Plunged into despair after the tsunami killed his wife and two of his four children, Ruknadhan Nahamani passed the first months after the disaster in an alcoholic fog, drowning his sorrows in the potent local liquor known as arrack. But grief was only part of the problem, he said.
"There was nobody to wash my clothes and take care of my kids when I went out to work," said the wiry 32-year-old fisherman, whose teeth are stained red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant. "It was really difficult."
But Nahamani is a single parent no more. In June, he exchanged wedding vows and jasmine garlands at a Hindu temple with a woman from a nearby village. "We are very happy," he said outside his tent at a refugee camp as his new wife, Leelawathi, heated cooking oil for the evening meal.
Such expedited remarriages raise no eyebrows in Sri Lanka, where, for many men, the solution to the loss of a wife in the Dec. 26 disaster is not to spend time in prolonged mourning but simply to find a new spouse as quickly as possible.
The result in many battered communities is a proliferation of weddings, especially among widowers with young children, who are typically taking new brides even before they have moved into permanent housing or resumed any semblance of normal life, according to aid workers and government officials.
Although there are no nationwide data on the phenomenon, the anecdotal evidence is striking: In this village, 31 of the 37 men whose wives died in the tsunami have remarried, according to local officials and aid workers.
The tsunami killed more than 30,000 people in this island nation of 20 million. An estimated 800,000 people were left homeless and many have not received permanent housing.
"The guys who have remarried, the widowers, are doing pretty well," said Rednan Alahudurai, the deputy village head. "They are getting on with life."
Besides a pragmatic need for help around the house by men who are used to leaving such matters to their wives, the trend also reflects the demographic fallout from Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war, which has left the country with a surplus of marriageable young women, according to Darini Senanayake, a Princeton-educated anthropologist in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Women who lost husbands in the tsunami face a much harder road. Not only have they suddenly been thrust into the role of family breadwinner, but widows are often regarded as undesirable spouses in Sri Lanka and, in any case, tend to be reluctant to allow a new man into their home for fear of how he will treat his stepchildren, according to Senanayake and other experts.
"The women are stuck," said Alahudurai, the village official. "They have just given up on the thought of marriage."
Before the tsunami, Passikudah was a poor but beautiful place, dense with palm trees and foraging cows, on an isolated, windswept spur about 140 miles east of Colombo. Though tourists had lately begun to discover the area, most men earned their livings as fishermen, casting weighted nets from the beach or spending long hours at sea in slender outrigger canoes.
The village was dominated by ethnic Tamils, the largest minority group in Sri Lanka, and it suffered cruelly in the tsunami, which swamped it from three sides, demolished most buildings and killed about 250 of its 1,300 people. With most of the survivors grouped in three nearby refugee camps, Passikudah now is ghostly and abandoned, littered with clothing scraps and massive chunks of coral heaved inland by the sea.
As in other parts of Sri Lanka, women in the village died in disproportionately high numbers, in part because most could not swim, residents said.
In the first months after the tsunami, virtually all of the 37 widowers dealt with their grief -- along with more pragmatic concerns, such as who was going to cook for them and raise their children -- by drinking themselves senseless "from morning 'til night," said Manjulaa Chanmurajah, a field officer assigned to the area by the Eastern Self-Reliant Community Awakening Organization, a local non-governmental group. Many of the men have yet to return to work because they are still waiting for new fishing boats and gear.
Alarmed by the condition of the village's widowers, the group provided the men with musical instruments in hopes they would get together in the evenings and distract themselves. The initiative has met with mixed results. "They say that if we want to play the instruments, we have to be drunk," Chanmurajah said.
Alcohol abuse was only part of the problem. One of the men, Sammi Kathnesan, 37, was so distraught over the loss of his wife and one of his three children that in late January, he doused himself with paraffin and set himself on fire. He died eight days later in a hospital.
A few weeks later, Rambanda Dayananda tried to do the same.
A 24-year-old fisherman in a baseball cap and baggy knee-length shorts, Dayananda had been married for five years. He lived with his wife and 5-year-old daughter in a simple house with walls made of woven palm fronds. "I was very happy," he recalled.
When the tsunami came, Dayananda said, he grabbed his daughter and ran for higher ground, urging his wife to do the same. But the waters carried her away. He spent the following weeks in a drunken stupor, he said, while his mother looked after his daughter. Eventually, he said, he could stand the pain no longer and drank a bottle of pesticide that he found on the beach.
"My wife was dead and I also wanted to die," said Dayananda, whose mother found him semi-conscious and rushed him to a local hospital.
But Dayananda's life has since taken a turn. In June, he married his late wife's younger sister, a shy 18-year-old who joined him in the temporary 10-by-12-foot hut that he shares with his mother, daughter and two other relatives. "I need a wife to take care of me and my kid," Dayananda said before shoving off from the beach in the outrigger canoe he recently acquired from a non-governmental group.
Widowers from the village appear to have had little difficulty lining up new wives, often with the aid of relatives or friends.
Nahamani, the fisherman who recently got married at the Hindu temple, found his new spouse, Leelawathi, with the aid of his older brother, who approached her father on Nahamani's behalf.
"I said, 'I've got a younger brother who needs a wife' and related the story to him," the brother, who uses only the family name of Nahamani, recalled. "The father said, 'In that case, let's get him married.' " Ruknadhan Nahamani then met privately with Leelawathi, telling her that his first wife was "dead and gone" and proposing that they "get married and be happy together."
Leelawathi, a mirthful woman with glossy black hair and a fourth-grade education, said she didn't need much convincing and has never had any reason to regret her choice. Not only does she enjoy being with her new husband, she said, but she finds satisfaction in caring for his two surviving children, 8 and 13.
"I have to get my kids to eat on time, wash them and see to their education," she said. "I like that."