Ever wondered why in India, of all places, every residential neighborhood is referred to as a colony? One would imagine that after a few centuries of foreign colonization with enough scars to last another few, India would banish the term. But no, instead a lot of us have unforgettable memories of the little colony we grew up in. Well, mine was called Vinayaka Nagar.
As the name indicates, the colony was built around a temple dedicated to the remover of impediments, Lord Vinayaka. Located a few miles upstream from the lush banks of the Karamana River, before it merges onto the Arabian Sea, the colony started out in the 70s with about fifty families living in individual bungalows on spacious plots.
The main road out of the colony connects to National Highway 47, a right turn on which leads to downtown Trivandrum in ten minutes. A left turn on the other hand, if you had a couple of hours to spare, will take you straight to Kanyakumari, where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean commingle to create a dazzling palette of blues that no artist could ever dream up.
In the mid-70s, as part of the second wave of constructions, our family of four moved into our newly built home, “Pavithram” (Sacred Home), as my father presciently named it. My youngest brother was born soon after and I was carted off to the nearest kindergarten to give my mother and brothers a break from the menace that I was.
My earliest recollection from those times is of circumambulating the temple, holding my mother’s pinky, watching the “vallams” (the traditional boats) traversing the river, rowed by men in lungis carrying mounds of sand dug up from the river bed. The calm, green river was a part of our colony like the breath is to a human body, unobtrusive but essential.
Right behind Vinayaka Nagar was a strip of land where some of these oarsmen lived in modest tenements, usually thatched roof huts. Men wore colorful lungis folded up to their knees while the women wore long blouses with full length skirts with a matching head scarf. Sayippu was the de facto leader of that area. A big man with a fair-as-a-winter-lily skin, and a mighty mustache curling up on both sides up to the middle of his cheeks, he made an instant impression.
Kerala has two seasons, unceasingly pursuing one another—a rainy season followed by a dry spell followed by an even rainier season. And the year 1978 was an especially wet one. Edavappathy, the Southwest monsoon in June, had drenched the area. Colony residents had watched the rising river with increasing alarm, as the banks were almost breached. But then the monsoon moved away.
Thulavarsham, the Northeast monsoon, started lashing the area at the end of October. Every day rain fell relentlessly, inexorably. Puddles formed in every little ditch and trench, much to the childrens’ delight. Our paper boats sailed from one puddle to the other. The adults were starting to worry and keeping a keen eye on the measurement stick whose black rungs, marking every ten centimeters (3 inches) of water height, were rapidly getting eclipsed by the steadily rising river.
My parents were having it rough, too—three kids recovering from chicken-pox, one after the other. Appammai, my paternal grandmother, had come to stay with us to help them get through the triple-whammy.
The rains continued unabated for five full days. Day one saw the river slightly swollen on one side, like the gums after a painful root canal. Day two saw the water level measurement stick dwarfed and drowned.
My father started each day with a visit to the temple, which became the unofficial command center where the colony elders convened to monitor the latest developments and discuss plans of action. By day five, the river had swollen to her utmost capacity, resembling a full-term pregnant woman ready to give birth.
The morning of November 4th, a Saturday, began with a short respite from the downpour. But the concern on my father’s face was unmaskable. I heard him talk about how a trickle of water, growing by the minute, had breached a half a kilometer (one-third mile) upstream. He asked my mother and Appamai to move us kids upstairs and went out again to check the state of the river.
No sooner had all of us gone upstairs with whatever we could carry, we heard a deafening thud. I ran out to the balcony with my mother to watch the fifty meter rear compound wall keel over like a wall of Lego bricks, as the water gushed in. That was the most traumatic, as well as the most exciting, moment in the life of my five-year old self. It left such an indelible mark that every time I watch a movie with a flood scene memories of our colony flood with the crumpling compound walls come rushing back.
Our home was the gateway to the flood that took over the colony. We watched in sheer horror as the water engulfed the rose garden, then flooded the house and inched up to the windows. My mother’s anxiety level was rising too as my father was still out. Meanwhile, he was at the other end of the colony, desperately trying to get home. The main street was starting to fill up fast, but luckily he found a side street yet to be fully submerged, got out to the road via that street and then waded through water from the colony entrance back to the house.
In a blink of an eye the water level had climbed up to almost 10 feet, up to the switchboards inside the house. Electricity was gone, the phone line was dead. Amidst all this water, ironically, the faucets went dry.
An hour or two must have passed and our home started resembling a one-story structure with the downstairs pretty much completely under water. Finally, there was a flicker of hope in the form of a boat. We saw a familiar broad-shouldered figure rowing towards our house. It was Sayippu. My parents were so relieved to see Sayippu that they wasted no time in corralling all of us out to the sun shade to board his boat. My grandma went in first, then my mother and us kids. Sayippu did a return trip to get my father out.
Once we got to dry ground on the highway, I clearly recall the sense of relief that washed over my parents’ faces when my uncle, my father’s elder brother whom we kids called “Big Appa” (literally “Big Father”), greeted us with a warm smile and a car ready to take us back to our ancestral home where he still lived.
My father remembers getting back a week later to a house ravaged with mud, snakes and other creatures crawling all over. Nothing was left unturned. The master bed was jammed into the bathroom door. Kitchen utensils were strewn all over; the pressure cooker was on the stairs, on the seventh step to be precise. Whole almirahs were toppled over. My mother’s wedding saris were all washed out. My silk skirts had all turned into a mix of colors as if in an experiment of fabric dyeing.
Slowly life returned to normal. The school, which had been flooded, re-opened. The temple was cleaned up and services re-started. After all this mayhem, the stone idol was still in place, rooted to the sanctum sanctorum. Even the mighty waters could not move the “Remover of Obstacles.”
Every house in the colony had a tale to tell. We heard a lot of stories of heroism—a police constable losing his life trying to save a child. A seven-day old baby was rescued, as well as some pets, by kind souls ignoring significant personal risks.
For our colony, Sayippu was the true hero. He and his men had taken family after terrified family to safety. The whole colony was immensely grateful for his efforts.
You see, Sayippu was a Muslim, living adjacent to a Hindu colony. His house was thirty yards away from the temple. His family woke up each day to the sounds of tolling bells emanating from it. In today’s India, this would be held up as a model of communal harmony. But in those days, it was much simpler—a compassionate human being extending an act of kindness to another in distress; and a colony profoundly grateful for his timely help.
Our family lost a lot of valuables in the flood, but we gained an invaluable understanding—to see the benevolence of humanity.
Rajee Padmanabhan is a perennial wannabe—wannabe writer, wannabe musician, wannabe technologist. She lives with her iPad and iPod in Exton, PA, occasionally bumping into her husband and son while either of her iPals is out of charge.