My pen feels strange to my fingers. I have to relearn gently the act of writing. The QWERTY keyboard has taken over my fingertips, and reduced my writing to emails excusing myself for mails unresponded to. Perhaps I have to retreat to remote islands such as these if I have to rediscover the nib and the ink.
Four and a half years after the tsunami, and it still dominates the land and daily discourse of Chowra. Dead coral rubble and broken tree branches – rainforest and reef – intertwine together like a crown of thorns around the white sand circumference of the island. The villages we walk through are dignified shanties, corrugated tin, slashed together with what scraps the islanders could salvage from their old homesteads. A shattered jetty. Broken roads. And the ubiquity of government contractors that descend on every disaster with their own particular government-sponsored recipe for decadence. In the case of Chowra, they plan to relocate and reconstruct entire villages well away from the coast, making this an island that turns its back to the sea. They are eating away at the central grasslands to build their planned concrete slum, replacing the romantic village roundhouses of grass thatch and wood with square characterless cement matchboxes. Each family will be given a single nuclear house, thus breaking apart the complex joint clan structure that holds the community together.
Sitting in David’s house – makeshift roof and walls, half-a-century-old floorings – I wonder how long it takes for a community to completely recover from a catastrophe as large as the tsunami. Somehow I am not convinced, as I eat the lovingly cooked meal that is offered us, that the government policy of providing free rice and lentils for five years running contributes any to this resilience. Goodness of intent is often the mask behind which deadness of imagination hides.
Yet, through the washed-up, beaten-about flotsam village that Chowra appears to have become, it is clear that resilience is something less mensurable than tin roofs, broken roads and numbers dead. Stripped of more than I can imagine would be bearable as a community, the island of Chowra responds with a self-possessed certitude in the strength of their community institutions in holding them together as a people.
The Chief Captain, Jonathan, is a man of very few words, but it is clear that everyone on the island reveres him. He politely welcomes us to his island, but equally politely conveys his suspicions to us and decides that for the time being, we are to be treated as ‘other’, and have to live in the government ‘guest house’ along with the other ‘others’. It is a small, firm gesture, but it gives us a clear sense of where we belong in relation to this island. David, worldly-wise, young, trilingual, is put in charge of us while we are here.
Last evening we spoke to the Tribal Council Chief about the Hokgnok system that provides the principle governance structure of the island. The Hokgnok revolves around clan groups and plantations, and dictates the patterns of resource sharing within the community. The small crowd that gathered around us spent over an hour describing for us the Panwahnot, the big Pig Festival that happens every year in November. It appears to drive the Chowra calendar, and each Hokgnok gets its turn to take charge of the preparations, with help from the other Hokgnoks. Preparations begin in March, with the preparation of orchards, and the repairing of houses and plantation fences. When the time arrives, pigs, bananas, chickens, cloth and a variety of other festive items are gathered in large quantities for the start of the festival. Fifteen days of dancing follow, and it all culminates in a big canoe race.
As they spoke, their eyes lit up with pride at the magnificence of their feasting but also at the strength of the community that allows them to pull it off. There was something else in their voices as well which I could not completely understand until just before we left. They spoke about the Pig Festival in a vibrant living tense. I asked them casually about the number of pigs they had killed in last years’ ceremony. And that is when it came out. The last time they had celebrated the Panwahnot was a month before the tsunami, and never since. Yet they were holding on to their present continuous as firmly as they could, as though the maintenance of tense itself was sufficient to keep alive the tradition.
Perhaps there is truth here. Perhaps this is one of those impalpable metrics of resilience that keeps communities together. The people of Chowra have enough evident pride to leave me with the conviction that they will weather their changes with dignity and wisdom. They will celebrate the Panwahnot again, they say. I want it to be true. My only regret is that I may not be here when the pigs are slaughtered next.
This November, they assure me.