The sheer darkness, the eerie silence, punctuated by a hollow, harrowing whisper of the wind welcomes me to Wednesday morning. A silent walk unto the balcony fills me with a bitter sweet, gripping feeling, as I anticipate what joys this day will bring and the fear of just how much damage the evening-night long rain has done. My room mates in toe, we gasp at the sight before us.
Well for starters we discover the darkness is a passing cloud. We are also surrounded by water. So so much water. The floods are now waist length judging by the locals wading through them. The land cruiser parked outside is covered almost upto the doors and there are so many howling dogs.
There’s a smaller car but I hardly notice it. Later to be told that it was completely submerged. (In retrospect..at this point, it would have been somewhere on the Windows, three quarter way or something. )
It’s safe to say no car would get to us. And even if it did, it would mean jumping in through the window which would be rather chaotic if you ask me. Plus with the increased weight to the car..I hardly think it would be safe.
Back into the rooms and I have breakfast and hurdle back into bed. Taking that novel that I did not manage to finish yesterday I cuddle up and continue with my escape from this reality. Buried in the book, I hardly notice it’s raining again but when I do, it really does take courage to NOT feel trapped. One thing is for sure though I’m upset with the rain. I really had wanted to do more with my day.
Lunch time and our calls to Thalapakattu (our local food joint) go unanswered. One goes through and they solemnly tell us that they have closed not only the home delivery but the shop as well. That’s unusual why would a restaurant that closes so late be closed at 1pm surely. I take a walk to the balcony and I am honestly beyond words. It’s been three hours but my goodness! The water has moved from waist length to chest almost neck length. The the land cruiser has almost been towered and the small sedan is completely submerged.
After the scramble for the few snacks bought the previous day, I start my room visits to my friends’ rooms . There are many stories. Two snakes have been spotted, apparently big, swimming in the river, there’s an apparent family of pigs and its hard to not know of the dogs stranded on the road. They are so many and so sad! They have cried so much all day.
Despair sinks in as it hits me just how bad the situation is. In the comfort of my bed and hotel room, everything seems normal, just a chilled day in with slight rains. But outside there, it’s no joke, it’s literally a mess. And no one can fault mother nature for it.
Watching from whatever balcony I get its almost sinks my soul to watch grown men almost submerged but trudging on forward to the only homes they know. Children are on the roof tops, without any protective clothes and women scrambling for whatever they can get. It’s hard to imagine that only yesterday the roads were clear and accessible. From where we stand, its evident the roads have been closed.
The wading men have taken to chanting some kind of song that mostly sounds like screaming and the rest like shouting …
Their own version of “Steam steam, Panda! ” or “I don’t know what you’ve been told ..”
Theirs is a scary rhythm though, at least for I the listener, but to them its a loud resounding assurance that they are not alone, that their friends aren’t lost to the sea and that together they can beat this waters.
As I sink even farther into despair, I hear the sound of the pigs and following it I see them hurdled together, a cute little family of three, perched on a tree because honestly I don’t see where else they would be standing. They are so brave, so united and so determined. They give me so much hope.
You know, if I think I got it bad, look at them? No food, literally in the water, where if a snake won’t catch them, a hungry man tired of the hunger can capture and roast them. So who am I to complain?
There’s a broken dam we are told, water levels by evening are a scary almost 20feet. Ground floor is completely submerged and the water has risen to first floor… I’m on second floor any more rains and even the comfort of my bed will be gone. There are beautiful beautiful cream leather couches floating and even the animals have stopped crying.
Somehow…by God’s grace, one of us, accompanied by the locals had managed to get to leave the place and go to dominoes and we all contribute 500Rupees to get food. He is very brave, especially given his height 🙂 but he trudged on. He later tells me, there was a time as he honestly wondered why In the hell he was there. Apparently they had to walk in a line as the locals expertly found the most shallowest of places but even then at chest-neck length …what is shallow?
With our one meal a day plan, you struggle to find something to do. Something to distract yourself and when your phone or whatever gadget it is you fancy is no longer useful, having no charge and all, can prove to be the hardest thing in life. Slowly, you go back to the basics, you know actually talking, face to face without side glances on the blinking gadget on your right and rediscover the joys of a good book(well until the sun and all its light sets. In Chennai that means 5:40/5:43 and then darkness sinks in…not slowly in a beautiful entrancing, modest way, but as If someone up there was holding on to it but the sheer weight of it was so much they just dropped it. )
Nightfall and a new concern develops, first our candles are dying out. Meaning no lights completely, or using it so sparingly so that you save it. There are no candles in the shops, If at all they are still open as has been reported by those brave enough to venture outside. We take to all collecting in one room, to cheer and make merry as we all share the few remaining candles.
Two, we can not communicate, the few phones still remaining with power are literally unable to access any network. All cell towers are apparently closed or something or the other because our phones have no network bars (by our, I mean those who still have charge, we are becoming such a unit that any available resource is almost that of the community, except power banks of course those its each man on their own.
Our major concern, however, is drinking water. The water dispensing bottles in the bottles have no remaining water in them, thank God, as a room we had fetched water in each available bottle and I mean each! Our taps still have water though and we know we can manage for a while.
We struggle and talk almost all through the night. Each of us making sure to sleep as late as possible, to shorten their next day and therefore be able to survive the one meal a day plan. Without breakfast, at least lunch and supper can be eaten. Some would skip lunch have a heavy supper. The guys …the guys we felt for. An African man is groomed to eat and be strong. Feeding all meals and in substantial amounts. Someone used to downing Ugali (a home meal, like porridge but made four times thicker and firm that you can pinch it off and form a ball), now made to make due with a plate of white rice and five pieces of Manchurian chicken that’s so little even a baby wouldnt struggle finishing! And even more split that piecemeal to serve him the whole day, never mind that with the heat and panic our metabolism has significantly increased.
We have literally colonised the whole building by now, seeing as we are the only ones literally in the building, all other clients were either evacuated without our knowledge or just left. Even the hoteliers are gone and we are left with one man who thank God helps us with getting food. One of us says that they were asked why we hadn’t evacuated yet and the government had called for a mass evacuation of us all, especially in Pallikaranai and Perumbakam (among the worst hit areas ) I say that with a laugh because we live in Pallikaranai and Global Hospital where we were studying is at the heart of Perumbakam.
By day 3, we wake up to find we have a new scare! WATER, with power gone, there’s no longer a pump and therefore the water that was already in the pipeline is what we have left. We fetch
water, some do laundry, and we all shower before all water dries up. Every house (each with 5/4) has only two buckets of water and some did not manage to even fetch that.
Over the next few days, luxuries such as a proper bath have been reduced to using half a bucket to quater to even jugs and we exercise our sphincter muscles to ensure we don’t go for a long call because I mean what would follow next? And such stink bombs with no AC and normal temperatures constantly at 26-27°C how would one survive? I know of a friend who literally held off on going for two days almost three. Oi
As days trudge on, we literally lose track of days and time. Our world morphing into just the thirty two of us, with one soldier so far apart from us, it seems like he was never with us. The last we heard of him was that he got evacuated from the hospital(as he lived there) and is safe and for that we were happy. At least he was safe you know?
When your whole world morphs into thirty individuals, you know the value of friendship and true brother hood. The men would go out to get us food, the one meal that I was describing earlier, which moved from Dominoes, to white rice and Manchurian, dry I must say, I have never seen a drier meal! And then white rice and butter chicken the next day. Somehow we survived with the little water and food.. And no lights and no communication.
At some point it literally felt like we were on a reality show, like genuinely, you would wake up expecting to hear, so you’ve been pranked, or to see cameras or something, the water levels reduced and then it would bloody rain again.. prayers slowly receded and despair sank in so so deep. The three pigs, they gave me so so Much hope. They fought through it all…out there cold and wet, in a tiny hill, and I felt like Noah, seeing the world through a boat..using pigs as my hope and land mark.
By day four I was so distraught, everyone fighting frustration the best way they knew how … And there weren’t many options. I remember a time that when we sat on a bed, ten estrogens and one testerone, laughing and saying what we would do when we got out, going between despair and hope so much so that we got our own balance while snacking on all brands of cornflakes that we had (I recommend strawberry flavoured if you are a sweet tooth- hehe they brought us such joy those cornflakes..all of us exclaiming on how unbelievably good they were).
We found a good chillled out place where the hope and despair just blend into a nice comfort zone and we marooned in it.
That was the day the inspector of Police came and gave us Relief food! Would you believe! I had never in my life imagined I would ever be in a position that would see me as a receiver of relief food and water. It was such a humbling yet comical moment. All those news you see on the TV or hear about in such a dissociative manner hit home and you see how short life is. You value their lives, all those people whom you had heard about but not thought about much who year in year out need relief food or some medical help or are trapped in a war or whatever it might be.
Turns out in India Relief food is chicken flavoured or peanut flavored or masala flavored rice. Really sweet by the way. And biscuits and tiny chocolates and water in a plastic bag. I was impressed to say the least.
The men had managed to go out and have our phones partly charged and the struggle to call home began. Thou has never felt as alone as when thou was once relaxed then realized everyone is trying to look for you and you honestly just can’t get to them. I was so frustrated. Every call, nothing was going through, the ambassador also frantically trying to get to us as parents and loved ones bombarded her with questions as to our where abouts.
It’s frustrating and crazy, we sat on that roof top for hours just trying to get calls home.
Later that night, we would sit together later that day and wonder what we had done wrong. We joked that maybe it was our sins that had caused this and had a confession session, a hearty, laughter filled one but a confession all the same as we literally kept resuscitating the last remaining candle. India show cased many talents, from dancing to singing, to hair making but this candle one was new. We would take the wax that had burnt out in the “dead” candle, melt it around the last living one so that the wick wouldn’t die out. It survived a staggering three hours in which we continued with confessions lol and played charades. We continued bonding even after it died out and talked all through most of the night.
Alas the next day relief came! The embassy and our parents had worked something out and we were evacuated, yes I said it, evacuated. We were going home!!!
I dont know if it makes sense but
much as you are relieved you feel cheated. There was so much you had wanted to and will not accomplish and its beyond your control. We were grateful though, boy were we grateful, for that bus that came outside to take us.
The water had receded yes, but the news was that they were expecting heavy rains, and no one would risk that. Not for anything. We were taken to Bangalore, a beautiful town with such nice people and malls! Hehe and true to word we did eat as much as we had promised to.
As I write this, I’m on a plane, slowly descending to touch ground. I got up so early, and was at the airport a whole four hours before my flight. Talk about eager! Not that I don’t love it here, but cause I am honestly tired and I want to go home.
Some of my friends are in Bombay, stuck at the airport as their flight was overbooked but they’ll get home. Others are at the hotel, flying out either today or tomorrow. They are no longer colleagues but genuine friends. The comrades who like that pig family fought through it and for some are continuing to fight through it all. I will miss India and I will miss them, so so much Chennai gave me the scare of my life but at least it gave me this good people to work through it all. It was also eye opening. Anything would have happened down there. We could have been carried by the waters, or suffered starvation or dehydration not to mention the numerous public health hazards just outside our door but none of that happened and we thank God.
At the end of it all you learn there are three basic needs, food, shelter and water. Yes water. The very same water that nearly killed us. And you learn that in the midst of it all there are real MVPs. People who rise to the occasion when all hope is lost and fight to make sure that you are fine. Such are true friends, people who make you laugh when you want to cry, the clowns that just made life worth living, the comments and diwalis that just cracked you up and those who when discipline and leadership was needed took up their role. Such are true men and women.
To my friends, BBI, Cheers mamguyses! We made it! And we’ll keep making it. The embassy, our parents and loved ones who fought to bring us out safely. Thank you. We love you.
And for Chennai, May the Lord bless this land and your people and may the rains cease and may your lives afterwards be better much better than it was before.
I’m coming home Kenya. Land of my dreams. I love you and appreciate you even more.