Disclaimer: Sorry for disclaiming right at the start. The actual disclaimer comes next.
Disclaimer 2: Will a light-hearted attempted humour piece be insensitive at this juncture is a question that I asked myself before sitting down to write this. Humour, by its very nature, is of course only that. A joke, by definition, is *on* somebody only. But, then again, will this recondite reasoning mean anything to a city many of whose citizens have lost their livelihoods to the devastating floods? Seen in the backdrop of the enormous crisis facing the city, I practically have no case for writing this column for all times. Yet, humour, an irresponsible make-believe alternate idea, is also a sign of agreeable defiance. It imparts a strange sense of ‘all izz well’. However falsifying it may be, its placebo-sweetness could also be the first of the many things we need towards in our lurch towards normalcy, whatever that is.
This is my personal, random recollection of roughly 72 hours starting from Tuesday (Dec 1) afternoon till Friday afternoon when the city was crippled and many of us were stranded in our own houses and pushed to extremities, including having to strike up long conversations with our respective spouses and getting to know the name of the next-door neighbour.
Tuesday evening: The rain is pelting down and there is already knee-deep water in many places, arrive from office in panic mode and tell the family to stock up on emergency needs. Nice you warned me, daughter says, and proceeds to download a couple of English series that could probably come handy, I don’t know, when waiting for rescuers to reach our house.
Tuesday night: Neighbour knocks on the door He has just returned from the market carrying with him what seems like the half-yearly output of all Britannia factories. Just wanted to tell you that there are no more stocks left in the market, he tells me helpfully. How could there be any in the market when all is with you, I tell him, but my sarcasm probably goes unheard in the unceasing gush of the falling rain.
Tuesday night: Power goes. Mobile phone is on the blink. First signs of fear set in. But summoning courage and taking the initiative, gets down to strike a conversation with wife. It lasts for a record 3 minutes. Gets back to slapping mosquitoes.
Wednesday morning: Wakes up uneasily. Finds no newspaper or milk at the doorstep. Rushes to the market and manages to get four packets of milk, two more than our usual need. Waits for a good word from the wife for the smart buy in a trying situation. And she, on cue, says: Why did you buy two more? We have difficulty safeguarding the existing stuff. Don’t you know the fridge isn’t running due to no power? On the brighter side, I think I have adequately answered her longstanding complaint as to why I don’t actively involve myself in household matters.
Wednesday afternoon: Old men and middle-aged guys with long faces gather in knots and discuss dolefully the flood situation in the city. Water from Chembarambakkam Lake was released last night, says one. Where is this Chembarambakkam Lake, asks one casually. Everyone looks around as if they were posed a particularly knotty IIT-JEE question. Turns out that nobody has a clue on where Chembarambakkam Lake is. Someone then says — I must insist here that his voice was serious and sincere —- ‘I thought Porur Lake was called Chembarambakkam Lake’. Then what is the name of the Porur Lake, asks another to clear what seems to be his longstanding doubt. I return home with an incipient headache.
Wednesday evening: Again many are gathered in the apartment complex. The Adyar is in spate, one says. Which means the whole of Besant Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur should be submerged. How come Ashok Nagar and Jafferkhanpet are full of water, asks another. His excuse, though, is he is a North Indian and new to the city. Another neighbour, a hardcore Chennaiite (has a couple of CSK tees), says: ‘I heard the Cooum near Ekkattuthangal is the one overflowing’. An old man in the throng shakes his head as a helpless reaction to the whole conversation.
Wednesday night: With nothing else to do at home, get down to an impromptu multi-lingual Antakshari with the family. Realise that I don’t know most songs beyond their first two lines. And the lines I remember aren’t anyway fit enough to sing in front of the daughter. Not many mosquitoes disturb us that night.
Thursday morning: Wake up to apartment group talking animatedly of water having risen to two floors in the neighbouring Ashok Nagar. ‘Two floors, are you sure?’ one asks and the reply is ‘yes, sure two floors including the basement parking’. Felt good that the apartment group is maintaining its high standards even in adversity.
Thursday afternoon: Go in search of a working ATM. Find one in Vadapalani, but with a queue whose end was probably at a different pincode zone. Stand forlornly, but perk up when a good Samaritan walks up and tells us that there is a nearby ATM which is practically empty. I dash off towards it while most stay put. Indeed, as luck would have it, there is an ATM with nobody in front of it. But that is because it isn’t working. Return to join the line which by now had extended to another time zone.
Thursday night: Power arrives. Charge the mobiles. Get an emergency SMS to — this is the power of modern technology — rush in for redeeming my shopping points at the nearby mall. Switch on TV to catch up on what has happened to the rest of the city. The non-stop scroll message on the TV screen tells the pathetic state of affairs: ‘Recharge your DTH connection to continue with the service’.
Friday morning: Neighbourhood youngsters are up and running with rescue and relief work. They are also seething with anger. ‘Our local Councillor is nowhere to be seen. I think he has vanished’. Our Councillor is a she. I mean she is a woman, I tell him. In that case, she is missing, he answers back. If you don’t know her, how can you be sure that she isn’t around, I persist. None of us know her. But we are sure she wasn’t there, he replies with a logic that is hard to penetrate.
Friday afternoon: The internet is working. We make a beeline to our Facebook and Twitter timelines to tell our friends and relatives on how we survived the Chennai floods. We exchange joke memes on the tragedy. Everyone begins chipping in for relief work. Some in cash. Some through food, dresses and medicines. The neighbour, doubtless, in terms of massive supplies of Britannia biscuits.