Twenty-one-year-old R Saranya’s vision is momentarily blurred by a rush of memories. Her petite frame hunched over a 30 inch-by-24 inch gold-flecked canvas in an art studio in Kumbakonam, she is gilding a sketch of Krishna the cherub scooping a lump of butter from a pot. The scene reminds her of her younger brother Manikandan, one of the 94 children to have perished in a school fire in this temple town in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district on July 16, 2004. Saranya was among the survivors.
“Mani liked to draw. He would come to my class during recess and ask for pencils. We always walked home together and played in the evenings,” she says, choking on fresh tears. Neither the chattiness of her co-workers nor the aroma of chicken curry and rice from the open tiffin boxes seems to interrupt her flashback to the horrors of that day.
Every detail is emblazoned on her mind: the fire leaping towards her and licking at her blue pavadai (skirt), her friends running helter-skelter, the burning stairs beneath her feet, a callous male teacher stamping on her fallen frame, and a nameless saviour wrapping her in a curtain and flinging her out the window. “How my little brother must have hurt. He must have screamed for his amma or his akka (sister),” Saranya says.
On July 30, 2014, 10 years later, the Thanjavur district court convicted 10 people for the fire, including school founder Pulavar Palanisamy, who was given life imprisonment for gross negligence and for endangering the lives of students. However, 11 others, including three teachers, were acquitted for lack of evidence.
This simply wasn’t the judgment Kumbakonam had waited a decade for. Leafing through the 432-page verdict at his office on Banadurai South Street, where jute bags bulging with case files are stacked on a wood bench, R Madhusudanan, the special public prosecutor who has examined over 230 witnesses in the case since 2009, says there is ample evidence against those acquitted. “Oral statements by witnesses implicate them,” he says.
The files in his office contain some of the most scathing and heart-rending testimonies by children in a tragedy of this scale. Madhusudanan, who spent a year and nine months examining witnesses and the parents of the deceased, says: “Almost all the victims were between five and nine years of age. Of the survivors, a few were scarred for life while others showed exceptional resilience and continued with their schooling.”
Saranya wasn’t among them. She dropped out of school, unable to revisit that part of her life. She was often spotted brooding in the cemetery or praying at the memorial for the victims of the fire that stands on the banks of the Cauvery canal.
“She could never get over it. We bought her a cycle and tried to get her to go to school, but nothing worked. Since she got a job three years ago, she has been mingling with her colleagues and trying to put the incident behind her,” says her mother Savitri, back at their house in Amritapuram, a settlement of about 25 houses on the outskirts of Kumbakonam, where the government allotted land to the bereaved families.
When Savitri and her husband Radhakrishnan talk about how Manikandan’s death snuffed out all hope from their lives, their adopted son Vinod, 7, runs out of the house, as though offended. “If Mani had been alive, he would be taking care of us now,” says Radhakrishnan, who works as a daily wager in the Darasuram vegetable market to supplement Saranya’s salary of Rs 5,500 a month.
The family used the Rs 1.5 lakh they received in compensation from the government to build this house with aqua walls and a thatched roof — like the one that caused the school fire to spread that day.
About 760 students had been crammed inside the narrow, shaft-like building on Kasiraman Street that housed three schools — Sri Krishna Aided Primary School, Saraswathy Nursery and Primary School and Sri Krishna Girls High School. Metal cutouts of Goddess Saraswati adorn all three floors of the gutted structure, and windows with gnarled grills gape at the street lined with residential buildings. The building, with houses on either side, has remained locked since the tragedy.
On the day of the fire, the management had herded students from all three schools into the first-floor classrooms to mislead inspecting officials about the student-teacher ratio and persuade them to disburse more aid. At about 11 am, a fire that had just been lit in the noon meal hearth spread to the thatched roof of the first floor where over 200 students were gathered at the time. Almost half of those present died and 18 sustained burns; some others were rescued by passers-by who managed to break the windows even as teachers ran for their lives without pausing to unlock all the gates.
“I feel cheated. Ms Devi, who was my class teacher, is among those acquitted. Their lives will go on as usual while ours will never be the same,” says A Kausalya, 18, a Class XI student at Banadurai Higher Secondary School, who broke down outside the Thanjavur court upon hearing the verdict. One of the six children who received severe burns, she has undergone several reconstructive surgeries in her right arm. “I re-joined school almost two years after the fire. At first, I couldn’t write with my right hand. I remember squeezing a rubber ball in hospital and my mother begging the doctors to somehow make me hold a pen again,” she says.
It wasn’t so much the physical pain as the agony of watching friends and cousins die that made it difficult for her to move on. She remembers her appa had given her a bath that day, tucked a string of jasmine into her hair and dropped her to school. He had even given her Rs 10 to spend — an indulgence compared to the one rupee she usually got. The money was still in her pocket when the fire tore through the first floor and Kausalya crawled under a desk with two of her cousins and her best friend Hemalatha. As luck would have it, a rescuer crashed a window and broke up their huddle, picking her up even as sheets of fire fell between her and the others. “There were children calling out to me, pulling at me. My right hand got burned while trying to pull someone out along with me,” she says.
The inferno continues to wrench at her in her solitary moments, says Kausalya. She would like to study medicine, but finds it hard to focus on academics. “Kausalya’s life is a question mark,” says her mother Angayarkanni. “She manages to get average grades at school. I often tell her that her future is in her own hands, but how can I forget that one of her hands is disfigured? How will she get married?” she fears.
Christie Inbaraj, her neighbour in Amritapuram who lost two sons in the fire, says justice must prevail if the survivors and the grieving parents are to get on with their lives. “It wasn’t fate that plucked out both my eyes, but the carelessness of the school,” she says. “We protect our children from heat and dust and every possible danger. But one big mistake by the school is enough to snatch them away.”
Her husband K Inbaraj is the secretary of the Kumbakonam School Tragedy Victims’ Parents, a body that has been fighting for justice and compensation for the bereaved. Christie is haunted by the smell of charred bodies, spread out on wet sacks “like dried fish on a banana leaf”. In the melee after the fire had been put out, she identified one of her sons by his underwear and found the other’s body mangled with three others in a bag at the general hospital.
The couple not only lost their children, but they were also ostracised for their loss. “Even now, parents of newborn children avoid us at any cost fearing bad luck,” Christie says. “What were the chances this could happen to us?” wonders R Kala even today. It had only been four days since Kala and her husband A Ramachandran, a TV repairman, had shifted their two children, Divya and her younger brother Lokesh, from an English matriculation school to the Sri Krishna Aided Primary School, in the hope that they would pick up some Tamil. When the flames rained down, Lokesh, then a six-year-old, scampered out of his classroom on the ground floor and ran all the way home. “I was shocked that he knew the way home. He must have run for a kilometre or more, clutching his bag and lunch box,” Kala says.
Unknown to him, though, the fire had been lapping at his sister, who lay unconscious under a bench. Divya escaped death by a whisker, but when they took him to see her at the hospital, he refused to look at her scars. “Her hair had burned off and her face and her arms were badly burnt. We almost didn’t recognise her,” says Ramachandran.
In the second year of her bachelor’s in business administration at SASTRA University, Kumbakonam, Divya is perhaps the only survivor of the tragedy who now attends college. “Lokesh and I quickly got over the episode and decided to focus on our studies. He wants to be an engineer and I want to pursue an MBA,” says Divya.
She may not show it, but her mother says Divya’s ordeal is far from over. “She used to be beautiful, with a head full of hair. Now she is shy, doesn’t like dressing up and, upon my insistence, wears a gold chain as her only ornament,” Kala says. “I want her to work and be independent. That way, when she does get married, her husband will respect her for what she has achieved.”
Not far from this two-storey house in Koranattu Karuppur, another family counts its blessings every single day. J Marianathan and M Annammal had thought their daughter Mercy Angel Mary was as good as dead when doctors told them they could not guarantee her recovery. But one of them, moved by Annammal’s tears, whisked the child off to a private hospital in Madurai for surgery. In a few months, Mercy’s wounds began to heal.
However, her family had to contend with the inexorable temper they left behind, as she slammed doors, cursed the nurses and refused to live in a home with a thatched roof. “It was a rebirth. We had to give her time to come to grips with her new life,” says Annammal.
When school life began anew, it brought with it a raft of challenges: classmates shrank away at the sight of her scars; her index finger wouldn’t straighten; and once, a burst at a transformer near the school left her shuddering in fear. “Part of the reason they were so many casualties in the 2004 fire was that the electric line couldn’t be disconnected in time,” says Marianathan, a former driver. “Fans and lights came crashing down on the children and the electric current instantly jolted them to death.”
Playing a round of carrom with her brother Arogya, a service engineer with Samsung, on the sparkling tiled floor of their house, Mercy now looks the picture of confidence. She is losing by a mile, but her thoughts are elsewhere. “I will study to be a doctor and save lives,” she says. If Mercy was inspired by her doctors, B Vijay, 18, says he wants to be an IAS officer in the mould of J Radhakrishnan, well known here for his acts of kindness in times of distress.
“I realised long ago that studying was a way out of a cursed life,” says Vijay, who lives in a one-room house with his parents in Natham, a village near Kumbakonam flanked by parched rice fields. Vijay has secured admission at an engineering college in Namakkal and is banking on an education loan to pay the tuition fee of about Rs 1.4 lakh a year. “I want to go away to college so that my mother doesn’t cry every time she looks at my burnt face. I will come back with a good job and make her happy,” he says.
A reserved young man, Vijay plays football and lifts weights on the terrace in the early hours of the morning, when the sun isn’t high enough to singe his wounds. The verdict of the Thanjavur court — and all the unbidden memories it has brought forth — is proving much more painful than wounds of the flesh, he says.
In a sense, their lives are all still framed by that fire. “It is our history and our present. And if we don’t get justice, then our dreams and hopes for the future too will be consigned to ashes,” says Angayarkanni.