Society

The sound and the fury

What could have been a gentle pitter-patter turned into a violent assault with 100 kmph winds last Monday.

What could have been a gentle pitter-patter turned into a violent assault with 100 kmph winds last Monday.   | Photo Credit: M. Prabhu

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Being in the eye of the storm, and life in the aftermath of Vardah

Devastation never smelt as sweet as when the winds of Vardah ripped the trees of Chennai asunder. As cars and bikes rolled over generations of trees on Tuesday, the air was thick with the aroma of crushed leaves. The city is slowly getting back to its feet, but it is hard to see it ever returning to normal.

***

Last Monday, Chennai woke up to rain. It wasn’t much of a surprise, of course. We’d been told to expect Cyclone Vardah, named after the Urdu word for a red rose. Schools and colleges were shut, just as they had been for the previous week’s Nada, whose effects had been as mild as its name indicated.

If you’ve lived in the city long enough, you know cyclones are a regular occurrence, especially this time of year. They bring pleasant weather for a few days, briefly lash the city with rain and usually end in rain holidays, waterlogging and power cuts. Then the sun comes out and you forget what a cool breeze feels like until next year.

But this Monday morning was different. The government had advised private companies to shut shop as well, and most of them had complied. The cult weatherman on Facebook, Pradeep John, said he was speechless; wind speeds were hitting levels he hadn’t seen in decades. The news said the Navy was on standby, along with the National Disaster Relief Force and the Army.

As we despondently manoeuvre around the damage and destruction, picking up the thread of our lives, the task remains of adjusting to the new normal. Waves crash at Kasimedu fishing harbour, last Monday.

As we despondently manoeuvre around the damage and destruction, picking up the thread of our lives, the task remains of adjusting to the new normal. Waves crash at Kasimedu fishing harbour, last Monday.  

Precariously perched a few hundred yards off the east coast, my house offered front row seats to the storm as it swept in from the sea. My windows were beginning to spring a few leaks. So I decided to go down to the beach; partly to avoid dealing with the leaks, partly to see just how bad it was.

Despite all the ominous warnings, years of conditioning made me unafraid of cyclones. “Last year was an aberration,” I told myself. “This looks more like a very noisy drizzle.” And besides, the TV was still working. Always a good sign, considering the satellite signal is usually the first to give up the ghost when nature declares war.

 

By the time I made it out of my lane, the gravity of the situation had slapped me in the face repeatedly. The 100 kilometre an hour winds had turned what could have been a gentle pitter-patter into a violent assault. At the beach, the earliest signs of the frenzy to follow were visible: the layer of accumulated plastic that usually adorns the sands was conspicuously missing. Giant waves lapped the shore, threatening to reach the disused boats that had become part of the furniture of the beach. The shanties of the fishing village nearby were still clinging on, but already the air was full of tiny bits of swirling debris.

An inundated Radhakrishnan Salai, a few hours after the cyclone struck.

An inundated Radhakrishnan Salai, a few hours after the cyclone struck.  

I sanely decided to return home, only to discover that the TV had died. Not peacefully, with an error message, as it usually does, but with the satellite dish blown over the side of the house and into the empty plot next door. Electricity swiftly followed suit, the leaks multiplied. The storm had begun in earnest. Irish folklore speaks of banshees, female spirits whose wails warn of impending death: a hazy, faraway concept I had picked up from books and matched with sounds from animated films. As Vardah swept in from the sea, the idea came alive as the winds whipped themselves into a frenzy. A high-pitched shrieking filled the house and my mind: a constant reminder that in its destructive potential, Vardah was likely to match or even outdo the unnamed depression from a year ago.

There was precious little to do but sit and watch it unfold. The telephone networks were still up and news of ripped advertising hoardings, uprooted trees and flying cows filtered in — the latter, a timely reminder to take news received over WhatsApp with a generous helping of salt.

The newsrooms up in Delhi that dictate that nation’s agenda have already lost interest; after all, the death toll barely crossed the single-digit mark

By late afternoon, an eerie calm had descended over the city, bringing with it bright, clear skies and chirping birds. The respite was to be short-lived. The eye of the storm soon passed and took with it cellular reception and the last dribs and drabs of news from the outside world. As we mopped up the water flooding in from our seemingly porous walls and windows, the banshees returned with a vengeance, once again assuming their brutal sway over the city.

***

As I strode through the city the next day, familiar lanes were filled with unfamiliar buildings and the earth was littered with the trees that had once hidden these buildings from view. The city’s long-suffering army of conservancy workers poured out on the streets, beginning the long and arduous task of clearing an estimated 10,000 fallen trees. An inheritance of 400-odd years had become many thousand tonnes of garbage and firewood.

Fallen trees in Besant Nagar a day after the cylone.

Fallen trees in Besant Nagar a day after the cylone.  

The usual post-mortem circus that follows a catastrophe of this sort has begun: environmentalists blame the state government, the state wants funds from the centre, and the centre is monitoring the situation. The newsrooms up in Delhi that dictate that nation’s agenda have already lost interest; after all, the death toll barely crossed the single-digit mark.

Meanwhile, as I write this, a bath has become a luxury for many citizens of Chennai with the battered electricity grid unable to power the pumps that fill overhead water tanks. We line up in bank queues again for elusive currency notes, even as notices in shops and restaurants that proudly heralded the cashless future are hastily papered over with apologies about network issues delaying the revolution. With many of the city’s roads resembling obstacle courses that buses and cabs are struggling to navigate, the iconic auto with its perennially dysfunctional meter has emerged as the only reliable means of public transport.

And as we despondently manoeuvre around or under fallen trees and stacks of chopped branches, picking up the thread of our lives, the task remains of adjusting to the new normal. The cool breeze has already died out and the leafy fragrance in the air will soon fade. The petrol fumes and the fierce heat will return, worse than before, and there will be fewer trees offering shade.

visvaksen.p@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 11:12:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/The-sound-and-the-fury/article16857070.ece

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