After the waters recede…

Posted on December 14, 2015


What some of us are feeling now, it’s vague, hard to put into words. And at least part of it is a little existential. Why were we spared? You don’t think this when you hear of shootings in America or earthquakes in Nepal. You register the horror, and do what you can – sign a petition, write a cheque – and you move on. But this thing, it happened in our backyard. It could have been us. And while we still think we need to move on, there’s a little PTSD mixed in with all of it, which no amount of volunteering and cheque-writing and petition-signing can fix. America and Nepal aren’t home. Chennai is. And when we are attacked in our own homes – and when we know there’s nothing we can do about it – something’s going to get out of whack. It’s like being that one student who survives one of those American school shootings. In some corner of the brain, the bullets are still zinging around.

I’m trying not to make too big a deal about this. Because in some ways, I have moved on. There was a family celebration recently, a zero-number birthday, and we went out, had dinner at a nice place. The money I spent, I didn’t feel… guilty about it, exactly. After all, some of my money has found its way to relief organisations. And we can’t stop living, right? Life goes on, right? But when I handed over my credit card, I felt weird. I think I understood – rather, felt – for the first time what Siddhartha must have felt when he stepped out of the palace and saw people who did not have the privileges he did. Again, I’m trying not to make too big a deal about this – but these are big thoughts, big emotions. About, through some freakishly random accident, being born into a certain kind of family, having all kinds of opportunities, having the freedom to chuck a phenomenally well-paying job and pursue a maybe-it’ll-work career in another field, now living in a flat in a high-lying area that floodwaters couldn’t reach – all of which led to this evening where I’m taking a casual look at the bill and handing out my credit card. Maybe people who believe in that God chappie have an easier time processing these things? After all, it’s someone else’s doing, we are but limply dangling puppets, et cetera.

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Another part of this vagueness, this itch that cannot be scratched, is more concrete – it’s about how we have to take care of ourselves because our elected representatives aren’t going to do it for us. As much as my heart filled with warmth on seeing us take it upon ourselves to wade in and help out, it was chilling to realise that we had to do this in the first place, that there are no systems in place, that water from reservoirs can be released at random, that you can see your life being washed away even if you’re not living in a makeshift slum, even if your walls are made of water-resistant concrete. The tsunami of a decade ago was easier to grapple with. There was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. It triggered other earthquakes, in places as far away as Alaska. There’s nothing anyone could have done. Causes this cosmic are somehow easier to come to terms with than drains that weren’t desilted, houses that were built where they shouldn’t have been built. These are things we could have, should have, done something about. As always, the price is being paid by people who weren’t even shopping.

So though we’ve begun to eat out and watch movies and take vacations and post smiling selfies on Facebook again, some of us are going to have to do something about this vague feeling. Maybe it will pass. Maybe we’ll get busy with work again and, with time, get over it. But maybe this feeling will persist, and we’ll have to do something about it, not just caring about those around us – the domestic help, the auto driver, the watchman – who we’ve always cared about, but doing something for the city at large. Maybe we’ll finally learn to say no to plastic bags. Maybe we’ll consume less, maybe the slatted mango-wood chair that we just had to have will not prove so indispensable anymore. It’s hard to say now how and when (and if) things will begin looking the way they used to – I said I wouldn’t make too big a deal about this, and I think I already have. But then, this is something new some of us are feeling, some version of survivor’s guilt, and maybe it’s worth making at least a small deal about.

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