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Sunday, April 18, 2021

The river by my home

Assistant Editor Arun Janardhanan goes looking for the stories he has grown up with in Vazhathope, his village in Idukki district that has borne the brunt of the floods, and finds a river at peace amidst the wreckage all around

Written by Arun Janardhanan |
Updated: August 26, 2018 9:15:57 am
kerala floods idukki Cheruthoni dam Along the Cheruthoni river only battered remains can now be seen. (Express Photo/Arun Janardhanan)

The two dams in my hometown — the Idukki arch dam and the Cheruthoni dam, less than a km apart — towered over our lives, rose above my lower primary school in Idukki, and, in a town with no major deities or temples, served to instil fear.

The kind of fear that kept my seven-year-old self tossing around in bed for a couple of nights at least, thinking of the story I had laboriously read in the Malayala Manorama. That was 1992, the last time the shutters of the Cheruthoni dam were opened before August this year, the origin of the recent flood waters that had submerged Ernakulam and Thrissur districts downhill. In Class 2 then, I had read the report that detailed the likely destruction as the water released from the dam made its way to the Arabian Sea, over 100 km away.

The nightmare stayed there — tucked away in the folds of my consciousness — as the dam only raised water levels but caused no damage. The fear had soon given way to awe as I remember then chief minister K Karunanakaran conducting an aerial survey and how his chopper had flown through the Niagara-like mist and kept down as far as possible for him to witness the spectacle.

Also read | Rebuilding Kerala: Power cuts, damaged roads, destroyed houses and people fighting trauma

Twenty six years later, as I stand on the banks of the Cheruthoni river, a tributary of the mighty Periyar, I know that nightmare has finally wriggled its way out and spread itself across the town.

A week after the devastating floods that swept through Kerala, Vazhathope, my panchayat, has seen 13 deaths, the maximum in Idukki, a district in the Western Ghats that bore the brunt of the floods with 52 registered deaths, the highest in the state. Seven people are still missing in Idukki district or their bodies are yet to be retrieved from under the hill slopes that came crashing down on their homes. Dozens of houses have simply disappeared without a trace in my town alone.

While elsewhere in the state people begin to make their way back home, in the district headquarters of Idukki, over a dozen relief camps remain active as many inmates have no homes to go back to.

Also read | Tragedy is forgotten for a day, Kerala camps celebrate Onam

Kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam The bridge over the river collapsed when the shutters of the dam were opened. (Express Photo/Arun Janardhanan)

After August 10, Idukki was virtually cut off from the mainland with power and communication networks mostly down. I got a call from my mother on the afternoon of August 15, saying that the rain was getting scarier. As my father scolded her for her long conversation when she should be conserving the phone battery, she hung up abruptly. Over the next few hours, there were four landslides in and around the area, one grazing our home, leaving a patch of dirt on the walls, but luckily no damage. The same night, my parents, both in their 70s, and my 90-year-old grandmother shifted to a relief camp. It would be another four days before they could get back home and talk to me.

My grandmother’s house, less than a kilometre from the town, was perched on a slope overlooking the Cheruthoni river. On the river bank was a lush meadow of grass, a carpet of green down which we children would roll and then break into giggles as we writhed with itches all over. But after the Cheruthoni dam opened and later shut (in 1992), we discovered, much to our dismay, that the green meadow had vanished. That, I now realise, is an interesting feature of dams being opened — every time the dam opens and shuts, the river bank is never the same.

Also read | This landslide in Idukki buried 4 residents, home

Unlike this year’s unforgiving deluge, the last dam opening resulted in an unexpected bounty — fish. I remember my grandmother and her friend Leela catching fish in their vessels from the water that flowed by. I even skipped school one morning to see a fish, which was as tall as me, that a few neighbours had caught from the flood water using sharpened sticks. That day, the entire neighbourhood feasted on that big fish.

Kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam Anish’s home is surrounded with debris. (Express Photo/Arun Janardhanan)

Now, as I stand atop the porch of my grandmother’s house, which is thankfully still intact, I find that two other homes by the river are completely gone. One was Leela’s. Leela came to Idukki around the same time that my grandmother and my late grandfather, a tailor, made the town their home. The dam had come up, the town was being developed and there were jobs on offer. Leela would sell paan at the Cheruthoni market. My grandmother still recalls how Leela built her small house from the stones and rocks she picked up from the river bed on her own. She now lives with her children near Ernakulum; her house was sold a few years ago.

The other house that was washed away was Anish’s and Anju’s, my childhood friends, whose riverside house once sported a thatched roof. What is left of that house is a door held up by the debris around it. Anish vacated the house before the water level rose. I am told he cried a lot. He had married recently and his young wife, from a family outside Idukki, had come down with high fever at the shock of seeing the fury of the rains and hills that had destroyed the house where she had come to live.

Elsewhere, all along the banks of Cheruthoni, only battered remains of what were once concrete structures can be seen. The government higher secondary school in Vazhathope, where students from either banks of the Periyar studied, is now a relief camp.

Also read | Amid landslide and rain, kin wait 3 days for bodies to be retrieved

kerala floods idukki cheruthoni dam Reconstruction work in progress at NH 185 near Kathipara in Idukki district (Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran)

Cheruthoni town is at the bottom of a huge rock — in fact, the city is splayed like a ‘Y’on the hillock. In the middle of the town, high above this Y, is a town landmark — a yellow board with ‘MFL-3’ written on it — a mark to indicate the maximum flood level and how much the water will rise if the dam is opened fully. This time, not even half that figure has been released from the dam, yet the town stands bruised.

In the town’s low-lying areas, the river had simply brushed aside anything that lay in its path. For instance, there is no trace of the Cheruthoni bus stand, one of many such development projects initiated on the river bed. In the last 10 years, there were protests and threats to officials of the Kerala State Electricity Board for raising an objection to the bus stand project.

Yet, the Periyar river seems to be in harmony with my ravaged land. In a strange retaliatory act, the river has reclaimed her land. All those parts of the river bed that had been slowly, insidiously snatched away from her are now hers again.

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