The recent super-cyclone Aila which devastated large swathes of Kolkata and neighbouring areas (including my hometown Barrackpore) was something I watched on TV and heard on the phone from afar, being in Mumbai and Bangalore when it happened.
But when I was a child, I had a real-time experience of the Great Flood which happened in the Nineteen-seventies (Google says 1978 – I was five years old) in Bengal. A mind-probe brought up a lot of scattered memories.
I remember heavy, seemingly-unending rainfall and perpetually-dark skies.
I remember water collecting and rising above the ground, rising to submerge the streets and the garden, rising to cover the stairs leading to the house, to the exact level of the ground floor balcony. I thought the pond beside our house had overflowed, but somebody told me that it was the river Ganga, about two miles away from our house, which had broken its banks and spread out so far. I thought what it might feel like to live underwater, if our house would be submerged like the lost city of Atlantis (story told to me by my father), and then many many centuries later, people would find us and we would wake up (I think I mixed up the Atlantis story with Sleeping Beauty...I was a confused child living in a secret dreamworld half the time).
I remember the people of the neighbouring slum areas, who lived in small one-storey brick-and-mud houses which were partially submerged, come over for shelter to larger two-storey houses like ours. I was bundled off to the upper floor, so I cannot recollect any specific faces. My Dadu (grandfather) refused to leave his bed (his bedroom was on the ground floor) and I remember him sullenly and defiantly glaring at the rain as if willing it to stop before the water flooded his room. Which it did, actually!
I remember my father and uncle and other grown-ups in the neighbourhood wading through the water with torches at night, patrolling the streets (we called it ‘nightguard duty’) because, apparently, the flood had brought about an influx of thieves braving the rains and water, looking for an opportunity to loot the deserted defenceless houses.
I remember sitting with my father on the staircase which led to the first floor and watching the water rise slowly but surely till it reached the level of the balcony at least three feet above the ground. A small jaldhora snake swam up and took shelter on the slippery-with-rain balcony. I was scared but my father reassured me. Anyway, the snake slithered busily away into the water soon.
I remember the rain lessening and then gradually stopping after what seemed like weeks-without-end. The roads were covered with poli-maati (the typical silt-clay found on the banks of the Ganga), the garden was a mess of dead and rotting plants, and there were some unrecognizable carcasses (cows or goats, or maybe street-dogs) on the streets and playing fields.
Strangely, I do not remember anything about the suffering and shortages of food/electricity/water that we must have undergone. My mother was calm and unruffled (at least in front of us), she gave us meals on time, and despite being school-less and outside-play-less for several days, I do not remember feeling bored or irritable. It was all new and different. I remember feeling rather Noah-like. It must have been frightening, but with all the grown-ups in the house (schools and offices being closed for days), the excitement won over the fear. Maybe children, unless they are directly affected by a calamity, have a different perspective of Nature’s excesses than adults.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY NATURAL DISASTER WHICH YOU HAD WITNESSED AS A CHILD?