By Dr Ananya Tupaki Sreepurna, MD
Chennai, Dec 8: Tuesday, the first of December, seemed ominous even as it began, with a sky all grey and downcast, blocking out the sun entirely. Monday had been the beginning of yet another work week in Chennai but had witnessed renewed rainfall after a respite of nearly a week, within which time the city had resumed some semblance of returning to routine. But just like the previous day however, I received a message on WhatsApp from my colleagues that today too had been declared a holiday for schools and educational institutions due to heavy rains. I slipped out of bed to make myself a cup of hot lemon honey water for the sore throat I had been nursing for a week. To my dismay, I found that I had lost my voice overnight and was feeling a good deal under the weather myself. I couldn’t make myself understood when I called my mother and resorted to texting her for our daily conversation instead.
Being under house arrest had become somewhat the norm ever since I returned to Chennai after celebrating Deepavali back home in Mangaluru. On my return, as I rode in the auto from CMBT to my rented apartment in the city, I had been startled to see the levels of water on the streets, and had taken pictures on my mobile phone to send to my family and friends (with the auto driver slowing down at places so I could get a good shot!).
But that had been the second week of November, and the weather had steadily turned sour like a bad romance from mid-November to end, with a lot of people displaced and having to be rescued. By the month end however, when the Sun returned, I dare say all of us thought the worst was behind us, but Tuesday taught us and how!
Brunch time and I had decided to make myself some soothing hot rice congee to eat with Dodda’s pickle and popped the rice-plus-salt-plus-ghee-plus-water into the microwave (Having no gas connection, I manage all my cooking with an induction cooker and microwave oven). Just a few minutes later, the power went down… and the real nightmare began. Now power cuts in Chennai aren’t unheard of but are of short duration, at least in my locality. I was fully expecting it back in a few minutes but only later in the day did I find out that the electricity had been turned down to prevent live wire disasters.
No lights indoors and no sun outdoors made for an ambience that called for candles at 11 am! My emergency light was out of order but I remembered I possessed two scented candles somewhere and used my mobile torch light to dig them out. I lit one and checked on my half-cooked congee, half-hoping the still hot water would finish the job in some time. A small wave of dejection washed over me then but I decided to step above it and called my mother to give her the latest updates. We both hadn’t realized the seriousness of the situation then, and I even considered braving the wet streets and going to my institute which would be open even though it was officially a holiday, to get some work done, as backup power would be available there, rather than sit at home in the dark to finish off the one candle I was left with. Goodness be thanked I decided against it, (the reason being I couldn’t be bothered getting ready in semi darkness) for if I had, I would have probably been stranded on the way and my story perhaps would have been quite different.
I was almost out of groceries and had placed a big order on BigBasket the previous day, which was slated to be delivered sometime during the day. Hoping against hope that the order was still under process, I kept my mobile phone turned on for any latest updates or calls (which didn’t help its draining battery any), only to receive a call from them around 1 PM that due to heavy rains, the order had been cancelled. Another wave of dejection washed over me. I tried to stamp out this one too but it seemed bigger. I checked my half-cooked rice dish in the microwave but it wasn’t edible yet.
Considered chopping a cucumber but decided against it on account of my sore throat.
I was just about to start on grating a coconut to make a simple dish along with jaggery and puffed rice, when there was a knock on my door and I found my neighbor and the building caretaker asking me to check my bathroom for water. When I did, I was genuinely aghast to find my bathroom floor filled with stinking sewage water, almost about to spill over into the adjacent room! I stepped out of my ground floor apartment to see my building completely surrounded by water, one more drop and it would have to spill over onto our doorsteps. The waters next to sewage pipes just outside my bathroom had risen as well, with cockroaches in groves seeking refuge high up on the walls (to be seen to be believed!).I borrowed a Crocin from my neighbor and she and I decided to head up to the first floor if things took a turn for the worse during the course of the day. Even as we said this, the waters started coming towards us in gentle, unstoppable laps. It unfortunately reminded me of the initial scenes of the second half of the movie Titanic.
When I went back indoors, a heavy dark feeling of isolation and homesickness descended over me and I couldn’t shake it off. It was around 2.30 in the afternoon but felt more like 8.30 pm. My prospects looked just as dim – with no food, light and dry ground fast disappearing all around me and conditions only expected to worsen over the next days. My friends lived at a considerable distance in the city. I tried calling my mother again but the network was beginning to fail. My father was travelling that day and I failed to reach him too. A sort of true panic set in on the thirtieth or so time I tried and failed to connect. I went out the balcony to get a signal, only to be attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes! I went back in, leaving the door open a crack and retried. Amidst these attempts, I successfully reached my parents and explained the situation. ‘Come home’, they said. I wanted to catch a flight home and booked a flight for early next morning at 7 am and even checked-in online.
Around 3.30 pm, my landlord and his wife paid me a visit to check in on me and the state of things because my father had given them a call. Both of them stood on the doorstep, completely drenched and dripping wet, asking me if I was ok. They even offered to take me to their in-laws place where I could stay over the next few days if necessary. While I thanked them profusely for their kindness, I told them I wished to go home and had booked myself on a 7 am flight. They expressed their doubts about the airport even being functional the next day and advised me to check if flights were cancelled and book a ride to the airport well in advance and took their leave. I switched on my laptop and connected my mobile phone to the USB port to charge it some. The ever reliable Ola cab service seemed down and out. I tried to get a few numbers of private taxis from JustDial but the numbers just rang without response. My flight seemed to be fast getting out of my reach and I was finally near tears!
There was a knock on my door again at that time – my landlord and his lady again, along with my neighbor, advising me that it was best if I tried to get out right NOW, within the hour. My best bet they said was to try and catch a bus/auto/metro to CMBT and get on a bus home. At the same moment, it dawned on me that I needed to kick myself into action and do just that. I said I would try and coincidentally, just as though to help me, the power came back on at that time. I went into overdrive – plugged in my phone to charge, finished cooking my congee, ate for the first time in the day, packed some more food for the journey ahead, stuffed some clothes in a backpack (my half-dried laundry from the clothes line went in too but in a separate plastic bag). The new outfits I had purchased for my cousin’s wedding the next week went in a separate shoulder bag and my most essential laptop and charger went in another backpack. I made sure I left nothing on the floor and noticed the sewage water had already filled one length of the room adjacent to the bathroom before I stepped out and locked the front door behind me.
All the people in my building had gathered around the steps and were watching the rains pounding incessantly. I told them that I would try to get a ride to CMBT Koyambedubut would come back if I wasn’t able to. Balancing two backpacks, a shoulder bag and an umbrella, I stepped out into the rain, gingerly wading through shin-level waters, praying to God and hoping like hell I wouldn’t trip over something, lose my balance and fall. Luckily for me, I live just about 50 metres from the Virugambakkam bus stop and I perked up when I saw quite a few people standing there. There was water flooding the Arcot Road, peppered with some barricades and stalled vehicles. I stood with my bags, fervently hoping I wouldn’t have to turn back in vain.
As I waited, I didn’t see any buses but a couple of autos went by without stopping. I flagged down the next auto, earnestly waving my arms, making eye contact with the driver and saying ‘auto auto’. I swear my heart did somersaults of joy when the driver turned his left blinker on and came towards me. ‘Koyambedu bus stop, Please’, I said, half-afraid he would refuse but he said ‘Ok, but 200 rupees’, which wasn’t bad at all considering the usual rate was 125 rupees! I got in with my bags and we slowly made our way towards CMBT through KaliammanKoil Street. The road was majorly flooded in some areas, the water almost entering inside the auto. Dry patches were rare. I saw a patrol vehicle of the Chennai Traffic Police trying to maintain order amidst the chaos. I saw an old man riding his bicycle! I saw a young man walking with blood trickling down his forehead. When we reached the area of the Koyambedu Flower Market, the auto driver said I could get down here and cut across to the side entrance of the bus stop. But the entire stretch was flooded and the water looked treacherously deep, unnegotiable especially with baggage. I asked my driver to drop me at the front entrance for 50 rupees extra, which he did without complaint. I got down at the entrance of CMBT at Koyambedu and paid him 250 rupees with utmost gratitude!
Inside the bus terminus, it was dry and I allowed myself a hot cup of tea. Feeling much better, I made my way towards the far end of Platform 1, where Kannada and the KSRTC buses began. It was around 6 pm then and I bought myself a direct ticket to Mangaluru on the midnight bus. I let myself relax after making sure the bus had arrived and wouldn’t be cancelled. During the long wait, I even met a kind gentleman who bought me medicines for my sore throat. At midnight, when our multi-axle bus waded through the waterlogged streets effortlessly, my mind flashed back to me trying to maneuver the same earlier in the day! I was so grateful to be on my way home!
As a single lady working in Chennai, I feel so much gratitude to those that helped me during the beginning of the crisis itself, allowing me to come home to my family. Thank you, Chennai. As a clinical microbiologist, I know a huge responsibility lies ahead of us in the aftermath of the floods. I pray we stand up to our duties as citizens of the world and increase our preparedness for events such as these, man-made or natural.
Dr Ananya Tupaki Sreepurna is a clinical microbiologist and currently pursuing an integrated MD-PhD under an Indian Council of Medical Research Fellowship at Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute, Chennai. Born and brought up in Mangaluru, she is an alumnus of Father Muller Medical College, Kankanady. Her personality is decidedly Type B and she likes to take life as it comes and dabble in her many passions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org