Almost everyone in Kerala besieged by the floods this year have had the same narrative to tell—how they had never ever seen rains or floods of this scale before. In their living memory, they don’t have a benchmark to compare it to.
The deluge that ravaged the state this monsoon has been rightly called the ‘worst in nearly a century.’ That’s because, the only similar and comparable devastation in Kerala was recorded in 1924, commonly referred to as ‘Thonooti Ombathile Vellapokkam’ (Flood of ‘99) as it occurred in the Malayalam month of 1099 CE.
VU Ramakrishna Pillai, a retired village officer who lives in Haripad in Alappuzha district of Kerala, has had the rare fortuity to have lived and survived both the floods in 1924 as well as in 2018. A few days away from his 103rd birthday, Pillai, who has a crackling memory power, remembers with great clarity the floods that washed Kerala nearly a century ago.
“I was 8 and in school at that time. It was the same year the Maharaja of Travancore Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma had passed away. The entire state was sad when he died,” says Pillai, sitting on a chair in the front porch of his home near Haripad.
“When the monsoon rains began that year, it felt like it just wouldn’t stop. It just went on for days. In those days, I heard the Maharaja, shocked to see the extent of the rains, beat his chest with anguish and call out to God saying ‘Ente Sreepadmanabha!’ (My Sreepadmanabha!)” he adds. The kings of Travancore had pledged in the mid-18th century that they would be vassals to the deity at Padmanabhaswamy Temple, one of the most important Vaishnavite temples in Kerala.
The Maharaja is believed to have passed away during the monsoon that year, leading many to prophesy that the world was indeed coming to an end. The devastation that year was quite similar to the flood impact this year with large tracts of agricultural land under water and landslides washing away roads in hilly districts like Idukki. Historian Manu Pillai noted in his book ‘The Ivory Throne’, “It seemed as if the skies had been ripped apart as the waters burst out endlessly, transforming the bountiful scene into one of catastrophe.”
“All the villages that were on the banks of rivers or streams were flooded. Also, there were no newspapers or radio at that time so there was really no way of knowing which parts were more affected,” Pillai says.
But the deluge of 1924 spared Pillai and his home in Vettuveni near Haripad as it was located on a higher ground. “Thankfully, the water didn’t come into our home that year. I remember going to school as usual,” he says.
This year, however, the floods, when it came, made sure to torment Pillai along with his family. The centenarian, who stayed with his daughter-in-law, granddaughter and two great-grandchildren at his two-storey home in Pallipad during the floods, had to be rescued in a large copper vessel, generally used in Malayali households to boil rice.
His daughter-in-law Usha narrates, “When I saw the water rising bit by bit, I told him (Pillai), ‘let’s go somewhere, let’s not wait here and die’. But he was adamant not to leave home. After two days, when water rose till the front steps and had begun to enter from the back-end of the house through the kitchen, he finally agreed.”
“By then, the water on the road outside was waist-high. My husband was in Saudi at that time. I worried about how I would take my aged father-in-law, my daughter and her two infant children. But then, luck came in the form of the police and some locals. They got him (Pillai) into a ‘chembu’ (copper vessel) and carried all of us to the main road. From there, we boarded a truck and got away safely to a relative’s house,” she says.
Pillai nods and says with a wry smile, “Apratheekshitham aayirunnu (It was very unexpected).”
“But I didn’t feel scared at all. I have seen a lot of rain,” he adds, confidently.
According to him, government officials are responsible for inviting the ‘man-made disaster’ that wreaked havoc in Kerala this year.
“MS Swaminathan had submitted a report with proposals for the government, especially in Kuttanad. But the officials did not pay heed to it, they ignored it. That’s why Kuttanad was severely flooded this time. The people of Kuttanad shouldn’t have suffered so much,” murmurs Pillai. Kuttanad, known as the rice bowl of Kerala and situated below the sea-level in Alappuzha district, was one of the critically-affected areas during the floods this year.
He may be a centenarian, but the age seems to have had little impact on Pillai’s physical health. Except for a bit of deafness in one ear and a slight wavering of the tongue, Pillai is perfectly healthy. He can walk, sit and sleep without support. The thing he is closest and most attached to is the radio set on which he listens all day to film songs and ‘Kathakali padam’ on ‘Akashvani.
“If one of us even touches it, he gets mad. It will disturb him the entire day. We had to get him a new one a few months ago after the old one broke down,” Usha says.
He also wakes up early to read his favourite Malayalam newspaper, the Mathrubhumi. “It’s a habit I began when I was 15. To this day, I need my paper to start the day,” says Pillai.
The 102-year-old doesn’t have restrictions on food either, although he does keep it more-or-less simple. “If we buy river fish like varaal, that’s all he wants. He likes bananas too,” Usha says.
On October 31, Pillai’s children and grandchildren plan to celebrate his 103rd birthday at an orphanage run by a local church in Haripad. “It’s better to celebrate his birthday by having lunch with some orphan kids than by calling a lot of people home. He will like it too,” Pillai’s son, Sasidharan, says.