It is chilly here in New York, with bright sunshine, but all I see is rain, warm rain, relentless rain. The rain that has devastated my beloved Madras, taken lives, destroyed homes and livelihoods. I shudder to think of what lies ahead, the long and arduous road to recovery, the outbreak of diseases that will surely follow.
My parents live there, and my father-in-law and brother and sister-law as well. For one heart-stopping day nobody was able to get in touch with my parents; when I finally got through to them they affected an air of cheeriness as if the whole episode were just one more adventure in the series of adventures that make up life, but I could hear the weariness in their voices, the worry. The downstairs of their home was under several inches of water, their electricity connection hung by a thread (one cable, actually), over-zealous cleaners swept away the Internet wires along with the debris. For several days they managed alone, two old people, with soup packets and bread, and yet they insisted that they were absolutely fine, that many people were far worse off than them. My father-in-law’s home is leaking sheets of water and he has had to take refuge in a room at the back of the house, but he too is cheerful and says he’s fine, he had electricity, water and fresh food throughout the deluge. My brother and sister-in-law, who have been taking care of themselves and two sets of parents, have not uttered a word of complaint. Their water tank is contaminated; I was on the phone with them one day when a guy came by with a bag of potassium permanganate to dump into the water. They dealt with it calmly, as if receiving a supply of potassium permanganate were a normal, everyday occurrence. The last time I heard of potassium permanganate was in my Chemistry lab in school, four decades ago!
I have a lot to learn from them.
People are blaming global warming, that catch-all phrase thrown about any time there’s a natural disaster. Of course we have done far more in the last several decades to destroy our planet than mankind has in the rest of its time on earth, but there is also a bigger picture here, and our Earth moves to rhythms that are far grander, far more scopic, than our limited imaginations can comprehend. Let’s not glibly say global warming and deflect the blame from those who looked the other way (fattening their wallets all along) while my beautiful city with its lakes, rivers and canals that had the liberty to be themselves, to travel where they ought, morphed into one of the ugliest places on this planet, thumbing its nose at Mother Nature, sprouting monstrous buildings all over the place. Thousands of beautiful trees and garden-filled homes have been hacked down. Those rivers, lakes and canals, which enjoyed unfettered freedom for millennia, have been cruelly choked shut, and where could they go once the rains filled them up but down the same paths they have always traveled? Only this time there was no welcoming Earth to absorb them, just mile upon mile of impenetrable concrete and tar.
It makes me mad. Can you image the fury Nature must feel?
Through the muck and murk it has been a delight to read about how the people of Madras and around India and the world have rallied around to help, working around the clock to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance, succor, whatever they can possibly do. All the stupid barriers that we erect to separate and identify ourselves - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, non-Brahmin, rich, poor, blah, blah, have been discarded, forgotten, and this is as it should be, humanity as one, rising above the flood waters, above pettiness. If only we can hold on to this state of being forever and remember what it feels like to be just a human being. If only. There is a belief that something good comes out of every great tragedy; would it were that this is it.
There have been incidents of appalling callousness and stupidity. Having relief supplies embellished with pictures of Amma Jayalalithaa, which Amul made brilliant fun of in its inimitable fashion. A news reporter, crudely photoshopped onto a flooded Madras street, claiming to put herself through great difficulty in order to bring her viewers the news right from the source.
This is the time for the famous music and dance Season in Madras and there have been fierce exchanges of opinion among musicians and dancers about whether to cancel performances or carry on. There is no right answer here, but there is, I believe, a wrong way of addressing this, by automatically labelling somebody with a different opinion as uncaring or greedy. In October 2012, my other hometown where I now live, New York City, was wrecked by a superstorm, Hurricane Sandy. The New York City marathon was scheduled to take place just a few days later, on November 4th. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was pushed against a wall with severe pressure to call off the marathon, which he did, just 2 days before it was to take place. The city was a mess and relief efforts took priority, he said, just like what’s happening now in Madras. However, the instant Bloomberg made his announcement canceling the marathon, he was battered with a deluge of criticism saying that the city needed to carry on, that it was vital to have an event that evoked so much joy and positivity, during a time of crisis. Very often, there’s no pleasing anybody!
Personally, I feel that those who can and want to perform, should. Dear musicians and dancers, do not underestimate the power of your art to bring joy, to soothe and mend hearts! Sorrow and heartbreak need beauty and joy to heal and restore hope. Don’t be harsh towards those who think differently from you and try and see that they might have a point, too.
I have heard so many stories. About ordinary people, and those need to be told, too, not just ones of heroes and villains. The tragi-comedies of everyday life. Here is one.
An elderly couple, friends of my parents. Let’s call them Uncle and Aunty M. She is vivacious, loves company and has a good time wherever she is. He is a curmudgeon who dislikes most people, and harbors an especial hatred for Aunty M.’s sister. Aunty and Uncle M. have a large, sprawling home with a capacious garden that has a cowshed in one corner. One of the cows has given birth and with the rising waters, is in a foot of water, bellowing her discontent. Aunty M. brings the cow and her newborn calf into her home in the teeth of stiff opposition from the curmudgeonly Uncle M. Then she hears that her sister and her family are marooned in Saidapet. A furious Uncle M. is dispatched there with car and driver to bring them back and a harrowing 4 hours later he returns, sister-law and large family in tow. The large family includes four rambunctious young grandchildren and Uncle M., accustomed to a life of silence and peace, is stretched to the limit of his patience. At home, he is greeted, in his precious living room with its expensive carpet, by a madly mooing cow and plaintively bleating calf. The loathed sister-in-law’s four grandchildren run around, screaming shrilly. He is ready to burst, to leap into the water swirling around his home and swim far far away when all of a sudden the ridiculousness of the situation hits him and he sits down and laughs. And laughs and laughs, for the first time in years.
I feel helpless, sitting so far away in chilly New York. There is nothing I can do other than talk on the phone to my family. Many years ago, in November 1976, we were living in a low-lying part of Madras called Perambur. It rained all day, and all night, and when we woke up the following morning, it was to a sea of water all around. There was knee-deep water in the ground floor of our home and outside in some parts, the water came up to one’s shoulders. Any contact, such as it was, with the outside world, was out. Only the radio worked, and while the rain poured down the weatherman reported sunshine and clear skies! Late in the morning, a boat came up to our home with packets of idlis and vadais from Dasaprakash. It was a great adventure for me, missing school and imagining I was marooned on a deserted island, but now, thinking back on those days and the ones that followed, I realized what a horror it must have been for people, so much damaged and lost, and the nightmarish cleaning up after. Madras was a much poorer city then, with many more slums and fragile thatched houses, so many of which were swept away in the deluge. My memories are of the city teetering, far too often, on one extreme or the other - severe water shortages in the summer months, or flooding and water damage during the monsoon. Has nothing been learned from any of this? Do the powers-that-be really not care about those whose lives they claim to protect and take responsibility for?
I hope that this time, we get the answers we want to hear, and deserve.