Breadcrumbs in a kitchen sink
In Drew Barrymore’s ‘Riding in Cars with Boys’, the central character generalizes life as ‘….nothing but a collection of some very important days, and the journey from one important day to the next one.’ These important days could be the most joyous, most gloomy, most difficult, or most unexpected, but they all are memorable because they somehow shape the journey to the next such day. One such day, many of us here in Mumbai, encountered recently and it would be an injustice to the enormity of the happenings of 26th July 2005, if they are not taken down and dissected. Ironically, ‘dissection’ is the term which will haunt many in this city for years to come as the fury of rain left more than a 1000 dead, and millions homeless. Here’s a first hand account.
26th July 2005, 3:30 pm, Mahalakshmi Station: The Lost Train
I came out of a meeting at Lower Parel, planning the rest of my day and could see that it’s raining heavily. The first impression was – The city has so much open spaces as compared to the suburbs and rains look so beautiful here. No taxiwallah was ready to take me to the station, owing to the traffic-jam on Lower Parel flyover, and after some efforts I managed to pursue one, thanks to my UP-Bhaiyya dialect which melts almost every auto or taxi driver from the cow-belt (and there are lots of them.) But he, instead of taking me to the Lower Parel station, took a U-turn and headed towards Mahalakshmi in the opposite direction, once again blaming the move on bad traffic. I didn’t mind as long as he got me there in time because the rain outside was pelting now and a slight uneasiness crept in, just like the moisture.
The scene at Mahalakshmi station was a regular one, with more passengers waiting on the station than the train could accommodate. I positioned myself strategically on the platform so as to get the last compartment in front of me, which, according to my previous observations, was supposedly the least crowded. A group of college students, hanging nearby, had decided to take the rains on as they started playing pranks on one another, getting everybody fully drenched in heavy downpour. After every couple of minutes, they would move to a new location on the platform, and scramble while shouting – ‘train aa gayi…train aa gayi..’, leading other passengers to pack their umbrellas and get ready to board. But after waiting for more than 30 minutes, generally the wait is no longer than 5 minutes, they also got tired and then, somebody spotted the train standing in the distance. I realized, like many others, that this train has been standing their for the last 35-minutes and shockingly, the train’s front-wheels were not visible. They were drowned in water.
26th July 2005, 4:20 pm, Mahalakshmi Flyover: The Swimming Cab
Outside the station, on the flyover, I was struggling with a ready-to-fly umbrella, and not-ready-to-move cabbies, as nobody was sure which road was not jammed. The Bhaiyya-lingo worked again in less than an hour, though this time, the lucre of money played an even bigger part as the old-man behind the wheels agreed to drop me home, Kandivli, a good 30-km away, for a 1000-bucks. He was in Mumbai since 1971, a cabbie since 1988, and a die-hard optimist since ever as he assured me that ‘aisi barsaat toh Bambai mein har saal hoti hai.’ But then, just a few hundred meters onto the road, he started rubbing his memory to come up with earlier examples of such a heavy rain. The traffic was not moving, and in the next one-hour, we had barely covered a kilometer. From the dew-covered taxi-window, water could be seen rising all around, as more and more cars broke down with lots of smoke coming out of their engines. I was still under the impression that this is happening only ‘this side of the city’ and it would have been better had I made a deal only up to Bandra (instead of to Kandivli), from where I would definitely get a bus, if not a train home. Another cab broke down with a muffled little blast and I suggested that I go only up to Bandra, as it won’t be right for the cab to take such a ‘great risk’ in this inclement weather. But the cabbie had also seemed to develop an affinity to my cause and he resolved, with much more conviction, that it is his ‘duty’ to see me home safely.
We crossed the Worli-Naka, where a rally of Mayawati was to be held earlier in the day, and the cabbie blamed ‘these politicians’ for disrupting the traffic. The road ahead seemed an easy ride as the old man allowed a few more pleading passengers in, at even more exorbitant prices. But the illusion, of reaching home coolly now, was gone in the next few minutes with water level rising and making the driving uncomfortable by the second. As we approached Siddhivinayak, the Mumbai’s guardian temple, I felt cold water in my feet and we all realized that the taxi had transformed into a leaky boat. Abandoned cars all around, we suggested our driver to stop and let us on our own but he was relentless, and against all advice by the people around, took the taxi straight into the next stretch of the road. A huge whirring sound, lots of smoke, and a couple of swear words followed as the taxi came to a noisy halt. The water had crossed the seats and we tried to push open the door against the might of striking water all around. And then, the taxi started floating.
26th July 2005, 6:15 pm, Siddhivinayak Temple: The Realization
It helped that the cabbie had picked up more passengers, as it needed more than 2 healthy men to push open and come out onto the road. The rain, thankfully, had slowed down for the moment. But I was still standing in the stomach-deep water (stomach-deep is 2-inches above waist-deep and 2-inches below chest-deep), at least 28-kms from my home, and no idea whatsoever what to do next. Many people were walking, rather wading, the water and hoping that the next stretch would have less of the level. I suddenly started feeling depressed (all the day’s plans were gone), excited (walking in so much of water ought to be fun!) and stupid (am I going to walk home?) at the same time, but started walking anyways. And the more I moved ahead, the more vigorously the water level rose. Though some people were still having fun, like this man who had come with his dog for a ‘walk’ (!!) and a typical South-Bombay motley with Baskin Robbins cones in their hands and trendy umbrellas over their heads. But for me, and most of the others, it was still a struggle unseen and unwanted, and the fear of falling down and never getting up again was growing with every step, more so because of the reputation of Mumbai’s potholes.
Close to Dadar, the water was touching my shoulders, but still the best bet was staying on the main road rather than venturing out in a bylane or street, which could have been even more uneven and pothole stricken. So I walked on and on, reaching a comparatively cleaner stretch close to Shivaji Park area in Dadar. I still believed that trains would be running in an hour or so, and hence moved towards Dadar station but was surprised (why, I still don’t know) to see that the access road to the station was all drowned and the word was out that even the platform was covered with water. Which, in effect meant, that trains won’t be running for at least another 12-15 hours and almost on a cue, the rains had once again opened their gates. Then, standing in the middle of the road, with water coming towards me from all directions geographically possible and thousands of people walking on the road around me, I realized that this is something BIG. Bigger than ever.
26th July 2005, 8:15 pm, Dadar: The Sea and the Darkness
The realization, that this could be an event very few, if any, Mumbaikars had seen before did two things to me. One, it told me to be more gritty and alert, almost like a wartime citizen, and two, it raised questions that if it is so big, then where are the authorities, help-groups, emergency-troops, police-vans, heck anybody who could confirm this. And in fact, the absence of all these had helped me nurture that hope of finding a train at Dadar since it is not a calamity unless specified otherwise. But sadly, this time, it came and went unannounced.
With very few options, I continued my walk, like thousands of others towards the western suburbs and according to my calculations; I would reach home not before 2 in the night in the absence of any help. Rains slowed down again, though nobody seemed to notice, as the water levels kept our attention and now I turned my attention to another serious matter. Food. I had not eaten a thing since the breakfast and all shops seemed to be either closed or inaccessible or both. As a saving grace, the streetlights were still working and the headlights of the struggling cars on the road kept the view comfortably clear. The view at Bandra Circle, below the flyover, was one straight out of a Steven Spielberg film with at least 20,000 people wading through waist-deep water, holding the hands of their dear ones and mumbling a mix of prayers and swearwords. Being a part of those 20,000 gave me strength though at the same time, it was heartbreaking to know that it is not a film.
Moving towards Khar, through the posh Khar-Link road, I found a petrol-pump supermarket open and rushed in to fill my stomach. But unfortunately the stock was all gone and I had to do with a couple of Frootis and a packet of chips. And the attendant told me on my way out, ‘consider yourself lucky sir.’ I knew he was right and the divine justification (for the statement) came when my co-writer Rahul called in to tell that his home, and everything in it, has been washed away in the low-lying area of Goregaon he stayed at. This was shocking, to say the least, but the travails of last few hours were so numbing that I couldn’t even react properly. It didn’t help that I was never taught that how do you react when your good friend’s homes get washed away in rains.
The Khar-Link road, a tourist-destination of sorts for non-Mumbaikars, only because of the frequent spotting of top-end Mercedes and BMW models, had a story of its own. The cars were all there, empty, windshields broken to let the passengers out while the power-locks failed and jammed the doors, and water touching the steering wheels. It was like a huge sea, with dead-whales floating around, and the power was also gone. Now, it was impossible to walk further with this lake full of cars and other vehicles, and complete darkness. Almost everybody who was walking started looking for abandoned vehicles to take shelter. I also discovered a BEST bus, with a tree fallen over its top and water drowning the third step of the stairs. I took the last seat, put my feet up, and opened the packet of chips.
26th July 2005, 10:30 pm, Khar-Link Road: The Bus Gossip
I always had this grouse that Mumbai people never gossip in buses. No matter, how long the distance, they would prefer looking out of the window or to keeping their attention at grabbing a better seat (closer to the middle of the bus) rather than smiling back at a co-passenger and indulging in small talk so typical of north India. But that night changed it all. Every new entrant to that abandoned, half-damaged bus was welcomed, comforted, and cheered upon. The people with working cellphones took the contact numbers of everybody else and sent the respective messages home.
It was a long night; sitting cramped in a corner, with two more guys sharing the 2-seater with me. The rain was once again hovering around its peak as more and more people entered the bus to take the shelter. Everybody’s eye was on the water level, which had now crossed the topmost step, a good four and a half feet from the ground. A police siren started wailing in the distance and some old men guessed that we are going to be rescued now. A general sense of ease came onto every face but another 15-minutes passed and nothing happened, except for the siren still wailing at apparently the same distance. A few minutes later somebody suggested, rightly so, that it was the emergency alarm system of some abandoned car and not a police siren.
Over the next 6 hours, the gossip and hopes of a rescue team died down, though the number of car-sirens calling out to their distressed owners rose from one to five. Early in the morning, the delusions of an old lady, that the bus is floating, woke everyone up from that tired-effort at sleeping. But contrarily, the water level had actually gone down and the rain had slowed down to a trickle. The dawn arrived in the colors of brown-and-black, and after waiting for others to make the
‘first move’ into the waters, I also jumped out of the bus to walk the rest of the distance. And it took me, just two-steps to realize that my knees were swollen.
27th July 2005, 6:30 am, Khar-Link Road: The Half-blood Prince
Options were limited, and seeing the scene on the road, I could think of only one – walking till it’s over. There were people of all ages, social-statuses, and tempers out there on the road. A young mother holding her two-children on their way back from school (where they had stayed the night before), a corporate exec carrying his retired father on his back, another yuppie helping his mother through the waters (which was still waist-deep) and a group of working ladies counting the heads after every 15-minutes. The havoc could be seen all around in the upturned imported cars, drowned rickshaws, fallen trees and struggling Mumbaikars.
Close to Vile-Parle station, I spotted an abandoned BMW, with water up to its steering wheel, and the latest edition of ‘Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince’ floating precariously inside. That reminded me of the oft-quoted equation between the ‘great power’ and ‘great responsibility’, and that, the powers of Mumbai city had failed to be responsible that day.
27th July 2005, 8:20 am, Vile-Parle Station: Walk on the Tracks
Struck by an irrational thought, I moved towards the Vile-Parle station to see whether, by any chance, the trains were running. They were not, though fully packed ones were lined up one after another, probably, all the way from the platform to the next station Andheri. A great number of people were walking the tracks, and that made sense, since it had no water logged and no danger of potholes. The only danger was being run-over by a moving train, which, we wish, had been present that day.
I also followed the suit and found that it was much easier and efficient than walking on the road. I had covered a kilometer when the train standing next to me started moving, a miracle sight for many. I waved my hand to the driver, hoping that he would halt and let me in. And thankfully, he obliged and I climbed in, bruising my elbow in the process. But unfortunately, it took me only up to Andheri, a kilometer ahead, and not anymore. The word was out that the Jogeshwari nullah had over flown and no trains will be operational before evening. So here I was, at Andheri, the sight of which on any other day signals that home is close by now. But today, it was still a long way to go.
27th July 2005, 9:30 am, Andheri, SV Road: Shiva’s Third Eye
Till now, what I had seen on my way was more of the ‘awe-stuff’ – huge, destructed, submerged, floating and unparalleled. It was the stuff of folklore, like the water level on a particular road, number of people walking on the tracks, etc. But none of it was sad, painful, or heart wrenching. And it was now, in the clear daylight the morning after, one could see and absorb the fury unleashed by nature in these congested suburbs of the city. The slums on the roadside were all washed, sad and clueless slum-dwellers sitting outside with whatever they could save from the rains, sacks of grains and other food rendered inedible by the gutter-water entering the shops, and incoherent small businessmen calculating the losses of the day.
The heavy walk was made even heavier by the sight of destruction on both sides of the road and the presence of TV cameras of a news channel somehow made it all look, a bit ironically, real.
27th July 2005, 11:30 am, Goregaon, SV Road: The Dead Bodies
Normally, it would have been a sight to jolt anyone out of a slumber but that day, very few cared. Goregaon, the site of maximum destruction in the western suburbs, was covered in gloom and the locals, mostly Gujaratis, were all over the road, carrying out relief works. A human chain on the roadside was also enthusiastically involved in distributing medicines, fruits, biscuits and tea to the passersby. A huge collective wail went up on the left side as a couple of bodies were excavated from the remains of a ‘kachcha building’.
Just a few meters ahead, the road was strewn with dead carcasses of buffalos, at least 1200 buffalos died in the famous Goregaon tabela, and the poor tabela owners were themselves piling them up in the pickup trucks. The municipality, or any other relief authorities were still nowhere to be seen.
27th July 2005, 12:30 pm, Kandivli Station: The Last Leap
Walking past Goregaon and Malad, more death and destruction stories were to be noticed or heard. It was confirmed that neither that cabbie (who drove me from Mahalskhmi) nor anybody else had seen such rains and destruction in Mumbai ever. But the clouds were gone now, people were out on the roads, either finding their own bearings or helping others find theirs. The great Mumbai spirit had risen its head again and help was at hand in whatever form possible. Some had opened the gates of their shops to distribute free medicine and food and some were dropping strangers home in their wagons and cars.
I also got a lift from Malad to Kandivli station, and then from station to home. And all through the way, relief work had started. One chapter was over, a tough one, but another, tougher, had just begun. And this time, the authorities had to be there.
28th July 2005, 1:30 pm, Saki Naka: Ground Zero
The newspapers the next day unanimously carried the stories about the landslide and maximum destruction at a very congested area below the hills of Andheri East. It’s called Sakinaka. Originally famous for its dance bars and pubs, Sakinaka is basically a slum area with closely packed chawls lying at the foothills of rocky-mountains. And as per reports, the rocks had more than 200-bodies lying beneath them.
A friend, Anurag, suggested that we go out and see how we can help in some of the relief works. And we landed at Sakinaka. Getting an entry to the site seemed difficult but when we told that we are here for help, the cop on duty let us in to the narrow alley leading to the chawl. Once again, the BMC and cops were missing in action and had it not been for the enthusiastic efforts of Anirudhha Academy of Disaster Management (AADM), a local NGO, the place would have still been untouched. The fire-brigade men were in full force and definitely working hard to clear the rubble and excavate the dead bodies, though they too seemed low on necessary equipments.
Working manually, I was sure, it would take at least a week to clear the mess and inevitable comparisons with western countries’ handling of such calamities came to mind. Why can’t we have a dedicated disaster management group well trained and ably equipped to take control of the situation. In spite of all the enthusiasm and work force, the control and management was missing and everybody seemed confused about his/her part in the operation. Also, visiting VIPs and constantly trespassing TV cameras not only irritated the serious workers but also obstructed the only alley accessible to the site.
One journo, from Star News, had the gall to suggest that she needs the “Nice backdrop of hills” for the interview! Now, how heartless one can be? How could someone not see the tragedy and still wish to ‘cover it’? I know, questions like this have no certain answer but sometimes, answers have to be ascertained, fixed, told or simply thrust upon because, calamities which do not start with the media may still end with it. Or start all over again.
- Varun Grover