I woke up at around 5:30am and hurriedly checked for my cellphone. My phone was flooded with messages from my fellow reporters asking me to bring water, biscuits, instant noodles and literally any food. It was too late, and I had entered the Tuticorin district border – I had lost internet connectivity.
The Tamil Nadu government suspended internet services from the night of 23 May 2018 until now in Tuticorin.
As I got off the train, I found out that four of the cab drivers who had promised to take me around the town had backed out. That is when I met an auto driver Samy, who ended up being my companion for the day.
The entire district wore a deserted look with all shops shut and hardly any vehicles plying on the roads.
I was put up in SRM hotel, very close to the railway station. I was warned by several reporters not to stay there, considering its proximity to the coastline.
Apparently a few fisherfolk had threatened and chased media groups near that hotel. Well, the same fisherfolk were the ones who were my tour guides for the trip.
My agenda for the day was to speak to the people of Tuticorin to find out what really happened on 22 May 2018.
A Shuttered City
Riding in the autorickshaw, Samy narrated all that he saw and very proudly showed off the blood clot marks from the thrashes he had received from the police. He laughed when I asked if the incident had scared the people and he said, ‘Tirunelveli-kaaran na sumava! Evalavu adichalum nirutha maattom!’ (‘You think people of Tirunelveli will give up so easily? In spite of being beaten up, we won’t stop protesting!’)
We reached the Tuticorin Government Hospital and I could spot more brown uniforms than regular people.
I slipped into the hospital doors and headed to the fifth floor. When I entered the casualty ward, amongst all the pain and bruises, what I saw was seething anger.
“How can the police shoot at us?”
“We just want clean water and air. Is that too much to ask?”
“Do we deserve this pain?”
Truth VS Fake News
On 22 May, when I was sitting in my office in Chennai watching local channels, I was under the impression that there was a clash between the protesters and the police which soon spiralled into police firing. But when I went to ground zero, the facts began to emerge.
35-year old Amutha was sitting next to her husband and reading the newspaper. For the last few days, it has been her routine to buy the morning and evening newspaper and read what has been written about the Sterlite protest to everyone in the ward. She asked if journalists could file reports after coming to the location, instead of based on Whatsapp forwards.
She also asked why journalists were not there covering the protest for 100 days but when all hell broke loose, everyone began flocking to the hospital.
I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to give her.
Hurt, Scarred, Bleeding
The patients and their relatives were no longer wailing or crying. Their tears had dried up, but the anger was fresh.
While many on Twitter were blaming Christians for instigating violence, what I saw was absolute unity there.
They did not want to be seen as Nadars, SC, ST and Fernandez, but as people of Thoothukudi fighting for a cause.
They wanted the media to be the megaphone to echo their voice to the world.
As I stood there talking to a few families, Vijayakanth’s wife Premalatha, TTV Dhinakaran and the newly appointed Collector Sandeep Nanduri came to visit.
The victims were not excited at the prospect of politicians meeting them – in fact, they were quite angry that they were coming only after the issue had escalated.
“Where were they for the past 100 days?” they asked.
The Collector went from one bed to another enquring about their medical condition, and blithely dodging all the questions thrown at him:
“What action will you take against the police who attacked us?”
“Will you issue an inquiry into the matter?”
“Do you think it was right for the police to shoot civilians?”
In Despair, Yet Willing to Play Host
The five hours I spent at the hospital was heart-wrenching. The families were kind to insist that I have lunch with them and join them at their house for dinner.
As I stepped out of the hospital, I found a medical shop open. I had to know how 25 lakh people in Tuticorin were surviving with no provision shops or markets functioning. The shopkeeper sheepishly smiled and told me, “The town market opens before 8 am and it is only for the locals. We would quietly stock up but this is our well-kept secret.”
She immediately packed me box of lime rice and curd and some snacks to take along the way.
Traveling the Local Way
I then set out to meet the families who had lost their 18-year-old daughter and 45-year-old sister to police firing.
I chose to travel with two locals as emotions were fragile and people in the area didn’t trust outsiders. While traveling to fishing hamlets, I noticed that as we were nearing, there were no policemen.
Instead, the road had a number of barricades made of broken trees and rocks. This was the people’s sign of anger, prohibiting police entry.
Standing in Therespuram, after meeting a few families, we suddenly saw tension amongst the locals. We were told that there was a police firing nearby. The locals accompanied us till we were far away from that location.
It was amazing to see how even during times of distress, the people were unfailingly compassionate and helpful.
The internet shutdown was a bane to the people of Thoothukudi as social media was their only way to communicate their demands to the world.
But as a journalist, I was glad it was just me, the wonderful people of Thoothukudi and the calm sea beyond.
As I headed back to the station, the auto driver looked me in the eyes and apologised. I didn’t understand, as he had taken me around the place safely and answered all my queries.
“The next time you come, I will take you to see pearls, islands and the most wonderful churches. Sorry I didn’t show you the real Thoothukudi...and hopefully that will be with cleaner air and water,” said Samy with a wide smile.
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