"Run away!" her husband screamed from a rooftop after he spotted the colossal waves. It was a simple command that smothered Sangeeta in a nightmarish dilemma: She had three sons, but just two arms. She grabbed the two youngest and ran — reasoning that 7-year-old Dinakaran, the oldest, had the best chance of outrunning the giant waves.
When the boy didn't follow, Sangeeta was crushed by grief, believing she would never see him again. The family dog made sure she did.
Dinakaran had not followed her but ran instead to the safest place he knew — the family's small, concrete-walled hut just 40 yards from shore.
While water lapped at Sangeeta's heels as she rushed up the hill, the scruffy yellow dog named Selvakumar ducked into the hut after the boy.
Nipping and nudging, he did everything in his canine power to get the boy up the hill.
Sangeeta, who like many south Indians only uses one name, had no idea of the drama unfolding below. Once she had crossed the main road to safety she collapsed in tears, screaming over the loss of her Dinakaran.
"I had heard from others that the wall of my house had collapsed, I felt sure that my child had died," the 24-year-old mother said.
Selvakumar looks pretty much like every other mongrel in the village. He hardly ever barks and lets the three boys climb on him and pull his tail without protest. At night, he joins the rest of the family and sleeps among them, no matter how many times they throw him out.
Most days, the dog escorts Dinakaran to and from school, spending the rest of the day playing with the other two boys, or begging for food.
Sangeeta's brother-in-law gave her the puppy, after the birth of her second son. When a brother-in-law died in an accident two years ago, the gave the dog his name.
Sangeeta's family had always lived along the coast, just north of Pondicherry, a former French colony, on the southeast coast of India.
The morning of Dec. 26 began like most others, with sunny skies and a cool breeze.
Sangeeta's husband, R. Ramakrishnan, had just returned from the sea with a boat full of fish.
From their home, the view of the ocean was obstructed by a two-story community center. So when they heard a strange noise coming from the sea, Sangeeta's husband went to investigate.
When Ramakrishnan saw the waves, he ran to the roof of the center and shouted down to Sangeeta to flee. That's when she made her agonizing choice.
"He is somewhat older than the other two. I knew he would be able to run, so I grabbed the other two," Sangeeta explained.
Dinakaran credits the dog with saving his life.
"That dog grabbed me by the collar of my shirt," the boy said from under some trees at Pondicherry University, where the family waits for relief aid. "He dragged me out."
Sangeeta said she wept with joy when she saw her son walking up to her, with Selvakumar by his side.
The Tamils of south India believe that talking about the death of a living person can make it so, so Sangeeta didn't want to speak of her decision or speculate how she would have felt had her son not survived.
She did say that she believes some special spirit, perhaps her brother-in-law's, resides in the young yellow dog.
"That dog is my God," said Sangeeta — with Dinakaran sitting on the ground at her feet. Selvakumar slept on the warm asphalt next to him.