I was not in town. I remember telling family and friends from halfway across the world that I missed out on the beautiful, one-of-a-kind monsoons of my hometown in Kerala. I returned almost a month after the rains had started changing its usual patterns. I didn’t pay enough attention because it was yet to grab us all by the neck; after all, we have all been used to natural calamities through news, so life as we knew it went on with work and what-not for many, including myself. Just a day after I landed though, I was forced to take note of the situation. I couldn’t fly back from Thiruvananthapuram to Cochin because the airport grounds were flooding. I didn’t quite comprehend it, to be honest, because this has never happened to me before. News reports said that flights are taking off but do not have permission to land at the airport in Cochin.
The weather changed its tone every few hours, intermittently allowing airports to function; a day, a day later I found a pocket of time to make it on one of those flights back to my city. By then WhatsApp forwards of the flooded regions of Aluva, Idukki and Wayanad were being shared on all social media platforms. Images of people on boats, video footages of cattle and deer being washed away by torrential currents of murky flood water, to phone calls from people I know from work to either check on me or ask me whether I could arrange for some food for those stuck in flooded regions became the new normal within a span of just 24 hours after my return. The rain was now a storm and showed absolutely no sign of stopping.
I salute the army and the scores of citizens out there, braving all odds doing their best to safeguard those in peril. We are in this together. My heartfelt condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones to this disaster.— Parvathy Thiruvothu (@parvatweets) August 15, 2018
I called up my friend Poornima Indrajith, who pioneered the citizen collective named Anbodu Kochi which was formed during the Chennai floods, to ask in what way I can participate in sending relief materials and help in rescue efforts. Death and devastation were piling up by the minute. We decided to visit the centre where I learned Anbodu Kochi was already working towards relief. Volunteers were flowing in but there was still dearth of raw materials. We put our requests on “live” videos through our social media pages and within a few hours the Regional Sports Centre became the biggest collection hub for relief. Along with Anbodu Kochi, which works with the district collectorate, and many other collection centres opened up as we saw more districts getting submerged.
While respectfully remembering our nation’s 72nd year of independence, it is definitely not a happy day. Our state has been hit with the worst floods in decades. People are dying, lives falling apart and the rains won’t stop.— Parvathy Thiruvothu (@parvatweets) August 15, 2018
The state government was on its toes with relief operation, a website in place to track those who were missing and tons of rescues missions with the navy and fishermen working tirelessly. No one spoke of sleep or rest. We were at the collection centres, or catering units, most of our volunteers going away for sudden rescue missions at night, swimming through dangerous and uncertain terrains.
Crores worth of supplies were being airdropped through helicopters in areas where people were stranded without fresh food or water for days. Supplies were pouring in through other states and when the roads were completely cut off we invented new ways to reach out to various camps; their number by now risen from 200 to 12,000 people to house the rescued people. Malayali communities in other nations crowdsourced money for the CMRF.
Humanity has been put to test. As one witnessed in places like Gaza and or Myanmar, where assaults on humanity has peaked to an extent one wouldn’t want to believe — over there, it’s a constant struggle to save oneself not from calamities, but from man-made violence and disasters. We never really believe or see how exactly it is that people respond to loss. Our generation has definitely not witnessed devastation to this terrifying extent. And we are talking about losing absolutely everything one owns and what one identifies as a safe haven. This can disorient a human being beyond repair. But what continues to bring hope is the fact that politics was put aside completely.
Yes, there were a few instances of petty politics, which comes in mainly due to some religious or casteist thoughts in communities. But those were all quickly set aside in order to stay together. We even had social media teams that were put in place so that people wouldn’t pay attention to online trolls. Surprisingly, even pages that were known for trolling and sarcasm came together to make sure their platforms were used only for rescue missions and passing valid and verified information. For the longest time we haven’t seen different communities and sections of people online come together to work towards one common cause, and to saving people’s lives.
One has been able to understand that we cannot really wait for help, even though we still need help. We are continuing to look for more money, supplies, and more ways to settle people back in their hometowns from camps. We are simultaneously trying to be as self-dependent as possible. It’s a strange and unreal time, full of paradoxes. It almost always feels like we are in a state of trance when reality has shattered every delusion we were living in so far. But when the state government has set such an amazing precedent, encouraging an independent approach to dealing with crisis, people more often than not feel a glimmer of hope even at the end of their gloomiest days.
We would get together as a group of volunteers, planning different phases of relief and rehabilitation; our politicians joined forces with the opposition, went hand-in-hand to educate laypeople on how they can help not just in kind and money, but also in spirit.
Doctors from all kinds of hospitals — including psychologists and psychiatrists — came together to conduct classes on how to cope with losses. There were MSW students and actors and artistes who were being trained to help people in camps and lift their spirits. All of this is in order to prepare the people who’d lost everything they owned to the waters. Their spirit and their faith is all they have and it’s important to tell them that they cannot lose them; it’s important to give them enough confidence to start from scratch.
The contribution of the state government remains unparalleled, even at the expense of losing crores and crores worth of economy at the hands of this devastating calamity. It has declared that the state needs an additional Rs. 20,000 crore, not just to resettle and rehabilitate the affected, but also to get trades and industries back up on their feet. People are slowly coming to realise that this will take not only money and time, but perhaps years to recover.
As I was on my way to a few camps, it almost felt like physically traversing through Kerala’s roads to recovery. But first, there has to be a deep understanding of what went wrong, what has been going wrong environmentally, and how the infrastructure has to be rebuilt. Our government has promised that as the restoration process commences, it is going to adhere to international standards of rebuilding of infrastructure, so as to ensure that this level of loss and destruction never happens in the future if we are ever met with such a calamity again.
In order to facilitate this movement, one of the main things being done by every collectorate unit is to take help from teachers in anganwadis, and different schools and colleges in the districts to have them trained by psychologists and psychiatrists who have travelled down from NIMHANS in Bangalore. They are being taught “comprehensive psychosocial care” as a model to be followed for a year to attend to people who might go through post-traumatic stress disorder and acute depression. There is a lot of art therapy and activities being planned in the coming months in order to make sure that families and children going back to their homes, or no homes, find some closure.
While me and my colleagues were on our way to three such camps, we carried the tools and weapons we need to resurrect our lives and maybe colour that silver line on the gray clouds — art supplies. We went with a team from an NGO named Disha, which is run by a group of youngsters who are trained in folk music, dance, puppetry and storytelling. We went with a lot of colouring books, pencils and huge drums for the flood survivors and their families. We broke the ice with the little children and had them join in activities of art, dance and painting. They were singing folk music that they knew — music which spoke of hope, a new life and all things wonderful. We could soon see the children line up and join in the fun — there were big smiles plastered on their faces, and somewhere, no matter how little a change that might be, we realised we had managed to find some silver lining. This was our only way to reach out to the parents who are the ones who really know the harsh state of reality. We hoped that our visit was helping with their spirits. For the first time in my life, I witnessed what hope looks like in the face of such scale of devastation.
We spoke to them individually in each and every camp. We took the initiative of reaching out to them to come and sing and dance with us. It was through tears that we realised what strength really looks like. A team of doctors accompanied us to attend to anyone who was in need of diabetes, blood pressure or heart medication they had missed out on, so as to be able to provide medical kits to them. The mental health of children is being prioritised, with ledgers singling out the ones suffering from depression.
What I take away from all of this is the way our government, our chief minister, have been beside us. We have been made aware of how the general public is absolutely crucial to rebuilding our lost state. I also believe that the best thing that has perhaps emerged from all the destruction is the sense of responsibility it has instilled in us, especially our youngsters. The millenials who are usually ridiculed for being stuck to their computers and virtual worlds are now invested in understanding what exactly it is that went wrong environmentally, and where it is that the politics matters. We see their collective technological intelligence and innovativeness put to use. They are trying to understand how they can partake in the process by being a citizen and helping in choosing the government and aiding the people in power, and that’s just like building a beautiful army that will help us reconstruct our state from scratch. We see their collective technological intelligence and innovativeness put to use.
When I saw a satellite image of Kerala before and after the floods, I realised the way stretches of land have been completely washed out and how that has totally changed our landscape. While driving past these places, I could see marks of the flood, nearly seven to ten feet high on trees on one hand, and on the other, I could see children and students on the streets helping people clean out their stores with gumboots, bleaching powder and face-masks.
#KeralaFloodRelief is more than just an ongoing campaign to save lives at present, it’s an attempt to rewrite a future for a people learning to find hope in the smallest gestures of kindness and compassion.
(The author is an Indian actor who hails from Kerala. She made her Bollywood debut in 2017 with Qarib Qarib Singlle. The views expressed are her own.)
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine