The despairing cry of Kerala, as it descended into a terrible disaster, still remains echoing in my ear; minds which redirected clamour into confidence; tight hugs trying to ensure that no one is lost…
The alert eye looking for a hand screaming out from the water.
Yes, how quickly humans united! Setting aside all differences, how every person seemed to become rapid reaction forces in their own rights!
With the speed of light, we became the magna carta of fraternity and care, destroying every constructed unapproachability, rising a thousand times faster and higher than the doom caused by the floods –we proved that there exists a natural (primitive) spirituality among humans.
Yes, we can and we will overcome.
We might have been stuck, but only for a moment, when we saw a whole state drowning. What should we take? What should we take first? Where should we move everything to? And so on. But this is only when our life itself is safe. I thought of my books then. I worried about everything that was once dear to me. Not knowing what is happening outside, not even thinking about it, even as the water kept rising. When I realised anything can happen, I looked at the world like I was seeing it for the first time. I wished that no friends of mine would say this to me, I was afraid to look at my kids’ faces. I even hoped that they would become nobodies to me… I experienced the smell of death, capable of making me belch the first breast milk I had drunk. That’s over.
My home was also drowned along with my homeland. That’s all. I am not afraid, I am not sad. Because I am not alone, I was not alone. I am forced to acknowledge that feeling alone is an eyot of pride belonging only to the poet. You made me realise that friends also mean words that pierce. As I organised my books with a peace of mind that I did not have before, my ancestors were reassuring me with the word ‘the ancestors will protect us, don’t worry, for land is god’ (Raghavan Atholi). Yes, it’s like that. Torrential rains had flooded my eyes.
In a moment when I thought my breathing had stopped, I was seeing a man planting mangroves, in spite of having closed my eyes tightly. Tightly grasping each plant, so as to let the roots of promise sink deep for the future generation. I was crying aloud, asking to at least keep that window open. I was realising then why baskets full of ooze, mud, and the smell of dams had come to my poems even yesterday. After clearing ways and scattering seeds, the ones who made the sun rise in the east ended up reaping more than just the ripened crops. It is a culture where we know what and why stones, soil, trees, rivulets, dams, forests, and hills are and where all creatures has rights to live and die. We should be able to put ourselves on trial pitilessly, while keeping our feet in the erased history of those who didn’t hear the earth with the ears, but with their whole body. The dead who were left to sink in the backwaters with a rock tied to their legs, because they didn’t have any land to be buried in, may not reappear. We can pretend not to see the ones who don’t put even the smallest fence on their little lands, ones who swim from one suffering to another disaster. But, I think when they suggest that human activities caused this disaster, they have a responsibility to specify which human undertook these activities.
Oh, maybe we will sigh that enough is enough, and plunge into a helpless silence, so that nobody asks what happened yesterday. If asked, we will answer rain, or river, or dams, in single words. Hidden smirks would escort these answers, and so would the familiar ability to understand the unsaid. By then, droughts or floods or Okhis would come to say that they have seen through us.
While I write this, from Angamali Thuravoor Mar Augustine School camp, my dear Kunjan (the two-year-old Drupad) is holding onto to his mother, crying. He demands to go to his drowned home and catch fish. What is a flood to a kid, laughs everybody, and sunlight comes in to signal a new morning. As I get to know their laughter, crying, and heartbeat, Angamali stops being just an address to me.
The ladies who were there in the camp, to help us with any and all needs, welcomed this new experience with laughter and jokes. It was only when I spoke to Panchayat Vice President Sylvi and Panchayat Member Latha that I understood how everyone overcame very difficult situations. When they told me the story of the men who took two pregnant ladies in stretchers and walked along the narrow slab that functions as a bridge over the Mukkannoor Kalar canal, at night, in the heavy rain and against the rapid flow of water, a pain passes from my underbelly to my head. Heart patients, those who were to have dialysis done that day, unwell people trapped in their homes; we have all travelled a long distance.
I remember Jameela chechy, who pushed me into an auto saying: ‘I am here, I will take care of everything, you leave with the kids before the water rises and the roads become blocked’, with utmost respect and love. We should not forget to recognise the greatness under the ordinariness of those who moved our things to nearby homes, and from there to another when water rose again, in neck deep water, in the night, in the rain, cooked food for the volunteers from their homes which could go underwater any moment, and those who called us at the camps to reassure us. There is an extra-ordinariness that the society should respect in this behaviour, in these actions. I remember Thuravoor Panchayat President K.Y. Varghese and Village Officer V.B. Ajayan with gratitude, for their role in organizing and coordinating the rescue efforts in an exemplary manner. Staying drenched in rising water even at midnight and working together for rescue helped save people without causalities. About 5000 people were registered in 9 camps. Small scale businessmen, volunteer organisations, social-political activists, private/government doctors, Kudumbashree workers, cooks, drivers and everyone else volunteered to get help to camps.
Disaster is not a single lesson for us. It is a textbook full of experiences, social realities, stories, poems, and scientific truths.
This article was originally published in the Malayalam magazine Mathrubhumi (September 2, 2018). Translated by Shahal and Arjun Ramachandran.
Sathy Angamali is a Dalit Activist and Poet.