December 14, 2016
Peculiarly enough, the first really wet day of 2016 in Chennai was the first day of December. You could almost hear people praying, thinking, “Not Again?!” Mercifully though, the cyclonic storm Nada which was the cause, rapidly weakened to just a depression and we did not have to suffer through an encore of last year’s drama. But unbeknownst to all, there was a different kind of storm brewing this time – and it came with the loss of the state’s CM, whose familiar face was almost universally present on this southeastern side of the coast, sending us all reeling. And by us, I’m sure I mean every Indian, as J Jayalalithaa with her personality that packed a punch was recognized throughout our nation. The eulogies are pouring in now – ‘how Ammu became Amma’, ‘the reluctant actress and politician, excelling in both’ &c and the portraits of the strong forceful woman who charted her remarkable life course are indeed admirable. That’s what many of us would like to remember her for – being a strong inspirational woman, and the respect for her was evident in the way the people bid her the final goodbye.
Speaking of strong women and coming back to the rickety relationship that Chennai seems to be having with December is enough to send me reminiscing on this very time last year. I’d shared what happened on the wettest day of the last century in the city (Chennai rains – God and goodwill spilled me home) but not yet the aftermath. A friend of mine had suggested I also write the stories of the people I knew who had stayed behind during the flooding and managed. Now is the perfect time to do so, because these are stories of some of the strong women I am privileged to know in my own life and whose guts I fully admire.
Investigative reports after the rains last year concluded that the flooding and damage was substantially caused by the opening up of the Chembarambakkam reservoir without fair warning to the people or any groundwork for evacuation in place. The result was a truly tragic, mostly man-made mess that resulted in the overflowing of the Adyar River that broke its banks and caused appalling incidents of deaths - of inpatients at a hospital along the banks, of an elderly couple living alone drowning at their home because they did not understand the gravity of the situation and chose to stay behind, to name a couple of them. In the midst of tragedy, people rallied however, and with the massive support that poured in during the aftershock, daily life crawled back to normal. Folks opened up their hearts and homes, the community spirit strong. The Chennai City Corporation worked overtime, providing food and shelter, cleaning up animal carcasses and putting people on prophylaxis against infectious diseases. The Sun did its part too, blazing with the usual Chennai intensity immediately post rains (which roasted away most of the germs I suspect). In a huge win for the city, there was no outbreak of disease and when I returned after Christmas, things were almost back to normal.
I travelled back to Chennai with my father (he’d helped me set up house and would help me reset it up as well). The entire time I was home in Mangaluru though, I was worried about my original certificates that I’d left behind on its shelf in all the hurry, always monitoring how bad the flooded areas were over the net. Lucky for me, my certificates were saved by just a foot - had the waters indoors risen by another foot, they would have soaked to pulp! I learnt that the sewage water that had just started to overflow from the bathroom when I’d left filled up the entire flat in the next couple of days being up to a foot deep in the attached bedroom and about six inches in other areas like the kitchen. All my paraphernalia stored at that level sat soaked in the filth for several days. The caretaker of my building took the trouble to clear off the dirty water manually afterwards. And then he had to take the trouble to take a course of antibiotics as he fell sick with an infection. He recovered none the worse for wear however, and has now returned to his carefree bare feet lifestyle.
Coming back and looking at soaked nonfunctional mobile phones, CDs and knick-knacks was dispiriting but the most depressing part was when I opened the flaps to the lower most shelf of the wooden TV stand that my landlord had left behind and allowed me to use, to find a little black frog jump out (he’d probably swum in there as a tadpole!) and all my seventy-or-so books I’d so neatly arranged there swollen up and still soaked. The shock was real, I tell you. It felt like a plot twist from hell. Many mourned finding their kancheevaram silks growing mould, I mourned the loss of my entire book collection, painstakingly built over the years (I’d even foolishly transported my favourites from Mangaluru for company). Seeing how distressed I was, the caretaker came up with a ‘brilliant’ idea to try and save them – suppose we tried to sun dry them up on the terrace? My father and I, the Professor and the Doctor, couple of crazy bibliophiles that we are, jumped at the idea and thought it was worth the attempt. We hauled the stinky loot up to the terrace and spread each book out for the wind and the sun to do their jobs. We’d pack up in the evenings and repeat the process the next day.
But it was no use. The pages turned gnarled and twisted and some wouldn’t even begin to dry after three days. By the end of the third day, my father developed fever with chills and it is altogether possible he may have got leptospirosis from contact with the soaked books as he had a tiny cut on his thumb, which we found later. My father took a course of doxycycline and recovered. I felt terribly guilty and it was the end of our foolish experiment of course. He wouldn’t let me touch the soaked books again and it was evident by then they were beyond salvaging. It was a time of abundant lessons in letting go. I threw away a whole lot of junk but I still haven’t got over losing that many books! RIP The Sense of an Ending, The Emperor of All Maladies, Lorna Doone, Adam Bede, High Fidelity, The Anatomy Lesson, Slam, About a Boy, How to Be a Woman, It’s Just a Date, Train to Pakistan, India: A History, Boy, Going Solo and others. See you on the other side!
We had better luck house cleaning, however. The walls had to be freshly scrubbed, a number of times. The landlord’s wooden TV stand was rotten and brittle, literally crumbling away while being dragged out of the house. The refrigerator had to be thoroughly cleaned (did you know that maggot eggs look a lot like cumin seeds?). The RO water filter and refrigerator servicemen dropped by and were extra helpful. Everyone was extra accommodating. We probably should have exchanged the damaged window AC at the dealers but we sold it for scrap, and told the building caretaker and our maidservant to split the cash between them. They fought about their percentage of the share and were not on speaking terms for the next couple of months, but patched up later.
After having successfully reorganized everything, my father and I high-fived each other and watched a couple of movie shows to celebrate, before I let him head back to Mangaluru. When I rejoined work after a month-long leave of absence, I learnt in detail about the stories of a few of my colleagues whose experiences were far more intense than mine.
Muniamma is almost everyone’s mini mamma at my work place. She is super affectionate, always ready with her smile and makes it a point to ask what you’ve eaten for breakfast or lunch when she bumps into you on her way to the lab and back to the department (a journey she makes countless times a day). The fact that she hails from Bengaluru makes her the one person with whom I can speak Kannada here but we have funny conversations, since her Kannada has become interspersed with a good bit of Tamil from the many years she’s lived here. Although she and her family were physically unharmed, her entire home was washed away along with all of their worldly possessions. Hard to imagine, but she had to start from scratch all over again.
She spent a few nights at a Kalyana Mantap (or Mandapam, as they say it here) shelter. We pooled in some cash and hopefully helped her a bit. She got things going again and the photo with her is from early this year and you can see her smile is bright as ever! She’s honestly one of my favourite people and I will sorely miss her when she retires soon.
With Dr Bhavna and Jeetu
With Dr Anupma
Dr Bhavna T Jishnu is a final year MD postgraduate and mother to a charming little boy. Leaving behind a husband and a comfortable life in the United States, albeit temporarily, is a tough choice to make and three years is a long time but she’s been roughing it out like a pro, even though I can only imagine how much she misses her supportive husband. She rents out the first floor of a duplex house in Ramapuram and stays with her aunt and child. December last, she was caring for a relative recovering from an illness as well. The area where she lives saw the waters rise unimaginably high, being close to the Adyar River, submerging the ground floor and almost the whole of the first floor. It was a condition where they had Ola boat services functioning! She was able to evacuate her family to safety well in time though, even managing to save her car by parking it at the university campus where she roomed at the time of the crisis. The diagnostic lab at the hospital was still functional 24/7 with doctors and lab personnel on duty showing up to work even during the mayhem, no small feat considering all the inconvenience. When Bhavna was able to return home, she tells me the astonishing sights that greeted her – six feet high sturdy shelves toppled over due to the force of the water. Consequently most of the stuff, even the ones placed at safe heights, didn’t make it. The only thing untouched was the split AC high up on the wall, almost reaching the ceiling. Most of her furnishings were beyond repair but she ingeniously managed to save parts of her cot (a wedding present with sentimental value) and turn it into a brand new piece of furniture. Her induction coil came back to life after a month-long Sun soak at her terrace. Her landlord whitewashed the walls anew and she resettled in the same place with much less clutter, as she jokingly puts it.
My mentor Professor Dr Anupma Jyoti Kindo, who had travelled out of station to give a talk that fateful day, had planned to return home the very next day. On her flight back however, it was announced that the aircraft would not be able to land in Chennai but would take a detour to another city where accommodation for all the passengers for the night would be arranged. The next day though, everyone was expected to fend for themselves and make their own way. With her family back in Chennai, Dr Anupma had to think on her feet and make a swift decision to take the detour, travel to Pondicherry, stay with friends before bus services resumed to Chennai (which they did, in a couple of days) and she was able to rejoin her family safely. She says the bus from Pondicherry to Chennai, which usually runs at a brisk pace, took a long, slow meandering route through a number of remote villages to avoid the water-logged areas. I’m sure it’ll be a long time before she forgets the unexpected, one-of-a-kind ordeal she had to confront at the time.
These were a few stories from the last year I wanted to share. There were innumerable more of course, but I’m recording here my little bits. Alarming isn’t it, how common it is becoming, learning of areas getting flooded in the news? I suppose we would all do well attending a few survival lessons and learning a few to-do’s. Be prepared, as the motto goes.
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