The Day We Stood As Equals

Venkat T

It was the deluge. I had long expected heavy showers and flooding rains and prepared the house for it. But nothing prepared us to the intensity of the rains that unfolded that early morning hours. Within a few hours water had entered our house. We made a hasty getaway to my In-Laws apartments, where we thought we would be safe, only to find water quickly claiming those lands too. Too long had we occupied the lands that belonged to water. It was time to be rudely awakened when the master decided to reclaim its rightful ownership. Soon technology, that we had come to rely so much upon, began to give way. Electricity was shut, our mobiles followed suit. As we went salvaging the essentials from the house and began planning our next getaway to higher ground, the magnitude of this disaster began to sink in; We were hopelessly trapped, with nowhere to go but higher, no access to information, provisions or money beyond what remained in our wallets. The apartment’s security guard and his family, having lost their house only a few hours ago, had also moved to our flats. Like us, they too had taken refuge here. For once, we were more or less, in the same plight. All our wealth, accumulated as property, gadgetry, bank accounts and social networks meant nothing. All social distinctions ceased to matter, only the ability to survive and the capacity to labour mattered. Each began to help out in the ways they could while those too weak to help or too traumatized remained dazed. The catastrophe that we collectively encountered had flattened social and economic hierarchy, or so it seemed.

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This was not an isolated story as most of Chennai came under intense flooding as never seen in a generation. Much had been talked by senior citizens of the deluge of the late 70s, but this seemed unlike any. The rich and the powerful had suffered the mortal fear, inundation and homelessness, food and water shortage and financial crunch that the poor and weak endured. Residents of Gated Communities made hasty escapades, leaving behind the symbols of their wealth, on boats run by fishermen that served the slums too. A Corporate CEO, who owned a long list of fashionable cars, sought bus numbers to move to safety; no amount of cash could buy you water or food, and many had to wait for the relief materials to reach them for the basic needs. We ourselves had to depend on the security guard and his ability to negotiate the flood and the crisis to get us a can of drinking water. Many a celebrity found themselves as homeless as their poor fans and atleast one famous patriarch of a wealthy family had to be carried in a make shift stretcher through chest deep sewage water. In an instance, the means to project the power bred though decades of inequality, had failed our stratified society. In that instance we found the depth of our vulnerabilities and value of camaraderie. May be this was one of the reasons behind the extent of voluntarism that seemed to be the most credible challenge to the floods.

But we have built a very resilient system. Our social stratification is much too robust for a single flood to cause damage. Yes, it had been jolted but it was far from being out. As our security guard helped us save our precious items and gather the required provisions, our fear began to give way. We knew we could survive the rain. As the night came over us with no respite from the rains, my son (a 3 year old) got the cot with warm bed, myself with my in-laws and neighbours were offered the comfort of blankets and the hall floor, the security guard and his family had to occupy the common corridor. Yes we were all down, but no, we were not and shall not be equal. Many a resident with heavy wallet, found refuge that night in star hotels or with relatives and friends who were better off. The poor were pushed to relief camps or the pavements which they shared with those who already lived there. The wealthy old man, having been rescued, left to the safety and comfort of his beach resort. As morning came with a flush of sunlight and only a drizzle, the difference in wealth began to show its colour as people battled hyper inflation of essential commodities like water and milk. I bought many a bottle of water, biscuits and candles as I was credit worthy. I am not sure how many the security guard’s family could have afforded by their own. We had breakfast at the table, they remained in the passage way. As we lounged awaiting the water to recede, they were set to work. Even as the city was reeling under scarcity of diesel, a rich businessman who was also a media baron and politician, began pumping out water from his house for three straight days causing inundation in the neighbourhood that was coping with the floods. His wealth and power made it impossible to even question him, let alone stop him. The invisible chains of power and inequality had begun to tighten their grip once again.

Revelations, they say, are moments from which we ought to learn. Having been gifted the ability of reason and creativity; we soon squandered our true wealth in arrogance and ignorance (and the arrogance born out of ignorance). We came to disrespect the fundamental laws of nature even as we began to discover them, we came to over step our limits even as we gained knowledge about disastrous consequences of such actions. We built a stratified unequal society and began to exponentially deepen it. We found clever and cunning ways to overcome the hurdles that the dialectical progression of the pathological system imposed on us. Many cities and many populations have already been ravaged as a consequence. While many perish in sudden upheavals of nature or human action, others are left to slowly suffer their end in agony. My city and its people have only been given a mild warning. We have been shown what awaits us if we continue to thread this path. We have also been shown the limits of power that we have come to take for granted. If a single day could drop us to our knees, imagine what a week or a month can do.

We shall not turn around in a day. Too long have been socialized into this system, but it is important to turn the corner and recognize our failings. We can delude ourselves with the fantasy of technological fixes, forget that we live in a shared world and therefore we need to live in cooperation. No amount of wealth, power and technology can secure us from the consequences of our action, but we shall always need the helping hand of the very people who we have segregated by class, caste, gender and other forms. It is important to recognize and appreciate the spirit of help that erupted among many people and overwhelmed in scale even this great flood. There were not one but a thousand arc’s of Noah, and unlike Noah and his God, our bravehearts did not discriminate as to who should live or perish. If we can come together in the same zeal and modesty to clean up our act and finding solutions that is based on respect to nature and shared living, we shall have learnt the most important lesson from this deluge. The consequence of not changing need no more be discussed in the abstract.

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