The First of December 2015
I’ll be home in an hour, I’ll ping you then, I tell my colleague and leave office. It is 2.30 in the afternoon.The rain catches up with me at Kathipara and I take the decision that will change the next what-seemed-like-eternity hours of my life. I decide to skip the infamous Velachery route and my usual Thillai Ganga subway, which would most certainly be knee deep in water, and decide to take a more clever route home. Little did I know at that time, that a few hours later, Knee Deep would point and laugh at me. A few kilometers ahead, I realise that many people have decided to take the same clever route today, the traffic is more than usual, but manageable. I drive on. I take the turn at the flyover and the rain starts to beat down harder. Somewhere along that road the traffic thickens and starts to crawl. I’m just almost there, almost there, I tell myself and brave the rain that’s pounding on my windshield. And then, when I’m this close to Almost There, I realise that I am being forced to take a U turn, the road is flooded. Pallikarnai? Go through Tambaram, the traffic policeman tells me and continues to guide traffic, drenched to the bone. I drive back, following the car in front of me. The world around me is grey. The sky, the rain, the road, the lake. Everything has merged into one shade of grey. And that’s when I start the Take Diversion game, blindly following the cars in front of me as policemen keep blocking off the main roads and guiding us into the narrow, slushy alleys. I don’t know how long and how many detours later, I find myself in front of the Saravana Stores. Finally. I know the way back now. I’m going back to the office, I decide. But at Kathipara, again, I change my mind and I head home. This time, I have to take the infamous Velachery route.
I drive blind past the Guindy railway station and reach the road where horses cross every morning. The road is empty, I should have known. There’s waist deep water, someone tells me. I turn back.
I’m opposite the Saidapet church and the rain is more than blinding. I plan to stay over at a friend’s place in Velachery. I’m close. The traffic moves inch by inch and I give updates on Whatsapp to everyone. I’m almost there, all ok, I tell them.
Two hours and around one kilometer later, to my utter horror, I realize that I have taken the turn towards Adyar instead of the Velachery. No backsies. Not in that kind of traffic. It is 9.30 pm.
Someone asks me for a lift. I have no clue where I am headed and my fuel indicator is blinking, I tell him. No problem, he says and gets in. All he wants is a dry place. That was my Guardian Angel No 1. Kumar, the taxi driver. He takes charge. He drives me to a petrol bunk he knows and fuels me up. He then drives like a madman through the roads, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Technique, madam. As promised, he drops me off at the Thoraipakkam toll gate and asks me to call him when I reach home. The rain has stopped and the road ahead is clear. We part ways and he walks back home to his place near Jain College. I drive ahead towards Pallikarnai. The road is almost dry and there’s not a single car to be seen. It is like some other day.
Phew. Just ten more minutes, I say and take that turn at NIOT at full speed. Only when I’m almost window deep in water do I realise that this isn’t a Red Sea that I can part. I don’t know what mad force takes over me, but I reverse without stopping the engine, reverse all the way to the flyover where I stop and open the door to let the water out. I pick up my phone from the water, it is dead. My ATM card which had fallen from dashboard washes away. I tremble continuously for the next five whole minutes.
There’s water water everywhere. Towards Velachery, towards Pallikarnai, towards Kilkattalai junction. I’m three kilometers away from home. The little island under the flyover buzzes with the helplessness of all the stranded people. It is midnight. I push back the seat and sleep. In my sleep, I hear the sound of a motor revving continuously. They’re pumping out the water, I tell myself. The road will be clean and dry tomorrow morning. I’ll be up at daybreak and can drive home.
The Second of December, 2015
It is seven am when I wake up and I still hear the motor sounds. They are from all the motorbikes that had stopped under the flyover, full of water, trying to be revived. The water seems more sinister in daylight. Neck deep, chest deep and waist deep on all three sides. The side I had driven through the previous night is also flooded now. The rain has worked hard overnight. There is an entire community of stranded persons waking up that morning. Helpless, hungry and horrified. We bond.
I walk around to study the situation. There is a milk truck on the flyover above us. And an ambulance. There is an ocean in the parking lot of the National Institute of Ocean Technology. The road is rainbow coloured with all the oil from the broken down lorries. A cow licks a calf that’s lying on the road. Dogs hover around for a morsel of food from someone.
A man whose mother died that night had left the rest of his family in the island below and walked all the way to Adambakkam at 3 am. His wife and daughter sit in the car, helpless. The girl is in her nightie, with a plaster cast on her leg. A father carries his son on his shoulders and walks across the chest deep water towards Kamakoti Nagar. He comes back and takes the other son on his shoulders and makes another trip home.
A fire engine comes, looks around, and goes. A policeman in a fluorescent orange raincoat wades through the water all the way towards Balaji Dental College assessing the situation. A pickup truck comes with a boat. A man with a Stalin T shirt gets down and orders the boat to the other side, not mine. A group of people scramble in. Amma looks on benevolently from the half eaten posters on the flyover pillars. Oh, how I miss my phone camera.
One by one, people slowly start leaving, wading across the neck deep water
A group of men scramble on top of a water tanker and leave. Four men tie a plastic bag around the silencer of a car and push it across the waist deep water. There are two women inside the car. They push them safely to the other side and come back for the next car. They make two more such trips to get their motorbikes across the same way.
A group of people have waded through the water and are up on the flyover watching the spectacle below. Someone throws two packets of buns from the flyover. Two people catch it from below and the boys on the flyover clap. I fight back tears as my stomach growls in hunger.
And that is when my Guardian Angels Number 2 arrive. R and K from the office nearby. They bring a packet of biscuits and water for me and the other two women in another car. I use their phone to call home. It was my first morsel of food since breakfast the previous day. I break down. I roll up my windows and weep.
Things start to look up after that. R and K take me into their office. I stretch my legs and sit down on plush leather sofas. I’m not living under the flyover anymore. I’m still stranded and helpless, but I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach.
From the seventh floor, I look out of the window and the horror hits me even harder. It seems like the ocean has moved in and swallowed the city. Buses are submerged on both sides of the flyover. An i20 gently bobs up and down. A Honda City dances to the tunes of the water, turning wherever the water tells it to.
Soaked crowds arrive from Thoraipakkam after wading through thigh high water only to find themselves facing another river on the other side of the island under the flyover. They stop for a while, and decide to take the plunge again. They must get home. People arrive with their friends and trolley bags to the drier, safer haven of the office.
I lie down and sleep through the afternoon, through the rains, through the rest of the stories that unfold. . A snake bites someone and everyone rushes, carrying the victim to the hospital nearby. A lorry revvs the engine and drives through the water in full speed. The force of the water causes the people walking on the other side to fall down. The get up and continue their walk, cursing the lorry driver. A tractor comes from somewhere and shows off, driving back and forth through the water.
Jayalakshmi the security guard’s husband has walked all the way from Adambakkam to see how she is doing. I thought you would be sad with worry about me, but you look bright and beautiful like you just applied Fair and Lovely, he says. They kid around, a couple much in love. She asks him to stay back, but he has to get back home to his parents. She cries until she hears back from him that he’s reached. We all go to sleep with food in our stomachs and the hope that tomorrow will take us Home.
The Third of December, 2015
The next day dawns, grey and gloomy. We go outside to see if the water has receded. It has on one side, but my side remains stubbornly the same, at the sunken bus window level. There’s a crowd beyond the river on one side. Someone says that a body has washed up there. Someone else says three. A shiver runs through my entire body.
The only person who feels at home is Maheshwari, the woman who lives under the flyover. She walks around in glee, people-watching. You’ve been here since forever, she giggles to me. She asks me if I’d eaten. I wanted to offer you food, but I didn’t think you’d accept, she says. I would have, Maheshwari, I would have. She tells me about how she cooked for all the policemen. Narayanan, the security guard who guards All Things under the flyover joins the conversation. He brims over with pride when he tells me about the thakkali chutney he prepared in a jiffy and the Rs.60 a kilo rice he used to feed someone. He offers me poori or milk or something. I don’t want to waste the precious little he has, so I say no, touched by his hospitality.
Someone from the Tempo parked under the flyover takes out a bar of soap and starts washing his clothes in the flowing water. He’s a long distance driver and this is just another stopover for him. Again, I wish so badly that my phone hadn’t died. The whole thing seems surreal. I wait for him to start bathing. To my disappointment, he doesn’t.
A group of men come with crates of tomatoes. Maheshwari asks them for some, they refuse. They pick up a wooden board from somewhere to use as a raft to cart the tomatoes to the other side. Maheshwari picks a fight with them, it is her board she says and calls for help to the policemen. They don’t come, but Vanitha comes and stands on the board refusing to let them take it. The men mock the two women and a fight ensues over tomatoes and the wooden board. The men win and wade away with the crates of tomatoes to the other side as Maheshwari and Vanitha seethe in anger, helplessly watching their board and tomatoes float away. The men will make a killing selling them.
A water tanker stops and empties its load on the streets. Almost 30000 liters of clean watermafiaed water merges with the rain, lake and gutter water. Like emptying a bottle of water into the ocean.
A lorry carrying a boat bound for Mudichur breaks down. The boat has nowhere to go now, so we ask them to ply it to our side. They refuse. Central government boat, they say. Ask the collector, they say. The policeman tries to help. Someone negotiates with the boatmen and pays them Rs.3000 to ply him across to his family on the other side and then to bring them back. They make a clean Rs.6000. None of us have that kind of money.
We loiter around for some more time. Aimless, hopeless. Water has entered the basement of the office and they are forced to shut down the power supply. They tell us to leave.
Someone has finally negotiated with a boatman who has agreed to drop people across for Rs.100 per head. I don’t even have that kind of money. Will he take the 150 NOK in my purse, I wonder. K nods reassuringly and tells me he’ll pay for me. We pack our laptops and handbags in large black garbage bags and wait.
Women and children first, they say. Nah, whoever gives him money, says a cynical man. The boatman brings a family from the other side and drops them off. We look at him pleadingly. The friend of the family who was dropped off rushes and claims the boat. The boatman agrees to take three more people. Women and children first. R tells me to go. She has been with K so long, she will not leave without him. K stuffs some notes into Jayalakshmi’s hand, boatfare for both of us. We step into the boat and it rows away. In the boat, there’s also a doctor from Thiruporur who hasn’t been home to her six month old since Monday. The crowd on the flyover laughs and takes pictures of us.
Maybe we’ll live on social media for eternity. A dead rat floats in the water.
The bossy woman in our boat sees someone in another boat and demands that he climbs over to ours. The boatmen refuse to allow it and instead row both boats side by side. She gets off when he does, complaining that she wasn’t dropped off at her doorstep. The boatman talks about his three sisters and how we are the same to him. He rows a little further, the rest of us step out in calf-deep water and say our goodbyes to each other.
Beyond this point, it is like another world. I can see the road, the actual tar road with puddles in the potholes.
I lug my black garbage bag covered laptop and walk the rest of the way home.
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