In the last two years, Chennai has become the undisputed world leader in slipping into panic mode in a jiffy.
The moment the clouds so much as turn black, Chennai people, thanks to the experience of 2015 floods, become stiff with tension, and people elsewhere, thanks to the seamless connectivity that modern-day technology provides, pick up the ball and add to the tumult, as all manner of conjectures and fears are passed off as ‘news’. (“Crocodile spotted under Saidapet bridge”, “Dinosaurs lurking around OMR”) And before long, the whole of city is covered by a thick well-formed trough of rumours and horror stories.
In the last few days, which have seen the NorthEast monsoon being extremely active in these parts, Chennai’s collective butt has been more or less perched over the panic button, repeatedly sending one alarm after another. Even before the first drops of rain fell on the ground, schools were ordered closure. Work-from-home option was availed by many staff, possibly even by temple Gurukkals. Fisherfolk were asked to stay off from the seas and advised to fish at hill stations. Amidst all this drama, social media platforms manfully rose to the occasion by chipping in with emergency supply of unfounded reports and pointless memes. All manner of info from Dec 2015 were also back in circulation. We just hope that they didn’t send the ambulance again to help that Mudichur woman in extreme labour pain.
Here are a couple of entries from my personal diary over the last few days:
Wednesday night: Neighbour knocks on the door and asks to tell he has recharged his mobile, bought extra supplies of food and small eats, all emergency medicines are well stocked, children have been asked not to go to school.
Going on a vacation? I ask casually. You want me to inform the milk man? I add.
The city will be on vacation, you idiot, he almost says. Did you not get the news? You are a journo, right, he asks in a voiced dipped in salty sarcasm.
Tell me what it is, man, I say irritatedly.
Chennai is set to receive rains as much as it did in 2015. We need to be prepared and not caught off guard.
Who told you this? I snap back
I got it on WhatsApp. BBC has confirmed it.
(In the world of WhatsApp anything is deemed true if there is a mention of BBC or NASA at the end. You can say that Modi has been chosen as the ‘Prime Minister of the World’, and possibly attribute it to UNESCO or some such, you can take it that you have a viral on your hand).
You believe in WhatsApp forwards? I ask pungently.
More reliable than your regular newspapers, he responds cattily.
WhatsApp is not reliable, I persist.
I should have known. I sometimes get your columns forwarded on WhatsApp, he deadpans.
I put my head down and walk back to my bedroom.
Friday morning: Switch on the TV and make a major mistake: Tune into a news channel. They have already deployed drones, primarily conveying the information that they have drones at their service. Otherwise there is no real insight into anything.
There is a reporter in raincoat and hoodie holding an umbrella over his head. It is not even raining at that moment. It is at best blustery. I am not ruling out the possibility that they have a huge pedestal fan running nearby to create a windy effect. The reporter is standing in ankle-deep water.
Anchor in studio: Saravanan, what is the situation there?
Reporter: As you can see I am standing in ankle-deep water, which means water has risen till my ankle. It will rise till my knee if it rains anymore and the water continues to stagnate here, if I I am stupid enough to stand here all day answering your even more stupid questions.
Okay, I don’t hear him say the last part as I switch to another channel, where they are interviewing Ramanan, the brand ambassador of rains in these parts. Why interview him, what kind of information can he give when he is no longer part of the weather bureau? I wonder. It is a bit like asking a man to review a film that he has not seen, but based on the fact that he has seen many other films in the past.
Suddenly WhatsApp forwards do not seem all that stupid.
Friday afternoon: WhatsApp goes dead. It has conked all over the world. Receive a call from a friend breathlessly asking whether WhatsApp has been shut down due to impending Chennai floods.
Even without WhastApp, the spirit of WhatsApp is well and truly alive in Chennai. I think the BBC will confirm this.