What led me into the ramshackle curio shop at Dhanushkodi was perhaps the inherent curiosity of the feminine psyche. The neatly laid out ornaments made out of shells, beads and pearls were reason enough for us to pan out in search of a good bargain. We wanted to take something back with us as a souvenir from this town, where Sri Rama is said to have planned his all-destructive offensive against Ravana; where nature mercilessly annihilated thousands leaving behind a trail that still stands as a stark reminder of man’s trivial strengths. As I stepped out for a deal, Dhanushkodi was ready for me—with lessons that I would never forget.
Peering into the shop where an old frail lady was selling her wares, I was only focussed on clinching a bargain. As I argued looking for a steal, the shop owner spoke, her words conjuring up a world of pain and misery that she and people like her were battling, with an uncommon resolve. She said: “Sister, here we are, battling for life on a narrow strip of land between two seas. Rather than bargaining, perhaps you should donate us Rs 20 for living here, fighting for life.”
Her words, simple, yet so poignant, suddenly reminded me the meekness with which we accept high price tags at malls and super stores as though they were written in stone. The inexplicable apathy of my mind, which, while being awed at the destruction unleashed by nature years ago, remaining shamelessly unmoved by the spirit of the 500 odd people here who still carry on with life, surprised me. As if to atone for my insensitivity, I purchased two necklaces from the lady and also gave her some money to keep. That small gesture tried its part to calm my remorseful self suspended between my agitated mind and calm reason, like the placid waters of the Bay of Bengal and the agitated Indian Ocean separated by just 50 yards of land, called Dhanushkodi.
As I moved out of Dhanushkodi, I was gripped by a sense of loss, because I had lost a priced possession of mine—an earring—in the sands. As I fretted over the loss, I suddenly realised that I was standing on a piece of land that had lost a culture, thousands of lives and most means of livelihood in a day. If a the small loss of an earring had caused so much of pain in me, how could I fathom the loss that nature inflicted on that fateful day of December 22, 1964? Dhanushkodi was becoming a source of revelation for me.
Once a thriving town, Dhanushkodi lay just 31 kilometres from Sri Lanka and was the transit point for those travelling from India to Sri Lanka. The Boat Mail, consisting of a train from Egmore to Dhanushkodi, and a boat service from Dhanushkodi to Sri Lanka was an important link between the two countries. The town was then beautiful, with a post office, railway station, hospital, state offices and so on. On that fateful day, floods, following 220 km/hr winds, swept through and swallowed the town, its people and all that was beautiful in it. A passenger train with 110 travellers was swept away into the sea and was never recovered. The strip of land, which is the narrowest piece of land area in the world, stood no chance as the winds, waters and the tide ravaged it, wiping out the people and its culture. Brought down to its knees, Dhanushkodi, now also known as a ghost town, is but a mere shell of what it was; the wastes, destroyed structures and eerie emptiness reminding visitors of the only reality in life; impermanence.
Lying just 18 kilometres away from Rameshwaram, perhaps Dhanushkodi symbolises sacrifice; that all we have gained from here should be sacrificed here as we move on ahead to undefined and unperceived dimensions after death. Perhaps that is why, the town, which bears both the scars of death and the faint nuances of revival, is such a favourite among tourists all over the world. Perhaps it is this philosophy of life, deeply ingrained in the sands of this narrow strip of land, that compels one to tread it when one’s time has come for enlightenment.