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 continued…