Lives in transit

Posted on December 7, 2015


As trains thunder overhead, a flood-displaced family waits to return home.

It’s Saturday. The sun is out. It has been out for a day or two now, but today’s sun feels different. It’s brighter, warmer. It feels like a promise. Some of the streets are dry – they’re dull and grey, the way we like it, and not black and shiny, the way they’ve been for what appears an eternity now. They have no memory of the morning’s rains – and there have been rains since the big deluge of Monday decided it had had enough. This morning. Sometime around midnight. Most frighteningly, last afternoon, when, for an hour or so, it appeared that it was beginning all over again. But it stopped after a while. These on and off showers always seem to stop after a while. And at least some of us have stopped being afraid of them. We treat them like regular rains. We wait it out. Then we set out. The rains of Monday were different. They weren’t even rains. We’ll have to invent a new word for something of that magnitude, something that monstrous.

But though the skies seem clear, the earth tells a different story. People from other parts of Chennai, other parts of Tamil Nadu, will tell you other stories. Thousands of them are still marooned in little concrete islands, previously known as apartment buildings. The water around is ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, neck-deep. Today’s sun isn’t enough to make it all magically go away. Ground-floor flats are submerged, and the people who lived there are on the first floor, with neighbours they may not even have gotten along with. But battles over loud television sets keeping you awake at night – First World problems, some might say – are no longer important, especially when many of those television sets have been warped by water and will never play anything again. At the other end of the economic spectrum, you have those who lived in huts that no longer exist. Many of these people have moved to schools, marriage halls, malls, cinema theatres, paradisiacal hotels they could not dream of entering earlier.

And then you have someone like forty-five-year-old Rajeswari, who exists somewhere in between, somewhere between rich and poor, have and have-not. Till the rains came, she belonged to a household with a monthly income of Rs. 25,000. Her husband Chandran, a year older, brought home Rs. 8000 – he works in an electrical shop in Mylapore. Their older son works as a mason in the numerous under-construction buildings that have been singled out as one of the major causes of this disaster. Now, he’s unemployed. No one’s building anything till they can gauge the extent of damage on whatever they’re building. The middle son works as a private driver, Rs. 12000 a month.  Minus the rent – Rs. 8000 for a two-bedroom flat in Velachery, plus change for utilities – there was about Rs. 15000 to run the household. They had a television set, a fridge, a washing machine. It wasn’t a bad life.

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Today, Rajeswari and her family are at the Indira Nagar station of the Mass Rapid Transit System, the elevated local railway line operated by Southern Railways. Their possessions: the clothes on them, plus the sheet they sleep on, part of a banner that once advertised the Kaizen 4M checklist for manufacturing industries: “Men, Machines, Material, Method.” Since the rains began around Deepavali, Rajeswari’s house has been water-logged. The first bout of rains left the family ankle-deep in water. In the next spell, the water rose to the knees. But they could still sit on the three beds at home. Then, Monday happened. 119.73 centimeters of rain, breaking a 100-year-old record – and all hell broke loose.

The water kept rising. The sons created an island by putting one bed on top of another, and when the water still kept rising, the third bed was put on top. Chandran said it was worse outside, near the gate – in his words, the water level was one-and-a-half-men deep. He used his height as a measure – he stands at about five-foot-four, though his crutches make him look smaller. His right leg was maimed in 1998, when a lorry rammed into his bicycle. He was admitted to Stanley Hospital, where he met one of those lawyers who swoop in on “accident cases.” The lawyer said he could go to court. He did. Five years later, he received compensation from the transport company: Rs. 5.25 lakh. After paying off the lawyer and others, Chandran took his family to his hometown – Tiruvannamalai, about 190 kilometres from Chennai – and, with the Rs. 3 lakh that remained, he set up a shop that sold bead ornaments. He lost money and the family moved to Puducherry, where Chandran manned an STD phone booth. That didn’t work either. Finally, the family moved back to Chennai. Finally, things began to look up.

For three days, Chandran and his grandchildren – three-year-old Ritish, one-and-a-half-year-old Hari – sat on the loft, beside the television set that was rescued from rising waters and laid face-down. But Rajeswari and the others needed to keep moving. Milk had to be boiled for the children, meals needed to be prepared on the pump stove kept on a high shelf made higher with bricks from a nearby construction site. So Rajeswari would descend into chest-deep water, sometimes pushing away the odd snake. Then she’d go back up. On the fourth day, she knew this couldn’t continue. On one of the rare times it wasn’t raining, she went to the terrace and saw a boat. Chandran and the children were packed off to Indira Nagar. (The ride to the nearest road that wasn’t water-logged cost Rs. 100, pretty cheap given the circumstances, and given the city’s experience with grotesquely inflated auto-rickshaw rates.) They used to live there before they moved to Velachery, and their old neighbour – the owner of a tea shop – was happy to have them. Thursday night, Rajeswari and her sons decided there was no use sticking around. The washing machine was under water, as was the fridge. Whatever was in the almirahs was wet as well. What was there to steal? Besides, the neighbours had left long ago. So they took a boat and left too.

They’ve been at Indira Nagar since. They’re not the only ones in an MRTS station. The Chintadripet station is filled with hundreds of people. This morning, they were queuing up because mats and blankets were being distributed. But Rajeswari and her family seem to be the only flood victims in Indira Nagar during the day. At night, they move to the friend’s house, just behind the station. They have no money, but food isn’t a problem. Last night, a policeman gave them chapattis. This morning, two college students from Triplicane, Srinivas and Prakash, came by on bikes and dropped off food and supplies: cartons of upma, a one-litre sachet of Thirumala milk (the government-owned brand, Aavin, has just resumed supply, and sachets are vanishing like magic), Good Day biscuits, and candles.

The boys got together with friends and pooled in money – a couple of hundred here, a couple of hundred there – to buy the milk and biscuits and candles. The upma, though, was made this morning in Sri Raghavendra Mandapam, a marriage hall in Triplicane. A lot of it was picked up by volunteers doing relief work in Tambaram, Mylapore and Velachery. Srinivas (a final-year Engineering student at Panimalar Institute of Technology) and Prakash (B.Com. at DG Vaishnav College) decided to cover other areas, like these railway stations, which, like Rajeswari’s family, fall somewhere in the middle, neither homes nor relief camps. Yesterday, Srinivas and Prakash attended the wedding of a friend, someone who, like many in the city, must have decided that enough is enough, that life must go on. They asked if they could have the leftover food, which they then distributed in places like Chintadripet and Aminjikarai. Today is their first day here. Their streets weren’t affected by the rains, they said, underlining how unfair the rains must have seemed to people like Rajeswari. It’s not just that they lost everything. There were others who lost nothing.

Thirty-seven-year-old Gandhi Nagar resident Mohammed Sharif also comes bearing food. He hasn’t had power from Tuesday morning. Supply was restored just last night. That means the minute things became some kind of normal again, his wife prepared some rice, chopped potatoes and made a curry, and he packed all of this into boxes and came here. But his voluntary work isn’t flood-related. He’s been doing this for a year now. Whenever he gets time off from his job (an IT company in Taramani), he and his wife prepare food that he packs into foil containers he purchases at Parry’s Corner. He then makes his rounds, distributing this food to the less-fortunate who aren’t always visible – like Rajeswari, like the man further down whose name no one knows and who keeps to himself.

Rajeswari is thankful to have people – these boys, this man – looking out for her, but she wants to go back home. The worst, after all, seems to be over. The streetlights have come back on. At least some kind of mobile connectivity is back, even if people claim to be on top of water tanks as they make their calls and reconnect with friends and family. But she cannot go back until the water goes. Tomorrow, her older son will go to their street in Velachery and see how things are. It’s not going to be easy. The TVS-50 which Chandran rode to work will have to be resurrected from whatever being underwater does to mopeds. And the electrical shop was underwater too, so he may not even have a place to go back to work to. But for now, just some sense of permanence would be a start.

PS: It’s Sunday now. The sun is gone. The rains are back.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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