I have always been a coastal kid. Which means, my mind processes the words ‘cyclone’ or ‘hurricane’, just like it does ‘heavy rain’ or ‘hot summer’ or ‘world peace’ – sub consciously. The howling of the wind through the shut windows and doors that others find ominous, is something a coastal mind (or a Mumbai high rise mind, if you please) adapts to over time and I am a seasoned campaigner. The Madras cyclones of the 90s and the ones I experienced later off the Galveston coast, have made me more realistic in my worries. I remember a time at the peak of Hurricane Katrina, when a friend sitting in my third floor Houston apartment was worried our windows were going to fly in. I was terrified too. We did not have enough chips to last the night.
But that Monday was different.
There is something extremely spiritual about storms. Amidst all the disaster and general chaos, there seems to be the biggest evidence of ‘a plan’. An order. And for a non-believer like me, that can be overwhelming. Which is why, like all great spiritual experiences, I choose to enjoy storms with a dash of music. Over the years and after many iterations, I had found my ideal OST – Bocelli’s Romanza. In the calmness of his opening, in the crescendo and in the mystique of the composition itself, Bocelli intends to explore the deepest corners of love in one’s heart. But strangely (or perhaps predictably), I have always found only a cyclone in it.
Every time a fierce depression sets in on the Madras coast, every time people avoid the Marina, I have found myself taking my Santro to the beach road, just to experience this song with the storm. Or may be to experience the storm with this song.
But the Santro remained parked that Monday.
It all started with the cane blinds. Dad usually ties the ones in the long balcony to the iron grills behind them during heavy winds, so they don’t fly wildly and break the window glass panes. Dad is not just good at this. He is extra-ordinary. Once he is done, they stay in place and no rain or wind can seep through them. None had, in over a decade. But on Monday, the wind scored early and it was evident even at 11 AM, who was gonna win this game. One by one, the blinds were unchained and their unharmonious, unsynchronized patter against the walls were beginning to sound ominous.
The thing about coconut trees:
Trees lie often. Almost always, actually. Peak summer is often misrepresented as being bearable, thanks to the Mylapore roadside giants. The obscenely green parks in South Delhi (almost) give you the impression that something is terribly wrong with the scales by which pollution is measured. Almost all kinds of oaks lie about wind speed. You could be in the middle of an umbrella breaking gust, but these guys will be unmoved, like Deve Gowda at a trance party. But coconut trees are always honest. I grew up with five of them in my backyard and they always let me know if there was a party up there. Even a mild storm will result in a thud on the soil – a few fruits here, a branch there and some times the whole damn tree. So that morning, I looked to them first from my terrace and they were telling me a wild tale. With a tragic ending.
The radio games:
A lot has changed in Chennai over three decades. But one technology has transcended time. All India Radio continues to be the only source of news during natural disasters. When I was a child, cyclones meant the family sitting around a kerosene lamp, playing a never ending card game, with food magically reappearing on plates and listening to the radio – not for entertainment, but to hear a specific combination of words ‘cyclone – land fall – Vishakapattnam’. Vizag has long been our trusted friend when it comes to taking the ‘fall’ – both literally and figuratively. We have diverted more cyclones there than SBI has funds in failing airlines.
But that day, it was only a land fall. No Vizag.
It is 2:30 now and the voice on the radio is asking people to not venture outside. It is warning against mistaking brief lulls for the passing of the storm. I can hear a baleful thud against our three storey apartment building. Is that the mighty rain tree near our gate? I cant be sure. I am not venturing out to take any more pictures. Not so much out of fear as it is out of a sense of foreboding. Dad and mom seem to sense something as well. The cards are not out and neither are the snacks. Laptops and phones are breathing their last until further infusion of life. This cyclone is different. It sounds and feels different.
Sometimes we sense bad news before it is broken to us. It is like you are going to the hospital to visit an ailing relative and you know even on your way that it will not end well. Thats precisely how I felt when I was walking down the dark stairs an hour later. There had now been more than half an hour of silence and it was deafening. I could smell death as I emerged outside and true enough, the mighty one at the gate was dead, in what seemed a bloody killing.
I made my way on to the street. It was one of those moments that I probably will remember even a few decades from now. I could not see a road. There were things all over it. My brain was telling me that those were trees, but I was in denial. I could smell a forest. Or was it the stench of death? Death of the original inhabitants of the land I was standing on. A tribe that had been around eons before I set foot there. There were human beings emerging from the wooden rubble. It was like a brief respite from relentless bombing. Everyone was trying to make sense of the present.
I could see buildings I had never seen before, even though I have lived in these streets for many years. The entire street had been stripped naked and I could not watch it. I could not process it. The former chief minister’s daughter, who we knew as a polite neighbour was out. She was not talking much. Her eyes seemed in denial as well. Now that the Neem in their front yard had fallen, I noticed for the first time that their house had a balcony. I trekked further. Most roads were un-passable, even for pedestrians.
Destruction makes for great conversation starters. I realized one of the guys next door was a jazz drummer. There were talks about worse destruction elsewhere in the city. There was also a fear looming. Vardah had two eyes (or depressions). Only one had passed. The other will make landfall in a couple of hours. It was a break. The enemy was merely refuelling. I went back upstairs. The night passed. Nobody spoke much. I looked outside in the middle of the night. The moon looked more like a watch tower flashlight. I remember a NASA press release a couple of days back saying tonight the moon was gonna be 30% brighter. I wondered if anybody in Chennai would notice it.
I couldn’t tell if more trees had fallen overnight. We were still naked. The 70 year old who delivers milk packets in our colony was about her business. I asked her why. “the truck had delivered all these packets. Imagine how much milk will be wasted if I don’t deliver!”. I didn’t have a come back. I walked past her.
Probably the only one who stood his ground against a hostile 145 KMPH and batted through the night was the banyan. I made a mental note to refer to him as Sachin, in the years to come.
People are up and about in the city and even electricity came back a day later. It will take a week for the streets to be cleared and even after 3 weeks we wouldn’t have any wifi. But on my way to the airport the next morning, I felt a sense of gloom. 13000 trees had fallen that Monday and every park in the town had been decimated. A large part of why home was beautiful had been erased. It will be another two decades for us to grow them back like they used to be. May be I will live to see it. As I glanced at the picture of my street in my phone, I couldn’t believe this was clicked just a few weeks back. I couldn’t understand why we were getting on with life like nothing happened.