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Heroes’ Own Country

Heroes’ Own Country

Mohan Sivanand is a friend. He served as the editor of the  prestigious  Reader’s Digest for more than 10 years before his retirement. He was a relatively junior journalist in 1988 when he was assigned to report the tragedy that happened near Kollam in Kerala when a dozen bogies of the Bengaluru-Thiruvananthapuram Island Express derailed and fell into the Ashtamudi lake killing 105 passengers.

His story was mostly about how the people in the area rose up as one man in pulling out bodies and luggage from the salt water, providing first aid to the needy and giving food and beverages to those who needed them. 

They provided whatever services they could before the authorities concerned arrived on the scene with the necessary equipment and provisions.

Sivanand also devoted one or two paragraphs to mention that some despicable characters tried to loot the hapless passengers of their belongings. They walked away with the luggages, purses, jewellery and wrist watches found on the bodies. 

To his surprise, the editor of the magazine deleted those paragraphs on the ground that when the whole story was about the goodness of man, there was no need to mention his wickedness. It taught him a lesson which he did not study in journalism classes. 

Crisis brings out the best in man. In rare cases, the worst also. What Kerala underwent for a whole week was unprecedented. There are two opinions on whether the rains of 2018 were like those of 1924 when the state witnessed the worst-ever floods. It was known as the ’99 flood because it happened in the Malayalam year 1099 which corresponds to 1924. 

Whatever be the case, there is no doubt at all that no floods  in the past caused as much destruction as this one.

To bring home the point, the Periyar rose in 1924 as much as it rose in 2018. The marshy fields in Nedumbassery, near Kochi, were inundated then as now except that in 2018 there stood a busy, international airport on the same paddy fields with all the attendant infrastructural facilities. 

Water reached almost the first floor of the airport destroying all the communication equipment, body scanners, x-ray machines, computers, furniture, duty-free shops and my favourite, little bookstall from where I bought at least one Malayalam book every time I passed through the airport. According to one estimate, restoring the airport to its pristine condition would cost not less than Rs 250 crore.

This time the flood was not caused by the rains alone. While there was only one dam in 1924, there are now four dozen dams, big and small, in Kerala. 

All of them either overflew or were opened to save the dams from bursting at the seams. Thus, the rain water that flooded the rivers were accentuated by the sudden surge of water from the dams.

As a result, towns after towns were affected marooning tens of thousands of people. Rich people living in mansions found themselves starving for food as their kitchens were under water. For once, they realised that all the money they had in the bank could not bring a morsel of food or a bottle of clean potable water. Nor could they move out in the BMWs and Mercs which stood stalled under water. Fortunately, they did not die of thirst as they caught rain water in small vessels and drank it.

As one hapless person wailed on television, “I have Rs 40 lakh in my bank account. My wife has another Rs 20 lakh but I have only Rs 50 in my purse and that, too, is useless because there is no food available for sale”. 

Some of them would certainly have remembered Madhu, a mentally challenged adivasi youth, who was caught stealing food and was, therefore, lynched to death in an incident that caused eternal shame to the state. 

Few believed him when he pleaded that it was hunger which forced him to come out of the forest and steal food from wherever he found it. No, he had not stolen any jewellery or money. He stole only food!

The condition of most people in Ranny, Pathanamthitta, Pandalam, Kozhencherry, Aranmula and Chengannur, which were the worst-affected places, was no better than that of Madhu, except that they had money they could not use. 

Many had the misfortune of seeing their own houses, built with great architectural and structural engineering care, crumbling before their own eyes. 

Amidst all this chaos, there was something noble that came to the surface, almost automatically. We have grown up thinking that people are essentially selfish. Everyday newspapers and television channels report about incidents like the continuous abuse of the girls in a shelter home in Bihar by none else than the husband of the minister concerned. 

We also seem to believe that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behaviour when disaster strikes as mentioned in the two paragraphs of Sivanand’s story that eventually did not appear in print. Are our apprehensions well-founded?

According to a remarkable book,  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster the opposite is true. And that is what the Kerala flood story says eloquently. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters, including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. 

“During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. 

“While they do this, they often express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. 

“This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.” This reminds me of Tolstoy’s famous book the  Kingdom of God is within You. The Keralites have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that Solnit’s theory is absolutely true!

There is only one person in Kerala who vividly remembers the 1924 floods and speaks about it. He is Senior Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. People who were affected by the floods took shelter in high-altitude areas where whatever dry food they were able to save was cooked and they ate together. 

It was common in Kerala those days to keep dry tapioca at home for use in the month of Karkadakam, the last month of the Malayalam year, when people could not do any manual work because of torrential rain. The bishop’s own father who got involved in relief work had to be saved from the water when he accidentally fell into it. 

It is the same phenomenon that Kerala witnessed this time. One of the most exhilarating photographs I saw from the flood zone was that of an half pant-clad, chappal-less, young IAS officer with dirt on his hands and legs taking a little rest after immersing himself in relief work. I heard another young district collector — a lady — give a spirited speech telling the people that they were doing nothing less than creating history while doing everything possible for the hapless people.

For once, I realised that the UPSC had chosen the right person for the IAS. Yet another lady collector showed remarkable courage to have the locks of a building owned by the legal fraternity forcibly opened to store food grains for distribution among the flood-affected.

The photograph of another lady collector walking in the slush with her sari raised to save it from dirt and thereby leading from the front is still etched in my mind.

Keralites are one of the most privileged people in the country, nay world. They never suffered any war like those in the North suffered. They never saw conquerors marching through their land looting and plundering and establishing their hegemony. Even their rulers were benevolent. Two centuries before the democratic rulers in Delhi thought of introducing the Right to Education Act, a young, woman ruler in Travancore issued a proclamation that said that educating children was the responsibility of the state.

They never experienced the kind of earthquake that Uttarakhand and Gujarat suffered in the past. None of their dams burst like the Morvi dam burst in Gujarat. They took pride in the fact that they lived in God’s own country.

Someone may ask why I glamorise the services of the IAS officers. They have a point as relief and rescue operations in Kerala were carried out by thousands of ordinary people whose services would never be acknowledged, let alone thanked for. Many were themselves victims but they did not rest on their victimhood. Instead, they went out of the relief camps to provide succour to fellow victims.

Where they did not have boats, they cut banana plants and created a raft on which they went to marooned houses and ferried the young and the old to the nearest relief camp. Life in the camp was horrible with little food and toilet facilities. Keralites are known to take bath at least twice a day. 

They are known to be the most-hygiene conscious, as they prefer to drink only boiled water like the Chinese who drink only tea. It would have been horrible for them to live under such primitive conditions but they bore the pain with equanimity. For once, they forgot all their political and social differences and remembered that it was the same blood that ran in their veins.

The spirit that drove them was encapsulated in incidents like the Catholic Church opening its cemetery to the Hindus to perform the last rites of one of them who could not be cremated with water all around them. And on the day of Bakrid, a Hindu temple was thrown open to the Muslims to offer their prayers as their mosque stood in knee-deep water! Stories of bonhomie, comradeship and fellow-feeling were reported from everywhere.

A policeman tenderly holding a baby in his hands and a fire brigade personnel saving a baby from sure death are images that will remain etched in the collective mind of the Malayali.

Nobody can underestimate the yeoman service the defence personnel provided. There were areas where the boats could not reach. There, the helicopters reached with food and drinking water. And those who needed to be rescued were picked up using ropes and safely taken to relief centres. 

They made sorties after sorties to save the people. Among the defence personnel were many Malayalis who, in any case, have a large presence in such forces. Their knowledge of the topography of the state helped in the rescue operations.

Another group of persons whose services should be mentioned in golden letters is that of the fishermen. They needed only an appeal from the government to get involved in the relief work. Thousands of them reached the flood-hit areas with their boats — big and small. They never took rest and moved from one locality to another rescuing people.

They had no safety garments to wear. In fact, they wore only a shirt and a dhoti. They are one of the poorest people in Kerala. 

They do not enjoy any one-rank-one-pension scheme. They are like Pazhani in Thakazhy’s  Chemmeen, who dies fighting a shark in the deep sea like the old man in Hemingway’s  The Old Man and The Sea.

When the cyclone Ockhi hit the coastal areas of Kerala in December 2017, the fishermen were hit hard. None of those who own big cars went there with relief materials. True, some went there to take selfies. That did not prevent them from giving their all to the needy people of Kerala.

Of course, when they returned to their homes with their boats on trucks, it was with folded hands that the people bade farewell to them. In a short Facebook post, I called the Fishermen the true heroes of India! I know for sure that nobody would ever question the assertion.

The month of Karkadakam is followed by the moth of Chingam. It is known as the month of prosperity. In a few weeks, people will forget the travails they underwent, like the mother who forgets the labour pains once the baby is born. 

The floods have opened millions of opportunities. Car mechanics are now in great demand to start the stalled cars. Millions of man-hours would be needed to set right the electrical lines. Investment worth thousands of crores of rupees would be required to repair the roads, bridges, houses, churches and temples. All this will create jobs.

It did not take long for Japan and Germany to rise up from the ashes after the Second World War. Surat in Gujarat became infamous when plague hit the city in the nineties. Today, it has the best municipal facilities. Kerala, too, will square up to the challenge and prove its ability to withstand all odds and become, once again, God’s Own Country!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 27th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 35)