Chennai may be inundated. But it has reason to thank the rain gods despite the rain and the water turning a murky black along with the rivers Cooum and Adyar. The Delhi media is now fully focused on the Tamil Nadu capital (which has almost never happened), now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an aerial trip after landing at Arakkonam at the Rajali IAF base. This morning, the big dailies that matter in my house said "drowned", "submerged" for the city that's home to me. My parents are still in Chennai and are fine in their flat in north Chennai despite being marooned time to time.
In Chennai, and Tamil Nadu, it rains routinely in early or mid-November when the northeast monsoon sweeps down to complete the reverse cascade of the now-wasted southwest monsoon that brings rain to other parts of the country. Chennaivasis (not Chennaiiites) got by with rolling their trousers up and wading through the knee-deep or waist-deep water. They then proceeded to dry their pants and wade back into the same water home, of course, at the end of the work day.
I covered the November rains (hail GNR) as a reporter in a city paper, astride an Allwyn Nissan mini-truck that was especially sent out at 8am to tour the low-lying areas with a photographer and an extra-garrulous driver. We would return by 5.30pm or 6pm to the office and set about writing/getting photos developed in the time of the dark room, ahead of the news meeting. Everywhere we drove there was rainwater because the storm water drains had given up their choked souls.
The Buckingham Canal silted over and contributed to more damage instead of channelling flood water onto run-off areas (which had full-scale development even then). The city had needed a massive drain expansion in the end-1990s with more drains being built but instead all the city got was flyovers. The logic was sound: build a flyover and everyone sees it; if you build drains, nobody will see them since they are underground, out-of-sight is out-of-mind.
Therefore, build flyovers and not drains. Until it rained cats, dogs and cows and buffaloes and the rainwater couldn't go anywhere but into the usually-placid-and-drain-like rivers Cooum and Adyar and trap the residents of the city from the north (Cooum) and south (Adyar).
Now some 15 years later, the catamarans are out to rescue the marooned as the drains remain the same. In November 2015, apart from the usual rainfall, there was more around the corner - some say El Nino, others say climate change - and the cyclone that usually came in with the rain decided to surprise the already wet and cold city by showing signs of impending arrival when the rain gods went for a beer. If I was covering the rains, I would have needed a tank to get around. That old Allwyn Nissan must have rusted into the Chennai earth by now.
Like everywhere, Chennai dusts its pants and gets about to face the natural phenomenon's unnatural manifestation. But for bored headline writers in newspapers and TV stations, "drowned" and "submerged" are easy words to use but for one who has grown up there, it sounds finito while Chennai is anything but.
The grand "never-dying spirit", which is summoned for every other city suffering a man-made or natural disaster, has not been invoked by headline writers and TV graphics for Chennai. Why? Why is the southern metropolis conveniently forgotten until something like this happens? There's a bit of history to this all.
In newly independent India, Chennai (then Madras) was one of the four metropolitan cities in a largely agrarian country. Though it still is a metro, it is relegated by north India and Delhi's insistence to count Bengaluru and Hyderabad above it on account of much nicer weather (Bengaluru) and access (Hyderabad is closer to Mumbai and Delhi). Now Bengaluru is beset by smog unlike the nicer weather which drew new migrants from the north powered by the success of the tech folks. The Karnataka capital has transmogrified into this skyscraper central compared to its cantonment town past and its roads are torture chambers - narrow and polluted. Chennai has soldiered on, voting in one Dravidian party or the other as the Congress paled into insignificance and the discourse of development fell victim to the entire Dravidian insistence on doing business without Hindi.
All this while, Chennai grew even when it was not being looked at. It grew over lakes that dried out in the droughts of the 1980s, it grew over shallow lakes that were reclaimed to meet the demand for housing. As it grew, it also invited migrants who all landed at the famed Chennai Central (now inundated).
Chennai still suffers from prejudice in the national media. It's known for some dubious reasons (at least in the north): a) as the city where people speak a language alien to the north-centered discourse of India b) they only speak one language and refuse to speak Hindi, or English c) film stars become chief ministers there with the ever-worshipping crowds and the devout's cult of the cut-out d) the auto drivers don't run the meters or be gypped by them when they charge Rs 500 for a one kilometre ride and e) it's awfully humid and hot. It's pluses don't overawe the perceived minuses - the saris, the Carnatic music kutchery circuit, the cuisine (its underplayed non-vegetarian spread and the ever-copied idli-vada-dosa trinity), the famous and yet ill-maintained Marina beach, the heritage buildings left behind by the East India Company and the British Crown.
In a few days, the water will clear. The sun will be back with much-needed warmth. But will Chennai get its all-new and improved drain system? Next November, the rain will return. The Chennaivasi will be busy with work, the national media will be back to seeing what it wants to see; the tyranny of distance, as a seasoned TV anchor put it, works against the fourth metropolis too. But another flood a few years later will tell if the lessons of 2015 have been learnt. Or will Rajinikanth have to enter politics?