Surviving Cyclone Amphan: Kolkata, a city battling coronavirus, now faces flooded streets, broken buildings and trauma
How Cyclone Amphan, in the middle of a pandemic, has rendered the city of Kolkata and its neighbouring districts handicapped, with shattered homes, severed communication channels and people in search of hope.
On 20 May, I woke up to photographs and videos of a 33-day-old puppy adopted by my uncle and aunt on the other side of town, allowing me to blissfully ignore Cyclone Amphan warnings jostling for space in my inbox.
Thoughts of new toys, puppy food and pillow beds crowded my mind that Wednesday, as I tried introducing my three-year-old Labrador Retriever to his baby brother over video call. On the second floor of my 60-year-old home in south Kolkata, the sun was still alive and kicking — a common phenomenon brought about by new life on earth — even when a storm was brewing to monstrous proportions in our backyard.
The (short-lived) rose-tinted filters on my eyes sugarcoated the dark skies outside my window and masked the stench of piling neighbourhood filth that had been hurled into the air by winds that were only whistling so far. Clearly, oblivion and complacency are among the many privileges afforded to us by our pucca houses, until I found out that perhaps this time, even that might not be enough to ferry us safely to the other side of the storm.
By the time we were done with lunch, our WiFi had started to fumble, deferring delivery and receipt of messages. By four o'clock, both our dogs had sought shelter under furniture and in corners of their respective homes, where the rumble of the storm and battering of the rain were less audible.
By 6.30 pm, phone lines and communication channels in our home were dead and the lights had begun to flicker ominously too. For the first time in my life, I caught myself feeling, smelling and touching a storm as it seeped in through bolted doors and windows. Hearing and watching it was simply not enough, it demanded our undivided attention.
The asbestos sheet capping our three-storey ancestral home amplifies every drop of rain into what I call 'The Monsoon Orchestra'. It's my attempt at romanticising the otherwise dreadful, nagging phenomenon, occupying over a half of our calendars, to make it mildly more palatable.
With the arrival of Amphan, I witnessed the roof threatening to break free and take off into the whirlpool in the sky. It's the same roof that had withstood the tyranny of Aila in 2009, a cyclone that left behind scars still visible in the subconscious of our everyday lives.
Even after losing steam by a notch, and turning into an 'extremely severe cyclonic storm' from a super-cyclone, Amphan was set to bring about more than ten times the wreckage witnessed over a decade ago.
"I am really scared. The roof will fly off any minute now," said my mother-in-law, who had turned blue in the face. I was almost defiant in my dismissal of the idea, unwilling to harbour thoughts that refused to seem outlandish anymore.
As I walked into our terrace-cum-balcony, the winds bellowed and whiplashed, forcing me to take support of the walls and every other heavy object on the way. The flower pots had been overturned and the space was flooded till the ankles.
Someone's window glass exploded in the distance, or maybe it was one of ours, I couldn't tell; the canopy of trees enveloping our neighbourhood's sky showed cracks exposing ghastly red clouds. In about a minute, or perhaps ten (as time had warped into an unrecognisable lump), I saw the hutment behind my house get hacked neatly into two by a giant tree that snapped from its roots.
Shrieks emerging from underneath the debris were carried by the speeding winds and broadcast right into our homes floating a few feet above. As the wires and cables snapped too, a hollow of wet, pitch black swallowed us whole. I ran back into the living room and hugged my dog, as a heavy wooden door came nearly unhinged. This is how it ends, I thought to myself, and prayed to whoever would listen for my dogs to get miraculously saved, and find a loving new home once the nightmare ended.
As I type this on my laptop 18 hours after electricity was properly restored in our home, my mind keeps flitting back to the moment I walked back into my room (which is where I am right now) after the storm had passed.
It looked distinctly different from how I last saw it five hours ago. The passage leading to my room had flooded, with debris of unknown objects floating around and lodging themselves between our toes. On opening the door, I could hear the rain splatter onto my bed in echoing thuds rippling through the dark. Or perhaps it was the winds, now sluggish and exhausted, but just as cold.
A gaping hole that once used to be a part of the ceiling stared right back at me, the ghoulish red of the sky bleeding all over me and my belongings that lay shrivelled like the wrinkling skin of an old man. My bed, books, clothes were all soaked to the bone. A tightly shut wooden window was now standing ajar, with the curtains and walls dripping from every last inch.
It took me a good while to realise that the sky above my head had literally come apart, chipping away at our roof and blowing away a chunk of it. Just when we thought that the world could possibly sink no further after being ravaged by a fatal virus, our only shields of protection against the contagion — the brick walls insulating us — had been left battered and blown into smithereens.
On venturing out the following morning in search of help, we passed by scenes of unprecedented devastation: uprooted trees, shattered buildings, splintered electric poles and listless, numb faces that had forgotten how to express or feel.
"Ei gacch ta shoraate ektu shahajjo korben, dada? (will you help us move this tree, dada?)" I asked a local rickshaw-puller, who sat on one of the dismembered branches of the tree's corpse. He looked at me with blank eyes and pointed to the remains of what seemed to be his once-faithful carriage, now buried under a pile of dead leaves and wood. I didn't have an answer; we decided to take a different route.
Hours later, as I watched the two kind repairmen — who agreed to help us restore the missing pieces of our ancient, weather-beaten house — at work, I reminded myself, yet again, to never take my privileges (especially the roof over my head) for granted. Pardon my pessimism, but if 2020 isn't out to kill us already, it surely means to teach us a lesson or two in humility.
As we stumble into day five since Amphan's visit, the clear blue skies have done little to reassure us of a normalcy stable or long enough to rebuild our homes, towns and villages. Relatives, friends and acquaintances continue to remain out of reach and possibly in an impenetrable darkness with communication channels hacked to death.
People wearing masks are rebelling on the streets, pleading for a way back to their mundane old lives, which now seem like distant realities, if not impossible dreams.
With politicking ensuing over the 80 dead and millions displaced in Bengal, people are left in the lurch yet again, caught in the inescapable crossfire of a brutal ongoing pandemic and the ghost of a deadly natural disaster.
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