- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

NAGAPATTINAM, India — Sitting on the lawn in front of his seaside villa, Karibeeran Paramesvaran caught hold of 3-year-old Priya and gestured with a stick that he would beat her.

“You are joking. You can never hurt me … I know you love me, Appa,” said the child, staring into her stepfather’s eyes.

As he kissed Priya on the cheek and the child gave him a happy smile, Mr. Paramesvaran, 41, held the little girl in a hug.

“She is right. Had she and 15 other children not been with me, survival would have been difficult for me and my wife after losing all three of our children to the tsunami,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

It was hard to tell whether the tears were of sadness at remembering the three children he lost to last year’s Dec. 26 earthquake-generated sea wave, or of joy at the sight of the tsunami orphans he had taken into his home.

Last year when he turned 40 and his three children were preparing to celebrate his Dec. 26 birthday, the undersea earthquake struck and turned the day into the most horrible of his life.

“I vividly remember how my son Kirubasan pulled me from bed and wished me a happy birthday. My two daughters brought me tea, wished me many happy returns, and kissed me,” Mr. Paramesvaran said.

“I still remember how my daughters’ shrill cries for help were buried by surging water, and how I vainly tried to save my son by holding him to my chest.” Tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice trailed off as he held a framed picture of himself and the three children. The photograph of Rakshanya, 12, Karunya, 9, and Kirubasan, 5, was taken days before the tragedy last year.

On the morning of the day after Christmas, Mr. Paramesvaran had taken his three children and seven relatives of his wife to the nearby beach for a stroll. They were tossing a Frisbee on the beach when the sea turned hostile.

Mr. Paramesvaran had no chance to reach his daughters. He caught hold of his son for a few seconds before the killer waves wrested the little boy away. The man saved himself by clinging to a palm tree.

When the water receded, Mr. Paramesvaran and his wife, Choodamani, found the bodies of their three children and those of his wife’s seven relatives lying among hundreds of others on the beach.

“I washed and dressed my children’s bodies, and then dug a grave in the burial ground with my own hands. The whole town being shut down, I could not buy flowers or coffins for them. Before placing all three of them in that [one] grave, I kissed them and begged forgiveness for not being able to get them a proper burial,” Mr. Paramesvaran said in a tear-choked voice.

The distraught couple was contemplating suicide when “God asked” them to stop grieving and start a new life with some other children orphaned by the tsunami.

“We were terribly depressed and felt life without our children was meaningless on this Earth. Then we saw the miseries of some just-orphaned children in our neighborhood and heard a voice from God offering us consolation, we found hope of a new life,” said Mrs. Paramesvaran.

A month after the tragedy, the couple brought four orphans into their home. Soon, other children followed from other fishing villages of Nagapattinam, where the tsunami took about 8,000 lives. More than 250 children lost both parents, and about 900 more lost a mother or father.

Mr. Paramesvaran, an oil technician in a state-owned company, turned the ground floor of his large villa into a home for 16 tsunami orphans and named it “Nambikkai,” meaning “hands of hope.”

Because of strict government rules, he has not been able to formally adopt the children, but Mr. Paramesvaran has taken full responsibility for their welfare, including their schooling.

“We shall give them the best housing, clothing, food and education that we can, we have pledged to God. In our first life, we had three children. In this second life now, we have 16. When some people call them ‘tsunami orphans’ and call Nambikkai an orphanage, I feel offended because we [he and his wife] are their parents and we are still alive,” said Mr. Paramesvaran.

The children of Nambikkai — ranging in age from 3 to 15 years — are from poor fishing families. Social workers are now urging the couple to take in more tsunami orphans.

“I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. If I take more children into this home, I shall not be able to provide them as much support as I want,” said Mr. Paramesvaran.

“However, there are many other poor tsunami victim children who need our help, and we are planning to build one or two separate homes for them.”

The Nambikkai children from poorer families either did not attend school before the tsunami struck or studied in government-run schools. But now Mr. Paramesvaran has placed some of them in English-teaching convent schools.

“My birth parents were very poor and they could never pay for my studies,” said tsunami orphan Theboral, 9, whose parents were fishing laborers. “But here Appa and Amma [Father and Mother, meaning Mr. and Mrs. Paramesvaran] have put me in a very good school and I dream of becoming a teacher.”

During a visit last May to Nagapattinam, former President Bill Clinton was deeply moved by the Nambikkai project.

“I will never forget your story as long as I live. It reflects the best in humanity, as you try to honor your children by helping orphans,” Mr. Clinton said in a personal meeting with the Paramesvaran couple.

But Mr. Paramesvaran said it is not he who is helping the Nambikkai children. “After we lost our three children, we lost interest in life and this house was taken over by a ghostly silence. But that painful void has been filled by these 16 children now,” said Mr. Paramesvaran.

“These children have helped us get back to life. We are not helping them. In fact they are helping us to stay alive.”

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