When water finally found its level, it also levelled all people in Chennai. It also led to a groundswell of goodness
The waters are yet to recede, there’s a foul odour in the air, and people walk through black slush and clumps of water hyacinth dragged in by the waters that flooded Chennai. This, in an area barely 500 metres off a state highway.
Hundreds of such places were affected and entire livelihoods washed away when angry sheets of rain pelted down on the city and excess water was released from the lakes. Forget the numbers; it’s been a trauma-filled 10 days for Chennai. And, the agony is far from over in neglected, far-flung areas and slums. Go there, and you can put a face to human agony.
Many have gone without food, water and electricity for days. Entire homes have been washed away. And in places where they haven’t, there’s nothing left except a concrete structure. The houses have been emptied out by the waters – there’s a cot, but no mattress, furniture and vehicles lie compounds away and clothes were found piled in clumps by the window grills that acted as a sieve.
On top of all that, in some areas, thieves plied the murky waters in rubber dinghies and made away with anything precious that was floating, robbing an already impoverished lot.
Even within the city, people living in hitherto posh localities found themselves marooned. Industrialist, actor or labourer – all were rescued by the same boat. The waters were a great leveller.
The lucky ones escaped the rising waters by a whisker. Many locked their homes when they ran to safety and went back to see sludge layer the floors of their home, and television sets, refrigerators and furniture tossed about like rag dolls. They were grateful if the much-loved family car or two-wheeler stayed submerged in the compound. Many had floated elsewhere, wherever the water dragged them.
There were tales of senior citizens who drowned in the water, unable to get out in time. Elsewhere, pregnant women stood on rooftops, and the Indian air force carried out daring rescue operations to airlift them to safety. One lady even went on to deliver twins!
In between all these tales of destruction and desperation, one thing that stood out was the rarely spoke about spirit of Chennai.
People proved they did not need any direction from the powers above to help themselves and others. They just needed to listen to their hearts, and they did. Chennai’s auto-rickshaw drivers, infamous for fleecing people, turned Good Samaritans, plying people for free or for a fair price. Women braved hip-deep water to deliver milk to clients every morning, like always. Milkmen braved flooded roads and swirling waters to climb atop slippery compound walls and hand over milk, only because the house had a lot of children.
It was like everyone tapped into the goodness hidden in them and acted. A pharmacy allowed an old lady to pay later for medicines, a domestic help donated her entire salary to help others less fortunate, and people opened their homes to strangers.
Others cooked food by the kilos for total strangers. Volunteers banded themselves into groups and took on the humungous task of food distribution in a city where everyone – from the slum-dweller to the one residing in an upscale apartment – was hungry. It was heartrending to see those in high-rises look hopefully skywards, and fight to grab the food packets being airdropped by the air force. In flooded Defence Colony, boys in boats aimed for the balcony and flung food packets accurately. And, even in that despondency, people found time to laugh.
“You must be in the cricket team,” someone told a boy!
Cities rushed to help. Trucks poured in from Coimbatore, Erode, Madurai and other cities of Tamil Nadu, carrying emergency relief supplies. Folks in Bengaluru drove down, cars packed tight with food and blankets. How people gave!
After a point, once they realised Chennai was reasonably flooded with goodwill and provisions too, trucks were diverted to badly-bit Cuddalore. Even in times of need, they knew how to give.
The first week after the floods, everyone just worked. No one spoke or discussed or debated the reason for the flooding. The idea was to get the city back on its feet and then talk. “It makes no sense to waste one’s energy on these things. It just does not matter now. These are things that must be discussed later to evolve a plan,” said a volunteer.
People whose phones were working grouped to man rescue and relief centres. Musician and math teacher, doctor and driver, all pitched in. In the middle of all the official apathy, it was people power that worked. The volunteers kept working the phone lines, verifying messages, before passing them on to the rescue teams on the ground. Actors turned real heroes, caring little for publicity, and inspiring people to give back to their city.
And now, the focus is slowly shifting to rehabilitation. Relief packages for families are being prepared, and emergency supplies procured. The idea is to support them with provisions for at least a week after they head to their homes from the wedding halls and schools where they have taken refuge.
Children have been badly hit, with books and bags and stationery joining the stream that streets turned into. Adults have lost precious identity cards got after much struggle.
Whatever is being provided will be too little, for the needs are huge. But it is a beginning towards a new future.
There is also a need to counsel people who have been hit by the floods. So many have lost their all – for a poor family, it is their hut being washed away; for the middle class, it is losing their car and all electrical equipment; for the rich, it is seeing water flood their dream homes, rendering them unliveable.
Those involved in rescue and relief work also need help. After a week of this, nothing else makes sense anymore. You’re angry when the world smiles. You’re unable to lift yourself out of the situation your beloved city was in. Actor and trainer TM Karthik was at Chennai airport after it started operations post the flooding, and was heartbroken to see the normally-bustling place desolate and empty of people. “I broke down, for all that my city lost. But, it also reinforced in me the desire to put it back where it was.”
Rao is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chennai.
(The column appears in the December 16-31, 2015 issue)