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.

Why marital rape isn’t rape in India

Disclaimer: The angrier I get, the more sarcastic I become. Also, my husband-master has read and sanctioned this post.


We have a fine tradition of honouring women in India. It all started the day Lord Bramha decided to marry Saraswati against her wishes and set the precedent of not bothering to find out what a woman really wants. As time passed, the Vedas gave way to the Upanishads, the Upanishads to the Puranas, and the Puranas to the Epics. The Sanskrit originals gave way to Victorian adaptations and these adaptations are, in fact, the basis of our current understanding of our fine traditions. They teach us, as M L Sharma so wisely and succinctly summarizes, that there is no room for women in Indian Culture.

Sharmaji is hardly the voice of moderate India, though. He just represents an animal rapist and gets featured in documentaries made by foreigners out to defame our country because they’re obviously threatened by our emerging superpower status. No, to understand the value of women in India, we need to look to our seminal work of law – The Manusmriti:

Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.

Among other gems from this divine code of conduct we have:

Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.

As we know, the Manusmriti is the word of God. Who are we to argue with the word of God? Have you ever noticed that no matter where God chooses to manifest himself, the God who lays down the law and the follower who faithfully records are always male. If this is not irrefutable proof that these teachings are correct then what is?

Unfortunately, many do not give due respect to the word of God. In such a case, one of our earliest compilations of human-made laws, the Arthashastra makes sure to include women in its list of property right along with cattle. Women do have some rights, to be sure, but only a woman who has borne her husband sons has the right to refuse intercourse. She may not conceal her fertile period from him and he is obliged to approach her during this time.

For those who learn through example, the Mahabharata is full of role models:

  1. Bhishma abducts the three sisters of Kashi to make them marry his brother. Their consent does not matter.
  2. Amba, who loves another, is forsaken by her love as well as by her abductor. She cannot find peace and so commits suicide.
  3. Vyasa rapes Vichitravirya’s wives with his mother’s (their mother-in-law’s) blessing to father Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Dhritarashtra is born blind because his mother closed her eyes out of fear. Pandu is born pale because his mother turned pale with fright.
  4. Vidura was born not exactly out of rape, but from a lower caste woman for Ambika sent her maid to Vyasa instead of giving herself to him again. The maid was supposedly fearless thereby showing that the woman is solely responsible for birth defects
  5. The Pandavas themselves are not biological sons of their father but they are considered the Pandavas because Pandu was the master of Kunti
  6. Draupadi is married to five men against her will because it was willed so

The examples above prove that rape is not a matter of a woman’s consent. Rape is actually the act of sex happening without the woman’s owner’s consent (father/brother/husband). To test your understanding, take this little quiz and find out where you stand. No cheating!

Scenario:

Imagine a man just had sex with a woman and the woman kept screaming her refusal (the b*tch!). As a self-appointed guardian of Indian Culture, what is the appropriate response if…

Questions:

  1. The man is married to the woman
  2. The man is not her husband but the woman did not display her mangalsutra
  3. The woman was not wearing salwar-full sleeved kameez-dupatta
  4. The woman was working in a night shift
  5. The man is the woman’s boyfriend and has promised to marry her
  6. This man his not her boyfriend but the woman once had a boyfriend
  7. The woman is single, never had a boyfriend and lives alone
  8. The woman refused the man’s advanced despite him repeatedly stalking her and proposing marriage
  9. The woman is a four year old who was playing outside her house
  10. The woman is a prostitute and the man attempted something she did not agree to/he did not specify up front

Bonus question unrelated to the scenario: The woman is not married to the man but agreed to have sex and enjoyed it.

Answers:

  1. Not rape. Woman needs to be taught her duties as a wife
  2. Not rape. Women who are married should not be brazen. Her husband has suffered a loss
  3. Not rape. Women who dress provocatively must know that they will be taught a lesson
  4. Not rape. Women should know their limits
  5. Not rape. That is why you should not have a boyfriend
  6. Not rape if it’s a dented and painted woman
  7. Not rape. Leave valuables unguarded and expect no thieves to come in?
  8. Not rape. What does she think of herself? Does she think she’s too good for him?
  9. Yes but it’s the mother’s fault.
  10. Huh? Had ho gayee…

Bonus answer: This is rape.

Your Score:

0-3: Victim of Evil Western Influence. You don’t understand that rapes happen only in India, never in Bharat.
4-6: Read learn more Indian Values but don’t lose heart. You’ll surely improve!
7-11: Any Uncleji will proudly give you 1 crore cash, a lambi car, flat-screen tv, ten cows, and his daughter in marriage. You’re a woman? Well done! You truly understand your roles and responsibilities.

Now that you have been duly educated about what is and isn’t rape, please stop petitioning for ridiculous things that undermine the sacrosanct institution of marriage. Leave your MP’s alone!


* The origins of this story are obviously controversial to Hindu apologists today as is the aspect of incest. Some even go as far as to argue that it’s evil propaganda against Hinduism but one version of the story certainly exists where Bramha overpowered Saraswati in order to marry her.

Kids

Lead

I guess it’s kinda old news. But it’s something that never ceases to make me indignant. It’s kids! How can you make toys toxic?