime Law decrees that for a boundary line to be feasible, the countries in question must be separated by a distance of at least 36 nautical miles. The distance between India and Sri Lanka, however, is just 18 nautical miles.
The sky was still grey, the sea dark, the huts and shrubs of karuvelan (prosoposis juliflora) eerie silhouettes against an endless horizon, when Mari and I set out from Pandi’s home. Except for the few fishermen gathered in Muniasamy’s tea shop and some stray dogs loitering nearby, no one was awake at that hour. Even the seagulls were nowhere to be seen.
Wrapping our kayilis tight around our waists, the two of us headed south towards Arichal Munai, armed with nothing but a bottle of water each. The wailing winds of the previous night had died, but a mild breeze still remained and there was a bite in the air.
When we reached a spot far enough to afford the privacy we needed to attend to our morning business out in the open, Mari pointed me to a nice little mound, while he himself headed, water bottle swinging from his hand, for a spot closer to the sea on our right. “Just sit there and get on with your job, sir,” he said, before walking away. “Nobody is around to watch you.”
Needless to say, for a man used to the convenience and privacy of a toilet for 40 years, the nippy air, the view of the sea flanking me on either side and the vast open spaces were major impediments in getting the job done quickly. Squatting there, I could not help but wonder how Samy or Pandi might feel if they were taken to Chennai and forced to get the job done within the confines of a four-by-four enclosure.
When Mari and I were done, we continued on our way. As we progressed towards the erosion point, the trek became an increasingly pleasant experience. With thick clouds overhead, stretching away into the distance as far as the eye could see, the prospect of enjoying the sunrise was dim, but the arrival of dawn was spectacular.
We could now see isolated country boats and catamarans closer to the coast, with lone fishermen busy casting their fishing nets and laying out other equipment. A little further on our way stood the giant communications tower, a sight that seemed totally out of place in that no man’s land.
“Usually, one doesn’t have to walk this far to reach the Munai,” Mari said. “During winter, this stretch of land is mostly under water.”
With the strip of land having narrowed in width to barely a few feet now, he cautioned me to keep to the centre for my own safety. Soon it would end in a curve, where sea currents moving in opposite directions converged.
“Here we are, at India’s very edge,” Mari announced somewhat dramatically.
I promptly looked at my watch. It was exactly 7.30 a.m.
“It took us two hours to get here,” I observed.
After soaking my feet and torso in the water at the confluence of two different seas, I returned to the shore and flopped down on the sand. From here, I speculated, any good swimmer could simply hop from one shoal to another and reach Sri Lanka in a matter of hours. Child swimming prodigy Kutraleeswaran had already covered the distance several years ago.
“Can we swim across the sea to Talaimannar?” I asked Mari.
It would be impossible for me to do so, he said confidently, but added, “But we can, if we need to. Fishermen who are familiar with the shoals can swim across on days when the sea is calm. But you never know.”
He was silent for a moment. “During the late eighties and early nineties, when the civil war in Sri Lanka was at its height, refugee boats would land here every day and men, women and children, destitute and starving, would trudge up to our villages. We always offered them food and water, before the police and Coast Guard took them away. But these days, no one comes to India along this route. Besides, the government has enough spies here to alert them.”
I asked him if the local fishermen had ever been hostile towards these strangers.
“No sir,” Mari replied, “they were just like us – poor people caught between two big governments. We helped them in every way we could, until the police warned us not to. Now we don’t.”
He suggested that we return to Palam in time to interview the schoolchildren.
We had barely covered 500 metres on our return journey when the clouds completely obscured the sun.
The wind had begun to rise and Mari feared that we might get caught in a shower, with nowhere to run for shelter. Removing his kayili, he packed his diary and both our mobile phones and wallets neatly within its folds and wrapped it tight around his waist.
“This way, they won’t get wet. But we don’t stand a chance of keeping ourselves dry,” he said.
I couldn’t think of an appropriate response as I watched the dark clouds and the turbulent sea and listened to the moaning wind. Any moment now, it seemed to me, the little strip of land on which we stood could be swallowed by giant waves.
Then it began to drizzle. We broke into a sprint, racing towards Dhanushkodi. Within minutes, the drizzle had turned into pelting rain. The wind had gathered velocity and was blasting our faces, the sand it carried so abrasive against our skin that I feared it would peel off.
“Sooraoli! Sooraoli!” Mari yelled into the wind, clutching my hand tight.
I tried going as fast as I could, but the nearest shelter or any kind of cover, for that matter, was the giant cell-phone tower more than a kilometre away.
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I had done a stupid thing by not informing the Coast Guard office before coming down here. Had I got in touch with them earlier and saved their contact numbers, I could, at least, have called them now and sought help. I looked back once at Arichal Munai and noticed funnel-like clouds shrouding the point where we had been sitting not minutes ago.
“Did I not warn you, sir, that this place could be dangerous and you shouldn’t have been visiting it?” Mari said. “By the way, do you know how to swim? The sea here can submerge this strip of land any time and we would have to swim to the nearest sand mound.”
Fortunately, the rain subsided noticeably over the next ten minutes. Drenched to the skin, we watched the sky clear and soon, it was bright and sunny again, as if this were springtime in California.
Those few minutes of rain and gale, however, had not only given me an idea of nature’s overwhelming force in this climatically fragile part of the world, but also an insight into what had likely happened on that fateful night in 1964.
On the night of 22 December, more than half a century ago, a cyclonic storm that had formed in the South Andaman Sea five days earlier intensified and crossed Vavuniya in Sri Lanka with a wind velocity of 280 kilometres per hour, taking a heavy toll on human lives and property. The storm subsequently moved into the Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, virtually swallowing the bustling township.
One thousand and eight hundred people were reported to have perished in the storm. Among the casualties were 110 passengers and five members of the railway staff of the Pamban– Dhanushkodi passenger train. At 11.55 p.m. night, the train arriving from Pamban railway station was just a few metres from Dhanushkodi, when the signal failed. The loco pilot then took a decision to blow a long whistle and move ahead towards the Dhanushkodi railway station.
At that moment, a giant tidal wave – well over five metres high, according to media reports – submerged all the coaches in deep water, washing away the six-bogey train. The devastation caused to Dhanushkodi was so extensive that the then government had made the decision to declare the township unsafe for habitation and permanently relocated its residents to other areas.
Excerpted with permission from Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries, Pradeep Damodaran, Hachette India.