September 10, 2014
It was Sunday, Veth 13, the birthday of river Vitasta (Jhelum), according to the Kashmiri Hindu calendar.
My mother had made yellow rice (tahar) to mark the occasion, while my husband, Rahul, and I packed for our noon flight back to New Delhi. The five days I had been in Kashmir it had rained incessantly, stripping our event schedule to the bare minimum. However, on Saturday evening, as the sun finally showed, we were greeted by a spectacular rainbow. The Met office’s (fondly called Lotus Baba) predictions seemed to have come true.
At 4 a.m. on Sunday (September 7), we were woken by people yelling on the roads outside. People walked briskly on the road, carrying their luggage. There was water on the roads, perhaps even shin deep. We guessed that the adjoining low lying areas of Mahjoor Nagar – historically flood prone – had been inundated, and residents were moving to higher ground. The direction of the water denoted a breach in the river Jhelum.
The flood channel, a manmade body of water, had traditionally been used to divert excess water from the Jhelum, circumvent the city, and empty it right back in the Jhelum, once it had crossed the main city. In case the flood channel flooded – which it rarely ever did – the excess water would flow down to the fields, preventing the water from reaching the city.
Over the years however, mismanaged development, lack of planning and changes in land use patterns have led to a situation where no ‘buffer area’ between the flood channel and inhabited areas remains. There are no more acres of unused fields. In a quest to acquire as much land as possible, newer constructions nearly touch the water, each trying to attain the quintessential ‘water view’ or ‘lake front’.
By 6 a.m., the roads had almost two feet of water. We could see more people wading through the water now, and it alarmed us. We called up the taxi service that was to take us to the airport, requesting a cab soon, so we wouldn’t be trapped in the water on our way out.
We had noticed that the Jhelum seemed more restless than usual the previous evening, but in the absence of any flood warnings, we did not worry much.
In another couple of hours, the water had covered the garden, and threatened to come into the house. We started carrying up food items and potable water to the first storey, to be on the safe side. As we finished, we heard a loud thud. The seven foot high garden wall, adjoining the main road, had collapsed under the pressure of the gushing water.
The water now started to rise at terrific speed. The staircase leading to the second floor was flooded, as the water rose by six or seven feet. We began to panic. We had no way to get back on the ground, and couldn’t go into the attic for fear of being trapped by the rising waters.
Another thud, accompanied by loud wails. Our neighbour Javed’s house had fallen. Before we could react, another loud noise signalled the collapse of another house, the book warehouse down the road. Grammar primers and supernatural thrillers floated down with the other debris.
We noticed another change in the direction of the water – the flood channel had been breached too. The water gushed powerfully, bringing with it more debris. Doors, windows, refrigerators, gas cylinders, all joined the river in its merciless journey.
The water had risen to our waist now, inside the house. We moved to the open balcony, but the height of the water made standing – or indeed, balancing – difficult, especially for my aged parents.
Rahul noticed a big tin trunk floating out of one of the rooms, and suggested sitting on it till we thought of a plan. The cries and wails in the neighbourhood had increased now, and were joined by the pitiful howls of dogs. An ominous veil of fear and apprehension clouded the atmosphere.
A neighbour, Haji Sahib, had been watching our helplessness and shouted out for help from his terrace. In response, another neighbour, Nasir, who had taken out his inflatable dinghy and had been ferrying people to higher ground, came our way. He was truly our saviour, the hero of the day. My mother was the first one through, and was taken to a terrace at a higher altitude. Soon, other neighbours were also taken to safety. Our group on the terrace included four elderly women, and a mother with three sons whose house had fallen.
Safe for the moment, we knew we needed either boats or choppers to escape the flood. The few boats we spotted seemed to know their destination already – they went straight to certain houses and saved people there. They were deaf to our pleas. Now, the only hope was in the skies. We tried our best to grab the attention of the many choppers, but failed. By evening, exhausted, we lay down on the cold terrace. The youngsters tried to light a fire, with the help of a matchbox I had managed to grab on our way out. The matchbox was the only material possession along with my phone that I had grabbed. Rahul had a few cheese slices and a bottle of water that was carefully rationed out for dinner.
We survived the first night, shivering, starving, and with no communication with the outside world. Our eyes kept careful vigil on the signal bars on the phone, and we caught few winks that night.
As Monday dawned, we had fresh hopes of rescue. We knew that the army and air force were in action now, thought the local administration seemed to have disappeared. We tried again – me waving my red sweater – to catch the attention of rescuers. The men started organising food from the well-stocked house behind.
First apples, then biscuits were thrown across the 70 metres of water that separated the two houses. A few landed, most fell into the water. A new plan was thought of. A pulley system was set up, with the aid of some steel rope (electric cable) grabbed from the poles. Soon, we had a frugal lunch: some rotis and water. Dinner was a sort of khichdi. Drinking water was scarce, and there were few bottles in our group. Sips were rationed, but soon the need for a bathroom rose. Anne and I screened a portion of the terrace with a shawl, and a makeshift toilet was created.
As night fell, so did more rain. Our hopes dashed, all the women crawled under the few blankets we had, while the men kept watch, shouting at the robbers with boats that had chosen this moment of grief to make their next strike. Caste, class, all were irrelevant. Survival was the only religion, humanity the only cover.
Tuesday morning, I began to think of my family back home. My daughters were by themselves in Delhi, and I nearly broke down thinking of them. It was foggy, and rescue operations started late. At 9 a.m., whirring helicopter blades stirred us from our stupor. We were in dire need of hope, and gathered our efforts to make a last SOS call for help. Using charcoal and lipstick, we scrawled HELP on large planks of wood. Rahul made smoke signals, the women waved, the men shouted, and we managed to catch a passing chopper’s attention.
Angelic figures descended from the chopper, and one by one, we were winched up to safety. Sunil, one of our neighbours, hit his head on a plank of wood, and the sight of his bleeding head was a traumatising souvenir of the entire event.
After 48 hours, we had survived. We had reached the air force camp in Humhama (a Srinagar neighbourhood). We couldn’t believe that we had made it, that we were on solid ground. A few hours later, we were in an army cargo plane, on our way to New Delhi. Over 150 passengers, including labourers from Bangladesh, European and Indian tourists, and local Kashmiris sat in stunned silence, still in shock.
At 8 that night, I was home, hugging my children and family.
Wednesday morning, I made some tahar, as a way of thanks. Not to the river, but to the Indian army.
Anita Kaul is a journalist based in New Delhi