Help Came from Strange Quarters During the Chennai Floods

In the deluge, surrounded by a raging river, and when all hope was lost, help came from unexpected quarters

By Nirmala Ramaswamy Updated: Nov 29, 2018 11:26:57 IST
Help Came from Strange Quarters During the Chennai Floods

IT HAD RAINED through the night. It was as if someone had viciously ripped open the skies to start the deluge. Daylight broke but the pouring rain showed no signs of letting up. It was the first day of December 2015. Memories of a flooded Chennai on another December day, 10 years ago, came rushing back to me. But somehow, this time, everything seemed worse. The power lines were down, plunging us into darkness, the landlines went dead and even mobile phones had stopped working. My husband and I, both senior citizens, were cut off from the rest of the world.

Every year, the north-east monsoon lashes Chennai from October to December. Its severity is unpredictable, and with poor infrastructure, power cuts and traffic jams, normal life comes to a standstill. Chembarambakkam, a mammoth rain-fed reservoir about 29 kilometres away, supplies water to the city. When the lake fills up, the sluice gates are opened and the surplus water is let out into the Adyar River that originates here. But it isn't as smooth as it sounds.

In December 2005, too, the city was flooded. There was an announcement on 3 December that water would be released from Chembarambakkam Lake. We did not know what to make of it, as we were new to the area. Our neighbour had advised us to park our car elsewhere. Thank goodness we did, because the water rose steadily. By the next morning, it threatened to enter the house. Some helpful young boys carried me on a chair to safety, while my husband walked through chest-deep water to join me. It had been quite an experience, but being married to an engineer from the Indian Air Force and living in remote locations, I was used to the vagaries of nature. When we returned the next morning, there was no trace of water; only the slush remained.

Ten years later, on 2 December, we took a deep breath as we found ourselves surrounded by muddy water.

MY HUSBAND AND I had spent a sleepless night with our hearts in our mouths, as water entered our house the night before. We had very little time to decide what we needed to save and what we had to leave behind. Depending on how heavy or precious they were-we would have had to carry our belongings up a winding flight of 21 steps. We moved our idols of worship to the first floor, as they had been an important part of our life. But our age only allowed us to climb up and down a few times. We hoped the water would recede, just like it had all those years ago.

We followed the weather forecast, which predicted heavy rainfall. Our domestic help, who lived on the banks of the Adyar River, gave us regular updates about the water level. The river had been peaceful for five to six days, flowing within its limits, she had told us.

But when the rains came, the authorities opened the floodgates simultaneously, which submerged thousands of homes. Reservoirs across the city were also opened at around the same time.

Ours was an ordinary double-storey house in a cul-de-sac in Defence Officers Colony. There was an empty plot to our left, with eight-feet-deep pits [for a new construction] that were filled with water. The house next to it was submerged. It must have been abandoned the previous day. The house adjacent to it had a family staying on the first floor, just like us. They had a running kitchen on that floor, but nothing else besides that.

No one knew how much more water was likely to come our way. The rescue boats did not show up. Perhaps they did not dare. As helicopters flew overhead, we waved our hands, shouting for help. But they flew past: They appeared to survey rather than rescue. We were hopelessly marooned.

Meanwhile, it poured non-stop.

We had retreated to the first floor. But water continued to enter the house through the night of 1 December. The entire ground floor, which stood on a four feet high plinth with a ceiling of nearly 12 feet, was submerged. On 2 December, we realized there was no food. All we had were a couple of small bananas and two biscuits for each of us. Also, we only had two litres of drinking water left.

From the staircase landing, we saw precious photo frames, treasured wall hangings and random plastic containers floating around. Our gas cylinders banged against the steps.

The gushing floodwater had surrounded our house from all sides. We could hear the river raging. Every once in a while, there was a deafening noise. Could it be the compound wall breaking?

Then there was the unbearable sight of carcasses floating by. We saw a buffalo, two calves, a dog and other strange shapes from a distance. Were they dead or could they be alive? We were now surrounded by more than 20 feet of water.

INSIDE, THE WATER continued to rise. The waves had started lashing against the parapet on the terrace above the porch. If the water entered there, we would be doomed.

We were on the open terrace at the back. The sky was overcast and it was turning dark. Some construction workers, 12 young men (boys to us), from the building site were monitoring the water level, and noticed us pacing in and out. That was around 5 p.m.

One of them called out, "Auntie, uncle, you can't stay there for long-the water level is rising. No boat is coming this way. Come over and stay with us. Do not be alone at night." They spoke Bengali, though a couple of them could speak Hindi.

"You are almost 20 feet across the street. How will I manage? The river is running right below us," I shouted back.

"Don't worry," one of them said. "We can build a bridge for you and uncle to cross over."

"Oh, no, she can't. Walk across an improvised log bridge over 20 feet of water! She has pain in her joints, what if she trips and falls?" My husband simply ruled out the suggestion.

Of course, it would be a watery grave. But the thought of staying back in our house and sinking along with it was just as chilling. I had to decide fast. All we had was a tiny flashlight (with no spare batteries). If the water reached the first floor, we would have to move to the open terrace one floor above and be exposed to the elements. The choice was between pneumonia and drowning.

So I decided to risk it. I was 70 plus and no gymnast trained to walk on balance beams. What's more, I was prone to tripping and falling on even ground. I wasn't so worried about my husband, as he had gone through rigorous training in the armed forces. But, balancing my weight on uneven logs and planks was quite unimaginable.

We had to move fast. Once it was dark, even the boys wouldn't be able to save us. They were good swimmers, but below us was the roiling force and fury of a river surging towards the ocean.

The boys worked swiftly, putting together a two-tier makeshift bridge in minutes. Since the under-construction house had scaffolding all around it, there were spare ballies or wooden logs they could use. The first tier was built with four ballies tied with rain-soaked coir ropes. After the first 10-12 feet was a vertical stump, which marked the end of the first level. Then came the second tier of the bridge, made of planks fastened to the second floor of the house under construction. They put it together standing on the ballies.

One of them, Mansoor, walked across to help me. He seemed quite confident of the plan and that gave me hope. I finally started believing that I could make it. I had to jump to get on to the logs, steady myself, balance and walk, leap and sit on the plank, then get up on to the second tier and walk, holding on to Mansoor's hand. And I did it. He had an iron grip, which pulled me through. My husband followed, after seeing me safe at the other end. He was escorted too.

We reached the second floor of the unfinished house, safe and sound. I was trembling with the sudden rush of adrenaline. The boys took us to their sleeping quarters. All the while it kept pouring. "Stop it," I wanted to yell out to the skies.

A huge tarpaulin was spread out on the floor and I was given the spot nearest to the window to sleep. It was cold. The boys cooked rice on their makeshift chulha and offered us some. But we were not hungry; the anxiety had proved to be too much. We were surrounded by 12 young men. We did not know them, but we felt secure. They went to so much trouble to save our lives. And then made sure we got some sleep. They reminded me of my two sons who were in the US.

THE WATER STARTED receding the next day, the morning of 3 December. Our young friend escorted me back to our house so I could use the wash-room. I walked back the same way, gingerly holding on to Mansoor's hand. But this time, I was not so scared. Water swirled around the house in circles. The ground floor was submerged. The compound wall at the back had fallen. The water was forcing its way in from all directions.

By noon we were very hungry. The boys offered us a bowl of hot rice. We had very little drinking water left-half a bottle to be exact.

Around 2 p.m. news came in that more water was likely to be released from the reservoir. This would be the death of us. Our new friends had been called back to their villages, as their construction was delayed indefinitely. Their supervisor had asked them to take the first train back home. They left with their bags at 3.30 p.m. We gave them some money for travel and other expenses. Any amount would be too little for what they had done for us. We would be beholden to them for life.

For the first time in two days we had spotted our neighbours, who lived behind our house, on their terrace. They had decided to walk through the water to get to the metro station. With the boys gone, we would be all alone, surrounded by water. We had to get to them, but how? A raging river and 30 feet separated us.

We crossed the rickety bridge one last time. We used an under-construction sit-out and a shaky ladder to get closer to our neighbours. The water level was lower here. While we wondered how to wade through waist-deep water (with me in a sari) to the metro station, my neighbour spotted her brother-in-law in an Army rescue boat. I almost wept with relief.

The boat would never have made it to our house at the end of the road, where there was 10 feet deep water. We were glad that we were at our neighbour's house, which was under just three feet of water. The boat struggled to negotiate turns, and finally dropped us to a spot where we could walk and search for a way out.

We weren't left all alone, though. There was a young couple that was transporting stranded people to the main road in their SUV. It was still drizzling, but we were lucky. They lived close to my sister-in-law's house and dropped us there. Perhaps we were destined to survive.

WE RETURNED HOME after 10-11 days. We never saw our car again. A relative arranged for it to be towed to a workshop and the insurance company auctioned it after two months. The fridge was lying on its side, the door wide open with nothing but slush inside. Our curios, collected over the years, were buried or lost. As were our photo albums that included faded but precious sepia images of great grandparents. The bundle of loving letters from our children and deceased parents that had been left in drawers were now pulp. The less I talk about the suitcase filled with my silk saris the better. It was kept on top of the seven-foot almirah and was soaking wet. We told each other, "Remember, we wanted to downsize and de-clutter. An unseen hand is doing that for us." We were forced to learn detachment.

The maid returned after 15 days. The bridge was used a few more times to retrieve our documents as our main door was blocked by furniture. We learnt that a couple in our colony drowned in their house as they did not have a staircase. We were traumatized and exhausted. I did not want to go back to the house we built with so much love.

But we were grateful that we had lived to tell the tale. We were lucky, unlike so many others. Amid all the destruction and loss, we experienced hope and the  kindness of strangers, many of whom risked their lives to save ours.

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