“The dream is collapsing.” The title of a soundtrack from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” came to my mind as I watched TV news at my home in Kochi four days ago.
I even thought I caught a glimpse of that legendary spinning top whirling across the TV set as images of houses, schools and shops giving in to the raging waters across Kerala, came alive on the screen.
Another haunting score from the same film, “Time,” the slow, piano-heavy track by composer Hans Zimmer played incessantly in my mind as I stayed glued to my seat watching the dance of destruction.
Many people who were stranded in waterlogged homes put up videos urging rescue even as waters rose chest high around them, in some cases.
Some cried saying their infants were hungry while others were in a state of shock. And here I was just a few hours away from them by road but unable to do anything but watch.
The part of Kochi where I stay with my parents was not as affected as the surrounding suburbs.
However, the neighbouring town of Alwaye was almost completely submerged and thousands lost their homes.
The roads to these areas were cordoned off and it was impossible to help a friend or relative even if they lived an hour away.
Several of my relatives and friends had to make quick getaways to apartments in the heart of the city. Kochi roads are still teeming with vehicles that have “Relief Camp” stickers put up on the windshield.
Reality Television For Real
The reality television that has been playing out on our screens since last week is mind-numbing.
Matters peaked for us around the 17th of this month when news channels announced that water had entered parts of Kochi that were but five kilometers away from our house.
I called up a friend who lived in that area and he confirmed that the roads around his house were waterlogged.
All through last week, every morning as soon as I woke up, I would rush to the window and check if the waters had entered our neighbourhood.
Every day, parting the curtain, I would be greeted by a gloomy and dark morning. And it rained day after day and hour after hour. The sun had not been spotted for days together.
It was sometime mid-July when the continuous and heavy rains since early June had begun to bother me. The sheer intensity of the rain and the fact that there was no letup played on my mind.
But then it carried on, all the way into third week of August. And then just around Independence Day, all hell began to break lose.
The situation appeared life threatening and we had prepared ourselves.
My parents and I had packed a bag each that contained torches, some food and medicine just in case we had to go with the rescue teams. We had also shifted a gas stove, food stuff and stored water onto the first floor so that we could hold on for as long as it would take.
The neighbourhood was unsure and worried.
Several neighbours pondered over the possible extent of flooding. Many of them expected the worst and thought water would probably flood their ground floor at the least.
When I went to the market to stock up supplies, I felt the world had indeed changed although the waters hadn’t reached us yet. There was a certain urgency in the manner in which customers demanded essentials even as shops were fast running out of milk, bread and other such.
On the television, the ticker constantly said that water levels were rising at districts around us. If I knew 10 people, at least eight were affected in one way or the other with at least two counting among those who lost houses, were stranded or injured.
On 17th afternoon, I met a friend at our neighbourhood tea shop who said the nearby town where most of his extended family lived was submerged.
“You know that whole town almost does not exist as of now. It’s all now floating. I don’t even know how many from my family have been traced,” he said grimly.
After a while, he waved his passbook and said he had to finish an errand at the bank and walked away.
When I had to rush to a bank on the other side of town the same day, several bank staffers were cursing the management, in hushed tones, for asking them to come to work.
The idea of a normalcy was beginning to appear hollow although I lived in Dry Land, a phrase I first heard in Kevin Costner's Water World.
It was a surreal moment when I realised that I was actually moving around a circular artificial island — within Kochi — with a diameter of about 10 kilometres where people still went to banks, talked business and went to work.
Outside this circle, the only issues that mattered were rescue, water, food, shelter, clothes and security.
Dark Skies, Grim Reminders
Whenever I left home to carry out errands, the dark sky constantly reminded me of the need to get back home at the earliest even as I hurried to buy battery-operated chargers, raincoats and other supplies.
I was worried about getting suddenly cut off from my home. The day before I had watched rescue operations in a neighboring town where one of the residents broke down after access to his house was cut off by rising waters when he left for the local market.
His house was barely a few hundred metres away but he simply could not cross the waters. “My mother called me and asked me to make it back somehow…” he said completely losing composure looking across the waters to the other side where his family lived.
It was only around the 19th that after a sunny afternoon, one sensed that at least for now, we were safe.
There is much to be thankful to the armed forces personnel, National Disaster Response Force team and the hardy fishermen who rescued people in the most difficult circumstances.
All through this week, I have also been thinking of why this catastrophe happened.
As far as I am concerned, the answer is as evident as day light and lies in the complete destruction of environment that has happened in Kerala over the last 30 years. Today, the whole of Kerala is one big city.
But even until the 90’s the urban culture was deeply connected to traditions such as eating on banana-leaf that thrived in the rural areas.
Every urban Malayali had a rendezvous with his village at least twice a year. Now, those villages too have become urbanised where the malls at times sell even better brands than the ones found in the larger cities.
But as forests made way for farms and farms for towns and cities, Kerala transformed into one big urban sprawl and that too one that was densely populated.
The many rivers and mountains had now become nothing more than raw material resources that would help keep the economic engine competitive.
But on this day, when I have lived through an apocalyptic week, I can say with conviction, that nature has but expressed its dissatisfaction with this line of thinking.
We need to underline that word “sustainable” before we place it next to “development.” It had better be. I for one am not looking forward to the next time when excess water may need to be released. What if this becomes cyclical, is a constant question for me now.
Kerala has only itself to blame for the manner in which the environment was allowed to be plundered.
It was only in the mid 90s that we saw that a river as magnificient as Bharathapuzha had gone dry on account of sand mining. The many land grabs that were reported here, especially in the hills have definitely significantly affected the tree cover.
The excessively hot summers that have also been reported here in recent times have resulted in heavier showers and culminated in the floods this year.
This calamity has also highlighted the significance of Gadgil committee’s report on the need to preserve Western Ghats and Arundhati Roy’s relentless campaign against big dams. All of a sudden environmentalists have gained followers in these parts.
An environmentalist who fought against pollution of the Periyar River told me last year how he had been manhandled by the workers of factories along the river.
“I was fighting to save the river for the benefit of the people. But the people themselves turned against me,” he said not wishing to be named. It is the very same Periyar that has now swallowed whole towns.
There was a time when environmentalists were taken more seriously in Kerala. But the real-estate and mall-driven development model has completely wiped out the Malayali’s connection with nature.
Nowadays, I keep getting reminded of a chart that I studied during science class in school which showed evaporation, condensation and precipitation.
It is no-brainer that more heat will get translated into more rains. But we seem to have forgotten the said basic chart even as our literacy rates improved and we branded ourself as “educated.”
Religion continues to rule despite the many scandals that have hit institutions and nature finds no place even in the most educated society in India, whether in schools or in the domain of god. We have just paid the first ‘installment’ for our complete disconnect with nature.
I once asked a friend, a respected mathematician, on the most significant trait of his subject of inquiry. “That there is an absolute, unchallengeable reality,” he promptly answered.
I kept recalling his words all through last week as I pondered on the words “consequence” and “development.”
When you transform a state that had abundant natural reserves into one giant city, the dream naturally, will collapse. And the spinning top will continue to conjure up typhoons and other such.
It is the same story line for Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and every city or entire states such as Uttarakhand that has been hit by rains or pollution and other such. We need to change course, now.
KP Narayana Kumar is a journalist based in Kochi.