On the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day, I woke up at 6 in the morning realising that the water had risen and a blanket of dread had descended on Kerala. My friends and I packed our bags with just about whatever we could gather and hurried off to our respective safe houses. This is when the WhatsApp messages began pouring in. I did what I thought was the only thing I could do and assured everyone that everything would be alright.
That was not to be for everything changed when a few hours later I got a call from one of my juniors. “Chetta (elder brother), I’m trapped here atmy home with my mother and grandmother…Please do something.” I was shocked! I gathered myself and asked her to calm down and plot her location to the best of her ability. I noted her location. In complete panic, she said her phone’s charge was low and that she could be cut off any moment. She had been pleading and praying for the past one hour but nobody had shown up. In hysterics now, she cried helplessly saying she was scared and that she didn’t want to die… which is when her call died abruptly.
I didn’t have answers to her questions nor did I have answers to the many questions buzzing in my head with the primary one being, “What should I do”. After all, I was just a B.Tech final year student, “What could I do”.
I hadn’t dealt with this sortof situation, neither had the people of Kerala since 1924. I was frozen. Then it hit me. If I did nothing, I would probably be the last voice she would have heard.
Over 90 percent of WhatsApp users of Kerala were actively taking part in the rescue operations by sharing legitimate and sometimes not-so-legitimate helpline numbers. I tracked down my junior’s location on google maps and noted her coordinates on a piece of paper. I wrote down every helpline number I could find and started calling each one of them. Their will, circumstantial or otherwise,not to pick up my call was matched by mine to not give up. I dialled over 50-60 phone numbers.
Finally, I got the phone number of the head of a rescue team. I explained the situation to him and he said what I had told my friend:“I will take care of it”.
A few hours later, my phone rang, “Thank you chetta, I’m safe now. You truly are a saviour”.
I never thought I would get to hear her voice ever again. It is said that a particular frequency of sound makes your heart beat faster. That was the nature of that ‘sound’when she called.Although still distraught with residual fear, it was the most pleasing sound I heard that day!
Minutes later, I got a message from my friend saying his parents were trapped! I turned to my class group and I saw a bunch of my fellow mates who had realised the power of responsibility of being a ‘student’. The much reviled social media had now turned into a 24*7 control room. However, the problem that plagued most of us were the fake helpline numbers that had flooded the medium.
WHO WAS I
There were three categories of people who showed up during the flood wanting to help. One, socially responsible people who desperately wanted to help people who were suffering. Two, people who wanted to help just to alleviate their sense of guilt.Three,people who had no idea why they were doing this. The whole issue of legitimacy regarding the numbers and fake messages was a fallout of the second category of people, who would continue to propagate fake numbers because verifying required them to do some hard work.
Then one night,a friend of mine called to say that my own hometown was badly affected. Panicking, I called my parents, who told me they were fine. The helplessness of not being able to assist my own parents or being able to reach out to them weakened my spirit.The next day onwards, a large number of camps had begun coming up and they needed help.
We opened a collection centre at our college. We collected goods from around the city and delivered it to the camps in need. It was extremely difficult to sort the items and reach it to the people who really needed it. When we entered the camps with cartons of items, the warmth with which we were received touched our souls. Were alised deep within that we were a source of hope and succour to these people and that gave us the courage to brave the heavy rain and, later, searing heat. We formed new contacts and new groups and I, like most of others, embarked on a new chapter of life. As always there are two sides to a coin. While most saw in us a ray of hope, others saw a free supermarket!
I’m reminded of an incident when I reached out to a camp with a carton of biscuits.One of the tens of hundreds of men and women who had sought refuge at the camp refused to accept the biscuit and demanded a particular brand of biscuit because her child only ate that! It was understandable when it came to some women requesting particular brands of sanitary pads because the others resulted in itching and rashes.
One of the most essential items in the camps were sanitary pads. One of the volunteers asked me why there was such a huge demand for the sanitary pad and what was it anyway? Ignorance is real.
Then came the university notice announcing grace marks to student volunteers. So, some questioned our motives. Yet we soldiered on.The volunteers who genuinely went out to help know how draining it was physically and mentally to work for 18-20 hours on end with just about one meal or at best two on that rare occasion. But we never retired, our spirit never faltered. We didn’t do it for grace marks. We didn’t do it for publicity, and we certainly didn’t do it for money. We never demanded a thank you, nor did we ever consider the possibility of grace marks.
For the first few days, Kerala stood shoulder to shoulder. Then slowly crept in through the sluices the caste, creed, faith, politics and so on. Subsequently and slowly, most of the camps were wound up. Now the affected needed to rebuild their livelihood. So, we launched a new initiative to clean the flood-affected homes and provide medication. We called it ##LetsCleanEkm. It was then I met Sruthi, a musician.
Sruthi had much to tell.
The night when the shutters of the Idukki dam were completely opened, news channels and social media were flooded with fearful updates. I was shocked seeing a news channel airing the dreadful situation of Chengannoor, Paravoor, and Aluva saying over 10,000 people could be submerged under the water that night. We formed a WhatsApp group named ‘Awake Kerala’ of 20 members, collected as many as verified pieces of information about the stranded people, and names and numbers of rescue coordinators. We tried our best to connect them to call centres and rescue teams, including the Army.
Fake information was widespread. One of the bits of information passed on to us said 50 people were stranded in a house and another 20 were already dead, including a baby. I still recall the guy sitting on the other side was weeping…yes both of us cried. Soon, a message from a reliable source announced that the news was fake!
A few hours later I got a call from my friend who was a volunteer in a Paravoor camp saying he was turned away from a relief supplies camp where he had reached to collect undergarments and napkins because he had no letter of authorisation from the camp concerned. By the way, he had stood 13 hours in the queue! He connected me to a woman at his camp who was menstruating and was crying for one sanitary pad!
Most women in the camp were going through the same agony, with most of them using the same panties they had worn in the flood water two days ago.Soon I learnt that some women were taking rounds on a single underwear and pad.One of them would use it while the other would stay back in the bathroom! It couldn’t have got any worse.
I soon joined the ##LetsCleanEkm campaign.
Our campaign lasted 7 days and we cleaned more than 30 homes.A lot of celebrities and well-known people sponsored the medicines and cleaning tools while a number of doctors gave us expert advice.
When we entered Manjaly, a small village in northern Ernakulam and one of the worst hit, areas we instantly experienced the scale of devastation that the flood had wrought. It was a thick brown layer of viscous soil that had plastered everything in its way!
Day after day the number of broken hearts telling their stories of grief in their broken homes only grew in soul-numbing number. Today, they see, feel, and think of disaster every waking moment of their lives under broken roofs of deadening grief.
While we realise that it isn’t easy, we also know deep within that we can, together, rebuild and rekindle the broken spirit.