Why Chennai’s floods are its milestone moment

Saranya Chakrapani
Saranya ChakrapaniDec 08, 2015 | 13:04

Why Chennai’s floods are its milestone moment

Even as we find ourselves in a dire need to unlearn years of casual oversight, what we take home is the intense goodwill that brought out our best in last week’s turbulence.

According to a Buddhist principle, life, through its endless but numbered days, is upheld by Shoten-Zenjin, or creatures that uncannily emerge in our environments during our times of need. The scare of an impending flood isn’t typically one you'd imagine to unnerve Chennai, a city that has prided itself for its resilience against intense annual heat waves, water wars and an inspiring recoup following the 2004 tsunami. But what we weren’t prepared for was the unfamiliarity of this threat; as popularly noted, the city’s worst rainfall in a hundred years. This time of course, worst in excess.


The earliest spell of torrential rain that lashed in heavy to very heavy intensity for a whole day last week left us with many brutal firsts to deal with. But what’s noteworthy is that it democratised us in our most fundamental disposition, showing Chennaiites the thousands of Shoten-Zenjins they lived amongst. Passions we had long forgotten with no intention to refresh surfaced - much like the piles of garbage, ruined furniture and animal carcasses – that now emerge from beneath the receding floodwaters; a certainty we dread but are compelled to deal with.

Overnight, the city found itself completely submerged, excepting pockets of fortunate neighbourhoods that had their roads intact. Like an inevitable life lesson, it first stripped us of systems we had learned to take for granted; important junctions we complained about ceremonially on the way to work disappeared overnight under sheets of water - cordoned off and carefully guarded like injured limbs.

Inconsequential Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp updates, which many of us nonchalantly created with the first sip of our morning coffee, abruptly stopped, after the network towers on our phones dropped down to nothing. Loved ones living even at the shortest physical distances were disconnected from their immediate support systems by inundated roads and zero mobile connectivity. Supermarkets pulled down shutters after they failed to receive their day’s supply of vegetables, milk, bread, instant noodles, water bottles, candles and antiseptic liquids. ATMs ran out of cash and banks closed their doors, leaving hordes frantic with money uselessly stacked away in multiple accounts; none of any remote use. Power supply was uniformly cut off, leaving our phones, tablets and laptops with zero charge and our homes in darkness. No section of people went unaffected – while some paid a heavier price by losing pets, people, others were at least thrown off their guard, and forced into some serious reflection.


People wearily watched out for weatherman SR Ramanan who, in no time, had turned from being a messenger of good news for school children to a dreaded forecaster. But he has also earned himself some love with Facebook memes created after him a week on, now that we can afford a little sense of humour.

The calamity drew varying reactions from various people. Different mobs united by causes best suited to them took to the streets; some stood for days protesting outside their electricity board offices for power resumption, while others outpoured their wrath against the state government in angry bytes to the television news channels covering their area.

However, the most significant pacesetter - and quite honestly, the only one that mattered - was the sweeping display of systematic altruism that fiercely drove every family with a little resource to spare.

In a personal experience, the one in every ten autorickshaw drivers who dared to take home stranded passengers from Thiruvanmiyur to Velachery through the worst hit Taramani road a day after the monstrous rains. The most beautiful and giving grandparents, parents and children of Ramaniyam Eden, Velachery, who took it upon themselves to ensure the safety and warmth of over two dozen young women – outstation IT employees, students and a lone few like me, who couldn’t reach homes situated a few minutes away, simply because roads inundated with chest-high septic water separated them. Residents like my week-old friend, the 62-year-old Sindhi, who opened out her door and her heart to provide me way more than just stop-gap accommodation. The 40-odd strangers who united to mass cook for over 500 affected people at the local gurudwara, without needing to know anything more, and went on to forge great friendships from that spirit of service.


The home guards of Chennai, who stationed themselves around town to rescue 1,200 people from south Chennai on Day One alone, and have distributed lakhs of food packets, vegetables, medicines, blankets and toiletries since. Even as we find ourselves in a dire need to unlearn years of casual oversight, what we take home is a mightier lesson.

The intense goodwill that defined last week’s turbulence brought together complete strangers in an obstinate purpose to help and slapped us with enough humanity to eat into years of shallow disparity and nurtured cynicism; this is what we take home. This is our Christmas gift, our milestone moment - as a city and as a people. And seeing how we learnt it, it sure must stay on to root us forever.

(Editor's note: The headline of the article was modified following publication.)

Last updated: December 08, 2015 | 19:10
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