When the tsunami came on 26 December 2004, I was barely touched. I worked for a large software company in Bangalore, and the only disaster I knew of was not meeting my quarterly revenue targets. The day after the tsunami, I was having coffee with a colleague in the company cafeteria, when the conversation turned to the disaster which had killed 200,000 people across Asia in a span of seconds. What a tragedy, I remarked. He took a deep puff of his cigarette and sighed, “Yeah, but what can we do?” Something about that remark made me sit up. I was 25, physically fit, had an MBA from a top business school, and was a fast-rising professional in an Indian multinational. My ambition kept pace with my confidence, and I was earning enough to say that I lacked nothing. And yet, I did not seem to have an answer to this simple question: “What can we do?”
Let’s do it
Three days later, I called up the Indian Air Force’s missing persons helpline and convinced officials to let me fly on a cargo plane to Car Nicobar, one of the southernmost islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, and the worst hit by the tsunami. A quarter of the island’s population, nearly 5,000 people, had been wiped out by the tsunami. The rest had fled into the jungles in the interior of the island. I volunteered to work with the army and paramilitary troops scouting trails in the jungle, taking count of the survivors and delivering relief supplies.
But after 10 days of relentless work in the jungle and sleeping in the open on the hard concrete of a runway in the island’s airbase with my backpack for a pillow, my self-confidence started wearing down. My clothes were stained with sweat and grime, and all I had left to wear was a ‘camou’ borrowed from the military. With seawater and debris contaminating the wells, freshwater was so precious that it was pointless to think of a real shower. Fatigue began to hit me, as well as doubt. Why was I here? I even wondered if my decision to be on this remote island in a corner of the Indian ocean had just been an act of ego. In the nights, when I trekked alongside the soldiers under the clear tropical sky, I’d occasionally gaze up at the stars and wonder if I really knew what I was doing. I was far from my family in Hyderabad, and with all the cell towers brought down by the disaster, I had no means of reaching them. I was absent without leave from work and may not even have a job left when I got back to Bangalore. I had no idea when and how I’d get back from the island to Bangalore either. I went about the relief work one day after another, in increasing silence.
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