Friday, January 2, 2009


Every morning and evening, Velmurugu Kangasuriyam gathers his 2 1/2-year-old daughter and his wife and confronts the wreckage of his former life.

His wife, Thaya, lights an oil lamp on the mantel of a dark, bare concrete room. Mr. Kangasuriyam presses his hands together and closes his eyes. Little Theresa follows in imitation. For a long minute, his new family stands in silent prayer.

The last flowers sit in front of a photo of a woman in a striking red bridal sari: Devi, who was Mr. Kangasuriyam’s wife for just 10 months before she died — along with his parents, three of his sisters and a brother — four years ago Friday.

The tsunami that crashed over southern Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, and killed 230,000 people washed away nearly everything Mr. Kangasuriyam held dear. Sixteen close relatives were killed. His seaside village was razed; his house demolished; his business destroyed.

Four years later, with international aid and prodding from his remaining family, the 30-year-old has rebuilt his life. He has a new family. He has a bigger house in a resettlement village set back from the ocean.

He opened a new bicycle repair shop to replace the one where he worked alongside his father from boyhood.

A quiet man, Mr. Kangasuriyam says he is finally getting his life back in order.

“I want to be happy with what I have and get over it,” he said.

About 35,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami. More than half a million were left homeless.

Aid groups have since built more than 100,000 homes, but several thousand families still remain homeless, according to the United Nations.

Many of the survivors have worked to rebuild their lives and carry on, though nearly all bear deep and permanent scars of the disaster.

For Mr. Kangasuriyam, the reminders are hard to escape.

Every Friday, as he returns from prayers at the Hindu temple, Mr. Kangasuriyam stops at the remnants of his old village, Passikudah, a few hundred yards from the beach in the Batticaloa district on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast.

The house he lived in for 10 months with his first wife is little more than two red steps leading to a cracked foundation and a jagged shard of wall.

His parents’ home next-door is a slab of concrete covered in thick black mud, rotting coconut husks and a tangled bush and vines. He tries to keep the foundation clean, he said, but the jungle keeps reclaiming it.

His four sisters and three brothers lived nearby as well.

They were a close-knit family, Mr. Kangasuriyam said. After school, his nieces and nephews would play together outside. After dinner, everyone would converge on his parents’ home to drink tea and gossip.

Growing up, he and his brothers all worked in their father’s bicycle repair shop, learning how to rebuild a bike that had been dismantled down to its ball bearings. Eventually, one brother left to become a postmaster, another a Hindu priest.

The third started his own bike shop, leaving Mr. Kangasuriyam, the youngest son, to drop out of school and help his father in his shop.

As his parents grew frail with age, it fell to Mr. Kangasuriyam to care for them. He couldn’t do it alone, he said, so he asked his parents to arrange a marriage.

As Mr. Kangasuriyam thinks of his first wife, his eyes sink to the ground. He rubs his chin and scratches his lip in silence.

She was four months pregnant, he said.

“Every time I remember that, it’s very painful,” he said.

Mr. Kangasuriyam moved with 2,000 other homeless to the yard of a Pentecostal church. His surviving sister and brothers kept him going, he said.

They pushed him to apply for housing in a resettlement village being built by an international aid group, and within months, he became secretary of the residents’ committee.

In lieu of payment for his new house, he had to help build it, and he threw himself into the work, he said. When it was done, he continued making bricks for his neighbors.

More international aid enabled him and a surviving brother to open a new bike shop together. With aid groups donating hundreds of bicycles to tsunami victims, they suddenly were swamped with bikes to tune up.

He spent so much time at work that his surviving brothers and sister decided he needed a new wife to care for him. They found Thaya, a woman from their village who had always had a crush on Mr. Kangasuriyam, seven years her junior.

In May 2005, just five months after the tsunami, they were married.

Theresa was born the next April.

The toddler struts around the house in the new neighborhood of Pettiyadichcheni, about half a mile from the beach. As her father sits in one of the brown plastic chairs lining the living room walls, she stands between his legs and burbles playfully.

Many have told him that Theresa looks just like 2-year-old Dilani did, and he thinks, maybe, she is the reincarnation of his lost niece.

Every day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the family enters the shrine room and offers prayers at the photos of his lost family. Mr. Kangasuriyam says it is important for Theresa to know what happened, and it’s important that his parents and Devi not be forgotten.

Thaya, who lost her mother in the flood, says she understands her husband’s feelings and is not bothered.

Looking out over the ruins of his old village, Mr. Kangasuriyam said he once led a carefree life.

Every weekend, he played volleyball or cricket, then headed to the beach for a swim. Since the ocean turned on him four years ago, he has not gone back. Even the distant crash of waves rattles him.

“I’m still scared of the sea,” he said. “People have called me many times to go, and I say, ‘No. I’ll never go back.’ ”

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