Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood
One of my earliest memories of water is a flash flood near Tiruchi. My grandfather was very ill. My parents received the telegram in Faridabad, where we lived at the time. We drove to Delhi, flew down to Chennai and hired a taxi to drive to Tiruchi. On the way, there was a flash flood, water rushing across the road around us. The Ambassador taxi stopped in the middle of the relentless stream. My father and uncle somehow managed to get out of the car and push.
We reached Tiruchi too late. My grandfather had died. My sister and I sat cross-legged on his old wooden oonjal (swing) as the aunts spoke in low voices around us. But when my father had to go down to the Kaveri river for funeral rituals, I clung to him. I followed him into the water. I can still feel the cool stone steps beneath my feet. Every time my father ducked his head in the water, I thought he would drown. I thought he would vanish without a trace.
That was many years ago. My father is now in his eighties. Last year, there was a cloudburst over the Bengaluru suburb where we live. I was driving back from work, hoping my car would make it through the flooded roads. My son telephoned: the lift lobby had flooded, and my father was stuck downstairs after his evening walk, unable to climb back to the eleventh-floor apartment where we lived. My son was going to take Thatha to my brother’s house nearby, so that he could spend the night there.
As individuals with privilege, we try to adapt to changing circumstances; but we know that in a real crisis, this will not be nearly enough. How can we respond collectively to the challenges of extreme weather events, especially in ways that will also protect the weakest among us?
To understand why our cities are so vulnerable, we must go back in history. Krupe Ge’s book about the Chennai floods of 2015 opens with a 1914 map of Chennai. Her riveting three-year investigation into what happened during the floods, with neither warning nor evacuation, takes us back into the history of an urban settlement built around the trajectories of three rivers — the Kosasthalaiyar, the Cooum and the Adyar, and the ancient waterways of the past — aarus, or rivers; eris, or lakes; karanais, or water bodies; thaangals, or irrigation tanks; kulams, or ponds; and porombokes, or commons. Most of these now form part of the names of city neighbourhoods.
Ge takes us through interviews of volunteers and those affected — archival records; news reports; disaster management plans; public interest litigations; and the narratives of evictions of the poor from their homes in the most vulnerable areas of the city.
It is a terrible Faustian bargain to parcel up a city and sell it as real estate. Violating basic planning norms, Indian cities are vulnerable to floods year after year. We need much more than year-after-year television reports about flooding in Mumbai’s Milan subway, tales of individual heroism, and debates about indomitable spirit and resilience. It is time to improve urban preparedness in long-term, inclusive and equitable ways.
But when will this happen? Beyond the documentary evidence that Ge sifts through, the great force of her narrative comes through in the landscape of the survivors’ feelings: “The killer waters just came in and took whatever they wanted. Whatever they could lay their hands on. Lives of people, solitary breadwinners, pets, animals, trees and families. Sending people back in their status by at least a decade or two, killing all of their precious memories.”
As the water level rose, a city drowned — lives, homes and livelihoods were lost. In a powerful, poetic narrative that moves between individual stories and the story of a city’s drowning, Ge describes the unspeakable hollowing out of lives. A young man goes into the water to lead his younger brother to safety. He never comes back. “For about three days, nobody knew where he was. They went looking for him everywhere and finally found him in a mortuary.”
In another house, another heartbreaking story: an elderly couple sit on a chair placed on top of a table, constantly on the phone with their daughter, waiting for a rescue that cannot come. “Neighbours heard them, both husband and wife, call for help, over a period of nine hours, but could not do anything.”
It is also traumatic to lose the accumulated memories of a lifetime. “What no one tells you about floods like this is that it is not water that comes into your home… What flows into your home when it floods, is sewage. The home that we grew up in, that sheltered us from rains and the hot Chennai sun, where countless life events happened, things built and bought over years, life savings, a lifetime of everything, an entire way of life, is gone.”
The floodwaters have receded, but the painful memories remain. “The rains still make me nervous,” a survivor tells Ge. They both know that things could have so easily been otherwise. Story after story, counting every kind of loss big and small, she gives voice to the wounds, grief, anxiety, trauma — and ultimately the dignity of those affected. And, surely, this is what we need to comprehend if we are ever to act meaningfully: that every life is precious, every absence is painful, and no human is an island; and that there can be no real compensation for some kinds of personal, intangible loss.
The writer is a bureaucrat, currently based in Bengaluru