Chennai has shown us a face few suspected it had. Mumbai was always known as the resilient city, but in drawing room conversations in the north, particularly Delhi, the southern metro would be described as the city of idli-dosai and gentle Madrasis, a euphemism for weaklings or lacking the brawns of a Punjabi or Haryanvi.

But never in any conversation would the Madrasi be denied ‘brains’; there were too many senior and talented Tamil afsars in North and South Block to warrant question marks on this attribute.

Well, the unprecedented floods have proved that the city has both: brains of course — look at the smart way in which Twitter and Facebook were co-opted right from the beginning of the catastrophe to rescue, help and reach food to people — but also a steel frame. Chennai showed it has a heart, too. Not a single communal incident was reported in Chennai or the rest of Tamil Nadu in the communal carnage following the destruction of the Babri Masjid; this region was a rare haven of communal amity in those dark days.

As Chennai was battered by record rainfall — three-fourth of its annual NE monsoon average in a day; the Chembarambakkam catchment area got 40 cm in 24 hours — well before the administration could get its act together, volunteer groups of citizens sprang into action, making smart use of Twitter, FB and WhatsApp. As most areas were plunged into darkness and power had to be switched off for fear of electrocution, people saw the first heartbreaking images of the havoc on social media and WhatsApp groups.

Most could not access TV, and city editions of many newspapers could not be printed for the first two days; those that were printed couldn’t be distributed. We were among the fortunate whose area wasn’t flooded. Forced to stay home, I devoured all sources of news as we had power most of the time.

Volunteers par excellence

On the first day of flooding, one of the first FB posts on volunteer efforts was from Sam Paul, who said he’d been involved in rescue work for 10 hours and was amazed by what he saw. “Muslims helping Hindus in more than 7 feet water. Hindus helping Christians. Christians helping Muslims. And all the combinations possible. Nobody cared which religion they were from. Nobody cared for recognition. They only wanted to save lives. They only wanted to help. This is our city. Proud of u Chennai; this is why we will bounce back stronger and more united than ever. Jai Hind.”

In three days, his group had reached relief and food to a few lakh people, and his subsequent posts asked people to stop sending money; he had enough and more. And when he suggested the surplus would be passed on to the State relief fund, there were protests, with the refrain being we sent you money because we trust you!

FB had several other such groups, giving out telephone numbers; Twitter’s 140-characters were ingeniously used through embedded messages spelling out the nitty-gritty of help available and how to access it. There were images of Friday namaz performed on wet streets as mosques filled with homeless people; the Loyola College opened its doors to the distressed and traumatised; there were messages galore on the Jain community preparing tens of thousands of hot meals and the numbers at which these could be accessed; gurudwaras swung into action as they always do during crises.

Tales of heroism

As relief and food were delivered all over the city, it was evident that this was one hell of a smart city, using the internet effectively to harness resources and manpower. As thousands of people watched all their possessions floating away — TV sets, refrigerators, kitchen appliances, furniture — at least their lives could be saved, first by volunteers and local administration, and then by the NDRF and defence forces.

When the crisis blows over, hopefully tough questions will be asked on how construction was allowed on swamps, marshlands and drainage channels. How come the older areas of Chennai with British-made gutter systems coped better? How could aid be mobilised by goons to derive political mileage?

Among the thousands of young men and women, girls and boys who left the comfort of their dry and secure homes and waded through flood waters, many of us have names to brag about. Initha Kanna, a government officer, and her cousins, prepared loads of hot food; Rupa Chawda and her 18-year-old daughter Sakhi, collected it, organised paper plates and cups the first day, and spanking new stainless steel utensils the next, and drove from shelter to shelter for distribution.

Stories will become legends: a Crescent Engineering student, Yunus, swimming and pulling out Chitra, a woman in labour; she named her baby Yunus! A Hindu woman sheltered in a mosque saying: “We weren’t willing to rent our homes to Muslims, but today their mosques have given us a temporary home. May Allah forgive us for thinking these bearded youngsters were terrorists.”