Its been eerily silent this past week. I normally revel in the quiet of my neighbourhood, but this is the silence of devastation. Of a city knocked to its knees.
I miss the sounds I whined about. Of engines backfiring in the distance. Of the howling of strays or the keening of koels that shake me from my sleep at dawn. Heck, I even miss the carol singers from the hostel behind our apartment who should have been hard at their practice by now and had us climbing up our walls in frustration.
The deluge was unprecedented. The effects of an extreme El Niño they say, exacerbated by encroachments into water bodies and a dysfunctional drainage system leading to the breaching of a century long record with a vengeance (1218.6mm of rain last month as against a normal of 407.4mm, and an additional 374mm on Dec 1 alone!). Further compounded by the letting out of water from dangerously full reservoirs into rivers already in spate.
The destruction that followed was brutal: Over 300 lives lost and close to two million rendered homeless. With buses, trains and flights cancelled and our brand new airport (inexplicably built over the flood basin of the Adyar river!) closed, Chennai was effectively marooned.
I can’t help feeling a certain amount of guilt over the fact that we survived this disaster unscathed, situated as we are in one of the few pockets of the city that lies on higher ground and at a safe enough distance from any of our water sources. We experienced no water logging, no outages of power, no drop in connectivity!
Many friends didn’t fare as well. One couple had to be evacuated by the army from their inundated building. Another, out to drop her daughter in school in her track pants, didn’t have time to return to even pick up more clothes or valuables. A third, whose mother was stranded alone in the worst hit part of town and who couldn’t get through to any of the official rescue numbers, set out with a lifeguard on a daring six hour boat rescue mission in the dark, while his pregnant wife tried hard to keep her panic in check until their return.
None of that compares to the fate of the millions who have lost everything in this disaster. The horrifying visuals underscore the callousness of corrupt officials, unscrupulous land developers, even irresponsible hospitals, paid for with devastating loss to life and industry. The coast guard and our armed forces came to our rescue as they always do. Our neighbours in Bangalore and Hyderabad offered unflinching support even as the rest of the country and our national media ignored us for the most part.
But it is the way the city has rallied around the victims that has been the most inspiring. Social media was effectively mobilised by volunteers across the three cities, including a couple of Tamil film stars, to co ordinate and channelise aid to the worst affected. The generous opening of doors and hearts to anyone in need was overwhelming to witness. Proof once again that humanity left to its own devices will do the right thing whether in Mumbai, or New York or Paris or Chennai. Tomorrow we might fall prey to rhetoric again and resort to our intolerant ways. But for this moment, religion, caste and creed has been set aside in shared grief and solidarity. And that, to me, holds out hope in this hopeless world.
The worst of the deluge is over…..I think. I hope!
It is threateningly dark as I write. Foreshadowing the enormity of the challenges of rehabilitation and resettlement ahead. As also keeping epidemics at bay. But the people of Chennai will overcome this together. Of that I have no doubt.
PS: The official death toll has risen to 450. Actuals could be several hundred more.