Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mithi (River) Memories...

The girls are Isha and Asya... Isha, born in Mumbai, is originally from Nepal, and Asya is from Allahabad. They stay around Saki Naka. And work in the same beauty parlour at Hiranandani Gardens.

Recent heavy rains brought back memories of 26/07, that crazy day when Mumbai went under four years ago. With Saki Naka right next to the Mithi river, it was one of the worst affected areas, and I asked about their experience.

Isha is ever smiling.... there is something very pleasant about her presence. Ever since I have come to know her in the last three years, I have noticed this - she attracts her patrons to her like a magnet. She is a also a widow - widowed at age 26, with two daughters. And stays in a one room chawl with her extended family.

Asya has a young son and a daughter. Her husband Babloo temps when my driver is on long leave – and he usually drives a taxi. A great couple. They have a hearing handicapped young relative to hold fort and help out with the children, while both parents work long hours to make ends meet in this city of dreams.

Babloo was driving a taxi and had gone into the city that morning. When it became apparent the rains were getting worse, Asya rushed to the school to pick up her older six year old son. And then – as happened with a zillion others – she got stuck more than a kilometer away from home on her way back, unable to go either forward or backward. There was a raging river flowing by then - more than one river actually- and any traffic of people was away from Saki Naka. Things deteriorated and b4 she knew anything, pockets of Saki Naka had completely submerged, some chawls had washed away, and yet others next to the Mithi had collapsed.
‘Aap samajh sakte ho meri haalat. Ghar mein teen saal ki bachhi aur ek ladki jo bol nahi sakti, kisiko bula nahi sakti. Unka kya hua, woh kahan gaye, kuchh mujhe pata nahi tha’, she recalls with a shudder.

She was physically prevented from heading back, with a sea of faces telling her not to be crazy – and to look after her young son, one she was clutching ing to her bosom. At the same time, she met up with people rushing out from her basti, who shook their heads and said ‘poori basti hi beh gayi hai...’

Under the awning of a shelter, they stood shivering all night watching the torrential waters, at places raging six feet high, rushing down a trajectory that was once the Saki Vihar road. At one point of time, there was a child flowing away and a man standing alongside in the crowd, rushed towards the furious waters. When the others tried to stop him, he said "How can I just stand here and watch a child go past? Ek bachhe to kaise beh jaane doon?" He jumped in, went under and in a few moments, emerged with a child...
Like a puppet, eyes wide open. The man stood there with the lifeless body and then helplessly allowed the waters to carry it away. Came back to the shelter where Asya and many others watched shell shocked. And hours passed. As she desperately prayed for the well being of her little three year old daughter and her niece, tears merging with the storming rains.

It was more than 24 hours later that the entire family was reunited and they heard of what had transpired back home. The neighbors had rushed in to check if anyone was around. Pure luck... because the petrified girls were sitting on top of a cupboard - quietly - and the rising water in the one room tenement was already just a few feet away from the ceiling. These good samaritans took them out to safety. And a few more lives got saved.

Yes, the home door got left open.. EVERY SINGLE thing Asya owned washed away... Not one
utensil, not one stitch of cloth... nothing left. Yet she speaks of that day with gratitude. She is just so glad her neighbors saved her family.

You should meet Asya. With a gentle sense of humor as always... When the idle chat was about rising sea levels, and aren’t we lucky to be at Powai, away from the Mumbai coast, and about ‘the poor sods who stay at Juhu and Bandra who’ll go under first', said Asya with a straight face : ‘Haan na. Hum pehle un logon ko dekhenge, baat ko theek tarah se samjhenge… Aur uske baad hi hum marenge’.

Isha had her memories to share. She said, ‘floods ke din jo hua so hua’ but the day that created maximum pandemomium was two or three days later, after 26/07 when the word spread like wildfire ‘Powai dam toot gaya hai – sab bhaago, sab chhodke bhaago’ and there was this sudden rush of people running away from the neighborhood. After the recent mind numbing experience, this word of mouth information received - of the dam having breached - was enough for all to go into a state of immediate panic.

At home, she and her family… her daughters, her devar, devrani, their young child and her mother in law were just about to sit down to lunch. ‘Baida curry aur chawal’. Egg curry made specially for everyone, for having got back safe from the harrowing experience of the previous days.

They left everything and ran out into the terrified crowds. Her devar came back and locked the room. They all ran for miles, down the ‘90 ft road’. In the direction away from Powai lake… Isha grimly holding on to her two daughters...

This was a moment that Isha faced and that not many of us get in our lifetime.
A moment shorn of all essentials & non essentials.

When she just knew what she wanted in life – and that was the safety of her daughters. Everything else was secondary.
A moment that helps her keep her priorities in focus to this day.

Police vehicles arrived and told them it was a rumor. The dam had not broken, and ‘everyone, please go back home’. It took the police more than an hour to convince the mass of hundreds and thousands of people rushing away in the opposite direction to retrace their steps. It was when they brought out their megaphones and even put up a barrier up ahead, that at last, gradually, the panic subsided and everyone started heading back sheepishly.

This is when they began to notice one another.

There were people who were walking back ‘in their chaddis’ who had run with shampoo in their hair. One man with a big baksaa on his head became the butt of jokes, as everyone began to conjecture on its contents. Another woman who was wearing an all enveloping nighty - that outfit, so common in the chawls - had actually stopped to wear all her gold jewelry before she ran out. Including her tikli, long necklaces, an arm ful of bangles and gold danglers. Yahan tak ke, even a cummerbund. Much to the delight of all walking back, she was ribbed on her combination of jewelry and dress.

Back home, Isha and her family were reunited with - her mother in law.

Thing is, mom in law could not bring herself to run away leaving a full kadhai of baida curry go waste. She climbed up on to the loft to stuff the food at the highest safe place she could find befire she ran, and her younger son had unknowingly locked her in.

And so. Everyone had baida curry and rice after all.

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