Suddenly, the bedroom looked xanthous. It was Tuesday, December 1. A veil of dirty yellow light fell on the wall and on the bed where Amal was sleeping. He was born just six days ago, more than a month earlier than he was expected. The premature arrival had made him vulnerable to infections. The doctors had given him antibiotics well before he had tasted mother’s milk. We had returned home from the hospital the previous day. The injection marks on his arm looked like goosebumps, as if he had just woken from a nightmare.
Our nightmares were only starting. It was morning. My parents and Sangeeth, my elder son, were playing in the hall when the sky painted a sullen portrait. The sun had gone behind the clouds and delivered an eerie glow, a slice of which settled on the cheeks of our newborn. He looked pale and yellow. Radhika, my wife, said he had not been feeding properly since morning. Worried, we examined his hands and belly. They were pale, too, with a yellow tint. It could be baby jaundice. He was not exposed to enough sun and the doctors had said he would need phototherapy to lower the high bilirubin levels. We checked his eyes and they were yellow too.
Dark and deep clouds were enveloping Velachery, where we lived. And in minutes it was pouring. For a moment, Amal opened his eyes and tried to cry, in vain. We wanted to take him to a doctor immediately and tried the emergency number at Apollo Cradle, Karappakam, where he was born after an emergency C-section. The hospital executive sounded like a panicked cuckoo and said it was pouring outside and roads leading to the hospital, located nearly 12 km from home, were waterlogged. It was a risk to take the baby out in our small car — or in any vehicle, for that matter. We stayed calm and dialled away numbers. Muted responses and annoying beeps followed. The duty doctor at Apollo Cradle’s emergency desk advised us to get Amal’s blood samples tested to see if his jaundice needed urgent attention. I contacted three popular labs nearby, but none of them were able to send anyone to collect the blood samples of the newborn.
After many attempts we managed to call an ambulance from a nearby hospital and it arrived in an hour. We draped Amal in a creamy-greenish towel with a hood that resembled a hornbill’s nest. Heavy rains lashed the emergency vehicle as we got in; driving through knee-deep water, the ambulance reached the hospital in about 30 minutes. On the way we saw signs of trouble. Water was encroaching upon pavements and shops in low-lying areas. People were rushing home. The air smelled of worry.
The doctor ordered more blood tests. As we waited impatiently, the city outside looked like a still from a disaster flick. Heavy rains, hurrying men and women, scared birds and animals, and confused traffic. The blood results came an hour later and the doctor said Amal stood on the edge of danger. Which meant we could go back. Which also meant that if he was not exposed to decent sun soon, his bilirubin levels could go up. We must keep him under vigil, the doctor said.
The ambulance driver rushed into the lobby to give us more bad news. The roads, he said, were alarmingly waterlogged and it was risky to venture out. But we had to go back as my parents and Sangeeth would get worried. After much cajoling and pleading, the driver agreed. The vehicle moved with a roar, parting the wavy waters embracing the main road. The water was flowing furiously but it seemed to reach nowhere. The vehicle’s engine sounded like an aged asthmatic by the time we reached our street.
Unrelenting rains bathed Amal as I carried him into the house, walking through chest-deep water mixed with sludge and sewage. As we dried the baby inside, I saw water furiously gushing into our porch. Someone had told my father that a few lakes nearby had breached their banks. I didn’t believe him as there had been no warnings. No flood alerts, megaphone announcements or radio alerts had come our way. We knew our rented double-storey house stood on land that once was a big lake. According to the National Institute of Disaster Management, there were 650 waterbodies in Chennai 10 years ago, just when the real estate boom was attaining mammoth proportions. Today, the city has fewer than 30 lakes, ponds and other waterbodies. It looked like the rising waters bore a message of revolt.
In minutes, water entered our compound. In an hour, it reached the door like an unexpected visitor. We knew it was impossible to get out with the newborn. All we could do was join the family on the first floor. We grabbed the essentials: food, medicines, water bottles, blankets, medical reports and moved upstairs. As we climbed the stairs we could see water seeping through the front door. It looked eerily lustrous in the flashlight of my cellphone. From the first floor, it looked like our houses had just floated onto a lake and soon they would drift back to wherever they had come from.
I could not sleep. The air felt heavy and smelled of mud and crickets. The walls of the house looked drunk and swollen. I dozed off for a while, and dreamt of dry lands and blooming fields and the peach orchard in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. I was jolted out of my reverie when Radhika shook me to say Amal was breathing heavily. He was wheezing. His chest went up and down in wild spasms, in a motion too hard for his fragile limbs to take. I tried to call friends and the paediatrician, but the network was down. We tried to burp him; placed him on my shoulder and shook him; patted him in ways we thought would soothe his lungs. Nothing worked. His wheezing merged with the patter of rains and his frightened eyes begged for help. We held onto each other in helpless suffering. In a minute, he appeared better.
An alarm I had set sometime ago on my phone buzzed at 4am, Wednesday. It was still dark and I waited for a while before going down to check on my house, expecting to get help from people outside. My father followed me. The water outside had risen several notches overnight. I knew water had entered my house and most of my valuables would have been lost. Still I decided to go in. I was a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will, I told my father, with a failing grin. Of course, he didn’t get it; Gramsci was not ideal for times of deluge.
At that time we didn’t know the rain was changing the lives of over three million people in India’s fifth-largest city. I tried to gather hope and confidence and moved into the house by sliding along the wall towards the main door. As I reached it, a lightning bolt of pain shot through my body. I shrieked in horror and, within seconds, I realised that a patch of ferocious ants, which were safely ensconced on the walls, had breached my skin. I parted my mundu and saw a bunch of leeches merrily sucking blood from my thigh. The ants, in turn, had attacked the leeches. Many of them fell into the water thanks to my adrenalin-induced histrionics.
Clearing the rest of the intruders, I went inside the house, only to be greeted by floating vessels and books. My shelf had more than 400 kg of books I had collected over the years, mostly during my stint in Delhi. I had ferried them via the Railways with much difficulty when I moved to Chennai in December 2013. The shelf was half-sunk in the water. Cots, chairs, tables, were all under water. The kitchen was devastated, groceries and vegetables were strewn all over. The bed where Amal was sleeping yesterday was now wet and swollen, like a big, rotten sardine.
My father and I grabbed whatever we could and threw it all onto the berth next to the ceiling where the inverter sat. As we did that, more water gushed into the house. Soon, water would be chest-deep. It was then that I noticed the scorpions and snakes. And they were in plenty. The snakes were not long or big, but small and agile. The scorpions moved with the flow in wondrous oblivion while the snakes danced against the wave. I splashed water on some of them to make way for us and swiftly moved up the stairs.
We saw people swimming their way out. I shouted to them to send help. None returned. We were running short of water. Our hosts, a young couple, had no groceries. All they had was a few packets of noodles. We were not sure if we would survive as the water was rising again. As hours went by, as our phones conked off and my tweets and short messages paused in thin air, as repeated attempts at getting help vanished, we sat inside the hall of the first-floor flat like the young Florentines who gathered at the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, telling each other stories in their vain attempt to escape the Black Death pandemic. Outside, my car almost sank, and on the street, leaked petrol from vehicles parked nearby formed patches of forlorn rainbows.
There were a couple of private boats rescuing people. Whenever I saw them I shouted to them to come back and rescue us or inform the police about us. They would nod and go back and never return. Sangeeth, like any innocent five-year-old, believed a superhero would rescue us. All you have to do is ask Ben10 to get in touch with Howl’s Moving Castle and you will get help, he said. I told him that we had asked the government for help, but no one had turned up. “Superheroes are not like India (the government, he meant), achcha,” he said. “They are on time and they never give up.”
Superhero to the rescue
That night we reversed roles. He told me stories of superheroes who rescue stranded people. I really longed for one and cursed the day I decided to be an atheist. Rationality is not a great weapon in times of deluge. Plain, vain hope is. It had been more than 40 hours since we got stuck inside this room and we were yet to hear from rescue personnel.
Early Thursday morning I walked out and, dangerously wading through water, got on to the compound wall. Fortunately, I knew all the poles and holes on the road. I stood on a wall and spoke to whoever went our way, pleading, begging, offering money. There were two brave souls who were going out to get food for their families. They assured me they would get a rescue boat. I stood on the wall, shivering, looking at the apartments, which resembled wet matchboxes placed in designed disorder.
Hours went by. Then I heard a hoot. One of the men I had met in the morning had come back with a small wooden boat. Rescue! Never in my life had a piece of wood looked so beautiful and promising. It was painted in blue and red and had broken edges. The next few minutes went by in a hurry. They broke open the gate and took the boat closer to the first-floor staircase. We grabbed medicines and clothes. I stepped on to the boat and took the baby, wrapped in warm clothes and plastic sheets. I saw some snakes nearby. So did a rower, but we both knew that if we sounded an alert others would panic and the boat would capsize.
On the boat Sangeeth sat scared, but I knew he was secretly enjoying the adventure. He managed to get his face closer to mine and asked, “Dad, can I sing ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’”? I asked him not to. I knew he was singing it aloud in his head. ‘Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream...’
The boat stopped near the main road, amidst the debris of a wreckage. There were many people but no government officials or volunteers. As we got out of the boat a bevy of men came with their cellphones to click our photos. Some wanted selfies. We were still in the floods and could not believe that hell was gone for now. The sky was still overcast and most roads were still blocked. On the horizon, I could still see the yellow lights of deluge. I didn’t want to see them again. As we approached the bus stand, one fellow played an FM channel on his phone. It sang, “Yei vai raja vai indha vaazhkai oru poi” (Life is but a lie). We couldn’t agree more.