A sense of comfort and convenience comes along with living in a metropolitan city. We urban dwellers, call it our negligence, assume that every major problem will not travel from far away villages and towns to our city. Recent cyclones like Bulbul and Titli reaffirmed this consideration by having caused a lot of damage in coastal areas, but they could not interrupt the pace of ‘The City of Joy’.
This urban temperament was brought to its feet by Cyclone Amphan, which hit the twin cities of Kolkata and Howrah on May 20 at about 7 pm after hours of heavy rainfall. From evacuation in the coastal areas to deployment of rescue teams, Bengal was prepared for this disaster – but no one could fathom the extent of damage it would bring.
So far, the death toll due has risen to 86 across West Bengal. Of these deaths, at least 15 were reported from Kolkata. The number is still rising – two CESC workers succumbed to a short circuit in Howrah while trying to restore the power.
Strong winds started blowing in the city from early morning on Wednesday, and people started stocking groceries. Marked as a red zone in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, movement had already been stalled in Kolkata and Howrah.
From bolted windows and open balconies, locals could hear wind howl like never before. As the rain intensified, droplets were deflected in a circular motion, with the cyclone travelling at the speed of 120 km/hr.
For hours, intense rain continued as doors and windows rattled. Soon, more than half of the city lost electricity and internet services.
It was the 17th marriage anniversary of Rita and Gopal Ojha. Their family was ready to celebrate at their apartment at Shanti Kunj, a residential complex in Howrah. With Amphan in full swing, their bedrooms and living room became pools as rain water seeped in from gaps in the window and ventilators. They spent their evening filling bucket after bucket to throw water out of their apartment on the second floor.
Yaash Agarwal, a resident of Karunamoyee Housing Society, Salt Lake, says, “I have lived here, in one of the most developed parts of Kolkata, since childhood. At around 4 pm, water started to seep into the house. Till 9 pm, my entire family was collecting water in buckets even as darkness crept in with the power cut. The blackout and loud roaring wind felt like the end of the world was near.”
From window panes shattering to roads being flooded, the city stayed awake in darkness that night with no cellular connection or internet. Several transformers also blew up in the Kankurgachi area.
On Thursday, the morning sky was clearer as we woke up to the aftermath of Amphan. I went to my terrace to check on the pots to find a majority of them broken. A torn lid from a tank was lying on the roof. Uprooted trees littered on the road. Many houses were missing windows.
My neighbourhood was in shambles.
Howrah Chabi Ghar, a photo framing shop standing for 95 years now, was damaged severely. “My father could not open his shop because of the lockdown since the last two months. He had frames and glasses worth lakhs inside,” said Sanjana Gupta. The shop has been in their family for generations, and is credited to have framed pictures for many eminent households in the city.
Two brothers owning a small grocery store in Howrah were inconsolable as water entered their shop and destroyed their stock of rice and flour.
Students of Jadavpur University grieved as the cyclone wreaked havoc in some of the most beautiful parts of the campus. Chandrabhal Pandey, a final year student of Mechanical Engineering, says, “I was already disturbed with not being able to spend my last days on campus due to the coronavirus. Now, when we know that our second home has been devastated, I long to see it again with my own eyes. The place which has many memories etched to it will never be the same. It’s so disheartening to see the statue of ‘Khadya Andolan’ get damaged due to this super cyclone.”
Khadya Andolan was a mass movement in West Bengal in 1958 against the price increase by the central government amid the Bengal famine. This sign of resistance, which stood firm in Jadavpur University for decades, was crushed by nearby trees.
The cultural currency of Kolkata was hit as the iconic book market of College Street was flooded. Books from the largest book market in the country could be seen floating on the street now, breaking the heart of every book lover in the city.
The oldest tree of the country, the Great Banyan Tree located in AJCB Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah, has been completely uprooted. This 270-year-old tree, which has faced two major cyclones in 1925, finally fell to Amphan.
The deltaic region of Sunderbans has taken the worst hit. With its tall mangrove forest, Sunderbans has always calmed the intensity of every cyclone which has ever tried to reach the city. But this time, with massive damage to trees and animal life, the mighty forests gave in. The only home of India’s national animal, the Royal Bengal Tigers has been destroyed completely, but the mainstream media does not seem to bat an eyelid.
It has been four days since the disaster, but electricity still remains irregular in most parts of the city. Some localities have witnessed a complete blackout for more than 80 hours. Telecom services have crashed, lamp posts with live wires are lying on the main road, and water supply remains inconsistent. Students, relying on internet services for online classes, cannot attend classes or give exams thanks to the poor cellular and broadband connections.
The urban dwellers of Kolkata and Howrah seem to have forgotten the global pandemic after facing immense loss in the worst cyclone of their lives. Dedicated CESC workers are still on the road, trying to fix the electric lines.
Kolkata is now fighting a dual war, against coronavirus and the fallout of a deadly cyclone. The lack of coverage of this catastrophe in mainstream national media shows that the erstwhile British capital of India has been somewhat abandoned. The fourth-most populated state is now dilapidated, awaiting restoration of electricity, cellular network and water supply.
“Amidst the coronavirus crisis, I cannot even go out to help my relatives, who have suffered extreme damage. But we know we will rebuild our city, the one we thought could never be destroyed,” says a resident of Manicktala.
This is the spirit of Kolkata, which is standing tall on its own ruins, hoping to see the sunlight as these clouds of despair pass by. Like every other riot, insurrection, and famine in the past, Bengal will surely rise again with the zeal of its people. These people have written national anthems, poems of resistance and brought Nobel Prizes to the country.
Bengal will surely continue bringing glory to the nation, even when the fourth pillar of democracy forsakes them in desperate times.
Shreya Gupta is a student of Mass Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.
Featured image credit: Reuters