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Last Updated: Monday, 19 December 2005, 00:29 GMT
Turning back the tide of grief

By Lucy Ash
BBC News in Tamil Nadu, India

Karibeeran Parameswaran and wife Choodamani
Parameswaran (r) and Choodamani say God showed them the way

Karibeeran Parameswaran went up to the second floor of his villa in Nagappattinam, southern India, and returned holding a framed picture.

Proudly but sadly he showed me his daughters, two round-faced, smiling girls with jasmine in their hair.

They had their arms wrapped protectively around their little brother. This is the last photograph of 12-year-old Rakshanya, nine-year-old Karunya and Kirubasan, five, taken just a few days before Christmas last year.

On 26 December, Parameswaran, an oil engineer from Nagappattinam, turned 40.

"I remember how my son came to wake me up", he said.

"He whispered 'happy birthday daddy' and began to tickle me and nibble my ear.

"Then my eldest daughter brought me a cup of tea and wished me many happy returns. For the rest of my life I will dread every one of my birthdays."

Surging tide

Parameswaran's home town took the full force of the tsunami.

Karibeeran Parameswaran
I kissed [my children] and poured in three handfuls of sand and asked them to forgive me for not being able to... make them a proper coffin
Parameswaran

This fishing community in Tamil Nadu, near the southern tip of India, was the worst affected part of the mainland. More than 6,000 people died, two-thirds of them women and children.

That fateful Sunday morning, Parameswaran, his children and seven relatives from the inland city of Bangalore had decided to go for a stroll on the beach before going to church.

The relatives of Parameswaran's wife, Choodamani, had never seen the sea before and they were thrilled to be spending their Christmas holidays in a house so close to the beach.

They were all playing a game of frisbee when they were overwhelmed by the surging tide.

Parameswaran managed to hold on to his son's hand for a few seconds and remembers the little boy crying out in terror.

Then the force of the wave ripped them apart. The distraught father managed to cling to a palm tree and when the waters retreated he searched for his children, discovering their bodies one by one.

Parameswaran realised he was the only one in his party to survive - his three children and the seven relatives all drowned.

Orphanage in Nagappattinam
The orphanage in Nagappattinam was overcrowded

He washed and dressed the children's bodies and then dug a grave with his own hands.

"I kissed them and poured in three handfuls of sand and asked them to forgive me for not being able to give them flowers or even to make them a proper coffin."

The children's mother sat numb with shock and for days was unable to speak.

"At first I couldn't help blaming my husband. I thought if only he hadn't gone to the beach that morning my children would still be here with me."

The couple were contemplating a suicide pact when Choodamani told her husband she had heard a voice from God offering her consolation and the hope of a new life.

At first Parameswaran accused her of being too cowardly to take her own life but then he caught sight of the picture of his three smiling children.

The children spoke to him, he said, and they told him they were with Jesus and urged him to stop grieving for them.

Conversion

Parameswaran comes from a humble background - his father was an illiterate shepherd.

Bill Clinton visited the orphanage in May
Bill Clinton praised the project's 'humanity'

Parameswaran was raised as a Hindu but when he was 12, he met a Christian who converted him, helped him to get into high school and changed his life.

The tsunami has stretched this newfound faith to the limit. But instead of succumbing to despair Parameswaran and Choodamani decided to help their community.

Back in early February the government orphanage in Nagappattinam was bursting at the seams. About 250 children had lost both parents and 858 a mother or father.

Parameswaran and Choodamani had too much space. They dreaded walking into their empty, quiet house so they were glad to open their doors to some of the orphans.

The first four children arrived in early February. Twelve-year-old Juniya, her two sisters and her little brother are from a fisherman's family and lost their mother in the tsunami.

Parameswaran has not formally adopted them - it is a looser arrangement - but he says they are welcome to stay for as long as they want and he is taking full responsibility for their upkeep and their schooling.

Their father, a gaunt man called Shivshankar, admitted he was finding it hard to cope financially and emotionally.

He is glad that his children are being well cared for.

The Paramesvarans now plan to build another house next door to accommodate more children and have set up an NGO called Nambikkai (Hands of Hope).

Website

In May former US President Bill Clinton visited the town and he spent several minutes talking to them about their project.

Children at the Tamil Nadu home
The morning routine is carried out with military precision

He said they showed "the very best of humanity".

By October, 16 children had moved into Parameswaran's home, the youngest just two years old.

They are all sons and daughters of fishermen.

The couple have been asked to take more but they are fast running out of room.

Choodamani has organised the morning routine with military precision. The oldest children cycle to lessons, the younger ones go by motorised rickshaw but one day they are hoping to buy a minibus.

Parameswaran has launched a website featuring his story and has received messages of support from all over the world.

Parameswaran says: "I often tell people that if we could recover from our trauma then anybody is capable of overcoming whatever problems life throws at them."

But at night Parameswaran still often stands on the balcony overlooking the sea and calls out his children's names.

"This beach was once a paradise for us - then it became a hell. But we will never move away from here. When I look at the waves I feel closer to my children."


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