And still waters run deep

Throw it into the deep end, and it invariably bobs up again, triumphantly. That’s Chennai for you.

December 03, 2015 12:51 am | Updated September 06, 2016 12:42 pm IST

At 10:00 am this morning, a friend called Krish sent out a Whatsapp message to say that he was driving around Adyar, a South Chennai suburb, and would be happy to drop off groceries or medicines to anyone in the area. He had left home primarily for this — to check what roads were motorable and what shops open.

It’s been raining more or less continuously for over 72 hours now as I type this, and in the steel grey and slightly menacing pall that hangs low over the city, it’s the messages from Krish and others like him that have been like little beacons of light for the hundreds of us marooned at work or at home or in the middle of roads that now look like swirling rivers.

As the unprecedented rainfall, the first of its magnitude in over a hundred years, floods the city, we have been inundated in another way as well, a much nicer way, with offers of help from fellow citizens that have ranged from people throwing open their homes to cafeterias offering sandwiches and coffee to cinema halls and malls opening up their interiors to stranded people.

The world of Chennai

Vaishna Roy

I remember encountering this the first time when I was in Nagapattinam after the tsunami in 2004. The local administration had set up a disaster relief war room where representatives of NGOs, local communities, the media and the administration would meet each morning under the aegis of the District Collector. Damages were assessed and responsibilities distributed.

The quiet efficiency they displayed was remarkable, and the State’s super-quick resettlement effort came in later for much commendation. All of it was pulled off with little publicity and no glamour. And it is being repeated now.

It’s bizarre how this city, which reels from a severe water shortage for most parts of a year, is almost always most brutally battered by water, whether from the sea or from above. The deity of water is clearly displeased with Chennai. Varuna, he is called, this god of rain and the ocean who rides a crocodile-like sea monster. He once ruled the heavens but was later displaced by the slightly wimpish Indra. The dethroned Varuna is obviously still irate and Tamilians, often described as devout, are strangely at the receiving end of his wrath.

But Varuna is leaving them unfazed. Driving to work today, when the rain had reduced to a light drizzle, I took the road that runs along the shoreline through the urban fishing village of Nochikuppam. Scattered knots of fisherwomen had already set up shop, some in raincoats, some with plastic bags on their heads; meagre heaps of fish in front of them, the seething, smoky sea behind. A paunchy man in a helmet bargained, a woman was choosing sardines, life was up and about.

How a city responds to its animals says a lot about its people, and one of the first posts on Facebook was about a dog taxi. The shelter that posted it said they had run out of space but were happy to drive pets to a shelter in Bangalore and bring them back after the floods. A Whatsapp message said an old woman had found shelter, but would someone please rescue her four cats. Another man tweeted about a litter of five orphaned, week-old mongrel pups and within hours, Blue Cross had picked them up.

It’s easy to dismiss social media as ephemeral, but there is nothing quite so effective in a disaster. Within hours, half a dozen hashtags had sprung up — #ChennaiFloods, #ChennaiRains, #ChennaiRainsHelp, and more. By late Tuesday evening, some genius had set up an interactive map that showed exactly which roads were inundated, and users could click and update it.

By now, dozens of doctors, cabs, and small businesses are offering free service. One transport company is giving a free bus ride out of Chennai to safer ground in Trichy or Dindigul, while ordinary citizens are lending their cars. One man says he will run a shuttle between Chennai and Bangalore. At 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, a Whatsapp message asked for volunteers to take supplies to a home in Porur that was five feet under water. Within an hour, there was a surfeit of help. Radio stations have sent vehicles to scout neighbourhoods and drop off supplies at homes. Community kitchens are up and running, while marriage halls have been opened up to the public.

I saw a chilling Facebook video of a couple on a scooter getting washed away by a torrent of water, but passing motorists quickly form a human chain and rescue them. Comments have poured in about how amazing it is that people should come forward to help so selflessly. The truth is this is how I have found the city more often than not. Stranded in the middle of a busy road with a broken down car, and a taciturn Good Samaritan has sprung up from nowhere to help. Stuck in a cafeteria while it poured outside, one man has actually walked me the few steps to my car under his umbrella. There is a gentle sweetness to the Chennaite that is hard to see but impossible to overlook. And it comes to the fore each time someone somewhere needs help.

And if you need any proof that the city is already bouncing back, here’s my image of the day. Two young men, bedraggled, with trousers folded to their knees, have obviously waded through the knee-deep stream that is my street and there they stand, under umbrellas, taking proud selfies in front of Kollywood superstar Ajith’s house. And the matinee goes on.

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