As the sun rises, painting haloes around fluffy white clouds and russet streaks across the lightening sky, neon-clad joggers and their more sedate counterparts, the early morning walkers, can be seen striding across the 6km-long promenade that lines the Marina Beach in Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai. Soon, the other beach regulars trickle in: the fruit, tea and juice vendors that the exercisers flock to after they are done; small boys armed with cricket bats and stumps; dreamy-eyed canoodling couples; fishermen perched on the upturned boats outside their shanties, sorting their catch and cleaning their nets.

It must have been a similar sort of morning that Boxing Day, 11 years ago, when a tsunami (till then an unfamiliar word), triggered by a massive earthquake, slammed into the coastlines of over 14 countries, including India’s south-east coast, leaving death and destruction in its wake. According to the Unesco website, 2,27,898 died—at least 16,000 of them in India. The epicentre of the 9.1 magnitude quake, which occurred at 6.30am IST, lay off the coast of Sumatra. By 9am, giant waves had reached Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh, and, a couple of hours later, Kerala, ravaging these states.

According to a 27 December 2004 report in The Hindu, around 131 people were washed away on the 13km-long stretch of Marina Beach that day. These included not just visitors to the beach but people who lived in shanties adjacent to the beachfront.

Mallika Padmanabhan, who once lived at Santhome, an area bordering Marina Beach, recalls: “The water came right into my house—thick, bubbling, black water. It took everything. The smell of that water never left the place."

Sitting outside her new residence at Kannagi Nagar in the southern suburb of Thoraipakkam, off the Old Mahabalipuram Road, a toddler (“my granddaughter Madhumita," she says) on her lap, Padmanabhan says the tsunami changed everything for her.

“I used to own an ironing cart back then," she says. “When the tsunami came into our houses, nearly 1,200 families were moved to a temporary relief centre."

They remained there for more than a month, she remembers. “We came here (Kannagi Nagar) on 9 February the next year," she says, pointing to the huge, brightly-coloured concrete tenement behind her which was built by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 2000 to resettle slum dwellers. More than 15,000 families live there today, many of them those who were displaced from their shanties and hutments by the tsunami.

She admits that the concrete houses with electricity and attached bathrooms are a lot better than the kaccha house she occupied at Santhome, but still feels a trifle neglected. “They left us here and no one ever came back to check on us. This is so isolated from everything—there are no hospitals or schools nearby and the bus connectivity is poor," she says.

Padmanabhan now owns a small cart-stall in Kannagi Nagar, peddling snacks, balloons and trinkets. “It is very difficult for me to now go back and work in Santhome," she says. “It is too far away."

But while the daily-wagers and domestic workers who once lived close to the sea can afford to keep away from it, the fishermen cannot.

Babuji aka Quadir, who now lives in a tenement near Muttukadu on the East Coast Road, about 32km from Chennai, says: “I was taking some tourists in my boat for some sightseeing when the tsunami hit. I knew there was no way I could reach the jetty so I turned the boat around and followed the waves instead of going against them."

He survived, but everyday living still remains a challenge. “We used to live in a hamlet on the Covelong Beach itself," he says. “But after the incident, we relocated here. Now we need to walk almost 5km to get to work."

“I don’t think authorities see the long-term perspective of these communities," says A. Srivathsan, a Chennai-based urban planning expert. “Certainly, the first set of reactions should be safety and rehabilitation, but one needs to go back and review the situation too," he adds.

That doesn’t seem to have happened.

Today Marina Beach itself betrays no signs of the tsunami. Towards one end of the beach looms the Madras Light House, a 150ft, 11-storey building painted red and white. An elevator ride—it is one of the few lighthouses in India that has one—takes you to the viewing gallery on the ninth floor. At that height, the sea appears very far away, an azure haze bound by gritty sand and wisps of sky. And deceptively calm and benign.

An aerial view of present-day Marina Beach.
An aerial view of present-day Marina Beach.
An aerial view of Marina Beach after it was hit by the tsunami in 2004. Photo: Reuters
An aerial view of Marina Beach after it was hit by the tsunami in 2004. Photo: Reuters
Tidal waves devastated Marina Beach. Photo: AFP
Tidal waves devastated Marina Beach. Photo: AFP
Mallika Padmanabhan, a tsunami victim who now lives in Kannagi Nagar.
Mallika Padmanabhan, a tsunami victim who now lives in Kannagi Nagar.
Covelong Beach, near Chennai, after it was hit by the tsunami.
Covelong Beach, near Chennai, after it was hit by the tsunami.
For Babuji, a fisherman, everyday living remains a challenge.
For Babuji, a fisherman, everyday living remains a challenge.
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