Ayear after, as the world prepares to remember the tsunami, Manni Kannan (2 1/2), a UNICEF symbol of the tragedy, faces a new life. Without his mother, who’s dead, and father, who’s in jail for crushing her to death.
Police here say that Kannan’s father Babu—apparently under immense post-disaster trauma—killed his wife Dhaumani (21) inside their own house by crushing her head with a large stone.
This writer had first captured Kannan’s tear-filled face after the tsunami, as he searched for his home that was washed away, leaving the family with just one set of clothes. Over six months later, on a Danish agency’s request, the search to recapture that face started.
When he was tracked, he was almost two—a sprightly child who lived with his mother and two older sisters, Janaki (5) and Geetha (4). Even as this poor family was recovering from the tsunami’s wrath, Kannan’s father, a fisherman, deserted them.
Dhaumani was suddenly a single mother, earning Rs 600 a month by doing odd household chores. As Kannan’s maternal grandmother Amuda (40) said: ‘‘Babu started drinking a lot and fell into gambling and was constantly quarreling with his wife.’’
Soon after being thrown out of the house, Kannan, his mother and sisters moved to an old hut, a little distance away, on rent—two rooms, barely four walls and a roof of palm leaves, with no toilets or drinking water. Half of Dhaumani’s monthly wages was spent on this dilapidated hut, leaving her with less than Rs 15 a day for the 4-member family.
Dhaumani had recalled then that the Pondicherry government had given her about Rs 15,000 in three installments. A local social service organisation built a tiny thatched shelter for them, which Dhaumani’s husband occupied.
Today, Kannan has festering heat boils on his legs and a rash all over his weak body. And in his small but rough life, some terrible memories remain— he’s still very scared of going near the sea. But one place he happily goes to is Om Shanti, the day care center where his mother was forced to leave him every day. Run by a local NGO Volontariat, which gets support from France and Belgium, Kannan comes every morning to this creche that houses 101 children in three classes. His own class has 35 children in a vividly coloured room with clean white tiles and three trained women helpers. The children get breakfast and lunch; they also play games and sing songs.
Says Jeanne Victoria, in-charge of Om Shanti: ‘‘This is a free facility for the under-privileged children of this village.’’ But then, as the day ends, Kannan is back to the squalid settings of what is his primary home.