Some dates have such a bad history associated with them that just the mention of it is enough to give you goosebumps. One such date is 26th July. Nearly nine years ago on this day Mumbai was nearly washed off in the rains. There is not a single Mumbaikar who can think of 26th July without thinking about that fateful evening.
After I left college at around 1 PM I boarded the slow train for home. For the first time in my life I slept on the train. Luckily while the train was waiting at the last station to begin its journey back to Churchgate I woke up & realized where I was. As the train hooted, I got up in a hurry & got down just in the nick of time. I was yet to realize what a huge nick that was! I went home, had my lunch while watching TV & chatting with Aaji & then both of us had a nice nap. It had just begun to drizzle & burrowing under a Solapuri chadar felt heavenly as the rain outside was adding a chill to the air.
When I woke up Aaji had already prepared tea & when I peeked out the window I saw it was raining heavily. Not bothering much we sipped our tea & put on the TV again. The TV reporter was telling how it was an incident of clouds bursting & how the rains were going from bad to worse. We called R to tell her the news & she said she had heard of it too & was leaving office ASAP.
The rains did not stop, the TV announcer kept giving us details & pictures of the areas worst affected, R’s cell was no longer accessible as the authorities had ordered a complete shut down of cellular services so that no one could spread any rumours (who cares if family members are dying with worry about their family not reaching home on time!). We watched all this not understanding what the big issue was. All we could see from our house was a wet street & people on the road moving about at their usual pace on the road huddled under umbrellas.
The journey from R’s office to our home takes about half an hour by a rickshaw. Half hour turned to one, then two, then three, but she wasn’t home yet. She could not be reached on her cell & the news about a greater disaster was being broadcast. That was when the worry kicked in. Aaji stood rooted by the window waiting for her to get back home while urging me to keep trying her cell. Neither did R came, nor could I reach her. I offered to go out & search for her & Aaji firmly asked me to do nothing of that sort & stay at home with her.
R had left her office at 5 PM. What had seemed like a wise move then seemed foolish now 3 hours later as authorities urged people to not leave their homes, offices, shops or whatever dry place they could find. They were requesting us to not step out on the roads because once we left a place there was no guarantee of being able to reach our destination or even being able to go back. We stood patiently by the window when the phone rang. I rushed to pick it up. It was R. She told us that she had met a woman from a neighbouring building & was walking home since no rickshaw, no bus was available. Surprisingly the TV reporter was telling us how perfectly the Western railways were working when the whole road trasport system of the city had failed!
It was about 9:30 PM when we saw R & another woman with her walking around the corner, dead tired, drenched to the bone but safe. The roads were now deserted as more & more people became aware of the calamity. R climbed up to the house warily & straight away rushed into the bathroom to get out of her wet & dirty clothes & have a nice warm bath. The saree which she was wearing would be going straight to the garbage bin the next day.
She told us while having a warm dinner that she had managed to catch a rickshaw right outside her office. But after going a few kilometer the rickshaw encountered a wall of water. Yes, a wall of water! The area where the rickshaw stood had no water, while right in front of it water was accumulating in the low lying area. The rickshawallah asked her to get down. She walked a little & came upon a bus which would have got her home. While the bus driver behaved in his usual douche way refusing to cooperate with the passengers R met the woman from our neighbouring building. They observed that when they had got in there had been no water accumulation there. But now, some 30 min later, water had not only covered the tyres of the bus but also was now reaching the last step. They decided to start walking while it was still light outside. A fireman helped them get hold of a thick rope which he had tied around himself so that they could steady themselves with the help of the rope & walk properly. Holding onto the rope they managed to walk & covered a great distance that way, following his instructions of not lifting their one foot before the other had met solid ground. R told us about the water reaching up to her neck (and she is a a good 5.5 foot) while shorter people were nearly under it. She told us of inconsiderate, dirty people spitting in the same water they were now walking in. She told us about some people moving about in boats. But mostly she praised the firemen for their bravery & spirit for helping so many citizens that day.
Quite late in the night after R had finished her dinner, S called her up. He was stuck in a bus right outside his home at Santacruz. He had first telephoned his mother & was now calling R to let her know he was OK. As his place is near Juhu beach, a lot of water had accumulated there & the water had a current which was pulling everything back into the sea. The firemen there were advising that only people who could swim well should venture out. Hence S spent the whole night cramped up in the bus; home in sight; but well out of reach.
Other than these two, a friend from my German class had journeyed with a boat from Marve to Kandivali, not that great a distance on a normal day. We heard reports of famous politicians & actors doing the same thing. The news told us that the Mithi river, which had been a river once but had been reduced to a nallah, had caused this havoc. The river had been congested with plastic & hence a majority of the water could not be drained away causing massive floods, especially in the suburbs. A few of S’s friends had been stranded in their offices, but were in a far better position than the ones stranded on the roads in waist high waters. We read in the papers next day about people suffocating in their cars because they could not break the windows as the water rose outside. We saw pictures of Mercs & BMWs lying next to Marutis & Mahindras in a heap like you would find in a scrap yard. Trucks had been overturned, somehow cars had managed to climb on top of one another. Thousands of people were left homeless. People who lived on the ground & first floors were the worst affected. People who lived at the ground floor in S’s building had shifted to S’s home & stayed there for nearly a week. They had lost almost everything to water. They had seen TV sets & refrigerators being drawn out by the current as they clung to dear life. Mattresses were soggy & hence useless, books needed to be thrown out, garbage which had come in needed to be thrown out again. Everything needed to be cleaned after the seas had cleaned themselves of the garbage man has been dumping in them for years now.
Today, as it started to rain at around 11:30 AM in the morning people were reminded of that day nine years ago. Thankfully the rain has now stopped. While it has flooded all the usual areas, there is no sign of a repeat disaster because even a decade from that day not much measures have been taken by this city, its citizens or its authorities to ensure that a repeat is avoided. We as always depend on nature & God to take care of us!