On September 17, 2018, when I landed at the Kochi airport, what I looked for were tell-tale shreds of evidence of the floods that inundated the world’s first fully solar-powered international airport one month ago. There was no evidence of it on the runway. Inside the airport, too, I could not find any marks of the floods that left a trail of death and destruction.
As a colleague and I came out of the arrival hall and met my friend AJ Abraham, I could notice some scratches on a pillar that could have been the result of the deep cleaning that the airport had undergone.
Our visit was a month after the worst-ever floods the state witnessed when following five days of torrential rains and the opening of dams, people remembered not so much the great writer Thakazhy Shivasankara Pillai’s short story Vellapokathil (In the floods) as the floods prophesied to Noah for which he built his Ark.
Until then, Kerala had heard only about the floods of the Malayalam year 1099 when vast swathes of Kochi and Travancore came under water. I remember an article written by the retired Kerala Police chief Jacob Punnoose in a mass-circulation Malayalam daily in which he deprecated the Malayali practice of letting rainwater flow away from one’s land by the excessive laying of interlocking tiles.
He specifically mentioned that if the state were to receive rains like in 1099, the Cochin International Airport would be under water. Those who read the article would have just laughed at his prediction for they took pride in the storage capacity of the dozens of dams built in the state since those horrendous floods of 1099. Little did they know that the dams were the real culprits, not the saviors of the state.
On my request, Abraham stopped the car to let me take a picture of the acres of solar panels that powered the whole airport. They were no longer coruscating and, to all intents and purposes, they might have been damaged forever. While controlling the wheels, he went garrulous about the floods and the heroic efforts the people had made to reduce deaths to the minimum.
Our destination was the government lower primary school at Chendamangalam in North Paravur in Ernakulam district, known as the state’s handloom hub. It was my friend Dr. George Mathew, Chairman of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, who linked me to Abraham in our bid to identify a school that the not-for-profit NGO Deepalaya, with which I am associated, wanted to rebuild.
I knew Chendamangalam as one of the worst flood-affected areas but it required Abraham to show me rows of walls destroyed and household articles and damaged vehicles left on roadsides. Otherwise, I would not have noticed them for they had become part of the landscape! As we entered the school compound through an arched gate, I could hear children reciting the Malayalam alphabet that has 15 vowels, 38 consonants, and five chillus.
It was difficult to believe that it was a government school, as the school walls were brightly painted with pictures that engage the attention of children. Radhika Nair, the teacher-in-charge, was there to receive us, though she expected us to be there only a little later. “Please sit, Latha Madam, our Assistant Education Officer will soon be here”.
While I contacted many in the Kerala government, from a minister to a director, to allow us to rebuild a government school destroyed by the floods, it was the AEO who readily accepted the offer but with a request that we also undertake to rebuild another school, a short drive from there. It was the Government Upper Primary School in the same gram panchayat.
Everywhere one goes, the people show the mark on the wall up to which the flood water had reached. In both the schools we visited, we found that all the computers, library books, public announcement systems, and laboratory equipment had been lost and needed to be replaced.
As we sat there, a group of parents came to meet us. They all had suffered a lot but they wanted the school to be brought back to its pristine glory. The teachers and parents were very happy to hear us that we would do whatever was possible to rebuild the school.
Abraham sent me on WhatsApp a video clip that showed a boat plying on the road on which we were travelling. The road led to the Chendamangalam gram panchayat office that was under water a month ago. Billows of smoke were emanating from one corner where old files, damaged by the flood water, were put to the fire.
The panchayat office, where many Malayalam films were shot because of its uniqueness, was functioning from a makeshift office. All the office equipment and computers were destroyed in the flood. Madam Vijayam, the secretary, requested us to provide at least two computers to replace the borrowed ones they were using. I could only say we would try, as we had yet to find sources to meet the cost.
On the way back, we stopped at India’s first and oldest synagogue at Paravur, first built in 1165 and rebuilt in 1615. Unfortunately, the caretaker had called it a day much before we reached there. Flood water did not touch the synagogue where the last worship was conducted in 1988. It is said that a minimum of 10 Jews are required to conduct the worship.
Overlooking the worship centre was a new, two-storied house. The nameplate in English, Hindi and Hebrew said Pallivathukkal Puthen Veettil Eliahu Family. The house belonged to the only Jew in the area, who is an agricultural expert who divided his time between India and Israel. All the Jews of Paravur had left for Israel one by one, leaving the synagogue to successive caretakers.
When Abraham stopped the car at a restaurant for tea, the taste of the mid-day meal we shared with the staff and students at the government school still lingered in my mouth.
Abraham and his friend kept telling us stories of the flood. The most poignant was the one about a relief worker finding the bodies of an old woman and her granddaughter in a state of embrace when the water receded from their house. “The media were sensitive enough not to highlight such stories, for they could have damaged the morale of the people. Instead, stories of extraordinary rescue operations were highlighted”.
As a media person, I felt proud to hear this compliment as journalists are often portrayed as diggers of dirt. Since my colleague Kuriyan Behanan’s luggage was detained at the Delhi airport for it contained a power bank, allowed only in hand baggage, we had to wait at the Cochin airport to receive the luggage till an evening flight arrived.
By the time we reached Kayamkulam, it was almost midnight. One thing I learned wherever I went this time was that everybody had a story to tell. And those stories were thriller than any that I ever heard.
I remember no less a person than Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan telling the media that a seven-member family in Ranni could not be rescued as the helicopter had difficulty in accessing the two-storied house. He announced that a Navy boat would soon reach there to rescue the family that consisted of two senior citizens and five others.
I did not realize that what the CM said was about my own niece Mini and her family. A few days before the floods, she had called me to invite us to her son’s wedding with a girl who worked in London. I would have loved to attend but for the prohibitive cost of travel.
As was the custom, the house was repainted and all the furniture was given a new coat of polish. Two days after the wedding, the water level in the Pampa began to rise. Floods were not uncommon for Mini. The previous time, too, water entered the house but what they saw this time was unimaginable.
Water began gushing into the compound and, finally, into the house. “We all climbed upstairs thinking that it would be safe there”, said Mini recalling those horrible hours.
They had the common sense to take their dogs to a still higher place. As also their car. While they were safely ensconced on the first floor, a boat rescuing people came that way. They offered to rescue them but “to be frank, we declined the offer as we thought the water would soon start receding”.
Instead, the water virtually filled the ground floor and was menacingly rising to reach the first floor. They could see only water around like a person standing on the deck of a ship on the high sea. Would the seven have a watery grave? As such dark thoughts came to their mind, the new daughter-in-law, whose honeymoon dreams were washed away by the floods, took the situation under control.
She went to the terrace, opened the Facebook Messenger on her mobile phone and went live with a full-throated appeal to rescue the family. Within seconds the appeal went viral on the social media. The family received innumerable calls from all over the world.
That is how an Indian Air Force helicopter reached there to rescue them. It came down but could not approach close enough to lift them one by one because of the trees around. Finally, after much effort, they went back with the promise that a naval boat would reach there, sooner than later. In a way, it was good that they were not picked up, for they would have been left in Thiruvananthapuram!
Minutes turned into hours and the water kept rising. There is a mosque bang across the road in front of Mini’s house. Some people at the mosque hastily created a catamaran-like floating device to rescue them. By the time it reached Mini’s house, a basket boat had begun rescuing the family. The mosque had turned into a relief camp providing a shelter to hundreds of people. It was the first time that many of them had seen the inside of a mosque.
“Since the elders at the mosque knew us and in consideration of our age, they gave us an independent room with attached bath for our exclusive use,” said Mini’s mother-in-law. “The Muslims took good care of us. I do not know how they managed to cook nice food for all of us.
At mealtime, the public address system, which was used to announce Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest), was, instead, used to announce, “Kanji (rice porridge) and payar (pulses cooked with grated coconut) are ready. Please come!”.
That was the first time, the non-Muslims of Maamukku in Ranni waited for such announcements. Mini had a request to the Muslim boys supplying food. “Can you please take some food for our marooned dog?” The Muslims are not very fond of dogs, for they prefer to have cats. As the story goes, the Prophet Mohammed had a cat and it alone had the permission to enter his prayer room, not even his wife.
When the plague killed millions of people in Europe in the centuries ago, they wondered why in the Muslim areas, there were no such deaths. They realized that cats killed rats while Christians killed cats because they considered them symbols of evil. There was no cat in Europe when the plague hit the continent. Once they realized that cats were useful, they imported them from Turkey to fight the rat menace.
Such prejudices did not prevent them from taking food to Mini’s dogs which would have relished the food from the mosque. A voracious reader, Mini could rescue most of her books. After the family was rescued, they received calls from political leaders like Veena George, MLA and Raju Abraham, MLA. She is, however, more grateful to her daughter-in-law who had the presence of mind to use Facebook with telling effect.
After a survey of Ranny, I returned to Kayamkulam. On the way, I stopped at a tea shop near my wife’s ancestral house at Cherukole, Kozhencherry. It was managed by a Bengali-speaking worker who was struggling to listen on Short Wave, a news-bulletin from either Kolkata or Dhaka. I asked him whether flood water had entered the shop. He did not understand Malayalam but he could make out what I asked and showed me a mark on the wall.
Now, most people I met are convinced that it was the inefficiency of those who managed the dams that were responsible for the floods. “The Electricity Board authorities thought of earning Rs 40 crore by not releasing water in time but the state lost Rs 40,000 crore in the process. We have a joker as the electricity minister”, is a comment I heard from a knowledgeable person who would not like to be identified.
Amid the ruins, there are many who found a windfall. I accosted a person who got Rs 850 for servicing a sewing machine while another got Rs 2500 for bringing alive a refrigerator the family thought was irreparable”. At this rate, Kerala will soon be back on its own legs, though I must admit there are at least 10 poor people for every Mini who need support to restore normalcy to their life.(Published on 24th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 39)