Chennai Floods Part 1: My family’s story

Everyone is safe. We are among the lucky ones. Our house is not in a low lying area and that kept us safe from severe flooding. As we live in one of the more affluent and areas in Chennai, we got back electricity fairly quickly. Life was more or less normal as early as Saturday with people taking their dogs out for a walk that morning and Sangeetha serving it’s full menu. We took a train to Vijayawada on Sunday and we’re at The Hero’s parents’ place and working remotely.

This is a recap of last week. I’ll be writing a few more posts this week as a log of what happened in Chennai.

Monday – Madhya Kailas road collapses that evening but we don’t take it too seriously. We all have a normal work day.

Tuesday – I brave it to office thinking it’s like any other rainy monsoon day. I return in just a couple of hours. When I’m returning the cab driver tells me his sister’s house is flooding with sewage. I sympathize but file it in my “their problems”* compartment. I still don’t think it’s serious. The rain doesn’t stop. The power goes off around 4pm, I start to worry. I yell at The Hero when he comes home around 5pm because I sense something is off. He thinks I’m overreacting. Our compound wall breaks and our complex floods by 9pm that night. Our downstairs neighbours start to evacuate. An elderly couple live in one of the flats but they have friends in another building and they go there. We shine the torch every hour after that checking the water level, feeling fairly safe on the first floor not realizing what we’re in the middle of.

Wednesday – We wake up to the same knee deep water we slept to (or tried to sleep to). We brave it out in our Nano to stock up on supplies and to assess the situation. Our street is one of the few flooded in the area. We learn that some streets have not lost power at all. We compare ourselves with our neighbours and feel sorry for ourselves not knowing how bad the rest of the city is as we’re conserving battery and only texting. Tata Docomo’s network is down. Only The Hero’s Airtel connection is working. The building next to ours is reserved by the National Disaster Response Force. We ask them about the situation. They have no idea, they’re waiting for orders. We get frantic calls from family and friends. We assure them we’re ok and we curse the authorities a bit for not clearing out the water yet. We don’t know people have lost their lives. The Hindu has not published an edition for the first time in over a century. That should have been a warning.

Thursday – A family friend invites us over to their place. The rains have subsided and we still have no idea what’s happening out there since everyone is conserving power and we’re using data only to check the weather forecast. We find a taxi willing to drive us and for the first time we understand that all water bodies are overflowing, all bridges are flooded, and all roads have been closed off. We take a detour and enter IIT to meet friends and understand what’s happening. We learn what we’re in the middle of and feel grateful. We still feel uneasy as the compound wall has broken and our buildings are 30 years old and very badly maintained.

After hearing our story The Hero’s friend unhesitatingly invites us to stay with her. Her family is away from Chennai and safe. There’s no power at IIT either but there is water – something we’re running out of as a household of 5. We gratefully accept. We later go back to our house to fetch the water we had stockpiled – drinking water is getting scarce now – and our friends from campus now see what life is like “outside”. A lady arrives by boat from Kotturpuram. Our friend welcomes her as well. We later learn our friend was in neck-deep water during the Mumbai floods and there’s no way she will let a family, especially with a small child, put themselves at risk in a place with water-logging. For her kindness we are grateful. Cash is already scarce with ATM’s either empty or out of order. Networks are down and hotels are full. Where else can we go?

Friday – We spend the day on IIT campus. Some landlines are working. The Supercomputer has been shut down for the first time in it’s history. People have lost data, simulations running for months but they don’t care. A lot of IIT volunteers. There are clothing drives.  People are out there working. We go back home to clear out the fridge and take care of perishables. The water has been drained but power isn’t back yet. Since the water tank is empty we head back to IIT for another night. That night power returns at IIT. We watch the news and understand for the first time how lucky we are. Yes, there were a few streets with no water-logging and uninterrupted power throughout the crisis but if they’re the top 1%, we’re definitely in the top 5%. We’ve not only had shelter, clean water, clothes, fresh food, we’ve also managed to have regular baths (albeit with just a quarter bucket of freezing water). Campus also has internet so I’m able to email my team and tell them I’m safe and then contact my client and cancel some calls. For some reason I feel compelled to convert 400 mm to inches before I type how much rain has fallen in Chennai. It’s as though everything is all right because I’m drafting an email with the same thoroughness I always do.

Saturday – We head back to our place and find that power has been restored. However, cooking will still be a problem so we decide to spend the day with friends and go back that evening after dinner. Milk is scarce, water is scarce, vegetables are worth their weight in gold. Even if you were to find things, where is the cash to buy? ATM’s are still down. The situation is still grim even for those of us out of immediate danger. While Chotu’s watching Peppa Pig on Youtube at our friend’s place, P comes over and tells me Chennai Central will be operational the next morning. We book Premium Tatkal tickets to Vijayawada without hesitation and decide to head out of Chennai. We’re all tired. I remember then that I recovered from Dengue just a couple of weeks before the rains on Tuesday. My reserves are exhausted, I’m tired beyond exhaustion. I suddenly realize that what I’ve been experiencing – lack of basic amenities, food priced out of reach, very little cash, depending on the kindness of friends – is a way of life for so many people. I want to cry but instead we have dinner – what can be cooked quickly on dwindling fuel – and celebrate with dark chocolate and chamomile tea. It feels like a farce to make small talk at dinner because we eat babies are crying for milk less than 3 kilometers away. But what do I do? I have nothing to give. No way to help them.

Sunday – Our neighbourhood auto stand has one auto – and the driver is my friend. He agrees that leaving Chennai is a good idea when we have a small child and two senior citizens in the family. He contacts a few of his friends and one of them brings his SUV and drives us to Central. I learn that our driver’s house is till flooded and I once again unlock the “their problems” compartment of my brain. This time, it’s not to file away things but to let them all out. I feel anger this time. I’m angry with myself first – that I did not offer shelter to anyone when others have offered it to me. I had some water in the tank, wouldn’t that be appreciated by those whose homes are flooded? Then I feel angry with the administration. I feel that I wasted my vote last year by putting my faith in Amma. But who else is there to vote for? Even if I’m angry with the way the administration has handled things, what choice do I have in the coming elections? My anger with the authorities will be the subject of the next post but for now, I’m just angry with ourselves as a country for letting this happen.

I have three sets of clothes each for The Hero, Chotu, and myself in my suitcase. We carry our laptops and collapse on our berths. Our TT lives in Tambaram and all his possessions have been destroyed. He’s still come to work. That’s what I’m trying to do as well, I realize. I’m getting away from Chennai so that I can work. I work for a start-up. Our company needs us to work. I need to put together an important presentation for next week. We’re trying to pitch for more business. If we don’t work, we don’t get money. If we don’t get money, we can’t help people around us re-build their lives. So I must work.

We reach home. My mother-in-law looks relieved upon seeing us. I only now realize how much everyone has been worried for us. The child finally has a full meal for dinner and I feel myself tear up again (I checked the calendar, I’m PMS-ing too. Isn’t that just great). After we’re cleaned up and fed, my MIL asks me if I have a pattu sari to wear for a wedding next week. I want to laugh but I just shake my head no.

Monday onwards – I still feel ashamed of myself for running away instead of staying back to help – after helping us, our friends are now volunteering. But I know I cannot. My parents are old and had to be taken to safety, the stress wore them down. My child is young and if I stayed back he might have fallen ill – illnesses are already rampant. There are other things I want to do which I’m not willing to share right now. But I will do something. While I’m still angry with us as for letting this disaster happen, I’m also a little hopeful that things are changing. If enough of us are angry and enough of us do something, we should be able to make a difference. I assuage my survivor’s guilt by putting up a heart-felt post on Facebook. It serves no practical purpose but the likes help me feel better.

MIL gives me two of her saris and I go shopping for blouses with a friend as though everything is ok. The few hours of normalcy help. But I know everything’s different now. I’ve changed. I’m worried about things. Climate change is real. We’ve pushed ourselves to the brink of disaster. It’s now only a matter of time before things get worse. I wouldn’t care, except that I have a small child who will live through that disaster.

For now though, I’m just proud of Chennai. With this out of my system, I can finally work in peace. More posts will follow.


* When I say “their problems” I am not being classist. It’s a reality of life. I sympathize, I support, I help as much as I can but ultimately, we know there’s a world of a difference between where we live and where those who we employ live. It’s the same as the difference between where the Ambanis et al who employ us live and where we live. If we don’t compartmentalize, we can’t function.

10 Replies to “Chennai Floods Part 1: My family’s story”

  1. Glad to know you are safe SB. We’ve been hearing that the situation was so bad but your account is an eye opener! I was in Chennai for IIT campus interviews on Dec 1 and flew back on Dec 2nd. Probably the last few flights that got off from the airport! Till now I was only thankful for not being “stuck” there but your account takes it to a very different level! Chennai is flooding, Hyderabad is drying up! I am beginning to feel really scared now.

    1. We heard from our friends about the timing of the campus placement. I’m glad you were able to make it out of there. No one expected things to go so bad so quickly. Drop me a mail next time you’re in Chennai. We should take this friendship from virtual to real world 🙂

      Coastal cities are going tot feel the brunt of Climate Change before anyone else. With our mismanagement of water, India’s in no way prepared for what is going to (already has) hit.

  2. Glad your are fine S! Such a stressful time! My grandparent live in Chennai and they are ok ( we had ppl check in on them) but still have not been able to talk to them as they only have a landline which is down.

    1. Thanks Shell. Yes, so many people were worried about their elderly relatives. Glad to hear they’re ok. Infrastructure is limping back to normal. We’ve lost 2 weeks so far with no end in sight.

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