I’ve been struggling to verbalise what I feel since my city started sinking on the 1st of December. It’s taken me 13 days to finally sit down and attempt to put these thoughts into words. Forgive me if I’m not entirely coherent, for these past days have been extraordinary in more ways than one.
The first day of December will remain forever etched in my mind. Only a stroke of incredibly good luck got me out of office and back to my parents’ home that evening. Things were still looking manageable when I got home around 6 that evening. Little did I know that the next three days would be a roller coaster of emotions. Little did I realise that this city that I so love would sink in ways that none of us ever imagined it would. Even when the power went off at 8 that night, I only grumbled a bit about the inconvenience caused, never realising that parts of my city were already under water. Only later that evening when I started seeing tweets about people stranded on their way home did I realise that this wasn’t going to end just yet. I remember being amazed at the generosity of common people like you and me, who threw their homes open to complete strangers stranded in the rains, offering them food, wifi and a place to sleep. I didn’t know then that this was only the beginning.
For the next three days, cut off from the rest of the world, with no power or network, I didn’t quite know what was happening. The road before the house was waist deep in water. Inner roads were flooded till the neck. Back home, I managed to ascertain that S and the FIL were fine but had no power or network either. I heard from friends, neighbours and well-wishers that Nanganallur was fine and with very little flooding. I heaved a sigh of relief. I got my parents out to the safety of my aunt’s house and we all treated it like a quirk of fate that brought the family together under a single roof after all these years. Even when my cousin called on the evening of Wednesday in panic asking if we needed to be rescued, we put it down to unnecessary panic. We didn’t know that people were indeed being rescued by helicopters in many parts of the city.
It’s only when I got reconnected to the Internet on Friday afternoon did I come to realise the magnitude of the tragedy. I was seeing tweets for help, cries of distress, common citizens rally together to hold afloat a sinking city. And by then, the worst was already over. As I progressively got back to civilisation, I was struck. Struck by random strangers answering calls for help. People in other cities reaching out to volunteers and the rescue forces on the ground to provide information. I saw common people come together and cook meals for the displaced. I saw places of worship throw their doors open to everyone and shelter them for the days to come. What I saw filled my heart with an unspeakable gratitude for the goodness innate in people. I personally sent out an appeal for rescue of a trapped friend that was retweeted and shared about 100 times. It warms my heart that help reached less than three hours after the first appeal went out on Twitter. Used as I am to seeing bitterness and rancour, outrage and politics, I was surprised that my Twitter feed was almost entirely filled with tweets asking for or offering help. That is still the case, 13 days after the tragedy. I see people still tweet about rehabilitation, relief, clean-up and the like.
Born and raised in Chennai, I always associated my hometown with a distinct lack of respect for the other. Friends hailing from places like Coimbatore, including and especially S, have never failed to point out that Chennaiites lack basic manners. But in the aftermath of the floods, I realise that a sea of humanity still exists in this city. Ten years later, the death toll and the flooding will become a statistic, but those who helped me, my family and friends will forever remain etched in my memory. I may not remember the day the roads of my city turned into an ocean, but I will always remember random strangers who offered help unsolicited, asked after my well-being, and ensured my family and friends were safe.
Maybe it required a wall of water to turn this selfish, disrespecting mass of people into something we are all proud of. They say disaster brings out the worst in people. But, for me, this disaster has indeed brought out the best of Chennai. May you always remain this way, my beloved city.