In Kerala, Family Tales Surface as the Waters Recede

‘The deluge of ’99’ (the year 1099 in the Malayalam calendar, 1924 CE) is a familiar, oft repeated phrase for Malayalis. In my family, it’s a given that whenever the older generation gets together they are going to get carried away sharing stories from the past. And the telling and retelling of these fables often included small anecdotes of the ’99 floods. For their generation, the flood became a marker of time. And as fate would have it, my generation now has its own flood to mark time by.

It’s likely that some of us will tell our children and grandchildren about the Great Flood of 2018. After all, the stories are abundantly available, all well documented on social media, as well as digital and analog platforms alike. Stories of valour, resistance, kindness, fortitude, folly and deception.

I’m not attempting to recount the harrowing experiences of stranded family members or analyse the appropriateness of receiving foreign aid, I’m only trying to recount the odd, and in hindsight hilarious human behaviour that will dot our memories from this devastating time.

My hometown Chengannur was one of the worst-hit from the floods. It’s a sleepy town, in the middle of Travancore, equidistant from the Thiruvananthapuram and Cochin airports, with Thiruvalla and Kottayam nearby for our shopping needs. It’s a happy existence most of the time. The town’s one significant claim to fame is that it serves as a pit stop for visitors going to Sabarimala. Although most of my relatives are scattered across the globe year-round, they somehow managed to be in the right place at the wrong time this August. Landing from the sweltering heat of the Middle East and the nippy Arctic, they all arrived here, only to get stranded here.

In the days since rehabilitation efforts started, the family Whatsapp group has exploded with tales of various family members reacting to the floods. For instance, one octogenarian uncle met my mother after the worst of the flooding had passed and told her, “Di, Ellam poyedi” (I lost everything). When she asked what happened, he replied, “A fully ripe Robusta Banana, I lost it.”

He’d been stranded in his house earlier that week, but when his son arrived in a boat to rescue him, my uncle refused to go. It took a fair amount of persuasion until he finally budged. The uncle then went inside to change and his son was dumbstruck on seeing how his father returned – with a new kasavu mundu (dhoti with zari thread) wrapped around his waist, dressed as if he were going to a weding, not being rescued from a flooded house.

Some days later, after he’d been returned to his house, his son’s friend, who works as a driver for the government, came to check up on my uncle. However, seeing the government vehicle from a distance, my uncle started yelling, “I lost everything!” and dictated his version of the the flood’s damage to the visitor. He thought the driver was some “government official” who came to assess the damages and dole out ex-gratia compensation on the spot.

Then there was my grandma, whose priority remained keeping up with her daily TV serials even as water crept into her living room. She was, of course, relieved when she was rescued, but only got her life back when my cousin cued up the episodes she’d missed on Hotstar, albeit on a tablet with dwindling battery in a house with no electricity.

Elsewhere, Chengannur Engineering College, my alma mater, was turned into a relief camp and came alive with activity as present and former students came together to help those affected. A former student of the college was even part of the air force team that came to Chengannur for rescue operations. It was an odd homecoming for her, and someone said, “We usually come back to our college for writing supplementary exams.”

It was this humour that got us through the darkest bits. These snippets of erratic behaviour from our loved ones will stay with us through generations, a little laughter will come in handy as we embark upon rebuilding Kerala.

Kiran Gandhi is a freelance writer and journalist. 

Featured image credit: Reuters