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Things We All Learned In The Chennai Floods

16/12/2015 8:05 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Every one of us has a story.

Everyone has a very dramatic story.

And everyone has someone to whom they are hugely grateful. For me it is Gurumurthy, a corporation worker whose task it was to pump water out of Chennai's prosperous waterlogged colonies, even though in Velachery -- one of the worst hit areas, and where he lived -- everything was "over". The word "over", when used here in Chennai, doesn't mean "finished" but "exceeded all imaginable limits." He was referring to water, of course. One did not need to use the word "water" -- it was the only "it" everyone was thinking about.

Everyone knew that their story was bad, and that there were others whose stories and fears were worse.

Everyone knew someone whose house had water to the ceiling. No joke. Ceiling. Yes. That's what happens when river water needs somewhere to go.

Everyone learned that their family could actually have moments of cheer and togetherness at times of crisis, kind of like Christmas with a calamity and not much food.

Everyone, even if their home was not flooded, realised that you really do have to get along with your neighbours, especially those whose generators had diesel or whose invertors had juice.

Everyone found they depended on electricity for everything -- even things that are meant to tide you through a patch of no electricity. Like your phone. That without electricity your cell phone is useless even if it is fully charged. That cell phone towers have back-up only for a few hours. That cordless landlines are also useless without electricity. Some found and pulled out their old punch-dial telephones.

Everyone felt that surge of panic when the ATM said "no cash" or "out of service". ATMs need electricity, credit cards need electricity. So you hoard. Water, food, cash, mostly. Water was not easily available and on one day a one-litre bottle was said to cost Rs 100. It is not the Rs. 100 that is scary. It is the potential panic that could ensue that is.

Everyone found it a little surreal to go to markets and find just a few bits of vegetables rolling around in the trays, and having to choose the okay ones by the light of their own cell phone. I bought one pumpkin and one tinda... two veggies that looked unaffected by the floods.

Everyone learned that their family could actually have moments of cheer and togetherness at times of crisis, kind of like Christmas with a calamity and not much food. That having less means you get together, you pool together and that you find yourself laughing together a lot... laughing in wonder at the things you are doing without.

Everyone becomes either refuge-seeker or refuge-provider.

Everyone has instinct as their guide. You have to take a call about whether you are safer staying or safer leaving. That was a call that we had to take and update every few hours for days and days. Instinct told me my home was safe even though the lake (formerly a street) in front of my house was swelling and brewing. Four days later, when that lake came too close to the porch, instinct told me it was time to leave.

My mum had 10 of us in her three-bedroom flat, my cook Soundarya had 16 people in her one-room home. We were all in the same boat for a while.

Everyone lived in joint families for while. With no cell phones, you only communicate to the person in front of you. So the children have your undivided attention and thrive. Without cell phones, I was, after a very long time, receiving hand-written notes from my husband, brother-in-law, sister. Men and women who went to work and left their families at home.

With no cell phones, you only communicate to the person in front of you. So the children have your undivided attention and thrive.

Everyone who wrote to me with instructions, or information, or anything, and sent that message by hand made me feel so very cared for, even if the note read like a telegram (one of which floated away as it fell from my hands into the lake that was our driveway).

Plans were made in the morning and followed through in the evening, and in the wide wet chasm that is the entire day there was no communication with loved ones who were at work helping colleagues, tracking down co-workers. You just prayed that the roads that took them there in the morning would bring them back in the evening.

Everyone waded. There's not one person who didn't have to do it, sometimes with a child perched on the hip. You just couldn't avoid it. Some of us waded once or twice, others a dozen or more times like I did. But my first wade was a rescue mission.

When you have a sister and niece who are marooned in their apartment complex, you wade --through filthy knee-deep brown water -- side-stepping manholes that mercifully still have their lids on them, past swimming cable lines, electrical wires, banana leaves and a lot else that you don't really wish to identify. Water that would be easier to swim through than tread.

Yet, you wade, and then bring them back to do the return wade with you, them touched that you charted that uncharted territory for them.

Everyone who wrote to me with instructions, or information, or anything, and sent that message by hand made me feel so very cared for...

Everyone realised the importance of a vehicle that has height. My daughter called our hired jeep a camper van. I laughed. But she was right. The funny thing that happens with displacement, if you can call it that, is that everyone reacts differently. It can produce strange psychologies. It triggered in me a Bedouin psyche, where I felt the safest having my most essential items with me. And for days after I left my house, in the boot of the van were two suitcases of clothes and medicines and a drum of drinking water and some fruit so that I could at a moment's notice choose to stay somewhere or leave.

And one day I left for the airport, which had just opened. My daughter's tummy hurt. I had tried to protect her the best way I could. But being surrounded as each of us was by mountains of garbage, I felt she needed to be somewhere else. But I was wrong. The next day I came back home with her. And with the same suitcases. I can only take care of her in my own home. In the city in which I live.

I am back.

She is better.

There is work to be done.

A lot of work to be done.

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