27th December 2005. The temple festival was held once in six years. The Lake village swelled with pride on this day. There was no lake nearby and no remarkable landmark in the village other than a church, a temple and a 200 year old Banyan tree. The elderly and the men who were busy thinking about other people’s lives, gathered around the Banyan tree to discuss and debate. On this day the church was decorated and the huge bell chimed announcing the start of the temple festival. The temple too would be decorated on the day of the Great Feast in the church. Harmony resounded in meticulous numbers as the hardly thousand odd people were dependent on each other.
On this day Gopal’s children Sarang and Sitara played with Antony’s children Emmanuel and Evya. They held hands, chased and skirted around the huge old banyan tree. The believers and non-believers thronged the streets. Lovers slipped notes and children cried for balloons. Wives engaged in harmless gossips while their men boasted of the brave deeds they had done or imagined to have accomplished.
3:00 P.M. The villagers gathered in the open ground beside the banyan tree. At the center of the ground stood the six feet tall deity of the goddess of the dark. Everyone was afraid of the dark deity that had witnessed births, deaths, rain, storm, starvation and disease. They believed that she clasped in her palm the cycles of death and re-birth. They gifted her with the first grain reaped after the harvest, twice a year. It was a practice to sacrifice a goat to the dark deity whenever a boy was born in a family. The villagers sacrificed the goat instead of the boy and believed that the goddess would bless them with more boys. When the boys outnumbered the girls, they sought proposals from other villages.
The priest chanted some loud prayer to appease the dark mother. That year it was Gopal’s turn to offer sacrifice to the fierce deity. His son was thirteen and he was afraid of the delay caused. He led a young goat by a rope tied around its neck. The crowd waited in anticipation of the tasty feast. As Gopal neared the altar, the goat bleated and was reluctant to move. As was the custom, everyone remained silent and chanted prayers while their eyes screamed at the goat to move.
It all happened within the blink of an eye. Sarang darted in from among the crowd, quickly untied the goat, lifted it and ran at greased lightning. He jumped over the partially collapsed wall that in earnest faith stood behind the deity. The bewildered crowd let out some sound in hushed tones that gradually echoed as terrible curses beyond the mountains on the other side of the village. Gopal sank down to the ground as his wife ran to his side and wailed and howled. The crowd seemed to display the largest synchronized facepalm.
3:05 P.M. The priest left without a word and the crowd moved away in different directions. Someone threw a stone and it hit Gopal on the head. Antony pressed his towel against Gopal’s bleeding head and led him home to save from further attack. Antony’s wife accompanied Gopal’s wife and no one bothered about the children.
Antony’s children, Gopal’s children and a few other children older but younger than fifteen, had by then boarded a bus to the beach at the far end of the next village. They bought tickets with the few coins their parents had given to buy what they liked from the shops at the fair. Sarang hugged the young goat and kissed it while the others patted Sarang for his brave deed. Sarang had planned it all well before. He and his gang of friends met at night in the middle of the field on the previous day and charted the escape route. They played and fought as usual to avoid suspicious eyes. While Sarang mixed with the crowd, the others waited for him at the end of the road.
In the village, people moaned and predicted the deity’s wrath as rain clouds gathered above, and thunder boomed as a warning. Lightning struck the priest’s wife who was out jabbering about the curse that shall follow. The other women ran frantically while the priest moaned and lifted her on his frail hands. He panted and sat beside her after laying her heavy body down on the floor. She opened her eyes before her husband reached with a glass of water to sprinkle on her face. Exhausted, he emptied the glass and feverishly prayed. His wife admitted that she fell down because of fear.
Rumour spread. Some said that the priest’s wife died and others said they saw the black goddess take her in her palm. Finally a few old, wise men reached the priest’s house to check the fact and confirmed that she was alive. The story of wrath of the goddess promulgated with new twists and turns.
3:09 P.M. It rained heavily. Violent winds grumbled and growled tearing apart a few branches and roofs. People hurried indoors with their children. Gopal, Antony and a few others searched for their children. They looked for them in the fields, in the next village, inside the temple, around the church. Their mothers wailed and beat their breasts.
The children were at the beach enjoying the rain. They chased the wild waves while a few families tried to warn them. The families turned to hurry home with their own children. The wind howled louder. The youngest, the six-year old cried hugging her brother. The other children held on to each other and proceeded to move. They heard a few cries from atop the buildings nearby. The voices were indistinct. The youngest moved ahead to pick up her ball while Sarang bent down to grab his goat. “RUN!” the others shouted.
03:10 P.M. A wall of wave about 1.8 m gradually rose to 9.5m. It flattened the trees around. Buildings collapsed. Houses crumbled. The sea swallowed the entire neighbourhood.
The mothers of the missing children crouched down on the floor sobbing. Antony kneeled down and made the sign of cross while Gopal smeared holy ash on his forehead in fervent prayer. The dark deity stood still with clasped hands.