When terrorists attacked Mumbai on the night of November 26, 2008, I watched bits and pieces of the catastrophe unfold on television and over the internet late into the night, in a place far away from my home. When I woke up the next morning with a tight fist of dread in my gut, I just wanted to be told that it’s ended. I called home only to hear the opposite — it was far from over.
I had that same feeling after tracking the skies as they burst over Chennai on December 1, again far away from home.
All I prayed to hear the next morning was that the rain had stopped. Whoever I managed to contact had no such reassurance to give. The water was waist-deep in some places, neck-deep in others. It was still raining. There was no electricity from 5 pm the previous day. Landlines were out, mobile phone batteries were dying. The airport was closed, the highways into Chennai were cut off.
This is exactly what terrorists want to do — kill and strike panic in the hearts of people, uproot homes, wreak large-scale destruction, paralyse an entire city, render it helpless, send government scurrying.
The rain was the terrorist this time. Unlike the tsunami, which ended in some minutes, or previous floods, when it rained once and stopped, this time there were multiple attacks. But it was not nature alone. In Mumbai, our security apparatus neglected the signs that 26/11 was about to happen, or failed to put two and two together. In Chennai, officialdom was an active collaborator.
Chennai residents have always had a complicated relationship with rain. In the north, when the south-west monsoon arrives in July, there’s Teej. People go out and celebrate it. In Chennai, for as long as I can recall, there has been a two-fold dread about the north-east monsoon, our main rainy season, which hits Tamil Nadu about the middle of October: One, that it may skip the city altogether, which means we will be counting the last remaining drops in the Red Hills reservoir by the time the next summer arrives, the wells in our homes will dry up, and we will be at the mercy of water tankers; two, we fear that it may actually arrive — because the city’s shoddy infrastructure always packs up even in the smallest of downpours.
Roads are flooded even within 30 minutes of standard rain. Water stagnates for weeks. Mosquitos rise up in clouds from the stagnant pools after a couple of days. The city’s waterways, which are now really sewage-ways, get stirred up and send up the most godawful stink. Stuff enters the homes of people living in settlements along the banks. Garbage collection, never Chennai’s strong point, comes to a standstill and waste lies rotting at street corners along with leafy branches that fall during the rain — someone is always quick to pick up the bigger bits.
So when it came up against the big one on December 1, Chennai really stood no chance. But the scale of the catastrophe need not have been so massive had Chennai’s civic authorities, politicians and real estate developers not so stubbornly refused to learn lessons from the city’s previous bad experiences.
But greed simply shuts everything else out. Why else would anyone be allowed to build in a place whose name ends with an “eri”, which means lake, be it Velachery or Kadaperi? Why else let unsuspecting poor people, build their homes bang on the banks of known floodwater channels like the Adyar, the Cooum and the Buckingham? They are the ones who had no choice but to abandon their homes as 30,000 cusecs of water came rushing at them after the government took the decision to open the floodgates of the Chembarabakkam reservoir. The only consolation was that the posh Boat Club road where the Marans and BCCI Srinivasan live were flooded knee-deep too, and most likely Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s Sirithavur farmhouse, close to the Pallikarnai wetland.
It will take Chennai a long time to recover. But even after this, I’m prepared to bet, it will be back to business as usual. We will be told it was freak weather, silt and sewage will continue to pile up on the waterways along with encroachments, those who make money out of this will continue to do so, and life will go on much as before till the next big one. 2025? The water is said to have found new routes through the tunnels being drilled for the Metro. Ten years from now, there will be trains in the tunnel and people in the trains.
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said after the first bout of flooding in mid-November that the destruction in the face of such unprecedented rain was “inevitable”. Yes, ma’am, it was inevitable, especially after what those in charge over the years have done to the city. And then people are patronisingly commended for their bravery and fortitude in coping with the calamity unfolding around them. What’s the choice?
Jayalalithaa’s expression of helplessness seemed to act like magic on the Tamil Nadu government. When it poured, the government vanished after sounding the evacuation warning, already a little late, to those on the banks of the Adyar.
When the rain abated on December 3, the chief minister took a quick round of the city just hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aerial survey. Contrary to what one ardent Amma worshipper would have us believe through his imaginative hoarding, no, she did not wade through neck deep swirling waters with a baby in her hand.
She did not even step out of her car.
At a time when there should have been maximum government, the Tamil Nadu machinery, which dare not move a muscle without direction from the top, was happy to let civic volunteers, armed with little other than social media and loads of enthusiasm take over rescue and relief work. AIADMK cadres, who can be mobilised at short notice to self-immolate, wail and beat their chests when law courts are nasty to their leader, were missing too, coming out only when the water receded to waylay relief supplies and paste Amma stickers on them.
But it is the Chennaiite’s burden to be brave, so there’s nothing for it but to act brave, and crack a joke or two about it. Did I hear someone say Singara (beautiful) Chennai? Nah. It’s Sink-ara Chennai, and in a few days, it will be Stink-ara Chennai. And don’t forget, Margazhi and the “season” of music and dance will begin next week.