After two nights of uncertain existence, I was back home in Panvel. It was still raining but not in the city-stopper way of July 26. Electricity was erratic, phones were still down, and the floods of groundwater had contaminated our underground tank. We collected water in buckets from the torrents streaming down our rainwater pipes. Clean, sweet water. The days past had washed our terrace and pipes, again and again. We could drink this water. We were among the lucky ones.

Unlike us, there were so many who were caught in transit – in trains, in buses or in private vehicles who had to stick it out, some for more than 24 hours, without water or food or access to toilet. There were some who had to scramble to the upper deck of a double-decker BEST bus to escape the rising waters. Ditto for the trains, though in come cases passengers were forced by the rising tide to get off and wade their way to higher ground. This was a particularly risky exercise. They made their way slowly, in human chains, both to avoid invisible pitfalls and to brace themselves against the force of the flowing floodwaters. Boats were pressed into service as well as rafts, anything that floated, essentially. Benevolent citizens selflessly rescued those trapped or brought flood and water to those who could not leave their vehicles.

When it was all over, the rains left behind detritus and carcasses – animal and human. People died. By drowning, or by asphyxiation in cars with auto locks that failed to open. In vehicles that were overwhelmed with floodwater. In an attempt to navigate waist-deep water and not being able to detect open manholes or pits. By being washed away by the force of the deluge. Through electrocution. Through mudslides. Garbage floated alongside the dead. The sea returned the rubbish we had put into it.

Caught unawares

The deluge of July 26, 2005 did take most of the city unawares. By 2.30 in the afternoon, most of us had reached a slow awareness that this was not your average Mumbai rain day. We are used to the washouts that occur every monsoon. Indeed, even in 2005, there were some bad days. The combination of one day’s unforeseen downpour with an afternoon high tide, combined with less than optimum drainage, ended up with the city overwhelmed in several places. The trains were the first to stall.

The architecture college where I teach is on relatively higher ground. Even so, water swept through our campus, though it did not accumulate. The high plinth was enough to keep our shoes dry. The area around Crawford Market was spared the worst. Even the Irani and Udupi cafes remained open, as along as their supplies lasted. Higher ground meant everything, and on that day we got a glimpse of what rising sea levels would probably mean in a changed climate.

Some of us who thought best to leave early for home that day reached the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus only to find it full of passengers and devoid of trains. We made our way back to the campus with our tail between our legs. Over the next two days we would try to attempt this again, unsuccessfully. By the night of July 26, there was a motley presence in the college, a bunch of teachers and students, administrative staff and watchmen. The rooms, studios and offices were all left open to those who had the good sense not to attempt the journey home.

I slept for two nights on the vast colonial era desk of the principal’s office. The principal, a diminutive gent, did not take this amiss, preferring a small sofa that ergonomically accommodated him. I did keep an eye out for some large rats, nearly the size of bandicoots, who also sought refuge in the building. For us, these were two days of minor inconvenience and some adventure. Not so for so many others.

No lessons learnt

A decade on, this year, we had one bad rain day on June 19 and the city surrendered abjectly. For a while it seemed like July 26 had revisited us. In the end it was only hubris in full display. The combined learnings of the Great Mumbai Flood and its aftermath had come to nothing. For the first time since 2005, all trains – on Western, Central and Harbour lines – stalled simultaneously. Even the main arterial roads were rendered unfit for buses and other vehicles. What prevented this day from becoming worse was that this time the rains peaked the night before, and most Mumbaikars sensibly decided to call it a day before it had even begun.

The enthusiasm of bringing change that erupted a decade ago has long since evaporated. Desilting and removal of garbage from the storm water drains was, as always, found wanting. The much-vaunted BRIMSTOWAD, or the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System, which was to increase the diameter of the storm drains and install strategic pumping stations, has been implemented only fitfully. What has been seen most clearly are project cost increases.

Back in 2005, it seemed as if nothing was spared. Fifty kilometres from south Mumbai, the ravages of the two days in July were seen in Panvel. With the waters coming down with relentless force from the Sahyadri peaks surrounding this end of Navi Mumbai, the floodgates of the Morbe dam had to be opened by the afternoon of July 26, leading to inundation of the old town of Panvel. Once again elevation got the advantage, as the eastern parts of the New Panvel node were spared. The old city, its lakes and temples and marketplaces all went under.

A month later, I was able to see some footage of that day, mostly recorded by amateurs and some local TV channels. At the main road of Panvel Gaon, popularly called Mahatma Gandhi Road, the waters lapped buildings' first floors 10 or 12 feet high. The 160-year-old Beth El Synagogue had only its sloped roof out of the water. Later it would have to be restored extensively and all the objects of worship replaced. Devastation was total. The footage continued the day after, recording receding waters.

An enterprising cameraman walked the street, recording the aftermath, talking to acquaintances he encountered. At one point, he entered a house that had just been drained of the floodwater. As he took in the smashed  furniture, kitchenware and mattresses, his otherwise steady hand shook. “Ram,” he said as light fell upon swollen bodies – householders, who had not been able to escape in time. “Ram,” he kept repeating, his voice trembling as he recorded, “Ram...”