By Nisha Susan
Every so often in my childhood in rural Oman I would hear of someone who had been washed away in a wadi. One night in Bidaya, a family came over for dinner. On their way home, we heard early the next morning, their car was caught in a wadi. The young children and their parents made it out of the flash flood with the help of a passing truck. Their uncle drowned. As a child, the thing that confused me the most was that there were never any traces of the wadi. ‘Wadi vannu (came),’ the local Malayalis in Oman would say. But all I could see is that wadi poyi (went). Only as an adult did I understand that the wadis were invisible because humans had made settlements where once rivers ran. All I (and most others saw) were highways, roads and buildings — but we were on riverbeds, without a clue. Although the names of entire neighbourhoods were Wadi Something-or-the-other, we didn’t know.
Even today, flash floods cause deaths all over the cities and towns of the Middle East. As geography scholar Jonathan Bridge wrote in 2018, “The ancient city of Petra is famous for its spectacular ravines which have been the backdrop to Hollywood movies and countless tourist brochures. However, nearly 4,000 visitors to the Jordanian ruins narrowly avoided being swept away recently when intense rainstorms turned the dry channels into raging torrents…These recent events follow an even worse loss of life in October when more than 20 Jordanian schoolchildren were killed by flash floods in a wadi near the Dead Sea.”
Later in the same essay, Bridge points to recent scholarly work elsewhere that ‘has identified the importance of cultural memory in determining flood resilience among businesses and districts affected by major floods’. Such as Orissa’s sterling recent responses to cyclones. It is this job of contributing to the cultural memory of the disastrous Chennai floods of December 2015 that Krupa Ge’s book does with deceptive simplicity and barely suppressed rage.
Rivers Remember is a three-year investigative project that doesn’t just document the how and why of the flood that wrecked the city. It places the 2015 flood and floods bygone against the physical and cultural landscape of Chennai and desperately worries about its future. It looks at the city of Chennai and those who make this pattinam their home with affection, wit and exasperation. Krupa successfully performs a lovely literary stunt (by which I mean don’t try this at home and it is only cool when it is successful) that speaks of this despairing love for her hometown. The stunt? A breathless two-page list a la Shankar Mahadevan of all the things that went under water, from Kuchipudi schools to udon noodles to ducks to the governor’s bungalow to slums to money plants. All under water. Don’t forget.
Memory is a recurring theme of the book from the title onwards. The book asks what it means for Chennai residents to have forgotten (or never even known) that there are three rivers in their city and that their neighbourhoods are named after ancient, ghostly waterways, lakes and ponds. For instance, a decade before these floods, Dr Bala began building a small hospital, a symbol of all that she had endured to get an education. As construction began, she saw lotuses blooming in the ground. That is when she realised that she had been sold land in a lakebed.
Sometimes the omens are not so clear as lotuses and lilies. Early in the book, on 1 December 2015, Krupa’s mother begins slowly packing up a fraction of her life to move it to a neighbour’s flat on a higher floor. Krupa writes, “She is convinced that the waters are going to come in, and that they are going to come in through the drains. She is convinced when no one else is even anticipating it.” A spectral memory of previous floods turns her into the prophet that no one pays heed to. The omen comes true and the parents lose most of their belongings.
Krupa writes, “What no one tells you about floods like this, is that it is not water that comes into your home. Let me tell you now once and for all so when it happens to you — and happen it will, for our cities are not flood resilient — you can be prepared… What flows into your home when it floods is sewage. Almost always.” Even though the writer is just a few kilometres from her parents’ home she is unable to speak to them or reach them for days, as helpless as relatives on another continent.
The bulk of the book examines the events and aftermath of the next four days. At one point in the story a man on the street and the brother of the man the street is named after are equally trapped in the flood. But the aftermath is not quite the same. Sanitation workers who had lost their homes had to come back to work to begin the impossible task of cleaning other people’s streets and lives. Banu Chandran lost the brass iron box that has been in her family, a symbol of their hard work and road to prosperity. Others lose brothers, wives, mothers, faith, sometimes a mere 100 metres from home, within sight of safety.
It isn’t that the book doesn’t tell the tremendous stories of resilience and courage that came out of this disaster. Chitra delivers a baby girl and names her Yunus after the complete stranger who helped her to safety. The hashtag #Chennaifloods becomes an unprecedented kind of victory of organisation and kindness. The pianist Anil Srinivasan reflects on the meaning of standing watch over a dozen corpses that surface when a couple feet of water recedes. Would there have been need for all this bravery and resilience if people did their jobs and restrained their greed? Here is Krupa writing about a woman whose children are unable to find her for days. ‘[Nalini] was floating in a lake, where fishermen found her and informed the police. This is something that recurred far too many times during the flood. Fishermen rescuing people. Fishermen fishing out bodies. Fishermen informing the police about the bodies… The fishermen of Chennai doing the work the state was supposed to.
The book argues that it is convenient for the government to pretend that this was a ‘hundred-year rain’ when that term doesn’t mean that this rain can only be expected once in a hundred years, when we will all be dead. Approaching it from many different angles including RTIs, the book puts together a clear picture of a ridiculous level of negligence where the opening of a reservoir is marked by extraordinarily high political drama and rather low consideration of human beings. Every page has a facepalm moment — like the idea of a Chennai airport runway built on the floodplains of a river or the official relief services arriving at a maternity hospital, 20 days after the flood, with a single one-litre water bottle and one milk powder packet or the total lack of a disaster relief mechanism or the government flooding the city one evening without letting even the police know.
I finished reading the book and thought of that one bottle of water and was irresistibly reminded of an exchange from the first Ice-Age movie
Dodo: This is our private stockpile for the Ice Age. Sub arctic temperatures will force us underground for a billion, billion years.
Manfred: So you got three melons?
I am not going to lie. We should all read Krupa’s book, but it’s going to take a while afterwards for all of us in Indian cities to stop feeling as ill-prepared for the next inevitable deluge as Dodo. It’s raining right now.
(Disclosure: Krupa Ge and I share an agent and a publisher)
The Ladies Finger is India’s leading feminist online magazine
Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 12:13:45 IST