Torrential rains to us till now have meant a motley set of dissimilar things depending on our stake- no drying clothes on terrace, no light pants on roads, no school or no open air events. The ‘us’ here refers largely to chennaites, though could interchangeably be used to describe the hoi polloi of most Indian cities in general. The farthest we’ve gone to despise rains has been when it’s disrupted an ongoing cricket match at a home venue, the single sacrilegious act an average Indian can’t tolerate.
‘Rain enough to flood or dry enough to famish, but never rain to dry a chance of a home venue match’, goes the popular indian sentiment.
As far as Chennai goes, it’s never rained on our parade. At least, not on the ones that really matter. Even on those fleeting occasions, the showers have only had prowess enough to fell elderly trees or make translucent white shirts obscene. If anything at all, the monsoon has evaded this part of the country year after year snobbishly.
She’s been this city, who’s always had a dispassionate third person account to an aftermath of a calamity or an insurgency in other cities, through news channels. Even when the tsunami had sprung a surprise at her on a generic Sunday morning a decade back, her fortress remained largely impermeable. Who knew good old red tapism with some clerical errors and a 50 cm downpour for a couple of days would bring her down like never before.
Call it providence or nepotism to north India; but both the forces of nature and fringe elements have hitherto been rather kind or should I say, indifferent to her, notwithstanding the opulence of her endowments or the diversity of her populace.
National attention has always come to her in rationed quantity as a scavenged leftover, taking a multi crore scam or a Kamal Hasan movie’s ban to scream into the national media’s ears for acknowledgement of her existence.
Blame it on phonetics or the font, colour or the culture; the north-south relation has always been a plummeting affair. Over the years, the tepidity has been subtly vented out through unsuspecting populist processes like caricaturing, stereotyping, ridiculing and mispronouncing with ersatz entitlement.
To an average north indian, anything south of the Vindhyas is Madras and every living being, Madrasi. This is one intriguing conundrum, that most North Indians marginalise a South Indian as a Madrasi (after the erstwhile name of Chennai) despite there being many other attention worthy South Indian cities than Chennai. Chennai to its credit has been behaving like an adolescent coming to terms with the extent of his faculties.
The spirit of Chennai has been a largely jingoistic concept founded on infantile credentials like CSK, Marina, Saravana Bhavan and Satyam. It’s always pitched itself as a middle-ground between cultural conservatism and cosmopolitan trappings.
Chennai has been this lackadaisical metro, content with its runner up status behind Delhi and Mumbai, disgruntled but surreptitiously so. It has all along taken respite in one-upmanship battles between Sambar vada and Vada Pav or Bessy and Juhu, to keep its glory afloat, flimsily albeit.
It takes a heartbreak to make a man out of a boy. And it takes a disaster to consolidate the spirit of a land.
The rise of Japan after Hiroshima or Gujarat after earthquake being case in point.
The city for the first time succumbed to nature’s fury and tumbled to a standstill. Mobile towers short of fuel, floating cars, flooded roads, islanded houses, perennial power shut downs, vestigial electrical appliances were apostles to nature’s cryptic mockery at human pursuit at building a utopian civilization, all of which came down in a tumbling manner like a deck of cards.
A natural calamity devours through the veil of urbanization; turning lands to naked strips reeking with primal ambitions of food, survival and shelter, in the process reducing concepts like GDP, gold prices, interest rates, loss of pay, year ends, audit, fitness, politics to redundancy of gibberish extent.
When pushed to a corner, the nemesis that doesn’t break us makes us stronger by its impetus.
Which is exactly what happened with the floods.
It brought together the residents to dovetail their aspirations to a common purpose of helping the city rise up on its feet again, giving it a personality of its own for the first time since its conjuring. They vicariously lived through the turmoil- limping, recovering and rising along with it; behaving similar to individually insignificant parts of a behemoth machinery, on their road to recovery.
By the time the national media arrived gratuitously like cops in the climax of an eighties movie , the nature’s fury had receded paving way for the city to pick itself up on its own without reaching out for help. This self sufficiency after one of its most cruel rendezvous with nature, was Chennai’s way of reiterating its autonomous jurisdiction to the national media which was content on making saleable vanity projects of sensitive news from rest of India.
The floods helped in forging the spirit of Chennai beyond a cliché, helping it come of age from a boisterous city content on flaunting and finger pointing to a self sufficient one with empathetic inhabitants, who would individually fall to make it infallible.
A city in general is defined by its characteristic infrastructural traits, the political ecosystem, sporting franchises representing it, flagship landmarks and primary goods that it produces. But it always takes a single occasion of unanimous display of ownership by its indigenous population, to come into its own; truly and tangibly.
In the coming days we might go back to signal hopping like apes in traffic, queue up outside liquor shops, curse the sun’s tyranny on humid days and wear yellow jerseys to CSK matches as a display of pseudo solidarity.
But we would never forget those dark days when we were there for each other with dogged resilience to see the light at the end of the tunnel together. Those dark days when we realised that Chennai meant more to us than just an address, an indelible identity to relish.