Malabar Hill is an elevated area of Mumbai city, both literally and
figuratively. The common perception of this prestigious precincts
is that it is the abode of the rich and the mighty, of the ruling
class, of power brokers, of cine stars. To be precise, the society’s
elite. Because of this there is a perception that for anything and
everything, Malabar Hill enjoys privileged treatment.
How meaningless such perceptions are became evident after
a heavy monsoon that inundated, and devastated, many parts
of Mumbai. When mighty natural forces go berserk, there is
relevance for only one human feeling: helplessness.
In an instant the floods caused by heavy rains taught Mumbai
residents this lesson.
Normally it takes only fifteen to twenty minutes from my
office at the headquarters of the department of Atomic Energy to
reach home on the Malabar Hill. But on that day of the floods it
took more than three and a half hours because of the heavy traffic
congestion. Tried to inform home about being stranded on the
road, but the phone at home was silent. Even as I was watching
the heavy traffic crawling, slowly and haltingly, along the beach
road, rain became intense and the sea was unusually rough. That
was cause for some unease. Thoughts about the tsunami and its
trail of devastation troubled my mind. Are my wife and son at
home or outside for shopping? No idea.
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It was a great relief when finally I could reach home. And
greater relief when I found that my wife and son were at home. In
fact they had planned to go out, but did not take the car in view of
the rains. They thought of taking a taxi but no taxi was available
round the corner. So they gave up the idea and came back home.
It was from the next morning’s newspapers they realized how
lucky they were for skipping that trip.
The next afternoon someone knocked at the door. It was
Mrs. Ghosh, our neighbor. She was greatly upset. It was some
time when she could compose herself to narrate what happened
to her the previous day. She was in the car in the middle of a
flooded road. Almost three-fourth of the car was under water.
It was impossible to open the door or even to lower the wind
screen. It was suffocating inside and she even tried in vain to
break the glass. She had to remain in the car in this situation
for an unbelievable eighteen hours. Even then what troubled her
foremost was thoughts about her daughter in college. What would
have happened to her?
This was not an isolated incident. News media were full of
harrowing tales of death and devastation, of separation of dear
and near ones and other tragedies that the flash floods caused to
an unprepared society.
Occasionally there were SMS messages from people caught
in the floods frantically seeking help and succor. Messages from
people we have never seen pleading for our help for their dear
ones trapped somewhere in the flooded city. One message was
from a man in Nagpur. His sister in Mumbai had boarded a
double decker bus which was caught up in the floods at Chembur.
The lower deck was inundated and now the flood waters had
reached the upper deck. Will someone help her? Though the
message was from an unknown person about an unseen person,
the human face of the tragedy was clearly evident in this.
270 Silence Sounds Good
Through SMS and e-mail such pleas for help came from far
and near in rapid frequency, indicating the extent of the human
suffering. From Pennsylvania in the US one John Varghese was
wailing: “My parents are living in Kalyan. Mother told me over
the phone that the surging flood waters were fast inundating
her home. Then the phone fell silent. Tried to contact their
neighbours, but there was no response. Will anyone help them?”
The frantic messages would not have gone unheeded. Even
without them, help was flowing, from heart to heart. A school bus
was stranded in flood waters. The residents of nearby apartments
rushed to the aid of the kids and gave them drinking water, milk
and food. When thousands of people waded through floods and
slush for miles to reach home, there were long line ups of residents
waiting on the way sides with food packets and water to provide
them some relief.
Grandma’s say, one should help others forgetting ones own
self. That also happened during the deluge. Twenty-eight year
old Navelkar, employed in the Mumbai police, was an able
swimmer. He was on his way home after duty when he saw three
men fighting for their lives in the flood waters. He jumped into the
water and caught hold of one man and brought him to safety. He
repeated the feat and saved a second man. But as he was trying
to save the third man sinking, he himself was washed away by the
swirling waters. His body was recovered later.
For all people what is important is their personal sorrows
and personal discomforts. Statistics, therefore, may not clearly
show the quantum of loss or extent of the tragedy. But the fact
is that the quantity of rainfall that Mumbai received that day,
94.4 cm, was much more than the quantity it would normally
receive for a whole year. The highest recorded rainfall in
Chirapunji was 83.82 cm. Mumbai’s drainage system was
about a hundred and fifty years old. It could normally handle
only two and a half cm of rains an hour. It was therefore too
Dr. CV Ananda Bose 271
much for this system to cope with when a massive downpour of
94.4 cm fell on the city in a matter of 24 hours. A camel may
pass through the eye of the needle, but it is totally impossible
for city drains to cope with the sudden, heavy flow of water
from such a cloudburst.
The suburban train service was something that controlled
the resonance of Mumbaikar’s daily life. Every day as many as
4.5 million people commuted to work place from home in these
trains. At about 3.30 in the afternoon of that fateful day, the
train services came to a grinding halt, stranding over a million
people. While an estimated one million people were stranded
in the trains, over a lakh and half were forced to spend the night
at platforms. Children from many schools also were stranded
in the buses in the flood waters. Those students who had to
remain in the schools overnight were lucky to escape the fury
of the flood waters. It may be said Mumbai city where fifteen
million people lived had come to a total standstill. The extent
of the suffering and agony meted out to underprivileged sections
of the society by the furry of flood could be gauged when we
realize that nearly forty per cent of the city’s population lived
There were indeed some silver linings to the dark clouds. It
was indeed the brotherhood and camaraderie that the Mumbai
residents showed in single mindedly handling the calamity.
In some cases people who were thought to have been killed
in the deluge returned alive after some time. A seventeen year old
student of a college run by the Kerala Samajam at Dombivli was
washed away in the floods. A body recovered after a few days
was identified as his and was properly cremated by his relatives.
A week later, however, the youth was found in an unconscious
state on a river bank in a distant village. The villagers first thought
it was one of the many bodies washed ashore. But then they
found that he was still breathing. He was rushed to hospital and
272 Silence Sounds Good
he survived. When the police brought him home, it was indeed
like a resurrection after crucifixion.
When one’s doors are closed in front of him, it is said, those of
his neighbour should open up for him. That is real brotherhood.
In the midst of the tragedy of the Mumbai floods, umpteen were
the hearty tales of such brotherhood. It was an eye opener for
many when the ‘chaiwala’ Mushtaq turned out to be a good
Samaritan in times of adversity.
A bus carrying twenty-five passengers came to a standstill in
front of his makeshift tea stall. It could not move forward because
of the flood waters which started to enter the bus. The passengers
waited thinking the situation might improve and the bus could
resume its journey. The chaiwala made tea for the passengers.
After some time he got their residential telephone numbers and
managed to go a distant booth to telephone their homes to inform
them of their stranded condition. When darkness fell and it
became evident the bus would not be able to go forward, Mushtaq
became an angel of love, inviting all of them to his small house
nearby to spend the night. He made refreshments for them even
as they prepared to settle down to spend the night as his guests.
What are the lessons taught by the big flood in the big city?
Calamities may strike any time. And often they come without
warning. What is important is that we should try not to make
city life itself calamitous. We should be able to foresee such
possibilities and take pre-emptive measures. The UN estimate
is that by 2020 nearly sixty per cent of the world’s population
will be living in cities. Urbanization has become the inevitable
adjunct to the present century. We have to get in terms with that
inevitability. We have to look at calamities, natural and man
made, with a practical mind and make preparations to deal with
Dr. CV Ananda Bose 273
When explosions hit London in the past following a fire
breakout in a chemical factory, the authorities were able to put
into practice in letter and spirit a security plan they had well
prepared in the past. There were clear cut instructions on the
counter measures. What should be done, by whom, when. And
everyone did his part meticulously. There were also people with a
will to oversee its implementation.
See the following message from M P Rattan, an Indian who
happened to be in Japan during the time of the Mumbai deluge.
‘I am in Tokyo now. Last Saturday we had a big earthquake here.
And a tornado the following Tuesday. But life here continues to
be normal. In Mumbai everything has been brought to standstill
by a day’s rains. Why is it that we could not do there what these
people could do here?’
Can anyone give an answer? Who should give an answer?
Can we let calamities continue to hit us with such unanswered
questions? If so that will be the worst cal