‘The scenic backwaters and rivers set against the backdrop of coconut trees swaying in the wind truly make you see why it is called God’s own country.’ Those exact same backwaters and rivers would overflow as the rain fell unceasingly, and as the water charged all over, people would run away from the same waters they’d been admiring for years.
For one week, I worked at a helpline in Bangalore alongside many people I had never met before. I spent days, where I sat for 11 hours in a chair, taking calls, entering data, contacting rescue workers and suppliers, following-up on previous cases. I’m not somebody who often volunteers. I’m not somebody who has ever gone out of my way to help charities or NGO’s or generally any social cause. I support, sure; usually only when I’m asked to. Yet, I took rescue calls, calls requesting food and supplies, calls from relatives who hadn’t contacted their families in days, calls from people who had collected relief materials and didn’t know where to send them. I suppose things change when it’s your home that’s been hit. I’m from Kerala, the southernmost state in India. In the past two weeks, Kerala was affected by the heaviest rainfall and worst flood it had ever experienced since 1924.
Kerala is a state with 14 districts. Although small, it has a population of over 30 million people. I’ve seen and heard people from other parts of the country that don’t seem to realise the magnitude of what happened. So to put it into perspective, a state which is home to over 30 million people was under water. The entire state was on red alert. Every single district was affected, some worse than others. Kerala received over 200% excess rainfall this year. Due to this excess rainfall, the water in the dams rose to an alarming level. The state had no choice but to open many dams to let out some of the water. And this water flowed and flooded the entire state.
In the past weeks, we saw people from every part of the state and those living in other parts of the country, step up. Collection centres sprang up all over the country overnight. The 20 something-year-old men of our country were the ones organising trucks and figuring out ways to send supplies to the people that needed it. There was no drama, no secret agenda, nonsense or jokes about it. There was no time for any of that. The things we saw went beyond the usual kinship or camaraderie that we share with others from our beloved state.
Every single person at the helpline I worked with in Bangalore was a stranger to me. And every single person who talked to each other asked the same question first. Where are you from in Kerala? Is your family and home safe? The only conversations I had with my friends from Kerala were about the flood. It was the only thought running through all of our minds. We were strangers united by a common fear and common helplessness because we were away from home and had no way of being on the ground to help. A fire to help, in whatever we could, united us.
The people I volunteered with had jobs and deadlines to meet. Yet, they sat through the entire night working nonstop. They were trying to find a contact who could supply food to a camp of 300 people who hadn’t eaten more than one meal that day. A son from Dubai called to know if his father was safe. The volunteers started making calls to get in touch with the concerned person. On several occasions, people didn’t want to abandon their homes and possessions. We made efforts to convince them that they have to be rescued as the water around them was continually rising.
One of my closest friends from school was at her college in Wayanad and narrowly escaped landslides. My family and my grandmother, in particular, had a long and sleepless night because she had to leave behind our four dogs and the family home. The water had begun rising, and since the dogs weren’t small enough to come in the car with her, she had to leave them in the house set up with food and water with no way to guarantee their safety. Some of my extended relatives had to leave their homes behind and take refuge elsewhere. My school was set up as a collection point, and it sent out the school buses for transport. There was not one person from the state who didn’t have a relative or a friend or a neighbour or an old classmate who hadn’t been affected by the flood. And the people of the state waited not a second to get on their feet and start helping. People opened up their homes, colleges and stadiums and schools opened their doors to those who lost their homes. An uncountable number of people stepped up to volunteer at camps and collection points all over the state.
No one asked them to do it. No one forced the 40 or so people I worked with at the helpline to come there. None of the volunteers at the various centres all over the state stood to gain any form of reward or recognition for their efforts. On paper, you could say that no one was really obligated to do the things we did. It wasn’t our duty. It wasn’t our job. But really, of course, it was. This is our home. Whether we live there or not, whether we grew up there or not, whether we’d been there in years or not, this is still our home. And our home was drowning.
There were almost 60,000 people whose rescue efforts were coordinated by our helpline in less than four days. There was an uncountable number of people calling from different countries who had family members in the state who they hadn’t heard from in days. Some people called saying they had no idea whether their parents were alive or not, whether their home had been destroyed or not, whether their family had been rescued or not. And, there was no way for them to fly down to Kerala because the airport also was flooded. Once the water started to recede, there were reports about dead bodies floating in the water around the houses. People returned to their homes and found their possessions, and important documents destroyed. There were reports of finding snakes and even crocodiles in some houses. The calls started coming in for volunteers to help clean-up areas, for cleaning supplies and protective gear. Now it was no longer about rescue, but rehabilitation.
The water may have receded, but it has destroyed the state. And no one knows how long it will take to recover and rebuild everything that has been lost. But, the things we saw and heard have given us hope. The youth, children, the elderly, and even people from outside the country came out in support. A lot of people don’t realise how incredible these rescue efforts have been. There wasn’t even a single moment of hesitation before people started acting. Everyone just stood up and started working. Everyone did.
This level of coordination, support, and rescue work happened without any pre-planning. There was no one just sitting around and discussing and talking. People were acting. People were moving. And it wasn’t just trained professionals or people with experience. Nearly all my friends who were in Kerala at that time were volunteering at camps and collection centres. These are people in their 20s who work in different fields like the film industry, fashion, law, among many others. It was people who had no idea what to do till they started doing it. And once they started, they didn’t stop. There are only heroes in this story. The men who made sure the women and children in the camps got to the food first are heroes. My co-volunteers at the helpline who forgot about their work to help out the people back home are heroes. The students as young as 12 and 13 who volunteered to help out at their school’s collection points are heroes. The fishermen and people from villages and towns, who organised boats and rescue efforts, are heroes.
People have been putting a lot of labels on the events of the past few weeks. It’s been called a national disaster, a punishment, a direct effect of global warming, a sign and a freak of nature. Essentially, it’s a tragedy. It was a heartbreaking incident and should not be a laughing matter for the people from other states. no matter how far away from the state you are. Our country has over a billion people. People often make jokes about the practically embarrassing and instant kinship we form with anyone else who speaks Malayalam and calls Kerala home. However, as it turns out, that unity and kinship have been the thing that has helped see us through this tragedy of epic proportions.
However, the unity that we witnessed was not only limited to people from Kerala. I had a call from a man in Aurangabad, Maharashtra who had collected a large number of supplies and wanted to know where they were needed so he could send them. A friend told me how many states from the northeast collected large sums of money to donate to the flood relief fund. People were helping all over the country. And there is not a single soul in Kerala who will forget this kindness and support of the people from across the country. I think, after everything that’s happened, people are proud of us. And we are proud of our brothers and sisters from all over the country who stepped up.
To paraphrase a Marvel superhero, Kerala is not a place; it’s the people. And it’s the purity and strength with which the people have been fighting for their home that’s made them deserving of the title- God’s own Country.