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    Nothing prepares you for the devastation: Vivek

    [Interview by Subhash K. Jha]
    Wednesday, January 05, 2005
    He can''''t forget the stench of death and decay. But, instead of fleeing, Vivek Oberoi decided to dig in his heels and help in what has turned out to be a "life-changing" experience.

    In an interview Vivek told IANS why he adopted the coastal village of Thevanampattinam in Tamil Nadu and how he plans to continue ''''Project Hope''''. Excerpts:
    "I've just returned to Mumbai, really, really tired and moved. And now I want to mobilize my colleagues into contributing to healing a devastation beyond any description. I don't know why I did what I did. It was the worst hit village.

    "Adopting a village sounds so grand. It was an emotional gesture. I saw the images of destruction on television and I called up my television-journalist friends. When I got to know about the enormity of the tragedy I just decided to go there with my friends and six trucks of relief material. I just flew off and my parents followed me.

    "Once there I needed to do more. I saw that the largest village on the coast, Thevanampattinam, was the worst hit. Nothing you've seen or heard can prepare you for the devastation. Just the stench of death and decay will provoke you to flee. It's unbelievably scary... I've been first-hand witness to a lot of tragedy. I've worked with cancer patients. But nothing had prepared me for this.

    "In fact, the day I reached our village, there was another tsunami scare. The minute they saw the swelling waves they were petrified. It's fashionable to castigate the government for spreading a false alarm. But better safe than sorry.

    "There was so much pain all around, I wanted to walk away. I couldn't turn away when I saw a woman sitting stunned on a pile of rubble. She had lost everything. She wanted to die. I just walked up to her and held her...and she burst out crying. This was a prosperous, self-respecting village now reduced to devastation.

    "I want to heal them, put them back to normalcy. For the first two days I moved up and down the village with supplies and drinking water. The corporate houses just gave unquestioningly. And whatever I couldn't get, I bought. The whole administrative machinery helped. I just took the first step...Relief couldn't be reached to the end of the village because of the rubble on the way. I made the administration aware of this hurdle. They created a pathway for relief.

    "I took crates of supply on my shoulder and started walking...others just followed silently. People can be so good! But the locals aren't happy with the way the relief goods were being given to them. The villagers were hurt when they were given used clothes. 'We aren't beggars,' they said. Their dignity was wounded. Food is being thrown at them from moving trucks as though they're dogs. It's cooked food, which goes bad in hours. Volunteers just want to get it over with when they should be staying with the villagers...

    "The first thing we did was to start five community kitchens. Up to 700 meals are being served every time in every kitchen. The women are all busy cooking instead of beating their chests. It's cathartic. I'm getting my psychiatrist friends to go there and counsel them. I don't want suicides in my village."

    "A lot of us feel for the distressed. It just takes time to galvanize
    "I saw a drunk man who would sit and stare at us all day. But when he saw the food grains coming to the community kitchen he stumbled to his feet and began helping...Setting up community kitchens is a big responsibility. A woman came up to me and said she needed 10 kg of pepper. Now where would I get that from? It's such a challenge. There're tonnes and tonnes of supplies. Organizations from within and outside the government have been so cooperative. We now need volunteers."

    "There was a woman who had lost her husband and livelihood. We set up her home and a small business for her and she regained the will to live. A fisherman lost his limb and was contemplating suicide. We set up a tea stall for him. Fishing nets are so expensive...We want people to sponsor them...Boats have to be repaired and rescued from sea. We're trying to set up a repair yard.

    "The local college was ravaged. The students wondered if they'd lose one academic year. We decided to fix it. I picked up the broom...Within an hour 400 boys were helping me...As of today, the college is ready to reopen on Jan 10. So for every one cynic there are 10 believers. And that's enough for me. After I adopted a village more than 30 villages were adopted in that area. Big industry houses have come to the village to see how we're working."

    "Do I feel more satisfied as an actor or a volunteer? I don't do either to be known. I do it because I love it. I want to make a difference to people's lives. This is 'Project Hope'. It doesn't belong to me or my family. It's everyone's responsibility.

    "People want to help. But they're suspicious of where their funds go. I'm here to make sure your efforts don't go to waste. Please help my new family. Because they're also your family. If you can't come physically, send a draft or cheque. We've a registered charitable trust. If the help stops now, the food and house building will stop. We need money now! We don't want utensils for a home and kerosene to cook. What will they do with these when they don't have a home and food?

    "I'm asked how I feel. Right now I'm too numb. There're negative elements already trying to put us down. I don't know whether I've taken a step forward as a human being...Maybe it's just a step inside me. I couldn't do it on my own. Suddenly the children in my village are smiling again. And that's enough reward for me."


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