It had been raining heavily since a month, and we were used to it. Chennai was transforming itself from a sweaty furnace to a frigid shower that had no drain. Roads were flooded, traffic was at a snail’s pace – yet the city went on.
It rained heavily in the third week of November and reports were coming in that slums on the banks of the Adyar and Cooum River were being washed away. I saw it myself, when we were on our way back from a reporting assignment. We saw a lot of people peering over the Adyar bridge near Kotturpuram and curiosity prompted us to stop our cab and get off. As we hoisted our camera and tripod on our shoulders and made our way to the where the crowd was, we had to stop in our tracks to just absorb the scene –
Three rows of apartments stood like trees – like you usually see in the middle of lakes. Water was up to the first floor (We were told that a few days ago it was till the third floor). Right next to them was a desolate playground, the top bit of a rusted see-saw peeking out of the water like a grotesque lotus. It was flooded because it was a low lane off the main road and bang adjacent to the swollen Adyar river. People were wading through thigh-high water, weeks-old garbage nudging at their sides like pets hungry for attention. A boat was being pushed to carry people and food supplies to those marooned. I shuddered to think how they managed to live the past four days with all that waste floating around in their homes.
After finishing our report, we walked on the main road because we couldn’t find a cab back to college. Barely 5 minutes away was an upscale Cafe. We stopped there to get directions and the concept of a parallel universe hit me then.
Here were people sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned room, their worry being whether the brownie would trump the burger. In that moment I felt an intense inward dislike and a sense of gratefulness that I was safe. These conflicting feelings were really unsettling. I thought about all the classes where we were told how as journalists we need to be sensitive. It felt wrong somehow that I just visited the place and left, like a tourist. I wished I could do something. And then I realised, I could. And so we set off with a resolve that we would tell their story in the best way we could.
Anyway, the clouds exhaled intermittently and college went on as usual, assignments and reports barely giving us time to breathe. Then last Wednesday, I wake up to an e-mail that says college has been cancelled for the day. Oh the joy. I happily snuggled further in bed and dreamt of an entire day of doing nothing. Power had gone off on Monday but I wasn’t too worried, I had a fully charged laptop and phone that would last me the day. (Priorities? sigh.)
The day was spent playing cards by torchlight, eating M&Ms and some ukulele playing. At night, they switched on the generator in the canteen and we joked about how it looked like a first-world refugee site. People were huddled on the floor near plug points, clutching their phones, laptops and power banks for dear life.
It was a good break and I was looking forward to the documentary making session we’d have the next day. So much for wishful thinking.
That night it poured like there was no tomorrow.
The next day there was no class again. With no electricity and no cell reception, we pretty much had nothing to do. The rains had left the walls of my room damp and mould had started growing. We waited for the rains to let up and walked to the nearest grocery stores to get some supplies.
I saw frogs wading through the streams that filled the gutters and felt so uncomfortable when I had to walk through small puddles of brown water that filled my shoes. I can’t imagine how people survived living with it surrounding them day in and day out. We spent the day scrubbing the walls with Dettol and mopping the floor, lighting camphor to get rid of mosquitos and clear the air. My roommate and I took turns mopping the corners of the floor where fungus had started growing. It felt like a good, productive day. I couldn’t wait for class to begin again.
Turns out, we wouldn’t have class for the entire week.
But this post isn’t about the flood or the problems it brought with it. It’s more of a testament to the resilience and care we’ve received. I’m sure you’ve all seen, heard or read about the amazing way Chennaites reached out to one another, opened up their homes and risked their lives to help those who lost everything. I didn’t know of any of it. I was in my hostel, safe and sound, my only worry being when the power would come back.
It felt like I was on some deserted island. When I read the newspaper on Sunday, I saw something about the aftermath of a shooting in California. Before I could go whaaaaa? I saw more about the Paris Summit winding down. So much was happening in the world and we were totally cut off. Our worries were so minuscule compared to what was happening in the outside world. My balloon of self importance popped without a whimper.
I didn’t have to worry about food because the men and women who work at the canteen braved the rains to come to college to make sure we had our hot meals. For the entire week we didn’t miss a single meal – 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. Even the evening tea wasn’t scrapped – we had black tea for a few days because there wasn’t any milk or sugar available. I’d have been delighted even if they just gave us rice and dal but we had our regular meals – even the chicken curry on Wednesday afternoon, Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
They even kept the canteen open for us and switched on the generator all night. There was an air of camaraderie like I’ve never felt before. Card games that started off with 4 players rapidly grew to 12, with tables being joined together and chairs being pulled up for anyone interested. A lone packet of snacks would get passed around and shared carefully between robust yelling and table-thumping. Some watched movies, some read. Some just walked around aimlessly. It was normalcy, albeit the candle-powered bathroom breaks.
Which is why I didn’t even think of calling up my family and telling them I was ok, partly because telephone networks were down since Tuesday. Up until I had read the newspaper, I had no idea the situation outside was so bad. We were so sheltered and comforted that the fact that the city was flooded seemed a distant thought. It was stupid and selfish.
We had it so much better than most of Chennai. We didn’t have power or phone connectivity for a week. Big flippin’ deal. We had a constant supply of food and water, there was dry ground around us, we had constant companionship.
I feel an acute case of survivor’s guilt when someone asks me how I’m doing and whether I’m ok. It feels wrong and misguided somehow; like I won the lottery on someone else’s ticket. That’s a terrible analogy but it did feel like that, like I’m an impostor. All I did was enjoy myself, consoling myself that there was nothing I could do to help out because I had no network and therefore it was unsafe to venture out and help other people. There.
The bigger question was: was the decision not to venture out “sensible” or was it just plain cowardly.
But in other ways, it’s kind of woken me up to the ground reality too. We went as volunteers to a place where they were packing food to be distributed at relief camps. It was so humbling meeting so many people who had spent days dashing from one place to another, collecting funds, donating clothes, food, medicines and just being an immense support. Children ran around collecting the packed food, eager to help in any way they can. One lady helped collect 1.5 lakhs in a day by asking her friends and relatives from her native Delhi.
When we made our way to our waiting cab, we had to walk through streets where black water floated lazily. I grimaced and hoisted my pants as high as I could.
Water is still being pumped out of building and being directed into storm water drains. Drains that are at bursting capacity and may cause road cave-ins like it did at Madhya Kailash junction.
On our way back, our cab driver told us how he and his family – which included a 9-month-old and a 2-year-old child – had to depend on food that was cast from helicopters.
All his household items – his fridge, washing machine, tv – everything is spoilt. The cab which was water logged, water almost engulfing the gearbox, has to be fixed at the cost of Rs. 28,000. It’s going to be uphill struggle for him and so many others in Chennai, one that is going to continue long after the spotlight has gone off of Chennai.