Disaster City

Right about now, in Chennai, always a month before the New Year, a hundred performance venues open their doors to the sound of classical music and the tinkle of dancing bells. The month-long season of music and dance is heady.

Arias waft around in the breeze on the wings of pesky mosquitoes. Streets burst with vendors of jasmine braids and rose garlands. Auto-rickshaw smog blankets the town. The aroma of a crisp dosa dunked in spicy sambar beckons around every by-lane. Chennai airport overflows with suitcases and the gibber of English in abominable accents; non-resident Indians—artistes as well as music aficionados—descend from all over the world to throng the festival.

December season 2015 has begun with a different beat. The northeast monsoons have pelted the region so hard that Chennai’s airport has shut down. Planes are belly-deep in water. Train tracks are inundated. The Indian Army has taken over the town.

This coastal city of nine million people has received more rainfall in three weeks—just yesterday alone, it recorded 10 inches—than the United Kingdom receives in a whole year.

A friend’s aged parents were rescued, by Navy boats, from a little room on the upper storey of their home; they had been stranded with no power and no food. A Facebook friend wrote that her mother stood on the upper floor of her home, watching the disaster swirling downstairs; all her things were floating below, “including the bed, dining table, chairs and the kitchen gas cylinder.”

I hear reports that the number of dead this rainy season is at 188. I’m skeptical. When the rains peel off, we will see the rot within. Yama, my Hindu god of death, preys on random souls, as we know from the many events of November. In India, people look up to the heavens. They call it karma.

Death comes when it's dry too. Every year, many people across India die in heat waves. Temperatures of 105 degrees are not uncommon in towns like Chennai.

Last summer, when I visited home for three months, we bought water from gargantuan Metro water trucks that plied the streets. I felt faint on the hottest days in April and I drank a lot of water. I took military showers. I treated water like I did an expensive swig of Chartreuse. Everyone in Chennai does that. For several years in a row, the wells in the town have been running dry. Locals used to fret about how they would survive another drought year. But this month, right as Paris is discussing climate change, the mental climate in Chennai is changing. No one wants water. They cannot stand it or stand in it.

The city is thirsting for dry weather. This week people have opened their homes to strangers. The lucky ones who have power are using Whatsapp and Facebook to inform and rescue. Volunteers are cooking for many hundreds of people and distributing food packets. I see extraordinary courage in the poorest of the poor; they wade through water to supply the daily packet of milk to customers. I see others who have put aside their sorrows to help. A friend who lost her 40-year-old husband to a heart attack just six days ago has volunteered her Toyota Innova and her home for those in need.

I see how domestic and international media have yet to delve into how one of the world’s ancient cultures has banded together to deploy humanitarian services in a powerless metropolis under maximal deluge and minimal drainage. I saw a CNN segment today on Chennai's struggles. It was a short vignette with a stark discussion of the rainfall. As if one could separate a city, its people, and its ethos from its greatest disaster in a hundred years.

I learned that Lonely Planet and the BBC named Chennai one of the top cities in the world to visit in 2015—for the city's mixture of “both modern and traditional values.” National Geographic called it a “great food city.” For now, at least for a few weeks, Chennai will be a great food packet city because, in the greatest traditions of Indian hospitality, people are worrying that the fellow Indian has eaten.

I end with a quote from a friend, Krish Suresh, who hails from Chennai: “If the "livability" factor of a city is measured by how its residents come together at a time of natural disaster, then Chennai has to be one of the most livable cities in the world.”