On a windy afternoon, two men appear to be floating cross-legged in the middle of rough seas off the coast of the fishing hamlet of Kallar in Nagappattinam. A closer look reveals them to be fisherman Kumurasan and one of his relatives on a flimsy makeshift raft about half a kilometre out to sea. Kumurasan was the proud owner of a launch worth 1.5 million rupees ($268,000), before the tsunami damaged it beyond repair, along with his family home. In the good times, he would take the boat out to sea for days and return with a catch worth tens of thousands of rupees. Now, overwhelmed by the call of the sea and tired of listless days at his temporary shelter, Kumurasan has decided that, boat or no boat, he is going fishing and his neighbours will share his catch. He has made his new vessel out of three logs. Kumurasan's determination to reclaim his life is indicative of the spirit pervading one of the worst-affected communities in Tamil Nadu, the state hardest hit when the tsunami swamped the coast. While the emotional scars caused by the loss of loved ones may take a lifetime to heal, despair and anger over the tragedy have virtually disappeared, replaced by a can-do spirit to get on with life and rebuild shattered homes, boats and livelihoods. Trawler worker Vijaya was eager to get back to work as he put out to sea for the first time since the waves took his home, his mother and sister-in-law. The 25-year-old had feared and cursed the ocean after the tragedy, but now he cannot wait to venture out into the Bay of Bengal. 'I love fishing,' he said as he boarded a fibreglass boat donated by an Italian foundation. 'It just makes me so joyful to be out in the open sea ... the sea is our life and it will always be our life.' Almost all the 200,000 residents of Nagappattinam and the surrounding district are seeing a gradual return to normality. Children are back at school, men are helping build toilets and repair boats, while women, who were largely fish vendors and housewives, are carrying bricks for construction work on their heads. Couples are getting married, and free sterilisation reversals are being provided for women who lost children and want to have another chance at motherhood. Nagappattinam, which comprises a number of fishing hamlets and villages, was the worst-hit district in India, with more than 6,000 dead. Almost 800 are still listed as missing. Most of the deaths occurred within a 10km stretch of coast, with 450 fatalities per square kilometre in that area. Housewife Valli Nayaki, 26, was one of the lucky ones. She thought she had suffered a cruel fate in the few hours after the tsunami when she could not find her children or her fisherman husband. 'When I saw them, I came back to life and was laughing and crying at the same time,' she said in her shelter. 'We lost everything; home, furniture, TV, fridge and boat, but it's okay. Where there is not death, there must be life and you must be thankful.' Nagappattinam's port remains a parking lot for broken boats, but every day more fishermen can be seen along the coast venturing out, if only for a short time. Boat manufacturers in and around Nagappattinam have been burning the midnight oil to keep up with orders for vessels from NGOs and the government, which will donate them to fishermen affected by the tragedy. The aid effort has been massive. More than 419 NGOs have descended upon the area to provide relief. Of the 11,471 temporary shelters, more than 80 per cent were built by local and international aid agencies. The shelters, most with PVC roofs and walls of a wood and cement mixture, dot every field in Nagappattinam. The 11,471 families will remain in the shelters for six to 18 months while homes are rebuilt. Faced with this reality, many have begun to settle in and make the shelters more liveable. On the wall outside Doss' temporary shack is a sketch of Jesus Christ wearing his crown of thorns and carrying a cross, shedding tears as a wave destroys a village and bodies are tossed about. Christ cries for our sins and our suffering, says the painter, who decorates boats for a living. The walls of other shelters are adorned with colourful drapes and calendars bearing images of Hindu gods. One family managed to salvage a TV, making their shack popular with children. In one shelter in Kallar, residents have constructed a straw shade between a row of homes, creating a space where children can play and adults banter or nap out of the late afternoon sun. Most shelters have large sign boards at the entrance informing residents of the rations to which they are entitled, so they do not feel they are at the mercy of charity. The recovery effort is also full of stories of middle-class folk rolling up their sleeves. Computer lab engineer Franklin, 20, quit his job and joined the Christian charity World Vision. He has been working with engineers and distributors to build shelters and oversees everything from the electrical wiring to play facilities for children. J. Radhakrishnan, a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service who was sent to Nagappattinam to oversee recovery efforts, paid tribute to the army of volunteers. 'We set up daily co-ordination meetings for the NGOs to ensure non-duplication of work, and they have been a real asset,' said Dr Radhakrishnan, the town's top-ranking official. Aid groups are seeing wider opportunities to rebuild society. Naina Shah, of aid group Exnora, said marginalised groups such as low-wage labourers and domestic helpers could learn new skills. 'Sometimes disasters happen and new things, new cities come out of them,' Mrs Shah said. 'A new and better, more equitable city could come out of this.' Dr Radhakrishnan shared the same view, saying 'a calamity can be turned into an opportunity here'. The leaders of one fishing community plan to install global-positioning systems in their new boats as part of the modernisation of their trade. 'We keep discussing the loss of life and property, and while that is something the community will have to gradually come to terms with, the future is full of opportunity for them,' said Amitabh Sharma, of Initiatives in Development Support and the Swiss Red Cross.