I was eagerly waiting for another bus. It would be all right if I say, I was stupidly waiting for an uncrowded bus when all of the recent buses were loaded double the capacity. I was a fool and I realized it late. The bus which I missed just then, became the last bus for that day.
I waited at the bus stop for more than needed time. I surrendered the hope of any more bus to come. Autos were also not in sight, the ones around were either broken down or off work. I had no choice but to take the only option. I started walking. A sea of muddy water was in front of me. And behind me. It was surrounding me.
Rushing from all sides, in each direction. The water level was more than a foot.
I was wading through it, feeling a plethora of emotions running through my mind. The joy of my overwhelming first job eloped on the second day itself. Life had been tyrant already with a money deprived childhood. Hardship was holding me longer than it should. I grieved.
Mumbai was flooded because of nonstop pouring clouds since morning. I finished the tiring day in the new organization after filling and filing gazillions of documents. Murmurs and talks crossed my ears about the rains throughout the day. But, unlike many other trainees who decided to stay in office to avoid the dread, I wanted to reach my hotel. Somehow, I made the hotel room, my habitat, and its cosy corners soothed my soul in the lonely nights for four days in Mumbai.
Cars stuck, bikes struggling, people crawling, the rain had created a havoc. While moving across the rising water, I constantly shrugged the fear of drowning. I was never a swimmer. I cursed myself for ignoring my free swimming lessons in college. The water was neck deep also at some places, people said so. My heart started pounding against my chest like a hammer thumping a nail. I saw snails and several dead insects floating around. I moved past the wet leaves and twigs moving here and there. The rain was also heavy and paced down the journey.
My finance deprived past seemed taking a backseat due to the near secured future promised just a day back. That was my first day on the job. But, the situation of the rain at that moment was swallowing me and my confidence. I was wading through the pool, thinking about my future and my family back home, almost on the verge of breaking down. My documents were in my hands, being saved cautiously in the waterproof folder. I wanted to cry but could not. Hardships of my past made me a tough boy.
I hailed from a close knitted family with four siblings and parents. Though the materialistic benefits were very limited, my dreams were not. I always had the aspiration to see my family happy. I never thought I would earn a white collar job and the salary would be more than sufficient. My dream was to fulfil a little more than the needs. Not just meeting the ends but fulfilling the necessity of life with ease and having the luxury of our own choices.
A day earlier, on July 25th, 2005 I got up really early either out of anxiety or desperation. But, I was sure, it was going to be an eventful day. My first day in my first organization.
Yesterday passed with fun and enthusiasm, learning about my company and having a tasty lunch with items I could not even count on the fingers. And the tea made the evening cosy, savouring the corporate luxuries, among other fresh graduates.
The next day welcomed dark clouds and prediction of rains. I had heard so much about the rains of Mumbai. ‘They are similar to uninvited guests. Come at wrong time often and once there, dwell in your home.’ But the excitement of going to office surpassed the gloom of the day.
In the office, the endless program of documentation went on, squeezing all the energy in the body and sucking even more from my mind. The pep talks made me dream of all the luxuries they were talking about.
The weather became more grey at noon and it started raining. What a rain it was! And by the time we finished our lunch, the most palatable part of the day, it became a thunderous monsoon havoc within a few hours. Since the work was mundane, the hours seemed lengthier. Rains called off the day two hours earlier. While I was happy with the early closing and thinking to leave for my hotel, I noticed streets were drowning. How was it possible in such a short interval?
A few decided to stay in the office until the rain stopped. The idea did not suit me, so after useless wait for the bus, my journey started on feet.
Someone pushed me from behind and I came out of the series of the events in the past two days. I almost tripped but managed to control the fall. I couldn’t even curse him as that was an inevitable situation.
In the middle of chaos, I saw a familiar face. Those dark eyes and round face, she must be her. I could be mistaken due to the emotional dizziness. I reached a little closer. Indeed she was the one sitting in the luxury of a long car waiting for her driver to conquer the ruthless water. She had a small red line adorning her forehead at the centre. So the news of her getting married to a rich brat was true.
I sighed in despair. She was the one, I was attracted for one full year in the initial days of college. But she never even cared for my friendship, forget the romantic association in any way. In fact, she refused my existence too. She was beautiful, I was simple, cute maybe but our standards were far apart. I did not even know what standard of living was until I got my job.
Money, you are a bitch!
But I relearnt the hard fact that day that money cannot buy everything. Not freedom at least. Not when nature decides the cost. Society differentiates, people make comparisons but nature is a mother. Mother looks at her children through one lens. And the girl’s opulence could not secure her from the devastating flood. Just a bit safer though in the confinement of a car.
The usually calm colourless water turned the whole city upside down and its murky russet colour turned me brown at patches and worsen my fatigued look. My shabby attire which was insulted years ago, in the exchange of my friendship, was mocking her. Her wealth surrendered at the mercy of nature that day. I moved a few more steps towards her thinking to offer help. But what could that be? Come, wade with me. Or, hey, come and join me, we will share a cup of tea amidst the rains while listening to your honeymoon saga. I mocked my thoughts. I could not afford another insult. After all, I was an elite passed out from an imperial institute, now posted in the corporates of Mumbai.
I was sure that she noticed me and turned her face away. My ruffled hair and the muddy body was not appealing after all. Her presence in the most unexpected situation made me smile and I resumed my clumsy walk cutting through the vast expanse of water.
I looked at the clouds on zenith and prayed to reach my hotel. Just alive. That was the necessity. Rest would be destiny. The water level rose few more inches above my knees.
My hands were tired of carrying the file without a proper support and I was fatigued of shifting the file from one hand to the other. I was thankful for my elder brother’s advice on buying a proper folder. I hoped the papers were dry and safe.
I had walked for two long hours already. I wanted to sit and rest for a while but the light was dim. The night was approaching and I still could cover just less than one-third of the distance, I was clueless how would I finish the other 8 km journey on foot. Adversities had a close relationship with me from adolescence. I was almost on the verge of breaking and dropping my hands down when I spotted a building ruins which was at a raised ground and accessible from the overflowing road. It was crowded, but I was sure it would not crumble down sheltering just one more poor head and two wobbling legs. So, I sped up.
Respite repaired my tired body. People pushed each other to get 1 square feet of space. Some elbowed me and a few pushed me outside. But I stood firm, tolerating all the merciless twinges.
Space was sufficient to temporarily heal my exhausted body and hands. I breathed relief. After some time, an old man told me to get out from there. His voice was a mere whisper. He was trying to scare me, I thought. But no. He had a reason. Not because, he wanted more space but he realized, the building was at the juncture of collapsing.
I looked at the walls he was pointing to and the roof with scrutiny. He was not lying. The water was gushing from many corners. The building must be decades old. I was not sure, which way to turn. Whether to stand under a fragile roof which was crying at its forthcoming demise or step out in the havoc nature had slapped on us.
I resumed my journey against my wish, weighing the situation. Half a kilometre more and I heard a nerve wrecking sound as if lightning split the earth and shattered everything around. A few dozens shrieked and ran for safety. The building collapsed but I was saved. The old man was an angel to advise me the right thing. Where was he? I did not see him coming out.
Water is odourless. I learned in the school days. But suddenly the muddy water around me smelled sweet. A pleasantness one feels at the seashore or near a river. A soothing perfume lingered in my nostrils after the old man saved me from the building’s sabotage. The same muddy water felt better than standing under the roof.
I wanted to go and save him but I chose to be rational. I turned my back to the girl earlier and I did not have the courage to see dead people. Did the circumstances turn me selfish? Or maybe I was just another normal human. I shrugged the self-loathing thoughts. My journey sustained.
After some time, I remembered that I had a mobile and some money inside my shirt’s pocket wrapped and secured inside a polythene. I checked to dial the hotel if they could arrange something. The battery was dead. I already spent four hours in flood. With my minimal knowledge from the past few days, I calculated that I was almost 5 KMs away from my hotel. The water level was constant. I felt my head heavy and eyes drooping. Feet limped and courage shattered. The tiredness of emotions could do that to even Hercules.
I heard someone say, there was an open manhole which could swallow people. I was scared. I could not imagine the results of falling into a manhole. I chanted His name. No one told the exact location but hinted, it was near Mulund. Approximately 3 KMs then.
After walking for almost a kilometre, I could not bear the tiredness and thought to rest for a while. Now when everything was submerged, I could not find a bench or a bus stop to sit and relax. Hunger was also churning my belly from inside, making it even more difficult to step ahead. I just wanted to climb the drowned overcrowded footpath. There was no space to walk on it. I somehow reached an auto next to the footpath and asked him if I could sit inside for a while.
The driver nodded or denied, I could not resolve the answer and simply enter, without hesitation. Necessity forces you to do unexpected things. I asked him for something to eat. I was shocked at my question. He smiled and said something in Marathi, which I could not translate.
Humanity knows no language, only gestures. Gestures of helping, signs of empathy and symbolism for caring. Without further language trouble, he gave me a small open packet of biscuits. Five in count precisely. I pounced on them and gulped in seconds. He handed me a water bottle too. Indeed humanity was on my side, though nature wanted to test me.
They taught that water is tasteless, but those few sips of the water tasted like nectar. And the parched throat really thanked the righteous human who was poor maybe but humanity was lively and ticking inside him.
After chit-chatting with him for 15 mins and thanking him numerous times, I bade him goodbye to continue the voyage. Almost 5 KMs were left. It was pitch dark. Probably risky too. He tapped me from behind. I thought I had to pay him the only 500 rupees note with me for providing me with a temporary shelter and little food.
I was wrong. He asked me to help him pull out the auto which was stuck in a muddy pit. He just wanted it to be pushed out to a plain surface with lesser water so that he could examine the wheels and repair it.
We tried to lift the auto from behind so that the wheel which was jammed in the pit could come out and we can push it further. That was the day, I used all my physical strength with just 5 biscuits in my stomach and some water. All in vain. After a struggle for almost fifteen minutes, the obstinate wheel did not come out and auto did not move an inch.
His words were falling on my ears but I could not perceive the meaning, partly because of the language, partly due to the voices ringing in my head. The news of trees falling down and roadblocks were getting common with each passing hour. Accidents are bound to happen during floods. Would I be able to reach my room? How far was the manhole swallowing people? Would there be a better future I dreamed of?
I was entwined in the defeated thoughts and suddenly, a surge of strength took over my body, I tried with all my remaining might remembering each family member and we both were able to pull out the auto. The auto moved a few inches and rested on a levelled surface. But It was probably not functional. How would he manage to check the broken wheel in dark that too which was submerged in the filthy water? The crowd was sparse now. He indicated me to the almost invisible footpath and asked to climb there.
I realized, water also reduced a couple of inches. I would be able to make my way on the footpath with the lesser water level. This would definitely save me from the dangerous manhole.
I gave my phone number to the auto driver, asking him to call me whenever he needed a help. I thanked him for his company, his generosity and wished him luck with his auto.
Dirty clothes and a pair of tired hands carrying the valuable documents all the time away from water, I started walking on the footpath. Trying to comprehend the ups and downs on the footpath, I was carefully checking for any open manhole before me on the footpath or on the road. But I did not find any. No pit was there to gulp humans. With every passing moment, relief was settling in, one for the reduced water level; second for the rain grew slow; third in the absence of manhole.
Rumours can do this to human. Churn the relief out of you and unsettle completely because the fear of something bad going to happen is far worse and painful than that ‘bad something’ itself.
I managed to cross the rest of the distance. The fallen trees, the upside down things floating on the roads and the dead animals and even a few human bodies did not deter me to reach my destination.
When I reached my company provisioned room in the Hotel after a long 8 hours, I was welcomed with cheers. I survived the havoc called flood which was the biggest in the history of Mumbai. The incident made me a survivor and a hero. Clean clothes and cute features never brought be any attention earlier but a muddy demeanour brought a hearty meal and wishes.
The tempest not only took more than 1000 lives but also blew away the rudimentary aspects of the city. It jeopardized the water system and transit network, the local trains of Mumbai. The wrecked Mumbai came to a halt for more than 24 hours.
I learned many things that day. The zeal of fighting, the enthusiasm for help and the feel of a belongingness etched some unforgettable impressions on my heart. Of courage and empathy. Courage to not just survive but live. Empathy for not just humans but any form of life, be it animals or trees.
Thanking my stars for the mercy I was showered with, I lived the spirit of humanity that day.