Amongst all the necessary information and useless garbage that 24/7 news channel spew out on a daily basis, I noticed something while waiting in silence here in Chennai as the rains accumulated, floods spread and fears mounted. There was a sense of calm, a sense of faith, a sense of humour that I've never witnessed before when smack in the middle of a natural disaster.
I came to Chennai for a talk I had to give to an international group of businessmen. I was originally supposed to fly back the day after their tour was over. I ended up staying back because I got asked to do another talk -- this time discussing the value of Indian culture and the importance of our nature and its many wonders.
As I got ready for the second talk, it was clear that the rain that had started mid-morning was coming down quite heavily. I was fairly confident that the lecture would be cancelled. But while the majority of guests called to cancel, several bravely made their way. What was supposed to be a rather lengthy interactive presentation about my journey and a collection of my thoughts ended up becoming an intimate conversation with about 20-25 lovely Chennai locals about my time in India and what I've learned.
I saw many men and women standing in the middle of the street. I soon realised these were good Samaritans doing the job of the traffic police...
What strikes me now was one particular point I made sure to highlight during the conversation -- the kindness of strangers. In my own life, I've often found that when we open ourselves up to letting others in, we form a connection with individuals we normally would not interact with when we are thrown together with them because of life and circumstances. It's very important to permit this bond to grow organically and to not let pre-determined relationships and commitments stop us from befriending a stranger.
For me, my whole life in India can be attributed to my openness to allowing the kindness of strangers to guide my journey. So as I sat on the first floor of the guest house here in Chennai, looking outside my window and seeing the water levels rise, the number of cars travelling across the street go down and the stillness of the water now quickly becoming covered with moving trash, I paid particular attention to the locals walking by.
There were smiles, there was laughing, there was friendship. I came downstairs to take a look at the rising levels of water and a man with his seven-year-old son nodded at me and started to sing. It's an image I can't say I've ever seen before.
As my host's driver attempted to refuel the generator with diesel for the night, I asked to join him on his short trip outside the premises. As I quickly sat inside the SUV and our vehicle began to navigate the swimming streets I saw there was a patch ahead that was clear. The driver quickly reminded me that there was more water ahead. And he was not wrong. Just a few hundred metres ahead I saw apartment buildings, cars and gardens submerged in water. It wasn't as devastating as the images I had seen on television or on social media of the worst affected areas when we had a short run of electricity -- but it was a sight you rarely see in any cosmopolitan area.
As we drove down the street, I saw one of the flyovers going two-ways instead of the normal one way. It was clear that the lower side of the street were immersed in water. As we drove up the flyover and looked to the side, we saw an entire petrol pump abandoned and cars on the street hardly visible because of the water logging.
I asked the driver what motivated him to even come to work that day... He said he wanted to make sure his "work family" was okay.
We proceeded further and I saw many men and women standing in the middle of the street. I soon realised these were good Samaritans doing the job of the traffic police, guiding drivers on which roads to take or avoid and substituting for the now-defunct traffic signals.
I was impressed that the same smile and cheer that I saw on the man on my street had carried over to these individuals as well. We drove a little further and then decided to take a U-turn as the water was too deep ahead and it wasn't worth the risk of going forward as it started to rain again. The driver had already come from that road in the morning on his way to work and said it was beyond flooded.
I asked the driver what motivated him to even come to work that day given the situation. He said very directly that with guests staying there and so many troubles, he wanted to make sure his "work family" was okay too. This reminded me of a case study I read on the response of Taj employees during the 26/11 terror strike in Mumbai. The study noted the employees' sense of duty and a sense of oneness with their employers, their traditional Indian sense of guests being akin to god. This led these employees to put their own safety behind those of others; indeed, several of them lost their lives as they saved others.
As we turned around and headed towards Cathedral Road, where I'd gone for a jog for several days, I noticed one more thing. Trucks and tempos were gathering food items and containers of petrol. It was more than evident that community members -- not government entities but private citizens --were banding together to make deliveries to worse off areas.
It is then that we saw a hotel that was open and two men standing outside informing passersby that the facility was housing, free of charge, dislocated or stranded Chennai locals unable to get home over the last two days.
As we made a turn and headed back onto our swamp-like road, I was moved by the spirit of all the locals I met. Just like there was a strange peace when looking at the water, there was a level-headedness that each person embodied. It reminded me of the energy that welcomed me to a remote village in rural Karnataka when I was at my lowest point health wise. A community of strangers welcomed me with an open smile and stood there, ready to provide whatever assistance I needed -- not because of obligation or some kind of attachment but because it was the right thing to do.
Over the next several weeks there will be lots of blame games and the images of suffering, sadness and sensationalised exploitations will prevail. I hope the one story that resonates beyond this is the one highlighting the humanity of Chennai locals. For me, this was the Indian version of Katrina, where locals went out of their way to save and help one another. I don't pretend to understand politics but seeing the souls of these strangers reminded me that as I try to figure out where I'd like to eventually permanently settle in India, Chennai just might be the right place for me.
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