The humble garbage collection vehicles are objects of revulsion in India. But for four children of in fishing village of Urur Olcott Kuppam, in Chennai, the tricycle sponsored by EXNORA (a community-based organisation) became their second chance at life itself. All because of the enterprise of a diminutive teenager B Mala.

Many awe-inspiring stories of brave rescues during the Tsunami disaster are coming out now that the schools are re-opening. But along with that is a disturbing trend of poor attendance. Teachers are left wondering if this is going to be a temporary phenomenon or lead to high number of dropouts in the child labour intensive community of fishing villages.

On the fateful Sunday morning, Mala (13) was helping her mother wash clothes and had left with an empty bucket to the hand pump in the next street. A majority of her village women had queued up at the pump to finish domestic chores. When she heard people screaming in panic and running for life, Mala sprinted toward her home that was already flooded by the tsunami waves.

In the chaos, she saw the three first graders from her school fallen on the road, crying for help. Just a little bit taller than the tots themselves, Mala collected all her strength to throw them into a parked garbage collection tricycle. Even as the waves started lapping the vehicle, she alerted the local youth about the vehicle and boarded it as tricycle was being steered to higher grounds.

As Mala matter of factly recounts the episode, it is the face of J Margaret, her Middle School Head Mistress which is flushed with pride. Ask her how could she do it, Mala's answer is as existential as it is tentative: "Because the tricycle was there." But in the safety of the tricycle, the enormity of what had happened hit her. "I just started crying. Everyone around me was too. I did not know where my two elder brothers or my parents were. And there were these three children from my school with me. I did not know what I should do next."

Help arrived soon enough in the form of her teachers. Though none of them live in the locality, the Head Mistress with her team arrived in the sprawling slum to see what had happened to their flock. "There was utter devastation in the place. Children have seen what little their parents had being washed away. And for days now, they have been leading sub-human existence, begging and fighting for relief material that is being diverted even before it reaches those who have lost their homes," she says. Residents from the more in-land areas of the fishing village corner relief material like food, clothing and bedding meant for those among their neighbours whose homes are gutted, says P Iruthayaraj, Mala's class teacher.

The trauma of the whirlwind week after tsunami is visible in the face of K Nivedha, one of the three that Mala saved. With eyes that threaten to shed tears any moment, the usually bubbly five year old stares mutely when gently questioned.

“Mala works as a domestic helper in the evenings. Most of the kids sell snacks or flowers on the beach. With each family suffering huge losses, we might see drop outs now."
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But Margaret's fear is that the victories they had notched up in getting the children to school would be reversed post-tsunami. "Mala works as a domestic helper in the evenings. Most of the kids sell snacks or flowers on the beach. With each family suffering huge losses, we might see drop outs now." So she has started working with representatives of Asha for Education, that the children will get all the material help to continue in schools.

Three-year-old Venkatesh of the government quarters in Pattinapakkam has a different problem on his hand. This pre-schooler is becoming insomniac. He wakes up in the night and starts drawing pictures of the huge wall of water and of floating stick human figures. His grandmother Rani G says she was returning home from the Sunday market when the tsunami just about drowned her.

"My only conscious memory is the tight grip I had on my grandson's wrist, while he was neck deep in water. Every time I saw a child's body rushing besides me, I held more firmly." She relaxed her hold only on being pulled to the safety of the first floor in her apartment complex.

Will he ever play on these streets again? "It was such a safe, wide open area for children. Now, even we adults cannot imagine walking on the roads that became a heap of corpse in a moment."

Around 190 kms from Chennai, Samiyarpettai in Cuddalore is strangely shorn of its young crop. With two children dead among the 24 fatalities, it is a very sombre atmosphere in the village. The local schools are scheduled to reopen after Christmas holidays, but the Tsunami disaster has returned most of the students back to the holidays. And the rest have no childish prank to pull. Their very dreams for future are now being threatened.

N Abishek Kumar, son of the village panchayat vice president, had for long nursed the dream of being a medical professional. But his father's boat is now beached with the fibre hull broken in places; the money set aside for education will have to be redirected to repair the boats. Abishek will have to return to work with his father to help him rebuild their lives, when he completes schooling at the end of this academic year.

If not a medical degree, how about higher education in an Arts and Science colleges, so that he will be better placed in life? His mother Girija Nagooran dismisses that suggestion reluctantly: “Where there is so much of unemployment among the educated, we can ill-afford to send our son even to an arts and science college," says his mother Girija Nagooran.

With a majority still displaced eight days after the disaster, the schools are yet to reopen to find out by how far education of the coastal children will be setback. But the camps are themselves overflowing with anxious children.

Back in Chennai, A Tamim Ansari and Mira Mohideen are in class IX and look on curiously at every passing media personnel in the makeshift in the backyard of their neighbour - a one-time movie mogul. Their books are in sea somewhere or feet beneath the muck. Right now, they are full of mischief teasing the girls with his friends. A student of Santhome High School -- the school is within walking distance from the city's Santhome beach -- he says he will go back because he does not want to miss his friends. But if the relief and rehab measures do not reach his village - as its leader A Ghouse charges - he might not set foot on his school again.