“I see heat and dust all day; you’ll get no sympathy from me over the cool monsoon rains. ;p”
“At least now you make sure you all store the water so you don’t moan about water next summer.“
They didn’t get it. Why would they, when the Instagram filter on my photos made even the harshest rains look like something out of a Mani Ratnam movie? They didn’t even get to hear of it till it was well and truly upon us, as the so-called national media was too busy trying to twist one man’s words into TRP ratings one minute and milking a murder for what its worth the next, to give even a passing thought to what was happening in Chennai?
The rains started in earnest in the beginning of November. Just our usual monsoon, we thought. It quickly became apparent it was anything but usual. November became the wettest on record.
Day after day, the rains pounded the city. Schools, colleges and other institutions were shut down as the water took over our lives. It became risky to just drive out on the streets as the sub par materials our roads were constructed with washed away in the first deluge, leaving gaping holes behind in which the rainwater collected, making it impossible for the traveller to gauge the depth of the water.
And still, the rains continued.
Schools remained closed and on those days the sun came out and the kids stayed home, we grumbled at it all.
The stories started coming out. The posh constructions laid out in the middle of flood plains, with homes now resembling the marshlands they obliterated; the water that made the cars float away and had to be pushed home, bobbing like boats. The reptiles that swept into homes along with the water, scaring everyone silly. The college students had to be rescued from their hostels in fishing boats. Old people, young children, all those in-between that had to be rescued from their inundated homes.
And then dawned December 1.
The mother of all deluges
“Pralayam!” gasped the old-timers, referring to the deluge that made Noah start knocking out an Ark. Well, pretty soon, when the rivers overflowed, we sure needed boats! As precious water dashed in and washed away with hopes and homes, it felt at times that the end was surely near.
“This is how the Kali yug ends, in water!”, intoned the neighborhood aunty not-so-helpfully.
The city, still reeling after a month of rains, hit panic mode. Potable water became a prized commodity as power was cut as a safety measure, after a couple on a bike lost their lives after being electrocuted on the street. Stores started sporting empty shelves as people bought food and candles in bulk. It was like The Hunger Games, Live Version, and the shops The Cornucopia, as the scared locals made a beeline to their nearest stores and emptied it of its wares, trying to stock up on as many things as possible. The big name stores jacked up the prices of the essential commodities, making hay even when the sun didn’t shine. (Spencer’s Daily sold 500 gms of urad dal for Rs 130, while Pazhamudir Nilayam sold half litre of Arokya milk for Rs 40, instead of the usual Rs 24!)
The lucky citizens of the city that were spared the worst swung into action to help the unfortunate. While the rest of the country debated about the intolerance and sensational murders, Chennai dug deep to take care of its own. Once again, local surfing school owners waded into deep waters to rescue the stranded; kind-hearted people cooked food in their kitchens, packed them and took them to the pavement dwellers in their neighborhood. Mats, blankets, basic essentials were collected and distributed. Samaritans threw open their homes for those that got chased out of their own homes once the waters rolled in, taking in those in need, regardless of colour or religion, man or animal.
During all this, did the rains stop? Did it, heck! More rains, more water released from the reservoirs, more misery.
Of course, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Money, as always reared made for an uneasy companion. Charlatans, out to make a quick buck, took advantage of the desperate and charged a king’s ransom to get families out of their inundated homes. Those desperate to get out of the city had to pay the equivalent of the cost of a round-the-world plane ticket to get to a distance of 400 kms.
Five days after the worst storm hit the state, life is slowly limping back to a new normal in Chennai. Power and connectivity are slowly being restored to different parts of the city. Relief and aid work, powered predominantly by the regular folk of the city and beyond, is going on at full tilt. Many ATMs are still closed or dispensing limited cash, while the TASMAC liquor shops are all open and running to full capacity. Local restaurants and marriage halls have thrown open their kitchens, cooking up food in massive quantities for all those in need. In the midst of all the tales of politicians of all hues trying to hinder the common man’s efforts, the work is continuing at the ground level.
Today, the hardest hit areas of the city resemble the set of Godzilla after the climax was shot. There are people sitting around their ruined belongings, shell shocked, unaware as to how they are to pick up their tattered lives and move on. Even as the fights break out over the distribution of food and water, the deeper question of what happens when the Samaritans go back to their homes remains.
In Ramapuram, where Pon Vidyasharam sits proudly on the erstwhile site of a lake, the water has taken over all the residences. This story is repeated all over the city and beyond, with different names for the area and the building / institution. All those under-the-table dealings to built on lakes and marshlands, with nary a thought towards pesky things like planning permission, geographical layout and water table, have all come home to roost. And how!
What caused this level of destruction? What would be the final cost of this uncontrolled greed? As always, it may well be the poorest that end up paying it. Will there be any lessons learnt from this?