Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A FLOOD OF MEMORIES

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?

19 comments:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Only an exceedingly fecund mind would mix the stories of Atlantis and Sleeping Beauty. It was great reading your piece.

Another thing that stands out from this article is the filter that our memory is. It sieves out almost every unpleasant thing.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

sujata said...

I was not in calcutta when the 1978 flood happened, but have heard stories about my husband's experiences during that flood, very similar to yours, I feel now, esp sitting on the stairs and watching the water rise and the jol dhora snake.

I was married with a kid and sleeping peacefully in Valsad on 26th jan when the earthquake struck Gujarat. The rattling of the furnitures the bed and cracks on the buildings, were quite scary.

Ugich Konitari said...

The Panshet and Khadakwasla Dams on the outskirts of Pune, broke on July 12, 1961. I was in school. As word spread, we were asked to go home, and those living in Deccan , between two bridges that got overrun , like with a tidal wave, couldnt reach home. So Some of my friends came home with me. I remember there being no electricity, and people going near the Mul Mutha river to watch, and rushing back as some new rumors made the rounds. My most abiding memory is of climbing the Parvati hill temple that evening with my friends, and seeing a huge ocean of water everywhere, with bridges missing, and the once stately, stone bungalows half submerged in the Deccan area. We reached home, there were no telephones working, and some of my friends started crying.

What was amazing that their parents were absolutely sure , that we would take them home with us in such a situation.... and they came the next morning trudging thru the slush and mud. ...

Priya said...

Thanks for the wonderful post once again....

My experience and memories go down to recollect something NOT related to water but heat....place i come from has extreme climatic conditions and it was sometime in 1996 (if i am not mistaken)...without rain for almost two years in succession, third year it was so hot that almost 3 consecutive days were called off for all offices and schools... and yes as it was..i was more happy to be at home with everybody than to get a mere clue of what dark days with scorching heat was taking off peace from people's life.

ZiLliOnBiG said...

that was wonderful post. I have started to become rather addicted to your blog, one of the best i have read, i must admit.

I havent come across a natural calamity as such, but few things hold strong in my mind. when we were in lucknow, i guess in 1986 when i was 8 years old, i remember the hailstone and we running to the lawn to collect the falling pebbles of ice. it was wonderful, more so being children. i am sure i wouldnt hold so much of attension being adults now. but that was wonderful the.

then the tragic Kadalundi train mishap, when the train delaired in kadalundy, ( around 10 kms from my home town calicut)in 2001. i was on short vacation in my native.and the whole incidence where around 55 died, and veryone rushing to the scene and help and rescue efforet is etched in my mind for ever.

Cheers.

♥ Braja said...

Being in Mayapur, we caught the 'tail' of this cyclone recently; the tail was enough, what to speak of the heart of it...devastating...

indyeahforever said...

no have never faced any natural calamity..

but simply had to say that you wrote this so beautifully that one felt as if one had experienced it..

Lazyani said...

I remember the great floods of 1978. We were in Durgapur and the bridge connecting the township to the factory was partially washed away resulting in my father(and many of his colleagues) being stranded in the factory for 3 days. I remember the local elders going from house to house pooling rice and rotis and all school building housing the temporarily displaced. I am afraid I do not have good memories of those days.

This time I was caught up in the storm while returning home from office. I could cover the 20 odd kilometres in 4hours with my car weaving past fallen/falling trees and lamp posts. Again quite a frightening experience, I dare say.

kavi said...

i have never been caught in a cyclone. Although, a flood in Madurai when i was in school stays in my mind !

the river waters of Vaigai rose meteorically. But in some time, the sun was out again.

And the science teacher used that to explain evaporation. And i think, retrospectively, she should have talked about civic responsibilities of a bungling corporation or something like that !

:)

Mampi said...

yes there was the flood that devastated Punjab in 1988, that was when i ws 14 and that was when I had contributed to collection of a large sum of money and clothes to be sent to the flood affected areas of punjab.
your post is so vivid that one can see and feel the water rising and feeling what you felt.

Aleta said...

*shivers* Katrina.

We evacuated for it, Thank God. But.... we came back a lot sooner than most of the community because Dad owns his business and it allowed us back in. Horrible, just horrible...

I'm writing memoirs about my Mom right now. I don't think I could handle Katrina memories at the same time. Though ~ tis the season for hurricanes again. Again....

Nona said...

I grew up in Kerala and I remember the perpetually overcast sky during the monsoons. I never had to undergo the fury of a cyclone before in my life. This is the first time, I'm listening to a first person narrative of the aftermath of a cyclone.

Kum Chini said...

Nice write up. No, I don't vividly remember any natural calamity whatsoever. But I remember that during the 1978 flood, when I was in KG I, Carmel School Durgapur, we collected alms and donations for the victims and my mother cooked and donated the same to some of them.

Luckily or not, Kolkata has been rarely affected by natural calamities as thus. I say luckily or not, because no such happenings keep many of us from realizing the depth of the disaster to the real extent, which should not be the case. Now that we have gone through Aila, long stretches of power cuts, water scarcity, road blocks for days together..we know what it is like to face floods and storms and earthquakes.

seanag said...

Having been through an earthquake that destroyed our downtown as an adult, I can relate to the strange displaced feeling of the aftermath of natural disaster. But that's not childhood, and though, as often happens after reading your posts, I find myself sifting through my memories for something that seems related, I'll just say that that was a beautiful post, and I've enjoyed reading everyone else's recollections as well. Although enjoyed probably isn't exactly the right word, since some of this is obviously still painful to recall.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I have been mercifully free of natural disasters, but I do remember a storm that uprooted a number of large, old trees and threw them across the yard of our house in the country. Big, old tree roots are bound to capture the imagination of a young child, as were the gaping holes, almost as deep as a man is tall, that they left in the ground. They were like doors on ajourney to the center of the earth. And I remember my grandfather standing in the holes, and the sound of his chainsaw as he tried to cut the yard back into normality.
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Swaram said...

It was in 2007 that heavy rains in Hyd led to a flyover collapse killing many and causing massive destruction. I still can't believe we had passed below the same less than an hr before!

Babli said...

I liked your blog very much.I appreciate for your beautiful writing.Keep it up!
You are welcome in my blogs.

lopamudra said...

I too remember the flood of 1978.
We were not affected much except the minor flooded streets.I do remember going with my uncles to the subarnarekha river overbridge and overlook the seemingly unending streteches of water.You are so right,there is no memory of discomfort,but I am sure the grownups will have a different tale to tell.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks everybody,

for sharing your memories of disasters.