Notes from the surviving city

I’m home today after living through the first natural calamity in my life. I’m dry and clean and well-fed. My family is safe. Outside my window the sky is bright. And only the puddles of water surrounded by debris remains of the horrors of the past two days. Its not just my legs that are numb. Of all the ironies….just after writing a post titled ‘A Dali dream’…I’ve lived through it.

Tuesday began like any other day, if anything…bright and sunny in the morning. I got to office and work proceeded as on any other week-day. It started raining and my colleagues ragged me a bit (everyone appears to know just how much I lurrrve the monsoon!) I joked that I’d decided that I would like the rains and perhaps with my luck, it would stop then. Lunchtime came and went and I took a little stroll outside in the rain, in an attempt to get acquainted with the ‘romantic side’ of this weather. An hour later, I went out again to inspect water levels and we agreed it was flooded…but so what, that happened every three days.

At 1600 when I saw a colleague who stays close to me, leaving, is when it occured to me that this may just be THE downpour that occurs at least once every Mumbai monsoon and floods up the city. I left with him and in the cab I thought quite optimistically, that if the rain continued I’d be home in 3 hours. An hour later we hadn’t moved an inch so we decided to get down and walk. We stopped walking 6 hours later when we reached the only reasonably dry place we could find. And it still wasn’t home.

It was like reality was being forced into our faces and that super-reality drove all other thoughts from my head. The human nature is amazingly resilient. People were just walking, talking, stumbling, getting up and moving on. The telephone connections went down immediately. Till yesterday afternoon, my family didn’t know if I was safe and I had no clue about their whearabouts either. This is the first time my family had no idea where I spent the night and when I finally got home my father said, “I knew you could manage. I told your mother that you wouldn’t make any decisions without due consideration.” This is the best thing I’ve heard in years.

In retrospect I’m appalled at the way the situation turned out. Of course it was a natural calamity and no one could have forseen it. However in the entire experience I did not see ONE single police office, traffic policeman, fire engine or ambulance. The police stations that I passed were shut. Today my friend in South Mumbai tells me that the cops had cordoned off the flooded areas and issued warnings over the best routes to take. Apparantly Mumbai ends at Worli for the higher powers-that-be. And the rest of the city where over 80% of the population lives and works can just go to hell.

I am bitter about that but the sights I saw on my way back give me hope. It makes me believe that when the real Mumbai faces a problem, it finds ways to help itself…..and heal itself.

But yet, I’m left with disturbing images of pavement dwellers huddling under a plastic sheet, kids getting swept off their feet, the landslides reported on the news and that unidentified dead man floating in Juhu circle. Somewhere, somehow these very same images collide and mingle with the sight of street kids splashing and swimming in the flood and strangers sharing a pot-luck picnic sitting on the divider of the highway. The Dali dream will haunt me for a long time to come….

I got home yesterday at 1900 after the worst on this side had passed. The water had gone upto 6 feet. The people on the ground floors of my building had nearly drowned. Cars had gotten filled up and furniture was floating out of houses.

We didn’t have electricity till about two hours back. There was no water anywhere, to drink or to wash with. The government warns that epidemics may spread because of contamination. The shops are all out of bottled water or bread. I never appreciated just how comfortable my life usually is.

It was a mixture of experiences and emotions. In the worst rain that the city has seen in over a century, I saw Mumbai’s best side. It is a side I don’t pay enough attention to, in my daily schedule. Recently someone left a comment on my post asking why I still stay here if I dislike the crowds so much. The comment said “Don’t say the spirit or the people or something like that.” I replied talking about the freedom of travelling alone and that I’d leave if I had another alternative. I was wrong.
Mumbai doesn’t run on its vast public transport system. It doesn’t run on its efficiency or the money it cranks out each day or even its disciplined uniformed forces. Mumbai runs because of its people. Because of the junta, the public, the thousands of anonymous people who buzz in and out of its arteries and keep it alive. Mumbai runs because its people make it run. And when the trains don’t run, we walk.

At Dadar, two shopkeepers were handing out piping hot cups of tea to the passers-by wading through water.
I saw one well-dressed couple walking up and down a road, toting several bottles of water and offering a drink to everyone they passed.

On the western express highway, people had formed a human wall to keep others from walking furthur into deeper water. Furthur away, another group was diverting people towards safety. This was in pitch darkness and pouring rain, in waist-high water.

Periodically, we stopped to direct people to alternate routes that were less flooded, ask the ones who were moving in the opposite direction for advice and exchange notes and news on the rest of the city. There must have been hundreds of strangers I spoke to or caught as they slipped or who helped me across a difficult stretch.

On a bus I finally managed to get onto, I was offered lunch by a lady who had managed to pack some food before leaving office some 24 hours earlier.

As I passed my old college, I saw the road was still full of hip youngsters as it always was. This time they were cleaning out the drains and helping divert traffic, vehicular and human.

The milkman says the water levels rose to 8 feet at his house at one point. Everything that didn’t get washed away is still dripping wet. And there isn’t water to drink. AND he helped run the water-line into one of the buildings yesterday.

Our maid-servant says everything got washed out of her house, including a little tin box with some savings. She ends with a smile and “TV pe dekhte they, kissi jagah peh baadh ayi, sab le gayi. Khuda ne kaha….chalo tumhe bhi batate hai, yeh baadh kaise hoti hai.”

Did I hear somebody say ‘Hope floats’. So does the Island City.

21 thoughts on “Notes from the surviving city

  1. Gd that you are safe…

    I read on rediff and some sites that some people had to stay out for whole night ..God u were also one of did u manage whole night? really those who were at homes waiting for there loved one to come must had worried like hell..Hope this weather gets better soon …

    Take care…

  2. Thank you, all three of you for that. Yes, it was a harrowing experience and an unforgettable one. The best thing that came from it was the way the city stuck together.

  3. Harrowing.
    Can’t believe i was there just a couple of weeks ago … and it had almost completely ceased to rain around that time :O
    Hope everything in bombay comes back to how i saw it while leaving.

  4. hey smithy! what an experience ! I’ve been hearing people telling me about it but I had no idea it was this bad! glad u made it through unscathed.

    Its very touching to read about the samaritan acts of bombayites.. i have great respect for the city coz of them.

  5. I visited your blog courtesy the comment you wrote on mine months back. The reason i stopped by is, that you are from mumbai and i was expecting a self-experienced narration of the devastating rain.
    let me tell you, i was touched by what i read in newspapers of the undaunting spirit of mumbaikars in the event of the ongoing crisis. your blog elucidates that further! Hope the brave city and its exemplary citizens have a speedy recovery and aid reaches affected-areas in the way they should.

  6. Ideasmithy,
    Glad everything is ok. Was nice to talk to you the other day πŸ™‚ The Mumbaikar spirit will never die!
    Cya in Mumbai

  7. I never understood the extent of devastation until I read this post. I hope the rain eases up soon and things come back to normal.

  8. at such times the govt. only had to issue one warning….stay where u are and cd have restricted movements…im glad we stayed back at school…
    Good to know u r safe

  9. OMG. I’m sorry I hadn’t read this until now. I am so sorry you had to see your people go through this, and I’m glad you stayed safe.
    Anything they published in the newspapers or magazine falls short of what you just explained here. This should be published.

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