Saturday, July 30, 2005

When the streets had no name... Mumbai on July 26

It started like regular Tuesday mornings do. The Monday depression is past, the week looks promising and all's well with the world. I was supposed to do lunch with a contact/friend in Juhu and it had been getting endlessly postponed. I called to say I'd meet him at his office instead and carry on to work since Nariman Point is pretty far. But he didn't take the call and just messaged to fix the time and place. I sent a long-winded sms in return to cancel, and then on seeing no reply, proceeded to send an equally long-winded message to say I'd come. There was nothing urgent in office anyway and journalists get their leads from precisely such meetings. So, I made use of the husband's car and driver since he'd left for an off-site conference just out of Mumbai, and off I went to Juhu, stopping to shop if you please, on the way, for something for my sister. I met him for lunch at The Club, a nice quiet lunch, and we even discussed Budhism and why I was chanting, and I was explaining to him why it works for me, and just when we were leaving, it started to rain. Really rain. This was about 2 p.m.

2.15 p.m.
He suggested I skip the day and go home and sleep. Are you out of your mind, it's just Tuesday I said. But as the rain got worse, and my driver took nearly 20 minutes to come to the porch, something in me - hey Gladwell, I've just started to read your second book Blink, and yes, some snap decisions are fantastic - said 'don't go to work'. So I called work, told them I'd do suburb-related research instead, and asked the driver to take it to Bandra. When we neared home, almost 45 minutes later, I decided the rain was really bad so I told him to take it home and we'd step out later once the rain subsided.

The road outside my house (Santa Cruz West) was already a swimming pool. Just like that. In a matter of minutes tar disappeared and a brown muddy river it became. I couldn't think of anything else except my childhood in Assam and how the water resembled an angry Brahmputra. Cars were stuck, all shapes and sizes. We managed to barely get into the building by which time the car was literally swimming, but no water inside the car. The lobby was flooded, calf-high water, so I folded my pants and walked up the five floors.

Water was coming into my drawing room through the windows. I moved the furniture, did some quick pocha and put all the bathroom mats I could find on the floor under the windows, but it kept coming and coming. Kind of trying to stop blood from a wound with a hanky that's stained in seconds. I put the fans on full speed, and sent the driver home. Then I requested the caretaker to get in a tall stool to remove my silk curtains which were already a bit wet. When I was on the stool, I heard a loud noise, and realised I had hit my hand on the fan. It was on full speed. I could have lost a finger, the fan was wildly swaying. What happended? Nothing. Just a bruise under a nail and the volts resonating in my hand for a few minutes. And just then she was gone. No electricity.

Been trying desperately to call my husband and friends. Can't get through. I've had so many sms bounces, I'm practically used to that sound 'message sending failed'. He mentioned he may try to come home Tuesday evening if he's through. I want to tell him to stay put. I pull out all the old India Todays, and the Bollywood Special I haven't been able to read, and make myself a strong cup of coffee. It would almost be an ideal day if only... I peep out, by the way, and the water on the road is now waist high... A big yellow bus is stuck bang in the middle of the crossing below but cars continue to make their way.

Still haven't spoken to a soul and the restless fidgeting in my heart is increasing to a thump. The water is increasing alarmingly. I am without a torch but bless my candle collection. I don't have a portable radio (must get one) or a land line (must get one too), and I don't dare listen to the radio on my cell for fear of using the battery. Finally a friend, R, gets through to tell me it's bad everywhere and he's still at work in town.

I'm really alone now. The candles have been lit; I try all the permutations and combinations, keep the tallest ones burning first, leave the ornamental ones for last, and I've almost finished 96 pages of straight reading of the Bollywood Special. I still keep trying to call and sms people and manage to get through once in a while to R, and to his wife, who is at her place in Bandra, again with no light, and is practising her guitar. We manage to exchange some sms. More pocha, might I add.

The husband finally gets through to tell me he isn't coming in because all the entry points are jammed. I heave a sigh of relief and suddenly realise I really am alone. No light, and soon no phone. Not a word, complete silence, and just candles and the ravaging rain for company. I try to look out and the water is now neck-high. In the dead of the night, like ships passing by, I hear the distressed sounds of women trying to wade across the river and calling out to each other by name. I also hear whistles periodically. I begin to imagine how life must have been pre electricity, pre Tv, pre cell phones. And almost on cue, I am hungry and decide to be done with dinner. Unfortunately it's already cooked so I don't get a chance to kill time cooking it. My thoughts turn to my fridge and all the stocks which may have to be thrown. I detest wastage, it does something to me, and is probably a legacy from always being hungry in boarding. I also wonder for a second how I will heat dinner minus the micro when I remember there was the gas before the days of the micro.

random thoughts at this time:
> in the olden days, food must have been more a means to structure the day than to cater to the rumblings of the stomach. I don't always eat when I am hungry, but when it's meal time. Somehow, when the night falls, and there is nothing else to do, you begin to feel hungry, because it's night, it must be dinner time, and after all what else is there to do but eat and sleep?

> candle light means you can really extend your field of vision till as far as you want. A tube and a bulb are fixed to certain spots in the wall and can only reflect light thus far, but if I move the candle closer to the window, my world view expands, my room is larger, my world is larger. If I get the candle closer to me, sure I can try to read better, but the room looks and feels smaller. It's closing in on me. Also, in the dark, even small things assume large proportions. So a book cover flapping in the breeze reflcted against candle light looks menacing and scary on the wall.
Is this what solitary confinement feels like? Am I losing it?

I get through to colleagues, four of whom are together in a cab. They left Nariman at 5.30 and are now somewhere near Prabhadevi. (They ultimately reached Bandra at 2.30 in the morning). But at that point they were the ones who looked like they were having a party, eating brownies, braving the rain, stuck on the roads with a million others, and I was going nuts alone. But that's life. I start to now listen to the voices in my head in an attempt to have conversation and I don't like what I hear. R tells me he's started from Colaba about an hour ago and is hopeful of being home by 12. He's listening to floyd (he ust happened to take his car to work that day), is enjoying the light rain and the cool air, and again I feel miserably alone. (He finally got home at 3.30 a.m.) Anyway, I've managed to talk to parents and in laws and assured them I am safe, physically, that is. And now I decide to make no more calls and conserve whatever little battery the phone has left, if the 'no network coverage' sign ever leaves the monitor, that is.

I've been staring at the remains of the candle for over 45 minutes. It's an old habit. In camps, from school, it used to be the embers of the fire. Now I wait for it to die on me, because I don't have the heart to snuff out my only companion. But hey, after 45 minutes, I lose it and snuff it out in a huff. It's muggy but I toss and turn and finally roll off to sleep.

Wednesday, July 27
I'm awake at 8 a.m but there's still no light and now the phone is completely dead, and like an abandoned elderly person, with no mission for the day, I spend the next two hours falling in and out of sleep.

Loud banging on the door and it's R and his wife, who've actually come to rescue me. They've waded through waist-high water and parked their car three lanes away knowing I am alone at home, stuck. I am almost delirious and panicky and quickly throw my things in a bag, pull out some food from the fridge and leave with them. I hate the feeling, like I'm abandoning my house, but I can't possibly stay. This situation could go on for days...
We reach the lobby and I almost gag. It's puky, and smelly and filthy. And I have no choice but to step into it.
I close my eyes, take her hand and descend into the water. It almost feels like I'm attempting to absolve my sins by descending into the Ganga or something, but no romanticising the situation here. This is the kind of water I'd stared at yesterday from my window and thought 'thank God I don't have to get into that'. The car in the car park has water inside. The leather seats are submerged, the dashboard will soon be wet. I walk by, there is nothing I can do. We walk and walk and walk, about 10-15 minutes. The water seeps into my clothes and higher and higher and I am disgusted. We make it to the car and stock up on food and reach their house. They have light, the roads are dry and it's hard to imagine that 5 kms away, there is just hell. I have a shower, connect my phone and start to hear of the horrors others have gone through. I realise I am truly protected, for not going in to work that day, for coming back home at 3 and saving my house from a possible flood. I chant in gratitude and pray for all those who have lost everything. I manage to call and sms and re assure everyone that I am Ok. By morning everyone was in a panic since I was incommunicado. I also wonder if I would have done that for someone, get into that muck to go and pull them out. I don't know... I hope I would have. Thank you R and thank you N. You fear you wouldn't be able to stand up to the situation and be there to help someone when the situation demands. Well, you did. You stood up when you had to...

I watch TV the entire day, have more coffee, try to read The Motorcycle Diaries and play Uno. All across the city someone is either getting home or still at work, or wading somewhere and I keep getting to hear frightening tales.

Then the ONGC fire happens. It really is too much.
I don't even switch on the TV. A friend to whom I've narrated the tale says she's missing the action and that she would have have recounted it with far more masala had she been in my place. I tell her that when you see what's going on around, there is no scope for masala.
I try to call both my maids up in their cell phone, knowing they must be going through hell, and I wonder if they have houses left. Can't get through to either...

My husband is again very lucky. He manages to come to our friends' house by 11 p.m. in two hours flat. He and I have not even seen a tenth of what others have gone through. I don't know what it is, but it saved us all right. Yes the car is wet and refuses to start and the car papers are wet and now blow dried but we're ok.

It's really hit me what the word exile can mean. Especially when it ain't a smart pet name and it ain't self-imposed. You know what I mean?


Blogger Jabberwock said...

Very nice (the post, not the experience) - you weren't kidding when you said a long post was on the way.

Check some of these other links:

30 July, 2005  
Blogger writer-in-egg-style said...

"So a book cover flapping in the breeze reflcted against candle light looks menacing and scary on the wall."

The finest part of a really marvellously written blog, GSB. An "aflatoon" line expressed with true elan.

Exile can be disheartening, but yes, it is also true the finest thinkers of the world since the age of cavemen/women have all spent considerable time in isolation (natural or man-made), and have made terrific use of that time---with patience, courage and compassion.

Hemlock or high water, no fear.

30 July, 2005  
Blogger Yours Truly...Conman said...

Somehow, I've started liking Mumbai. I've been thinking about it for a couple of days. My opinion on the city is changing, real fast.
I don't know why.

30 July, 2005  
Blogger the cowlick said...

I'm feeling extremely awful and apologetic at this point.. having had no clue whatsoever till this afternoon when I heard on the BBC that more than 900 people had died. It sucks when you start relying on the local media here to get news of your own country. Why didn't I just go on the Express site or something to get information? I didn't know things were this bad.

30 July, 2005  
Anonymous ppm said...

well written.
don't have the heart to say anything about the flood, the dead people or exile...

31 July, 2005  
Blogger whatever said...

I think I was also one of the lucky ones (along with you) with no house / car that floated away with the water. In fact, I may have been luckier considering I didnt even have to wade through the murky waters of Mumbai - once a delhi-ite always a delhi-ite - saved my shoes!

01 August, 2005  
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31 August, 2005  
Blogger GSB said...

OK Anonymous. I see absolutely no connection between that particular blog and your query, so I suggest you try pasting it on which has an active ad fraternity chatting on the story board section. Maybe you can get some answers there, that is if it is really an answer you're looking for.

31 August, 2005  
Blogger writer-in-egg-style said...

"So a book cover flapping in the breeze reflcted against candle light looks menacing and scary on the wall."

An "aflatoon" line expressed with true elan.

Rarely ever repeat myself, but that had to be said again... am not sure why, though.

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