They say it has been the heaviest rain since the last 100 years.
“Rains? In Chennai? Thought that place was supposed to be bone dry!!”
If the above was your reaction, be comforted for it was the same as most Chennaiites’s. An apt metaphor that describes the current situation of the cultural metro is that of The Titanic. Even the engineer believed it unsinkable but the inevitable happened. Nevertheless, the James Cameron movie idolized the love of Jack and Rose. This is Chennai, literally sinking but unsinkable.
The joyride ended when our schools and colleges remained stubbornly shut a week after they were supposed to open. The rain which was viewed as a blessing soon became a curse. Holidays that were normally met with much fanfare collapsed into boredom and panic. Open the day’s newspaper and you could see pictures of inundated settlements at Tambaram and Velachery along with a host of other places. It was terrifying to note the increasing number of localities going under water. When a week passed, we crossed our fingers in hope that the ordeal would have passed but it seemed rather like the end of a beginning: and a terrifying beginning at that. Deepawali, the festival of lights was probably the last time in weeks that we would see some light and hear some joyful noise. Ravana and his maniacal forces of darkness laughed thunderously and vanquished the skies, relentlessly releasing oceans of water upon a rugged landscape.
Every panic ridden WhatsApp message had in store disturbing images of luxurious cars completely submerged underwater. People who formerly owned well built houses and apartments now had to be hauled out of their homes before the latter became a watery grave. Alarmed survivors sitting in rescue boats frantically captured videos of what remained or their belongings. The drone of the motorboat engine served as the backdrop of each of these videos as the rescue team deftly navigated the boat through flotillas of garbage and what appeared to be a section of the windshield and roof of several cars. (Corpses of people would join them in the week to come)
WhatsApp users poked fun liberally at Ola, one of Chennai’s leading app-powered cab network, creating memes that the group was introducing boats on call. We had to bite back our laughter when the following day’s newspaper revealed that Ola turned the meme into reality. Pictures of Ola volunteers wading through the water tugging behind them bright blue boats with anxious survivors went viral.
Following this, the fishermen of Chennai lent their boats to help speed up the rescue mission. Social Networking sites were abuzz with details of requirements and availability of food and material. Truly, this was the time the entire world stood with Chennai. The youth of Chennai along with several other groups jumped into action to dredge the city from its impending death. Our neighborhood hero was Mrs MG Nair , an octogenarian who allowed the residents of her locality to wash their clothes in her generator powered washing machine when the city was enveloped in darkness. When cellphone connectivity met an end, it was the much criticized PSU ‘BSNL’ that provided quality landline telephone services.
We too were holed up in our house for a brief while until we were able to limp and still continue limping towards normalcy.
If 127 hours saw a Pyrrhic victory for Aron Ralston, it was a relatively less terrifying 48 hours for us. We could hear the sound of the rain practically enveloping our consciousness. The road now became a container for the incessant shower of rainwater. We imagined that the horror would stop but panic rose with the amount of frantic phone calls pouring in. Just when we thought the worst was over, reports circulated that a news channel predicted the onslaught of twin cyclones on a hapless Chennai. Fear levels escalated in our minds like the water levels outside our apartment premises. What would we wake up to the next day? We decided to present our case to the Almighty knowing well that He would listen to us and NOT LET US DOWN.
The bulk of our prayers in the previous week were for the residents of Velachery and Tambaram. There were times when we broke down and thought of their plight. This time, we shared in their agony. We prayed that the rains stop. We pleaded with the Almighty to spare Chennai. There was an undeniable feeling of foreboding within us as we prayed. Taking a peek outside the window we noticed that our neighbors’ independent house looked like a marooned island with random articles floating in the water. That afternoon we noticed the dog of one of the house-owners living a long way across the street wandering in the above plot.
The following morning was one of great surprise for all of us. On a positive note: the rains stopped and the flipside was that the water levels increased consistently. The water outside our gate was hip-level of a 5ft 8 inches tall person ; it threatened to enter the car park and most importantly, the apartments on the ground floor. The frequent vehicular activity on the road displaced large quantities of water inside the apartment premises thereby increasing the level of water in the car park. Although the silencers were secured with layers of thick plastic packets, there was a risk of exposing the engine to the rising water level. That being done, quick trips were made to the grocery stores to salvage supplies for the next few days’ survival. Streets were flooded and the nearby Cooum river overflowed, upsetting the lives of several people. Most shops refused to open for lack of staff. A passing milkman whose vehicle spluttered to death was stopped on the way and forced to hand the people some milk for the price they paid. A few shopkeepers stood in the water and hurriedly disposed whatever remained of their stocks to the people.
Plastic packets containing garbage emerged from the toppled trash cans of the neighboring apartment. They readily swam across the road and entered the homes of people. Some of the dirty flood water entered bore wells, mixing with the sole source of water for our pipelines.
Cars cranked up their engines to produce a sound similar to the droning of the motorboats. Some drivers pulled through the watery mess with utmost patience taking care not to upset the pedestrians whereas a few drove rashly enough to push down anxious individuals who were rushing home with supplies for the pantry. Most of us were reduced to mere onlookers as the knee-level water rose to waist-level. There were some who chose to look at the event in a rather different perspective. In an hour’s time, the droning and subsequent splashing of water was replaced by sounds of laughter and revelry. Men both young and old rolled up their trousers and dhotis to wade through the water for mere entertainment. Some boys jumped into the water, thrilled by the feel of the whole atmosphere. To our disgust, a few unknowingly rinsed their mouths with the dirty roadwater and spat out the yellow liquid. Chappals were used as volleyballs and selfies taken relentlessly against the pouring rain. The occasional buses filled with innumerable people swerved dangerously to evade the revelers.
Red Cross vans and several cars made their way through the rising water level to ferry their occupants to safety. In the midst of all this, an expensive car was trapped in the middle of the road. The owner abandoned the car for the rest of the day and returned later to remove the car a few days on. It seems that the inbuilt lock system was water sensitive and hence retarded any movement.
The water levels in the locality refused to recede despite the absence of rain. The slum dwellers of the neighborhood hoisted their little children on their shoulders as water levels quickly went overhead. Planning the course of action expertly, they split themselves into groups and headed to work. When one group diverted the flow of vehicles to an arterial road, the larger group of 200 odd families advanced to an obstructive wall, armed with large axes potent to break boulders. As the wall was dashed to bits, the stagnant water drained itself into the local branch of the Cooum. Policemen arrived at the scene shortly to preside over the rest of the happenings.
That evening, electricity came and partial telephone connectivity was restored. Calls poured in as we welcomed the flow of warmth and concern from everyone. Now that we were in a position of safety, our concern was for those in danger.
Facebook’s ‘Safety Check’ feature helped a great deal in allaying our fears of our friends’ safety. Despite cases of minimal damage like ours the ordeal still continues today. Velachery is known to be a locality that experiences a standstill even on account of light showers. The plight of several unrescued North Chennaiites who had to embark on a long and dangerous walk towards safety continues to singe one’s conscience. Neighbourhoods like Mudichur, Saidapet, Tambaram, KK Nagar, Guindy and Ashok Nagar among many others continue to suffer problems of waterlogging and lack of essential commodities. Capitalists exploit the situation by hiking the prices of commodities while some others sell a few of them in the black market. While there are heartwarming instances of Army helicopters rescuing pregnant women from waterlogged areas, cases of thuggery disrupt relief measures.
If Chennai survives (I am sure she will) it will be an incredible story to tell. I take this moment to salute all of them who have taken part in the relief activities for Chennai be it getting on field and distributing resources or even sharing important information on social media to aid the operations. We are sure that every prayer on our behalf has counted.
This post would be incomplete without the wondrous words of Deepan Ramachandran, former Creative Director of Ogilvy&Mather (Chennai) and the founder of ‘Mind Your Language Creative Services’ that has Kollywood actor Kamal Hassan’s first commercial outing (Pothy’s) to its credit.
“It’s raining in Chennai.
And it’s not just the skies that have opened up…
Many homes are letting in water, but quite a few are letting in guests.
The First floors are embracing the Ground floors.
Malls are welcoming footfalls, and that too without wallets.
Movie halls are counting box office numbers differently.
Hotels are giving out foods that aren’t leftovers for a change.
Marriage halls are solemnizing more marriages of souls than ever before.
Social Walls are tearing down their Civil counterparts.
140 characters are travelling faster than a ‘108’.
Taxi services are plying boats, MTC buses are plying like taxis.
Religious differences are being doused in a relentless downpour.
Politicians are knee deep in water and politics has sunk.
But Leaders are being born at every waterlogged junction.
Soldiers are being born at every dangerous turn.
And humans are being born at every deserving instance.
It’s raining in Chennai.
And it’s not just the skies that have opened up.”