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The force of the water was like an angry god. The torrents pressing against my little Alto were alive, pulsing, and for once, I let go entirely of the idea that I was in control of the car. Something was wrong, I could tell that I was not just navigating another flooded patch of famously uneven Hyderabad road. I concentrated on steering and realised that I couldn’t spot the naala that should have been on my left, intersecting the road. Only a continuous sea of water.
My car is one of the things that allows me my freedom. Safe inside a portable metal bubble, I am able to go (almost) anywhere I want, at any time, a luxury most women in the city don’t enjoy. I remember thinking it would be a prime irony to die trapped inside it.
Between October 12 and19 last year Hyderabad received record levels of rainfall from a Northeastern pressure system that had gone rogue. It colluded with the retreating Southwest monsoon, Telangana’s yearly rain-source, flash-flooding our dry plateau-state. On October 13, many city residents woke up to knee-high water inside their bedrooms, their furniture and belongings floating around them.
The deluge was relentless and rapid, especially in the innumerable low-lying pockets nestling in the undulating topography of Telangana. Rescue teams on boats and cranes raced against the continuous downpour, battling uprooted trees and crumbling construction before entire colonies became inaccessible.
The ongoing pandemic had already laid shockingly bare the inequalities of a broken system. Overcrowded, hastily organized refugee camps sparked fears of uncontrollable contagion. Upwards of sixty lives were lost, around 40,000 families were directly impacted and official estimates put the damage at INR 9000 crores.
Day 3 with no power. The last news update I saw, before my phone died, was the Uppal MLA doing inspection rounds on a boat, manoeuvring through a colony two stories underwater. Distraught women screamed abuses at him from balconies and terraces on either side.
My mother obsessively checks the clock, even though there is nowhere to go. My father, cool and stoic at the worst of times, cannot contain his impatience. Was it ‘screen withdrawal’ that we were experiencing, having been cut off from the outside world? Or was it the abrupt disruption of our otherwise comfortable lives? It rained, and rained, and rained.
The monsoon is usually my favourite time in Hyderabad. A persistent petrichor keeps me suspended in an existential trance in which everything seems sentient, extramundane. To friends in Delhi, I endlessly romanticize the sudden violence of Hyderabad rain, which forces life out of a barren landscape. “Delhi does not have a monsoon”, I say.
“Cloudburst” is one of those deceptively pretty words. I used to envision a rain of angels, when it really is the sky weeping, in rage, or anguish. Or both. An ‘extreme weather event’, the experts called the 2020 Hyderabad floods. Everything has to do with global warming these days.
Given its unique location on an impenetrable ledge of volcanic rock, Telangana’s inland network of lakes, and the crisscrosses of water channels connecting them are crucial in draining this landlocked area. Most of these are now under landfill or construction. In 2020, a mere 185 of the 3,000-7,000 lakes, tanks, reservoirs and other inland water bodies that historically dotted Hyderabad remain.
The story of Hyderabad is a familiar one. In 1990, its urban area covered 21, 668 hectares. By 2014, the city had metastasized almost 4 times that size. Development is largely unplanned, and virtually limitless (on the quantitative count, not improving whatever exists). An administrative quirk has left the city’s infrastructure under multiple authorities, adding multiple layers of corruption and a lack of coordination to the ‘masterplans’ that the city is subjected to.
“It is a good time to buy land here,” my mother has been telling me. In their retirement, my parents have now saved up enough to invest in property. An anachronistic optimism drives development in Hyderabad, far removed and at odds with the doomsday predictions of the climate scientists. Hyderabad is only now entering the league of bigger metropolises. It has begun featuring in ‘Best City’ lists. India’s own Big Pharma hub is also the biotechnology capital. It is an IT centre too and attracts other diverse industries, mostly through foreign investments.
The state government is desperate to maintain this interest. I suspect The Centre’s paltry budget for Telangana is the backdrop against which the former has resorted to reclaiming and selling whatever land it can get its hands on, to keep the revenue coming.
Every time I come back to Hyderabad, it is a little more unrecognizable. The buzz of bulldozers razing its rare, millennia-old rock formations is constant. This optimism has no doubt fuelled the thousands of encroachments that rapidly choked up the city’s inland water bodies.
Inland flooding is a lesser-known effect of climate change. The now-ubiquitous visuals of polar bears stranded on melting glaciers logically lead only into visions of coastlines disappearing under the swelling sea. I search the internet, but the explanation is laborious, riddled with technicalities that, briefly put, amount to—everything is connected. What I do take away, though, is that these technicalities, the lesser-known effects of the changing climate, punch large holes in the assuring thesis that there will be pockets of inhabitable land left, that there will be some time left for desperate measures when the world begins to end.
In the novel Weather, Jenny Offill’s apocalyptic meditation on climate change, everyone is obsessed with the end of the world. “What will be the safest place?”, the richest of them ask Sylvia, an academic on a climate change lecture tour. “We’re not asking for ourselves, but we have children, you understand.” If I were a rich mother, I imagine that I, too, would do my best to take my child to the safety of Mars.
October 18, 2020: The power comes back on the sixth day. I post an Instagram update. I eulogise the days of uninterrupted, calm and reflective reading that I gave myself over to, to keep my sanity while the city drowned around me, and feel immediately guilty.
It is difficult to describe the extent of the loss and grief that choked the city; to account for the things that cannot be measured. Perhaps it is futile to try when the world turns a blind eye even to the alarming changes we can measure.