Sebastian is arranging flowers on the big floral carpet in the school courtyard. Around him, children are busy playing. Groups of men and women sit and chat, as in any neighbourhood. But this isn't just another day. These people are celebrating their Onam in a relief camp. For anyone who sets foot at the Infant Jesus School in Thangassery, Kollam, the spirit on display at the relief camp is a reassuring sight.
There are 235 people at the camp. Despite the crowd, they are calm, content and appear to have no fear. After all, they have survived the worst. Since 17 August, they have been housed at the school which is under the Latin Catholic diocese. All of them are from in and around Viyyapuram Panchayat in Karichal, Alappuzha district. They were forced to leave their homes because of the deluge and the floods.
The camp comes to a close on Saturday, the day of Thiruvonam, which marks the most important day of the harvest festival.
“The cost of the lungi that I'm wearing would be around Rs 300 or 400. Some people may ask for more lungis, but I won’t, I should value what I get,” says Sebastian. He's speaking at a gathering at the school to celebrate Onam as well as to share experiences of the camp members.
Baby, a camp member, says, “We shouldn’t feel defeated, we have to overcome, we will reach our homes with faith and energy."
Omana, another woman at the camp, thanks the people of Kollam, whose love, she says, has touched her.
Siju James, a young man, says, “Even the T-shirt that I'm wearing has been gifted by someone else. First, I thank God for saving us, then these people. The school rooms have study materials which amount to lakhs of rupees, but we were allowed to live in the rooms, they all trusted us. The trust is touching, we were able to learn a lot of things."
The general mood in the camp is that of hope, the resilience and confidence to fight back.
“It's true that our houses have been destroyed. We have almost nothing left, but after coming here and having lived here, we were able to realise several things about life,” says Cheru Pushpam, a member.
The people in Karichal were first housed at a school in the area for two days from 15 to 17 August. When that camp was also flooded, they were shifted to the school in Kollam city.
“We were reluctant to go when we were asked to shift from the first relief camp. We wanted to stay there, but finally we made the move. Now we feel that what we did was correct,” says Rency, a camp member.
When the relief camp at Karichal was flooded, the parish priest Father Terry called up the Catholic diocese in Kollam. The diocese soon sent three priests to Karichal.
“On the 17th, some people were shifted to the school, the next day the others were also shifted. Then, after that, the members of all the 64 families were shifted,” says Father Terry.
At the relief camp in the school, there was Athappookkalam – floral carpet – arranged as part of Thiruvonam. The camp members were given kits to help them return home, but not before they had a grand sadhya, a traditional Onam feast with numerous curries, rice and payasam.
They will return to their homes, where the water has finally receded, in the evening.
“It is quite a task to clean the house, but we are not worried,” says 22-year-old Mary, while six-year-old Jewel sits on her lap. Mary and Jewel are neighbours.
“Back home also, we are like this. Here, in Kollam, the people treated us as one among them," Mary says.
Similar scenes played out in relief camps across the state.
"We refused a sponsored Onam sadhya. Our own lunch turned out to be a huge success," says Parvathy, a middle-aged woman who has been in a camp in Alappuzha for the past five days.
At a camp supported by a state-run engineering college, student volunteers joined the Onam celebrations.
In Kottayam, residents of Aymenem and Kumarakom said that the Onam sadhya provided them huge relief after unending stories of human suffering.
"The bonhomie lit up our lives especially when we prepared our own sadhya," said a woman, who was getting ready to return to her home.
Added Devika, at a camp in Kozihikode, "The tragedy has helped us learn many things which we never ever thought we would learn. We feel we have passed the litmus test."
"You are going to rebuild your lives. Remember, many of you were saved by people who never knew you. Likewise, while a million people were affected by the floods, 30 million Keralites were not. Just like you were saved by unknown people, unknown people all across Kerala will come to your rescue when you rebuild your lives," actor Mammooty, who visited a camp in Kodungallur, said.
(With IANS inputs)
Published in an arrangement with The News Minute