For the past eight years Karibeeran Paramesvaran has found it difficult to smile, let alone celebrate, on his birthday – December 26. “It’s a day I can never forget," says the 48-year-old Indian, a resident of Nagapattinam, a coastal city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It’s easy to understand why – that’s the day the tsunami stuck, taking with it his three children.
On Boxing Day, 2004, the oil engineer along with his children – daughters Rakshanya, 12, Karunya, nine, and five-year-old son Kirubasan – and seven of his relatives who were visiting them for Christmas, had gone to play by the sea barely 600 metres from his house.
“It was around eight in the morning,” recalls Karibeeran. I was playing frisbee with my son and had my back to the sea when I suddenly saw him staring behind me and his face cloud over with fear. I turned around and saw a huge wall of water – at least 25 feet high – racing to the shore."
Karibeeran ran to save his children but the waves beat him. “I heard my son call out, ‘Daddy, save me’. And for a few seconds I did," he says, his voice choking. “I managed to grab my son’s hand but the wave was too powerful. Slowly his hand began to slip away from mine. The sheer look of terror on my innocent five-year-old’s face as he was beseeching me to save him before the sea dragged him away is still seared on my mind. I can never forget that moment when I lost my son forever."
Karibeeran was saved because he managed to cling to a coconut tree on the shore. He says he was holding on to it for about five minutes before the waves subsided a bit. “I was sure I would die but when the water receded I was surprised to find I was alive," he says. He immediately started looking for his children. and his relatives.
“I remembered seeing my daughters playing with our relatives and some friends on the beach a little away from where I was with my son when the wave crashed around us but couldn’t find them now." Karibeeran raced home to check on his wife Choodamani, before rushing back to the beach to search for his children.
I ran up and down the sand like a mad man looking for my children and my relatives but couldn’t find them even as several corpses were being washed ashore
“She had heard about the waves from our neighbours and came along to the sea side. There were a lot of people – mostly belonging to the fishing community who live in the nearby villages – who were also crying and desperately looking for their loved ones.
“I ran up and down the sand like a mad man looking for my children and my relatives but couldn’t find them even as several corpses were being washed ashore."
A town torn apart by grief
Death and destruction was rampant. Scores of fishing boats anchored by the coast and several more that were on the sea had been smashed to smithereens and now lay washed on the shore in piles of wood. The sea’s fury had also destroyed several of the huts that were on the coastline, claiming its inhabitants.
“I was looking around in the destroyed boats hoping and praying to see my loved ones alive, but couldn’t find them," he says. “Then around noon that day I found the body of my lovely daughter Rakshanya lying on the railway track around 60 metres from the shore. Only that morning she had brought me a cup of tea, kissed my cheek and wished me ‘happy birthday’ and now she was lying lifeless…"
The next day, the bodies of his two other children along with hundreds of others’ washed up on the shore. “There were few people who could come to be by our side and help us cope with the loss as almost everybody in our area was affected by the tsunami having lost loved ones or property so I myself washed and dressed my children’s bodies, and then dug a grave in the burial ground with my own hands and buried them. I couldn’t even place flowers on the grave because I couldn’t find any.
“Before burying them, I kissed them and begged their forgiveness for not being able to give them a proper burial," he says. His seven relatives had also died.
Karibeeran’s home town was one of the most affected areas where around 6,000 people died when the killer wave struck. Hundreds of children were made orphans while thousands more were left homeless.
His wife Choodamani, 44, who works for an insurance company, was so traumatised she couldn’t speak for three days. “On the fourth day, the first words she spoke were, ‘Why do we have to live now?’ I didn’t have an answer so just held her and cried for I don’t know how long," he says.
Karibeeran admits that he too harboured the same feelings. “I felt there was no point living after losing our children."
But that night Choodamani had a dream in which she says her children told her to get over her grief and share her love with other children. “It was a turning point," Karibeeran says. “I learnt that in our area alone there were more than 60 children who were orphaned following the tsunami. And when I mentioned this to Choodamani, her immediate reaction was, ‘Let’s bring some of them to our home."’
Karibeeran agreed. He went to the local school, which was doubling as a relief camp, and volunteered to take care of some of the orphans who had been lodged there. The initial paperwork to handover children took around a month and in early February four children – three girls and a boy – from a local fisherman’s family, who had lost their mother in the tsunami, walked into Karibeeran’s house. The children’s father was unable to look after them because he was financially and emotionally broke following the disaster.
“They were of a similar age to my children who I lost to the sea and every time I looked at them they would remind me of my own children," he says.
The fact he was able to give these children hope and a better life kept him going, he says. “It gave Choodamani and me a reason to live."
Less than two months after the killer tsunami snatched away their children, Karibeeran and Choodamani took a decision – to throw open the gates to their house. “I decided to welcome any orphan or homeless child into my home," he says.
“We felt there was no point in keeping our large four-bedroom house on the beach just to ourselves. We had lost all our children but we wanted to give a home to kids who were alive but had nowhere to go. We wanted to give all the love we would have showered on our children on the orphans in and around our village."
Welcomed with open arms
Soon, word about Karibeeran’s generosity spread and within months several more orphans had a roof above their heads and a welcoming family to look after them. While some were brought to the house by social workers, others were taken by Karibeeran or Choodamani from the tsunami relief camps.
Karibeeran hasn’t formally adopted the children as that would require a lot of documentation that could take months, even years. He says they are welcome to stay with him and Choodamani for as long as they want. He pays their school fees and gives them gifts at annual festivals, just as he would have done for his own children. Over the years, Karibeeran has been putting all his savings into the house, extending it and including more rooms. “I am doing this in honour of my three children. I want to give other children all the things we would have given our own," he says.
The first year, 12 children came to stay. “At the moment there are 30 children in our house. They are aged from four to 14. “Apart from tsunami orphans we have also taken under our care two children who ended up without parents after their father, in a fit of drunken rage, battered their mother to death. While the father was arrested and jailed, the children ended up alone in their little hut. So we decided to bring them home. “It’s heart-warming to see the children running around and laughing and playing in the courtyard," he says. “Some of them call us ‘amma’ (mother in Tamil) and appa (father) while others calls us uncle and aunty. Seeing the innocent children having a happy, safe and secure life truly fills our hearts."
Hands of hope reaching out
Karibeeran and Choodamani now have two children of their own – Shamaya, six, and Nichaya, four, both boys. “God has been kind and given us two after our loss," he says. But their children are treated no differently from the other 30 in their house. “They do know about their elder sisters and brother who perished in the tsunami because there are a few pictures of them in one of our rooms," he says.
He has also set up a charity, Nambikkai – which in Tamil means hands of hope – where he details the activities happening in his home and how the children are faring.
It costs around Rs60,000 (Dh4,000) a month to take care of the children’s needs including school fees, books and clothes but Karibeeran quickly says his and his wife’s salary plus the savings they have is helping them get through quite comfortably. “I earn sufficiently well as I work for the Oil and Natural Gas Commission and together with my wife’s income we are able to give the children a reasonably good life.
“To help us along there are some friends and wellwishers who have donated in cash and kind for the children’s upkeep," he says.
They have employed three people – two women and a man – to cook and clean and to do the regular grocery purchases.
The couple are keen that all the children get a good education. While a few of the older children have bicycles they ride to school, the younger ones travel by autorickshaw.
The couple’s activities have not gone unnoticed. In May 2005, Bill Clinton visited Nagapattinam in the aftermath of the tsunami and took time out to meet the Paramesvarans. After meeting the couple and hearing their story, Clinton is reported to have said, ‘I’ve met the most courageous family.’
Karibeeran says, “Meeting Clinton was a nice experience. He’s a very nice man. He said, ‘I will never forget you. You showed the very best of humanity."’
Last year Karibeeran and Choodamani won the Real Heroes award. A social initiative by TV channel CNN-IBN and Reliance Industries, a corporate conglomerate, the awards were instituted in 2008 to honour and appreciate ordinary Indians for their remarkable contribution to society and helping improve the lives of the people in the community.
But the awards clearly were not something the Paramesvarans were seeking. “We threw open the doors of our house to welcome orphans and give them as good a life as we can. I only wish we can take on more orphan children who need a family and a roof above their head," says Karibeeran. “In a few years I’m sure we’d be able to help more children."
Has he ever considered moving out of his house to a place away from the sea and the beach? “Oh no," he says. “We cannot. Our bond with the sea is too strong. Also, moving away from here cannot make us forget everything that happened here. It would be like running away from the problem."
Karibeeran is happy with the way the children in his home are growing up. “We regularly take them all out for a picnic or an outing to a park. I try to do all that I can to make them feel wanted and loved. They are all my children."
But that doesn’t stop him missing the three he lost to the tsunami. “You know, there are moments when I stand on the balcony of my house and look out to the sea and softly call out to my children. And I remember the sweet memories I had with them. Then I look at all the children I now have and feel this is what I suppose I was born to do."