I woke up with a start. It was 4 am, and someone was at the gates, honking away. Papa had already opened the doors, and the man at the gate was shouting, “Water is rising! Water is rising!”
We knew what was happening, having gone to bed knowing that the Pampa was swelling. The river is less than a kilometre from my parents’ house in Kuriannoor, a non-descript village in Pathanamthitta district. Shutters of the Kakki dam had been opened and given the rains, it was possible, the rapidly-rising water would reach us.
It had just taken a few hours. Taking a torch, I went to the back of the house to check, and there it was. The water had risen above the nearby marshes and had already submerged more than three-fourths of the one-acre plot in which the house stood. The banana trees were half under water, which was now just about 20 meters away from entering the house.
It was dark, it was raining and the water was gushing. One scary sight.
We didn’t have much time. We had to move whatever possible to the first floor.
Cushions, clothes were put to the top shelf — surely water wouldn’t rise that high. And whatever else possible — TV, desktop, gas cylinder, mattresses — were taken to the top floor.
I had to move my wife and six-year-old daughter from the house. We quickly decided to take them to my cousin’s house that was 2 km away.
The rain was pounding as we drove away and I could barely see five meters ahead. The shops near my house were being emptied by the owners, who were trying to salvage as much as possible before the water swallowed them all.
I dropped them and returned with my cousin to the house. The water was now at our gates, the small stream that ran along our house — and the one I loved gazing at — had turned into an angry flow of water.
We continued moving things, including suitcases with important documents, and locked them in the shelves on the top floor. All the windows were shut, toilets were covered, the main power switch was put off. Did we miss anything? We couldn’t afford to lose a moment.
“Should we three move to the top floor?” my father asked. My mother and I were not sure.
In the summer of 2001, we had done that. Like now, water had flooded the house in the darkness of the night then also and we, including our then pet dog Tommy, had taken refuge on the first floor.
But this time, it looked worse. The whole of north Kerala had been battered, the Idukki dam had to be opened, first time in 26 years, and thousands of people had been displaced in Wayanad, Kannur and Palakkad districts. The newspapers were filled with stories of houses washed away, landslides changing landscapes and stranded people.
And now it looked like the two dams (Kakki and Pampa) in Pathanamthitta, located in the southern part of Kerala, were following the same course.
“Come with me to my place. Here you could run out of supplies,” said my cousin.
And so it was decided. My parents quickly packed a few pairs of clothes , Sherin had already packed mine, and we sped away. Behind, waters were sneaking on to the first steps of the house.
But we were hopeful.
In 2001, the water had entered the house, climbing waist high and stayed a whole day. When we woke up the next morning, it was gone. Perhaps this time too, it will recede within a day.
The weather forecast though had predicted heavy rains till August 18, another three days. Today was just the 15th.
Oh, it was August 15th! Independence Day! My birthday!
This was not how we had planned the day.
We were to wake up early, though not THIS early. There was the baptism of Sherin’s niece, and we were all looking forward to attending it, in all our fineries. Later, we had planned to go to my sister’s house in Kollam, where my nephews were eagerly waiting for us to cut the cake.
The cake! Sherin, a baker, had baked me a birthday cake and brought it all the way from Mumbai. Just the day before, on Tuesday, she had given it the final touches. And now it was sitting there, in the fridge. Will it escape the water?
We could no longer go for the baptism, which was being held in Ranni, a town about an hour’s drive away. But it was a risky proposition given that the roads were getting inundated. News was coming in that Ranni itself was in danger of going under.
As we had our breakfast at my cousin’s house, the rains kept pouring. Outside, the road had turned into a muddy stream.
The moment rains subsided a bit, my cousin took out the bike and we went to check my parents’ place.
It was not good. The water was nearly as high as the gates, and just a step away from entering the house.
“Did you hear? They are saying the shutters of Kakki dam are not working. The water is not going to abate anytime soon,” someone told my cousin. I shuddered at the thought, and prayed this was just one of the many fake forwards doing the rounds of WhatsApp.
We went back to my cousin’s house. “Monachen (papa’s friend) had called. They have lost all the hens in their farm,” said my father. The farm was located by the Pampa.
We were hearing similar stories from friends and relatives. In many of the houses, only the parents stayed. Frantic children were calling from Dubai, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand. If only expat money could also calm nature.
Two hours later, we went again to check. Things had only got worse. The water was inside the house now, touching the windows.
Our neighbour’s house was also half submerged. But it was empty. Outside, four boys were playing handball, in water. A fire engine had come, and district officials were inspecting the situation in the region. Many had gathered to marvel at nature’s fury.
“It’s the wrath of gods,” said one. “Man had become arrogant,” said another.
For some, it was a spectacle. Many were helping out, and many more were suffering. We were clueless on what to do.
The Kochi airport would soon be shut till the 26th. And our flight was on the 19th. The airline though said it was still on schedule. Really?
What about Scotty, our dog who was in a boarding in Mumbai? I messaged Om, the dog trainer who also boarded dogs in his house. He had bookings from the 20th. Something else had to be planned for Scotty. Things were getting complicated.
Rains stopped. But the water was still rising. “Let’s go to Tiju’s house,” my father said. And just like that, we hit the road to my sister’s house in Kollam, about 2.5 hours drive away.
It took more than three hours, as we took diversions and changed routes to avoid flooded roads. But we did reach, finally. It was 6 pm.
My parents were rattled. There would be losses. But we were safe, we were dry, there was good food awaiting us, and I could still have a birthday cake.
We were fortunate.
Reports said the losses would top Rs 8,000 crore. It would take months, if not years, for the state to rebuild its roads, bridges and houses.
But the misery, tragedy, and suffering? Those couldn’t be measured. But how do you mend lives? How about that person in Kannur, who lost his house the day he was supposed to move in? Will he have the will to rebuild?
And what about the family that lost its house, and land, to a landslide? Will the compensation be enough?
As I write, this is our second day in Kollam. We have been in touch with my cousins. Water has receded at my father’s house, they say. But just a bit. We have to wait, till the waters go away, and the power comes back. Then we will count our losses.